There is, as I type, a little yellow head ringed with orange no bigger than a burger staring back at me from behind the laptop, a permanent smile on its face. As I discovered sometime last summer, being an adult doesn’t do away with the need for portable gentleness, comfort you can reliably call upon. Children have their binkies and security blankets, I have a small velvety stuffed lion I purchased on a whim when I was floundering. Despite putting my heart through the paces and trying to let others in, distress spilling out of me has a way of repelling people, of disappearing me.
When no comfort or human warmth were forthcoming, the lion seemed like a good idea, a small offering to soothe the inner child within. And it’s machine-washable; the effluvia of pain needn’t be the end of it, at least until it starts fraying at the seams and the stuffing comes out. The lion also represents the Netherlands so it was a permanent visual reminder of the safe space I found here when I was still elsewhere. On rough days, it provided the courage and solace I needed, all self-generated but tricking my brain into believing otherwise.
I may often forget to feed myself or address the basic necessities of life but gentleness is never optional.
What I didn’t expect was that this small act of kindness toward myself would always underline the most crushing fact of all, too: I am still palliating the lack of human warmth by clinging to whatever small shred of hope I can scavenge among the ruins of my life. When depression incapacitated me for five years, it destroyed everything; I held my own hand throughout. Absent professional help I could not afford despite having insurance, I dared myself to hang on a little while longer even when there was little incentive to do so. When every waking moment becomes torture, the mind eventually starts yearning for relief in the most obsessive way. That’s when suicidal ideation colonized my thoughts and became a fixture of my mental landscape.
But my cats — never not keenly attuned to their long-haired human’s oversize psychic pain — made up for the love shortfall in my household. They took me as I was, never withdrawing affection on account of my crying too much or spending an inordinate amount of time cuddling them. They weren’t just responsive, they were proactive; Trudeau the tuxedo never left my side, sitting next to me, always placing a proprietary paw on my body. Sometimes, he’d yank on my sleeve to remind me to take a break; I seldom came up for air during the first few months after recovering my writing voice.
I wrote feverishly, determined to reactivate my editorial skills so I could pull myself out of illness and hardship.
Soon, it was no longer about me; I had to find a way to get back to Europe so I could be present for my parents and help them deal with stage 4 cancer. I’m neither a magician nor an oncologist but presence and human warmth can make a world of difference when the life of a loved one is under threat. It is by their side that I relearned how to live, one day at a time, still focusing on the one thing I could control, namely how much effort I put into my work.
Then as now, it held me together as the omnipresent fear of falling silent again continues to lead me to the page to try and decipher life.
We write to understand ourselves and each other, to counteract invisibility, don’t we? Every word is a proof of life, quite literally in my case. Everyone needs to be seen, acknowledged, and loved but our culture takes exception to those who are in pain, be it mental or physical. Instead of addressing its root cause and opening our hearts and minds to those who are hurting, we seek to silence pain by any means necessary. Often, we look away, either embarrassed by our own helplessness or unwilling to recognize the humanity and the humanness of the person in front of us.
Sometimes, this person is the person we love, the person who loves us, and yet we cannot muster empathy and compassion to protect this love.
I wish I knew where this disconnect comes from, how one is able to spectate human pain and do nothing, not even step forward and wordlessly place a hand on a shoulder. Simple gestures can go a long way toward honoring our shared humanness and helping someone pull through a rough patch. Much as we worship at the altar of self-sufficiency, no one can go it alone in life. And yes, the absence of human warmth can turn into physical and mental pain.
When all the love we put out and share and lavish upon others goes unacknowledged, the absence of echo is a silent verdict.
We have been judged, declared unworthy of attention, support; we do not deserve fellow feeling. Under what circumstances does love withhold affection, forcing us to question its realness and our sanity though? Chronic depression may be gut-wrenching to witness on occasion but I assure you it is not contagious.
None of us ever sets out to undermine anyone’s joy; when it happens, it is collateral damage we will do our utmost to reverse, undo, mend.
Depression doesn’t make us dumb or oblivious to those around us any more than it precludes self-awareness; talk to us and we will gladly tell you how you can help us help ourselves. And we will be glad and grateful you asked because there is nothing more humiliating and soul-destroying than the refusal to communicate when we try so hard to let you in. Granted, we’re not always very coherent or fair when in the throes of distress but we trust you not to hold this against us. Or dismiss it as drama, which implies illness is nothing more than an attitude problem requiring adjustment.
This, alas, is the assumption that perpetuates stigma and the very reason why we need to be more open about mental health. For all our sakes: Depression can fell anyone, at any time, and the more we know about how it operates, the easier it gets to manage.
Here’s an idea: What if breaking down were a coping mechanism, a way of releasing overwhelm and stating our needs when we’re still capable of doing so? The cry for help is twofold: by asking you to hold our hand, we are showing you we are committed to getting better even if, to you, it looks like we’ve given up.
Unlike what the internet often reflects back to us, vulnerability is not a spectator sport but as close to the naked human heart as you can ever get. It is also rare in an age when we’re never not on our guard or posturing on social media. So if you are allowed to take a peek, understand there is no greater sign of trust, especially if our heart has been pillaged and plundered too many times.
This trust overrides the fear of being taken advantage of when we are defenseless and exposed. It also overrides our self-preservation instinct: Despite the twinge in our gut, we choose to believe you will not hurt us. Remember it’s our mind that malfunctions; our heart, meanwhile, likely works double time to compensate. Having a parasite in your brain makes you apologize a lot, which is humbling; it also makes you seek reassurance, which can be humiliating. Especially when none is forthcoming and you end up sneaking into the kids’ aisle at the local general store and getting your own plush companion.
Then again, that was the day my inner child chose to push back and this discovery is the gift that keeps on giving. Random silliness is my jam, it sweetens bad days. Since then, the lion has been spreading joy to those who witnessed the antics of its human photographer on both sides of the Atlantic. Why deny ourselves the comfort of a tiny, forced gesture of self-love when it could be what renews our resolve not to give up just yet? Tough love urging us to do something isn’t empowering when we’re already doing all we can, but gentleness is.
And human warmth never fails.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.