Can Language Help you Heal?

On deflecting depression with Portuguese

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R. da Escola Politécnica 32, Lisboa, Portugal, by Martin Kallur on Unsplash

Something eery always happens the minute I step inside a plane bound for Portugal.

No matter how stressed out and overtired I am, all it takes is a “Boa tarde!*” or “Bom dia!**” to set me right. Greetings from the flight crew, captain chatter, and even the safety briefing all have a calming effect on me. By the time we take off, I’m relaxed and sporting a smile that stretches from ear to ear.

I just can’t help it.

I fall head over heels in love with the Azores — one of Portugal’s autonomous regions made up of nine islands — in 2007. My ending up on a remote volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic is a result of happenstance, a last-minute work assignment as a tour director.

I’ve never even set foot in continental Portugal before, but in the time it takes to go from the airport to the hotel, I’m smitten. Within a year, I’ve made São Miguel island my base as I continue to travel around the world leading tours. Within two, I’m back into journalism working for Portuguese public media and newspapers, in English and Portuguese. By then, I’m deeply integrated into local society and feel at home for the first time in a long time.

Much as some places can upend your life when you least expect it, another language can unlock a whole new world.

Not only is Portuguese the key to accessing the culture of a wide community of countries spanning the globe, from Portugal to Cabo Verde via Brazil and Angola but it puts me in touch with a side of me I’ve never met before. In Portuguese, I’m more emotionally fluent and poetry sometimes happens, even though it is an art I’ve never practiced in any other language. Every now and then, a line, a stanza, or even a whole poem comes out of nowhere, unbidden.

Portuguese is that couple extra octaves my voice never knew it needed, a language that enriches my life and nourishes my heart and mind.

Alas, the 2008 financial crisis cripples Portugal for years and I struggle as much as everyone else even though I’m working. My circumstances become untenable and I have to leave in 2011. Numb, I watch the coastline disappear into the expanse of blue down below and my life with it as I fly toward the unknown once more.

As I immigrate to the US in 2013, depression fells me and destroys everything.

Ifell into Portuguese the way Obélix fell into the cauldron of magic potion although I won’t understand this until late 2018.

I spend years pretending Portuguese and Portugal don’t exist anymore and the hole that flight out of São Miguel tore into my heart grows. But I’m not aware of this because I have no idea what’s happening to me. I’m so incapacitated by major depressive disorder that trying not to die by my own hand becomes a full-time job. My ability to think has gone, taking my writing voice, livelihood, and vocation with it. Europe might as well be on the Moon, I’m sure I’ll never see it again.

When Anthony Bourdain’s suicide jolts me awake, it reactivates my writing voice at the same time. I set out to rebuild a life word by word. Getting well is something I bootstrap as I can’t afford therapy co-pays. Because the only way I can manage depression is by understanding its genesis, I start sorting through possible causes and triggers.

As I try and figure out who I was before depression and who I am now, my writing facilitates unexpected connections around the world. One day, I read a line written in English by a Portuguese writer but I somehow hear it in Portuguese: It’s the first sign the magic potion still works.

After spending five years in self-imposed silence, I dive head first into Portuguese music and soon notice it has the power to pull me out of the deepest depressive funks as well as help me focus. It becomes my soundtrack of choice as I navigate the difficult reality of my stepmom’s Stage IV cancer alongside my parents, initially by remote until I’ve earned my airfare from the Pacific Northwest and can join them in Paris.

Another language is an instant escape pod that allows you to teleport into a different cultural dimension at will.

Portuguese quickly becomes a safe haven, at a remove from the extenuating circumstances blighting my life.

When I ensconce myself within my safe haven, I often experience joy and delight, against all odds. Even when it takes me two hours to write an email in Portuguese, the end result is invariably elation. Sure, I probably mangled innumerable verbs and corrupted grammar but my Portuguese still works. It feels like magic.

When it becomes obvious my parents need me in Europe and not America, Portugal springs to mind. More affordable than France on my precarious budget, it’s also the only place in the world capable of holding me together through everything. Could I even thrive again there?

And, in times of medical respite, it’ll give my parents somewhere to escape to and no excuse not to.

With Portugal as a framework, I see solutions instead of roadblocks.

Portuguese is the missing link that allowed me to reconnect with the person I used to be before depression struck.

The language reactivates a mindset I thought I had lost, one that owes everything to Portuguese culture. You might be poor but you don’t let that prevent you from making things happen in Portugal. It’s called “desenrascar” and it’s very much part of the national character. It means making do with whatever is at hand, or / and getting oneself out of a delicate situation.

Resourceful and creative to a fault, Portuguese folks also know you can’t go it alone. People are quick to step up and help you because that’s what decent humans do. Although people are guarded, once you make a friend, they’ll likely be a friend for life.

In January, I fly to Lisbon for a few days to figure out how to organize the rest of 2019. Although I rest little as I have brought my work along and can’t afford to take any time off, I gather strength and gain clarity of mind. And I’m at peace for the first time in years, too. After seven days, I feel reborn: I board the plane to Paris a capable, defiant, upbeat woman determined to make the impossible happen.

I do the same a month later, and a week in Lisbon recharges me even though I work non-stop again, coming up with new ideas, and getting into a groove that has remained elusive while in my usual environment in the US or in France.

Portugal seems to make me more competent somehow, being there has an empowering and life-affirming effect that keeps depression in check and allows me to occasionally forget it exists.

And when I’m abroad, Portuguese is a fount of strength, comfort, and solace I can tap into at any time. More often than not, it carries me, as love is wont to do.

Love can be a language as much as it can be a country.

The human heart is a compass, it will lead you to safety if you let it. And even if you don’t speak another language yet, it’s never too late to learn one as it could end up saving your life.

[* Good afternoon!] [** Good morning!]

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

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The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

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