Fuzzy slippers, soup, stimulating conversation, and a TV documentary are the ingredients that made up many a blissful evening in Amsterdam.
After living out of a suitcase between the US and the EU for the last six months, I’m out of place everywhere yet more grounded than I have been in years.
It’s an exceedingly confusing situation to be in because it further highlights how disconnected I was until the end of December 2018. For background, I immigrated to the US in 2013 but instead of co-opting the American Dream, depression felled me.
My life froze over for five years; I could no longer practice my profession so I could not afford to get well despite having insurance. Therapy co-pays are just too steep.
When your brain is out of commission, a livelihood built on words becomes an impossibility. Bereft of the ability to think, I collapsed in on myself and became a hermit.
It was surprisingly easy as I hadn’t had a chance to build a social network of my own yet, didn’t have a job to go to every day, and married someone who prefers his own company.
That I should be writing this on the train between Amsterdam and Paris makes for yet another bout of intense cognitive dissonance. Daily epiphanies have been my new normal for a while now and they can be quite unsettling.
Coming to terms with so much loss isn’t a felicitous realization, especially as no one has invented a time machine yet.
I’m still the same person, I still apologize a lot for existing, I still get side-swept by sadness on the regular.
But I’m not dead inside anymore.
“The past is over, let it rest in peace” used to be my mantra many years ago.
It was as simplistic then as it is now.
And yet, it helped me overcome a childhood and an adolescence that weren’t exactly conducive to growing into a well-adjusted human.
I refused to let circumstances hold me back and threw myself head first into life with such gusto it made for somewhat unusual results. For many years, I moved countries like some folks move apartments, turned my hand to many things before eventually finding a way to make vocation part of my day-to-day.
What I didn’t understand then was that it takes far more than set geographical coordinates for humans to feel grounded.
I lost all my landmarks when I moved to the US.
The two-way cultural exchange that had been one of the defining features of my life ground to a halt. It was like coming off the plane with a cart full of suitcases and being told you can only keep the one.
For five years, I couldn’t fight back, I didn’t have it in me because everything that made me me was deemed entirely devoid of interestingness.
Or indeed value.
Worthlessness is one of the hallmarks of depression and of destructive relationships.
After spending almost a year trying to understand how I came undone so swiftly and remained stuck for so long, I must accept there’s a link between the two.
This link turned immigration into a living nightmare even though I had been coming to the US since I was 19 so I didn’t move to a place I knew nothing about.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how dehumanizing America is.
There’s a huge difference between reading about sick people being left to die when they’re too cash-strapped to afford care and actually living it.
And there’s a huge difference between words and action, too. Being somewhat literally minded (to the point my loved ones know to preface a joke with the word joke) I took my wedding vows at face value.
Don’t we all?
This, in a nutshell, is why alienation rather than belonging is the end result of spending a little over five years in the US. Although I became a citizen and I’ve dropped anchor, the latter now feels more like a ball and chain.
And I keep yanking at it a little more every day, wracked by guilt, the same guilt I spent five years wanting to eradicate for good by planning to take my own life.
Living out of a suitcase is something I never thought I’d do again.
Much as I believed my life was over, I never once entertained the thought things might and could actually improve.
But curiosity got the better of me.
Once I got it into my head that circumstances should never dictate self-worth or indeed how I approach life, it got a little easier. But first, I had to choose to live and commit to it, and then I had to embrace the belief that I could rebuild a life that works, word by word.
And apply myself to doing just that, day in, day out, regardless of confidence, limitations, and of course circumstances.
Mine remain somewhat complex at the time of writing. I returned to the EU to help my parents navigate the increasingly difficult reality of Stage IV cancer, and this forced me to keep going.
If the love my family and I share is the wind in our sails, it also informs everything I do.
Especially my work as a freelancer; it’s what enables me to be here and as responsive and flexible as needed since I can adapt my schedule. Deadlines exist but I get to choose how to meet them, even if that means pulling an all-nighter so my parents and I can have a day out.
And because my work is portable, I needn’t always be with them; my father’s condo is small and we still all need our space sometimes.
This, in short, is why I ended up in Lisbon earlier this year, and then in the Netherlands.
Lisbon was a lonely affair that saw me hole up in rented accommodation for a week at a time and use my newfound peace to reflect and work too much. Then again, every single minute I spent there was precious and helped me start coming back to life as Portuguese is the language my heart speaks.
Amsterdam, meanwhile, was all about remembering what home should feel like; I was welcomed into a safe space where I could simply be myself, unedited and unredacted, something I hadn’t been able to do anywhere other than the page.
It takes a lot of mutual trust to make this happen, not just for other humans to open up their home to you, but also to surrender all appearances.
Home isn’t necessarily where the suitcase is.
It isn’t even where you pay rent or a mortgage.
Instead, home is wherever your people are, those people who look at you as an equal, accept you wholeheartedly, and encourage you to be and do your best.
Put simply, home is (a) human heart(s).
I’m a French-American writer and journalist 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.
On Remembering How to do Human
From undead to functional after losing five years to depression