“See, you enjoyed this, didn’t you? You should eat lunch more often,” my father tells me.
My parents and I are sitting under the linden trees outside the Sorbonne as we do three Fridays out of four every month, after my stepmom’s morning chemo. The first time we went to this inexpensive chain of British cafés, I treated them to lunch. They loved it so much it became part of our post-hospital ritual.
Only now either my dad or my stepmom find a roundabout way to pick up the tab, only letting me get coffee and cake after lunch instead of the whole thing. It’s a little unnerving but I’m grateful because I’m still a long way from achieving financial health despite working all the time. What looks like a day off is in fact the result of planning, scheduling, and a flexible approach that always puts my family first.
In practice, a day out in Paris means work has either already happened or will happen later at night instead of rest. At first, this caused a lot of friction between my father and I because he felt I wasn’t as present as I could be but after eight months, he respects the hustle. If my work weren’t freelance and remote, I couldn’t have come back to Europe to be with them. And if I don’t work, I can’t afford to stay despite being a dual national.
This, in short, is the reason I keep going at this relentless pace, flirting with burnout, and hovering on the edge of complete collapse. And why lunch isn’t a habit I can’t afford to acquire yet. I lost it a decade ago when I went through a brutal austerity crisis in Portugal, an experience that taught me how to make do and live on very little.
Even in America, food insecurity is a feature of many people’s lives.
Because major depressive disorder felled me shortly after immigrating in 2013, hardship soon set in and I ended up losing five years of my life. As a result, my household had to make do on one salary. Alas, it never stretched far enough in Seattle, a city those who don’t work in the tech industry struggle to live in.
It was so bad my husband could seldom afford his monthly bus pass or new shoes, we were threatened with eviction, and utilities got cut off regularly. Filling the fridge was always a challenge, and many essential needs like health care fell by the wayside.
Forget anything related to having a life; a bus ride or a simple cup of black coffee outside became luxuries. I was too incapacitated to function and spent five years contemplating how best to kill myself. Because I wasn’t earning, I couldn’t afford to get well; because I couldn’t afford to get well, I couldn’t go back to work.
My writing voice, my livelihood, and my journalism career soon became distant memories. Somehow, the will to live proved stronger than suicidal ideation and I set out to rewrite a life word by word a year ago, thanks to the internet.
When my stepmom received a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis in September 2018, I knew I had to find a way to come back so I knuckled down. And now that I’ve been in Europe for some eight months, going back to the US for good is no longer an option. Instead, I’ll be establishing an EU base in the Netherlands in the fall and traveling back and forth to France until my stepmom is stable, if she ever is.
As my current income is both modest and unreliable, I’ve gone back to editing — a job I love — on top of writing. A staff position that offers a combination of onsite and remote work is what I’m after so this is what I’ll be aiming for once I settle in the Netherlands.
Making all of the above happen despite the five-year crater in my CV when I seldom have the time to send out pitches or get enough sleep is a bit of a challenge.
Then again, what’s a challenge but an opportunity to get creative? And yes, I absolutely relish it.
Somehow, I’ve managed to keep my head above water since December 2018.
Being driven by vocation is a huge advantage as no amount of work ever feels like too much even though my physical and mental health won’t hold out forever. Sometimes, they let me down but I’m lucky to have a safe space where I can escape to and fall apart whenever needed. It has happened several times already and it’ll happen again, but finally having a steady hand to hold rather than going it alone as I did for five years makes all the difference in the world.
Without it, it’s doubtful I would have been able to keep going even though the love my family and I share is the greatest motivator of all.
Love, under its many personal and professional incarnations, is what carries me and it’s the one reason why I’m much more capable than I was a year ago.
You see, no matter how hardworking we may be, how driven, how scrappy, how self-motivated, how self-reliant, the secret sauce is always, always, always other people.
Connection and presence are the fireworks in my stomach, day in, day out. Love illuminates my path; love is a shot in the arm and the confetti in my hair; love is what spurs me on even when I’ve run out of energy; love is the reason I laugh and smile so much here.
Until my face hurts sometimes, even when I’m exhausted.
Living in the moment keeps me functional and deeply appreciative for all the goodness in my life instead of focusing on what’s still missing. For the first time in a long time and although my brain still fights me and likely always will, I’m not just glad but also grateful to be alive.
And guided by light rather than the omnipresent darkness that nearly swallowed me whole.
No matter how hard things get, never give up; everything changes.
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.