The last time I was in Europe, everyone I loved was alive and healthy.
It’s no longer the case.
Mamie — my paternal grandma — is two dates on a slab of marble I still cannot bring myself to visit, my best friend is a pile of ashes scattered all over North London, and Stage IV cancer is killing my beloved stepmom.
In the six years I stayed away, I missed out on so much life that it turned into death. The thing I spent five years contemplating while under the yoke of major depressive disorder got those I loved but spared me, somehow.
Too cash-strapped to get help despite having insurance, I was left to hold my own hand after my illness became a source of festering resentment in my household.
It took a new friend to blurt out that I was dying in America to understand how dangerous my situation had become. It was so obvious that an outsider, until then, I hadn’t been able to see it even though I was sure my life was over. The end, I reasoned, was just a matter of mustering enough courage to embrace a permanent solution to my woes.
Thankfully, someone else’s bluntness slapped me awake with brute force and gave me clarity, the clarity I had been seeking but could never access on my own, try as I might. At the time, that person wasn’t one of my favorite people in the world yet but a random stranger who has since then vanished without a word, alas.
But their fleeting presence in my life reminded me of a universal truth: Much as we strive to be as self-reliant as possible, none of us can go it alone in life; we all need help every now and then. Getting it when in the throes of isolating mental illness is another matter, especially when those we share our life with aren’t sympathetic.
This is when the kindness of strangers can make all the difference.
Although I had already started rebuilding a life word by word online after my writing voice went missing for years, I spent those first few months running on the spot.
When my stepmom found out her body was beset by metastases from her skull to her hips, everything else fell by the wayside. I suddenly had one goal: To get from Seattle to Paris so I could hug her again and make good on the promise of being there for my father.
I got there through writing and fundraising, none of which would have been possible without those who support my work. I landed in France at the end of December 2018, just in time to see the New Year in with my parents.
“You will change in Europe,” my friend had warned me.
Now that I’ve been here for some 11 months, things have indeed shifted in unexpected ways. Despite difficult circumstances, I’m alive again, I can feel everything again, and I no longer wonder who I am.
As I continue to put the pieces of a broken life back together, my family takes pride of place at the center of the puzzle, alongside Portuguese. Because I left home at 17, little did I know how incomplete I was without my parents.
And because I left Portugal very much against my will and tried to forget all about it as I could never process the heartache, little did I know how incomplete I was without the language that upended my life a decade ago and gave my heart a voice.
Critical distance has made me understand that immigration to the US was the organ transplant that didn’t take, for many reasons I’m still trying to parse. It happens but stories like mine are seldom told: No one is supposed to fail at immigration.
Depression is quite the non-standard reaction and yet it felled me almost as soon as I landed. It was all downhill from there as my brand new life turned into a prison I couldn’t afford to escape. The illness took away my writing voice and my livelihood as I lost the journalism career I fought so hard to build.
And then I lost myself, too, but vocation survived against all odds.
Writing those words today still baffles me: I do not understand what happened between 2013 and 2018 any more than I understand my still being around. Although I have many questions, I can’t afford to dwell on the past lest it should hinder the present. A five-year hiatus creates many issues, not least that of explaining what I’ve been up to prospective clients and employers.
Then again, what are roadblocks but unexpected opportunities to stretch ourselves and flip the script? A little creativity can go a long way toward helping us bypass perceived limitations.
Rather than cower in shame I’m using my predicament to raise awareness about the reality of mental illness. If my words succeed in making just the one person think — or brings them solace — then my job is done. Because writing is service.
I have to trust this approach will eventually resonate with those who have the power to give me a chance to put my skills at the service of their business when I start sending my résumé out again. For now, I’m freelancing until I move to the Netherlands. That way, I will still be near my family — only a high-speed train ride away — without being under their feet.
Despite the relentless pace, I can only hope love, stubbornness, and vocation can carry me until then. For they are what defines me; my illness, chronic though it is, does not.
No one is a diagnosis because illness isn’t an identity.
We are persons, not pathologies.
Illness is something that happens to us, it isn’t us. Even when it threatens to take over and kill us, it can never become us. My stepmom isn’t cancer any more than I’m major depressive disorder.
When I set out to reclaim the various components that made up the person depression had occulted, my life opened up again. Writing has loosened up the shackles of isolation and now affords me the freedom I lacked; music brought and still brings me joy in immeasurable ways; Portuguese made me come alive and is now part of my daily life again.
The fellow humans who appeared along the way gave me back my humanness with every comment, every message, every conversation, and every hug. For example, to be able to cry again when we haven’t been able to feel for a long time is a welcome sign that our heart still works, we care, and we’re clear about what matters most.
And when I’m with those who have been holding my hand through thick and thin for the last few months, tears are frequent. But those tears are the result of exhaustion, relief, and immense gratitude for the presence of human benevolence in my life rather a side effect of the crushing sadness of depression.
A year ago, I could never have imagined there would be anyone who would ever hold space for me and accept all of me exactly as I am.
Everything in life always comes down to our shared humanness and to love in the most generic sense of the word.
And of course to communication since words are how we humans come together. We’re all tiny sparks with the potential to empower and inspire one another. And if we let them, others can and will lead us home to ourselves. They may be family, they may be friends we’ve known for a long time, or they may be compassionate strangers who just want to help.
Each of us can be that stranger for someone else because we will always be one another’s greatest strength.
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.