Before I understand what’s happening, my sunglasses have flown from my face.
I’m soaked from top to toe, and my mouth is spewing a torrent of surprised outrage. To the unsuspecting onlooker, I’m swearing at the sky since the projectile came from somewhere above my person.
I’m also shaking uncontrollably.
The water bomb someone dumped on my head didn’t scare me but the moment destroyed the composure I was trying so hard to maintain throughout the day.
This was my first trip back to the Netherlands in years and time had come to leave the safe place where I was staying. For a few weeks, I had been relearning how to live and how to be a human in the world and I was still very unsteady on my feet that summer afternoon.
For all our posturing, it really doesn’t take all that much to remind us we’re all far more fragile than we look.
Dripping, I couldn’t process what had just happened.
Gratuitous, random acts of unpleasantness always fox me, all the more as there was no raucous laughter afterwards. Pranks, I can understand and even appreciate. For all my seriousness, I’m a huge fan of comic relief.
But that water bomb wasn’t the first. There was another one aimed at a toddler earlier, which thankfully missed. The child’s parents were as nonplussed as I was, albeit far, far more polite than me.
Within my the confines of my cranium, this seemingly innocuous event was enough to unleash a storm, one that reminded me I was still standing way too close to the abyss, much closer than I thought.
The depression to which I lost five years of my life is never not ready to pounce and spirit me away again, especially in times of distress.
Although I’m back to being functional, I can no longer afford to take the next day for granted and must remain on the lookout for disruption at all times. It comes in many forms, from waves of inexplicable sadness to raging, blanket anxiety about everything, insomnia, and suicidal ideation.
This is because the weight I’ve been carrying for the last year is crushing me, I am exhausted, and I refuse to indulge nastiness.
On the outside, I always look capable and in control but only because I have to.
Also, I was a tour director. No matter how tough things got — and they frequently did — I had to remain cheerful.
The reason I came back to Europe is to support my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer. When I’m around them, I can’t appear weak or lost or sad as this would be rather unhelpful under the circumstances. This makes coping with my father’s increasingly difficult temper a daily challenge I struggle to find the strength for.
But whenever I am in the Netherlands, I am free to be myself, unedited.
This is how I spent my very first week there back in June doubting life could be such an intense multi-sensory and joyful experience. After you’ve been numb for years, feeling everything again all at once is a bit of a shock and you no longer trust your interpretation of things because they went missing for so long.
But instead of acting all clued-up as I usually would so as not to cause undue distress to those around me, I didn’t have to. I could be as vulnerable as I felt and as blunt as I needed without fear of judgment.
And yet, it was at times embarrassing, vexatious, humiliating, demeaning, and more than a little awkward, which goes to show how harshly we judge ourselves and one another.
It is that very same defenselessness that crashed onto my cranium in liquid format that afternoon.
And I felt exposed by all my unguarded emotions in a public place, as helpless as a newborn; the strength I thought I had been building up all gone.
But it turned out I was quite wrong.
Withstanding that which seeks to destroy us with open displays of human emotion takes enormous strength.
Not only is it counter-intuitive as it initially weakens us but it calls for the willingness to trust in fellow humans and suspend all doubt.
About them, not about us; we could never be that generous toward ourselves, not after years spent under the yoke of depression, a parasite that erodes your sense of self until, one morning, you wonder why there’s a stranger staring at you in the mirror.
And yet, we will on occasion choose to surrender all pretense in front of a selected few so we can lay down our heavy armor of airs and graces and let the whole human hang out.
To see ourselves through the eyes of another who accepts us as we are is an invitation to do the same, eventually.
So here we are; all of me welcomes all of you. Don’t be afraid of letting your unredacted humanness show.
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.