You’re not supposed to come up against the limits of language when words are your stock-in-trade and livelihood. I’m a journalist and yet, language has a way of resisting me whenever life happens and gets personal. During the five years I spent under the yoke of major depressive disorder, I became so thoroughly incapacitated I couldn’t think. Translating the chaos within was impossible, not through stories, not through metaphors, not through words.
If the depression that kept me obsessing about taking my own life had had a sound, it would have been one interminable wail, such was the horror of being alive. I became the human embodiment of that famous Edvard Munch painting, screaming silently in unspeakable pain.
Self-expression isn’t the strong point of anyone saddled with depression. After trying to convey my distress at the beginning and being met with suspicion in my own home, I soon learned to keep myself to myself. I was so isolated it was easy to do; the disease spirited away my writing voice. Life soon stopped getting personal; I lived in an intellectual, affective, and linguistic wasteland for five years. Language(s) and I became estranged and being multilingual was of no help whatsoever at the time. It is now, however, and I owe much of my current joy to Portuguese.
You’re not supposed to come up against the limits of language when words are your stock-in-trade and livelihood. But after five years, I had no words and no livelihood left. However, I had a lot of material about how depression can worm its way into every aspect of a person’s life, take it over, and destroy it. So I set out to find the words that could make this alternate reality relatable to others, despite having completely forgotten how to do human.
Writing is how I’ve been excavating my psyche for over a year now in an attempt to get to the genesis of my illness. Writing is a radical act of communication. Alas, communication was something I wasn’t even sure I knew how to do anymore yet felt desperately in need of.
Using the pen as a trowel and words as bricks, I started building a bridge out of depression and hardship and toward others. At the time, I had no idea who or what was out there as mine was an airtight existence smothered in darkness. I began by feeling my way forward, using my broken heart as a compass. Vocation soon confirmed my heart was still functional, albeit just as dented and battered as my mind.
I plowed on, regardless, daring myself to dig even deeper into the unspeakable with every new piece. Coming back up to the surface, there often was a gentle glow beyond the fog and I could sense the occasional presence. It was light, it was warmth, benevolent humanness made manifest. This brand new reality demanded words I didn’t have as I struggled to articulate the unfamiliar.
You’re not supposed to come up against the limits of language when words are your stock-in-trade and livelihood. Even though I got fluent in the language of darkness in record time, its opposite still eludes me on a daily basis. For example, how do we put into words everything a hug can be?
If poets have elevated the language of human emotions into an art form, a journalist trades in cold, hard facts. As a result, my command of language is by default dispassionate and the curious business of coming back to life presents innumerable challenges. Not least that of infusing what’s often heartbreaking copy with hope. No matter what I write about, it’s always in the spirit of service. If the reality of my depression further depresses those who are already struggling then it’s not only unhelpful but potentially hazardous, too.
If I mention hugs it is because they are my catnip. Not just any hug though. The hug I have in mind isn’t about the automatic squishing of bodies that passes for a greeting among acquaintances in North America but a heartfelt, full-body hug that holds and embraces everything that makes us uniquely us.
After spending five years cooped up in your own head, cut off from the world, such a hug can upend your world. When I put pen to paper again in the summer of 2018, I never thought my life would once again come to include the languages, places, and people I had left behind, much less friendship old and new. Hugs became my Holy Grail, the ultimate proof of connection, the supreme reward of those bound by mutual appreciation and a deep sense of belonging to a species that is always a little improbable, always a little bit lost.
You’re not supposed to come up against the limits of language when words are your stock-in-trade and livelihood. To hold and to be held has the power to stop time and erase everything but the present moment as senses take over from the mind. If a hug were a sound, it would be a sigh of surrender and a gentle moan, a discreet “Mmmm” only audible to the other person.
Life-affirming is the one adjective that comes to mind: Body warmth expands, two heartbeats align, we relax. Hugs can even make us feel dizzy with the sudden release of oxytocin, a social bonding hormone and the antidote to loneliness and isolation. A hug holds our vulnerability and can make us feel safe for a moment. A hug reminds us that we’re humans who belongs among humans, something that was no longer self-evident to me. A hug honors our vulnerability by accepting it without judgment; in that sense, a hug sees beauty in the realness of weakness.
But to have that knowledge and the ability to impart all the above to another person by wrapping our arms around them? Witchery! And mightily difficult to articulate in print. Perhaps this is because human connection is an inherently private happening that takes place away from view within hearts and minds.
And because human communication is made up of so much more than words, no wonder they fail us sometimes, even when we’ve made it our business to tame them.
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.