I walk among ghosts.
Dredging the depths of my malfunctioning mind for memories I cannot access, I walk around Amsterdam as if it were a city I’m seeing for the first time.
It isn’t. Not only did I use to work and live here but I’ve also been back several times although I never stayed long enough to get my bearings. The result is one of otherworldly familiarity where things are similar but not the same anymore.
The word “kip” still makes me giggle like a schoolgirl (it means chicken in Dutch but it’s also British slang for sleep) and I still adore Spinvis. However, seeing a man sitting behind a desk in the middle of the tram is confusing until I understand this is a new tram fleet.
Well, new to me.
The circumstances in which I left the Netherlands all those years ago no longer matter but the circumstances that brought me back do.
In Amsterdam, I’m a world away from everything that broke me. Depression felled me shortly after immigrating to the US in 2013; I went on to lose the best years of my life, too incapacitated to work, too cash-strapped to get well despite having insurance.
The ghosts are restless.
For several weeks over the course of the summer, they pull me out of myself and force me to witness the transformation I’m undergoing. I space out and detach several times a day.
I came back to Europe at the end of December 2018 to lend my parents a hand as they navigate the reality of Stage IV cancer. I’ve been splitting my time between Paris, where my family lives, and Amsterdam. “Our family doctor confirmed I owe you my life,” my stepmom texts me one day when I am away in the Netherlands.
Little does she know she has been saving mine since I arrived.
And she isn’t the only one.
In the Netherlands, I stay in a safe place where emotions aren’t taboo and I’m encouraged to let them loose without fear of judgment. This makes for rollercoaster days when I end up cycling through every possible human emotion in the space of a few hours. The freedom to be fully myself among others is a rare gift, one that causes regular brain earthquakes as I slowly readjust to the mechanics of life.
The process is harrowing as I’m conditioned to keep myself to myself. Back home in the US, my being open about what ailed me was unwelcome so I learned to shut up.
On the rare occasions I broke down and spoke up, whatever I shared was later used against me as evidence of my being a lesser human. I couldn’t function at all and yet my predicament was either met with protracted silence or vituperative exhortations to “go get a job”. I retreated further and further into my head instead.
Whenever I opened my mouth, this resulted in being frozen out for days on end or being yelled at. Absent the relief writing now affords me again, survival became contingent on keeping a tight lid on my inner world.
The ghosts know their time is up.
For five years, my illness had the same power as a toxic spill that infected and ruined whatever it came into contact with. To wit, it torpedoed my career when I lost my ability to think and therefore write and practice journalism. Depression also annihilated romantic love, killed my sex life, and destroyed my marriage.
Or at least that is what I believed for the longest time.
Being away from the geographical, emotional, and affective environment that kept me sick — America — is helping me face some cold, hard truths I had occulted.
Simplistic though it sounds, it was easier to hold my illness responsible for the downfall of my marriage than to question why I was left holding my own hand for years. When I most needed them, empathy, support, and human warmth were nowhere to be found although I was neither thrown out on the street or forced into a divorce. But the words “in sickness and in health” rang hollow.
They haunted and taunted me for years.
Today, there is no resentment, only the persistent sting of sadness that could engulf and paralyze me again if I don’t push back against it. Even though pushing back has been my default for over a year now, suicidal ideation became a feature of my mental landscape, something that strikes whenever I am overwhelmed.
For all my current mental clarity, I am not a tank even though I go to war against the parasite in my head every day, both in person and in print.
Rebuilding a life from scratch word by word is no small endeavor; it takes everything I have and more besides.
And whatever I do, it never feels like enough.
The ghosts are guides.
My unusual peripatetic past is the reason why starting again doesn’t register as impossible. What I have done before, I can likely repeat even though I’m much older and the parameters have changed. And while I will never get back those years I lost, what they taught me in human terms isn’t negligible.
The reality of depression continues to inform my work. Debunking some of the many prejudices surrounding mental illness is how I am getting back on my feet.
Similarly, I’m making a conscious effort to focus on human interactions that aren’t subject to filter or judgment; words are the seeds from which I am growing absolutely everything.
There’s no bypassing the traditional caveats and biases that create resentment without openness. The willingness to be vulnerable is key to letting other humans see you as you are. But to anyone with a chronic mental illness and a history of abuse, vulnerability will always feel like self-sacrifice.
It does to me every single day; the feeling yet has to lessen and I suspect it never will. Until I started spending time in the Netherlands, I didn’t know what a safe space was or felt like; I had never felt more exposed in my life and still do.
When there’s a parasite in your head threatening to kill you, a new dawn is never guaranteed but I am alive, a fact that never ceases to surprise me.
My heart is full again; against all odds, I’ve managed to salvage it from the wreckage of depression. The magnitude of failing at immigration is crushing, so crushing I no longer know what to make of America even though I am an American now, one who isn’t safe in the country she calls home.
The costs associated with health care are such that I don’t stand a chance here. Through self-inquiry, I’ve been bootstrapping wellness but I’m reaching the limits of what I can do alone. Therapy is my holy grail, one that’ll help smooth out the rough edges of my self-destructive psyche and return me to a healthy and productive life.
Not that I am not productive, quite the opposite. Even though I still struggle to make ends meet, I am relentless in my craft, as dedicated to it as I’ve always been. The truth is one I’ve been aware of for some time:
Immigration is the organ transplant that didn’t take.
Living now appeals far more frequently than dying does but only because I went away and rediscovered how good life could be.
Sometimes, the heart withers where it is planted and the only way it can grow strong and thrive is to uproot it again.