How to Reclaim Your Narrative

On losing years to depression and rebuilding a life word by word

How do you come back to life after a five-year hiatus?

I lost five years to major depressive disorder, so incapacitated I could neither think nor write. Until then, I had more or less been able to align vocation and livelihood as a journalist.

The words went missing but vocation kept taunting me. Now, vocation is how I’ve been rebuilding a life that works, word by word, since the summer of 2018. But it did take me many months, several tries, a few errors of judgment, and some terrible aliases until I was able to work up the courage to get going and keep going.

First, I had to understand that my byline and my illness would have to become writing partners if I was ever going to extricate myself from hardship. This meant turning the pen on myself, something that was the exact opposite of what I had always done.

Having already lost my career, financial security, and marriage, I couldn’t bear to lose my vocation as well. Some of the former are fixable, the latter is irreplaceable and my only true wealth so I put it to the test.

Again.

Because desperation will make you do very strange things and conjure up the kind of single-minded that looks like madness to everyone but you.

After years steeped in silence and searing shame, I saw a chance to document the unspeakable and somehow seized it.

Depression is entirely devoid of any comfort zone; feeling wobbly and uncertain is very familiar by now.

Like many depressives, it’s my normal, the kind of normal writing can help you manage.

There’s something grounding about turning your brain and heart inside out and taking a look at what you find; it helps you gain much-needed critical distance. However, it’s not the most intuitive thing to do when you’ve kept a lid on everything for years — and even a lifetime in some cases — so as not to be a bother or a burden.

With every new piece, the question is always the same: Have I gone too far or not far enough? Invariably, I vow to dig deeper and keep digging until I’ve unearthed all the shame and stigma that have blighted my life as a mentally ill woman. From isolation to marital resentment via hardship or those times when going to stand on the train track sounds like a viable option, everything is copy fodder.

As my pathology is chronic there’s no risk of ever running out of material even though writing about my person on the internet isn’t always conducive to strengthening my self-confidence. Cracking yourself open in public isn’t for the faint-hearted as it can invite nastiness.

Not everyone understands how writing is what helps some of us stay alive. Not only is it how I support myself but the page is the one safe space I had before I even found out what a safe space was, it is my refuge, and it is the only place that currently feels like home.

I’ve been living out of a suitcase in transit for the last nine months so I could remain by my family’s side in Europe while my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer.

Very occasionally, I write about it. Save for those moments of grace I manage to nail down, it is the kind of copy that demands such huge amounts of emotional labor I struggle with it. Death is omnipresent and often far too close for comfort.

Mostly, I try to keep going while focusing on whatever good I can find, learning a little more about our shared humanness every day and how we might come to accept all of it.

Writing is alchemy and articulating our deepest fears can help us overcome them.

It takes time, a long time. Much as I try to remind myself I’ve made immeasurable progress in the last year, I still have a long way to go.

If writing can change your life in many ways, the most important ones are unlikely to be quantifiable in dollars. We do ourselves a great disservice when we equate success with money, especially at a time when constant connectedness keeps backfiring and creating airtight echo chambers where debate is impossible.

So why not be blunt instead? Bluntness is a form of rebellion and resistance, one that transcends all that divides us; it is how conversations happen and how we shatter societal taboos, together. That’s why people who have gone through hell often become advocates and share their stories, so no fellow human ever has to wither in the kind of shame that kills.

There’s such stigma attached to depression that those who project an aura of success, quiet competence, and bulletproof resilience end up dying by their own hand and surprising everyone, as was the case with Anthony Bourdain. His death convinced me to try and save my own life by speaking up.

But I’m not going to lie; stubborn though I may be, the fight against the parasite in my head starts anew every morning.

Some of us walk hand in hand with darkness. The more we document this darkness, the fewer will die; we all have a duty of care toward one another but we live in a culture that promotes the opposite, i.e. individualism.

Do or die.

Illness and hardship are blunt, especially if you live in America and you can’t afford medical co-pays despite having insurance. This is why I was left to hold my own hand for five years and don’t have a marriage anymore.

Since I had nothing after so many years in stasis, I had to find some kind of collateral to secure my words; I chose my heart and let it guide me.

It had always known the way forward, even when my mind was slow on the uptake. Despite depression, this hasn’t changed: The heart leads, the mind follows from a distance. As a result, creativity — the ability to connect random dots and apply strategic, adaptive thinking — has finally returned.

By being in print as I am in person without attempting to embellish the reality of mental illness, I’m shedding what has been holding me back, one essay at a time. Although I remain a lifelong member of team awkward, it no longer stops me from reaching out and asking for help, making new connections, and finally coming back to life, albeit in a very haphazard and unpredictable way.

Bluntness has brought down the walls of isolation illness had built around me. It’s a habit now, one that has the power to surprise, scare off, or unsettle people but at least everyone knows where they stand: What you read is what you get.

Freeing ourselves from the shackles of shame begins with reclaiming our own story and sharing it in our own words.

The very parts stigma would have us conceal are the ones we most need to reveal, for they are what makes us wholly human.

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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