Do we get to Choose how to Live?

On relearning how to be a human in the world and on a bike

This train is a high-speed womb.

Compressed into my burgundy window seat in a carriage decked out in shades of red and pink, I watch the French, then Belgian, then Dutch countryside zip past.

Three hours and twenty minutes after leaving Paris, I am reborn on a platform at Amsterdam Centraal station. Gingerly, I make my way to the elevator, unsure how to proceed with a present so full of promise it looks unreal, such is the contrast with what came before.

I can’t shake off the feeling that my being in the Netherlands is yet another anomaly, in line with the many more that now make up my daily reality.

After the parasite in my head curtailed my freedom and held me hostage for five years, leading an autonomous life again is a shocking experience. Not a day goes by that I’m not mildly surprised I’m still around, all the more as all I actively wanted for five years was to find a way not to be.

Unable to think, unable to write, unable to support myself, unable to imagine a future that stretched beyond the next hour, I was done with life.

Over the course of five years, major depressive disorder was the slow death that almost disappeared me. Little by little, I lost track of what made me me as I sank deeper into an affective, emotional, professional, and intellectual coma.

I was never supposed to wake up. Or exit the void. Or throw myself back into and at life.

And yet, here I am, suitcase in tow, blown away by it all.

Granted, it is also windy in Amsterdam.

Coming back to life after such a long hiatus away from it is a source of endless confusion.

Daily epiphanies bring self-knowledge forgotten such a long time ago it takes on the allure of prophecy that can knock you sideways.

For example, something as simple as remembering how much you once loved stand-up comedy can trigger questions about why you allowed life to be so joyless for so long. Even though it was neither a choice nor your doing but your disease’s, accepting you’re never getting those years back is painful.

Then again, laughing until your face hurts for the first time in years is a joyous transition that confirms progress has occurred. While it isn’t a linear journey from misery to hilarity, when you get there, you’ll know.

There’s nothing subtle about this life business, you notice it coming at you from all sides.

Whether it’s a dish that tastes more delicious than any food ever has or hugs that leave you reeling with dizziness, it’s strangely intoxicating.

As a result, I now navigate life with a keen sense of urgency. The flip side is that I find relaxing nigh on impossible as my mind does its best impression of a hamster on steroids running around in its wheel, trying to make up for lost time.

When it comes to work, this is helpful as I’m a freelancer and my survival would be impossible without self-motivation or discipline.

But when it comes to everything else, life tends to be on the intense side, especially if you cherish the little things, all of them. Several times a day and without warning, my daily reality veers off into hallucinogenic territory but there are no drugs involved.

“Is this what life feels like?” is a question I ask often, whether I’m walking down the street, riding the tram, or waking up to a new day that no longer feels like a burden.

The novelty hasn’t worn off yet; I’m hoping it never does.

A crash was inevitable.

Mine happened on a downward slope when I missed a sharp turn and ended up colliding with a heap of parked bikes.

An “omafiets” aka a traditional Dutch bike has no brakes; to stop, you pedal backwards. Although I remember this from living in the Netherlands several years ago, overwhelm bypasses reason again. I do not apply that knowledge, much to the detriment of my limbs.

Since arriving in Amsterdam, the curious sense of disconnect I first experienced on the train follows me everywhere. It’s as if I had stepped outside myself and were witnessing a transformation happening to someone else.

And sometimes, reality throws me off my bike to see if I’m paying attention. Oddly, it’s not until a random stranger stops and asks me if I’m OK that I understand what’s happened. Humbled, sore, and a little embarrassed, I dust myself off, pick up my bike, and get back on it.

Cycling is yet another skill I am relearning. Although you’re not supposed to forget how to ride a bike once you know, balancing on two wheels still doesn’t feel natural to me.

This may be because my sense of self is still partly stuck in the past and hasn’t yet caught up with this new life I’m building word by word, interaction by interaction. Paris, Lisbon, Aachen, Amsterdam: Wherever I am, limbo follows; I am in something but not of it.

Not yet although I would very much like to.

Reflexively, I still tend to push back against whatever happy comes my way because my brain codes it as disruption, an impossibility, a bug.

But life is unstoppable; whether we embrace it fully or not, it happens.

The dark cloud of chronic depression may be a permanent part of my personal ecosystem but it isn’t the full ecosystem. It can cause bouts of inclement weather — some of which more durable than others — but they always pass.

What if we systematically approached life as a “choose your own adventure” game rather than some predetermined ordeal we have no control over?

The number of chapters and narrative arcs is a personal one; there’s no one-size-fits-all life, we get to write ours— and edit it — as we go along.

This also means that when a storyline doesn’t work, letting go of it is the only way to keep moving forward.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store