Every Story is an Opportunity

On writing up depression to create a new life

I write to stay alive.

This may still sound overly dramatic and yet I’ve been changing my life one word at a time since the summer of 2018. For context, I am a journalist but major depressive disorder took away my writing voice and thus my livelihood for five years.

The harrowing consequences of the illness would never have been as severe had I been able to get help in time. My household survived on one salary for the duration so covering insurance deductibles and co-pays was about as realistic as dining on caviar every night or even having three meals a day.

In short, I had to accept that unless I helped myself, no help would be forthcoming.

It took one death to drag me out of my depressive stupor and force me to put pen to paper again. When Anthony Bourdain took his own life, my survival instinct kicked in hard. He showed me my future, a future I didn’t want.

I had to do something fast so I started with what I most dreaded and could no longer imagine doing: I opened a blank document on my laptop.

Little did I know shock had jolted my synapses. My writing voice came back, tentative, awkward, and oh so very angry. Surprisingly, the more I wrote, the more I found myself wanting to write. After all, mine was always a practical calling and this mindset used to be my default until depression put the kibosh on everything.

What I didn’t expect was to end up pushing myself as hard as I have been and snapping back into constant striving mode. “You’re only as good as the last thing you wrote” is something my very first boss was fond of saying so I may well have internalized this belief.

However, the energy that powers me now still feels novel, relentless, and sometimes more than a little desperate too.

Writing is once again the way I generate an income but the parameters are different this time. I’m going it alone. Initially, I was on a mission to earn my transatlantic airfare so I could go support my father as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer. I flew out to Paris in December 2018, stayed for three months, came back to the US then flew back to Europe again at the beginning of May.

I recently came back to America for a week and understood I could no longer be here anymore. But uprooting a life takes a whole lot more than one plane ticket so upheaval will likely be ongoing until mid 2020.

For the last 10 months, I’ve lived out of a suitcase called home. Disaster has a way of forcing you to focus on what matters most — life and love — and let absolutely everything else fall to the wayside. So what if I can’t find my socks half the time? On Wednesday, we’ll attend my stepmom’s oncology appointment as a family again, like we’ve done since January.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But writing just for the sake of it would be self-defeating.

While anyone can type out words, you need to have something to say otherwise you’re wasting your time and your readers’. Many of my pieces are deeply personal and deal with the many ways in which depression can destroy a life on every front. Those topics aren’t pleasant to revisit or easy to write about but they’re my reality and the material I have.

As I try to convey what it means to live as I do, it occurs to me that the more open and honest I can be, the more relatable my work. Taboos only exist because we’re too afraid or ashamed to talk about what ails us in public. The moment we do, they start crumbling, other people come out of the shadows, and suddenly we’re having a long overdue conversation.

And the more often those conversations happen, the closer we get to a more tolerant, enlightened society. When it comes to depression, stigma endures, even in my own home, alas.

I was loath to write about this particular aspect of my life for a long time. My initial reaction was to recoil because this kind of emotional labor is draining. Besides, articulating distress in a fair and balanced way presents quite a challenge. And yet, depression still needs demystifying lest some folks should continue to mistake it for malingering because it is an invisible illness.

Depression is an isolating disease, and many of us end up incapacitated, living like hermits and stewing in shame.

The more people I reach, the less isolated I am, the greater the chance of pulling myself out of hardship. That’s why every day represents a fresh opportunity to do better than the day before.

I now have something to look forward to again.

This kind of attitude is multi-faceted but not always beneficial.

In the last 16 months, I’ve relearned my job so I could eventually get back into the workforce as a contractor or staffer.

This is a huge positive.

Self-motivation keeps me going even during the toughest times but then again I have my father and stepmom to thank for the nudge. She made me promise I’d be there for my dad so that is what I am doing.

The oddest aspect of all this is that I’ve never had a competitive bone in my body. I’ve always gone on the assumption that everyone benefits if we all lift one another up so I believe in collaboration, not competition. And because I’ve spent enough time cooped up in my own head, I’m far more interested in other selves than mine.

Keeping my head down and letting my fingers do the talking seems to work; I now feel mostly capable and in control again. But there’s a caveat: not knowing when to stop.

This is magnified by some severely disrupted sleep patterns. I sometimes get so hung up on keeping up the momentum that the next day has arrived and I forgot to sleep. Yes, you can forget to go to bed much like you can forget to eat, apparently.

Depression has made me wary of ever taking my writing voice for granted again. It’s a luxury I can no longer afford and I am terrified of losing it again. Meanwhile, every word that makes it out of my head is a victory against the disease and a step toward recovering my independence.

I’m working again, and this has done wonders for my frazzled brain. My heart is doing cartwheels in my chest too. Most importantly, I put in the hours gladly because I love what I do even though it doesn’t afford me a good life yet. Creating a life that works, word by word, is a process, one that is painstakingly slow and fraught with innumerable setbacks.

When you most feel like giving up, stick with it and take it story by story, word by word.

Change is incremental, it doesn’t happen overnight but it is the sum of myriad tiny actions repeated day after day after day.

Grit can see you through almost anything. Instead of focusing on lofty goals, acknowledge and celebrate every small step forward.

They all add up so take heart. Eventually, you’ll look back and realize you’ve come further than you ever thought possible.

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.

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