Growing Pains Aren’t Forever

But lessons learned the hard way tend to stick

My still being alive despite losing five years to incapacitating major depressive disorder was never a given.

I spent the duration wondering how best to die by my own hand, not for one minute thinking I’d ever get back to Europe, see my family again, or recover a sense of self.

The day I couldn’t recognize the stranger in the mirror, I realized I no longer had a clue about what made me me. This is what happens when you spend years dematerializing and your life shrinks to little more than basic bodily functions. Depression destroyed everything across the board both on the personal and professional front.

The only thing that survived was my curiosity.

It may well have saved me; once I finally wondered what things might look like after being suspended in stasis for so many years, I had to find out. Because my profession is journalism, I got it into my head I could rewrite a life that works, word by word, and this is what I’ve been doing since July 21, 2018.

Other than take to the page, I had no clue how to go about it or what to do. I hoped clarity might come back as a result of downloading my thoughts and putting them in order, but I had no specific plan other than not die for as long as possible.

And then the sky fell onto my head and onto my family’s.

My beloved stepmom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer last September, and my best friend died a couple of weeks later. Suddenly, I no longer had the luxury of asking myself whether I was on the right path; I had to knuckle down and make it work, come what may.

My priorities changed in a heartbeat. I had started out wanting to afford my cats a better life as they were the only emotional support I had during those dark years and now I had to fly back to the EU. Given that my household was never not cash-strapped to the extreme, making it happen presented quite a challenge.

Then again, nothing was going to stand between my family and me, not a landmass and much less an ocean. Vocation would have to carry me and make an airfare happen as words were — and still are — all I had.

What comes next is more than a little bizarre.

The very thing that had grounded me for years became the material I started using to get back on my feet as I resolved to address mental health stigma. After all, it was the root cause of my being stuck for so long so I knew how it could take away one’s humanity when combined with America’s ruthlessness.

Had I not immigrated, I would have been able to access health care the minute things started going sideways. Instead, I had insurance but could never afford therapy co-pays so I started dying slowly while the atmosphere at home degraded. All this, in my mind, warranted as much anger as I could articulate, and this raw anger sparked the first pieces I wrote after five years away from the page.

The compost of depression helped me start growing a new life from scratch, which still baffles me somewhat.

My past self spent five years mired in suicidal ideation because life has become unbearable; my present self values every moment. That’s not hyperbole: My entire life has become gratitude in motion. I may still be broke and struggling every month to make ends meet, I may still be living out of a suitcase, but I am resolutely and intentionally alive and loving.

After being away from my family for six years, I boarded a plane in Seattle and landed in Paris at the end of December 2018. Although our circumstances are best described as harrowing because chemo is hardly a walk in the park and stress is omnipresent, love helps. Our family closed ranks to better support my stepmom. As a result we’re more united than ever and deeply appreciative of the little things.

No longer being able to take life for granted has a tendency to catapult you into the present moment and force you to take notice of all that’s good. This is where I was at when I arrived but almost a year later, several oncology consults, and four protocols later, we’ve all become masters in the art of enjoyment.

More specifically, we make a point of expressing it and letting one another know. It is our combined and checkered past experiences that inform how we approach the now and nostalgia has no place in it. No wistful yearning for those times when my parents were still able to travel around the world but fond memories that gives them strength.

They made the most of their health when they had it so they have zero regrets.

Similarly, I don’t hanker for the boundless enthusiasm I experienced when I decided to immigrate to the US.

It is one of those daring bets that didn’t quite work out but taught me more about myself than any other time in my life, showing me what resilience truly is.

From domestic and sexual abuse to crushing poverty, I had already survived a lot but always bounced back. Once the shock of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide jolted my brain and got me thinking again, I reasoned I should be able to do it once more even if it took some time.

It is taking some time, but it is still happening nonetheless. But those past and current hardships could easily crush me if I gave in to self-pity and saw myself as a victim instead of a survivor. I see little point in whining about how unfair life is because it isn’t. Life is neutral and no matter what predicaments we may face, few are those of us who have no say in how we lead our life.

When depression takes over, it’s easy to feel agency has gone missing but all that’s happened is that it has become temporarily inaccessible, it hasn’t gone away.

Although I still spend a considerable amount of time devising workarounds to outsmart the parasite in my head and occasionally lose my footing for a while, I’ve got a grip on agency again.

Depression no longer runs my life. Having to remain functional for others has changed everything. Like everyone else in the world, I have good days and I have difficult days. And I wouldn’t swap any minute of my challenging past for anything in the world because it has enabled much needed growth.

All those past and current hardships have led me here, back to the continent that made me, back to France, back to Portugal, back to Germany, and now back to the Netherlands, all of which former homes that hold a part of my heart and identity.

All those past hardships have gifted me the kind of insight that made the most unlikely and life-affirming of connections and collaborations happen. They have gifted me the kind of detachment I always needed to create and thrive but could never quite achieve.

They have gifted me connectedness and returned me to the world, a thinking, feeling, loving human among fellow humans.

We tell ourselves the stories we need to survive.

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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