Notes From a Beautiful, Difficult Life

Jan 30, 2014    /    philosophy

For me, depression is something like this:

I am standing on an icy hill. At the bottom are depression and anxiety. At the top is normalcy and, dare I say, even joy (though the farther you get down the hill, the less you believe there’s joy up there; it all seems like some clever ruse, or something that only applies to other people). And I’m slipping down the hill, struggling and clawing and digging my heels in to bring myself back up. Using every tool in my arsenal. It would be easy to slide down, so easy. It’s much harder to climb up.

Sometimes I succeed, pulling myself back over the ridge and onto safer ground. Sometimes I live miserably curled up in a ball at the bottom of the frozen hill, unable to see the sun.

For me, taking off to travel was like gifting myself with a pickaxe and a pair of crampons. It wasn’t the actual travel that made it easier to climb the hill, but the self-trust, confidence, self-love, and hope that came with it.

By the end of my first year on the road, I’d found joy. This burning, constant, beautiful joy that I could call on and dwell on when I needed it. I’d reached the top of the hill. I’d triumphed.

But here’s the hard truth about depression and anxiety: they often come back around.

Therapists have a term for this. They call it being triggered.

It happens like this: you’re going along with your life when suddenly, often unexpectedly something triggers you. It could be something as simple as a noise or a smell that your mind and body have associated with your anxiety or depression. It could be something more complex: a loss, a fight, something that brings a horrible memory front and center.

And it’s happened to me several times on the road.

The first was very early in my journey. I had published my first book, a memoir about love gone hilariously wrong. Of course, my exes appeared within the pages, with some tasteful changes to somewhat conceal their identities. Even so, upon discovering the book, one of my exes wrote me a vaguely threatening, yet strangely flirtatious string of emails.

This person was the most significant relationship I’d had, the guy I thought I was going to marry.

Just seeing his name in my inbox sent me spiraling toward a panic attack. Reading his vague threats over what I’d published and then his attempts at engaging me in banter and conversation pushed me over an edge.

I spent the night laying sleepless and the whole next day on a train from Belgium to Germany sliding full-throttle down the hill and through every bad thought I had about myself.

Which just goes to show how depression does not discriminate based on circumstances. You could be on the adventure of a lifetime and still have to face that particular demon.

But despite my free-fall and the need to claw my way back toward the top, I eventually found my joy. On a beautiful day in Mexico when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and felt a rush of affection for the person I am.

After that, all I remember is feeling good. Feeling human. Feeling so grateful to be at the top of that slippery depressive hill.

Until this January.

You see, in early October, I’d applied for my Swiss long-stay visa. I’d applied to spend a year in the place I love most in this whole world. A beautiful valley called Lauterbrunnen.

And during the whole visa process, I had been very zen. Other people commented on how long it was taking or how tough it was, but I defended the Swiss system and took deep breaths and rode a motorcycle down the coast of Croatia. Sure, I wanted to be back in Switzerland, but the process had in no way stolen my joy.

Then immigration emailed me. They wanted more information and they wanted it in person.

So I rushed back to Switzerland from Croatia with a stack of papers in hand mid-December.

And I waited.

I marveled at the snow-dusted beauty of the valley. I ate vegan sushi with my girl friends. I spent evenings in the pub catching up with the valley’s ever present cast of characters.

And I waited.

It wasn’t until after New Year’s Day that I started to feel impatient. I contacted them and found out they needed more information. I took it in that same day.

And I waited.

I contacted them again in mid-January and found out that they now had everything they needed, but they were reorganizing their department and my case would be handed over to someone else. They kept saying they’d get back to me asap.

The unfortunate thing is that asap really means nothing. You can’t turn the calendar page to asap.

So, while I waited, I started to slide down that icy, depressive hill, all the while fighting tooth and nail for my joy and all the while feeling ashamed of myself for even having an icy hill. Wasn’t I past this? Hadn’t I learned what I needed to learn?

That’s always how it is. So easy to blame ourselves for the complicated set of imperfections we carry, not all of which are within our control.

Still, I felt shame. Deep shame.

And shame, of course, drives disconnection.

And disconnection, of course, feeds depression.

The worst part was that I couldn’t figure out what my problem was, where this depression was coming from. I was in my favorite place in the world. In the distance, I could see luscious, white mountain peaks and spinning paragliders. I was already 100 pages into a really exciting book project. And, of course, I had Luna, two soul-full housemates, and a gaggle of other new friends that I loved.

So, where was this coming from?

I didn’t figure it out until the third week of January. Because, unlike so many times before, this time my trigger wasn’t external. It’s easy to identify and change stupid little things like my alarm clock, which used to send me spinning into a panic attack every morning while I was working at the ad agency in Denver. It’s less easy to figure out what feeling is triggering my depression and how to change that.

I did figure it out, though. While I was walking down the snowy lane with the mountains in the distance.

I felt trapped.

Turns out, I associate that feeling with my years of depression. Because during that time, trapped is exactly what I felt. Trapped in a job and then, when I finally quit, trapped in Denver, trapped in singleness, trapped in my own head.

And now here I was, trapped in my favorite place in the world. I couldn’t settle in, buy my year-long train pass, or even choose the jumbo-sized jar of honey at the supermarket. Because for all I knew, I could be leaving the next day.

I couldn’t leave the country, because at any moment I might need to zip over to the immigration office and, anyway, I’d been given permission to overstay my tourist visa in Switzerland, but I’m pretty sure that permission didn’t extend to the other schengen countries.

And, because I’d injured my shoulder in Italy and it hadn’t yet healed, I couldn’t even fully enjoy the valley for fear of falling and re-injuring it.

So, I waited. I felt trapped. And I slipped little by little down that hill, pushed even lower by the shame I felt for being so damn weak.

Until the day that I sent out my book proposal.

You know the one. The book my heart has been begging to write. The one about owning your dream, ditching your excuses, making a plan, and changing your life. The Good Girl’s Guide to Living a Badass Life.

I’d been working on the book proposal for months. Writing the first draft in October from this very living room. Editing it and sending it for feedback this December. And, finally, incorporating my editor’s feedback, giving it a final spit-shine, and sending it out into the world to test its tiny wings.

I started by sending it to five agents who all come highly recommended. And as I pressed the send button on those emails, as I looked over the titles that these agents already represented, as I realized that I was in the very process of living the life I’ve always wanted to live, I was suddenly and beautifully flooded with gratitude.

This, friends, is the most powerful tool in my arsenal, the one I’d forgotten about, the one that always turns things around.

Gratitude.

It brought tears to my eyes.

I am doing what I love…and not just doing what I love, but actually changing people’s lives.

I’m writing a book. A book that desperately needs to be written.

And all my struggles, all these things I’m ashamed of, they are part of my journey, part of what makes me able to write this book, part of what makes me able to reach across the internet with my words and help someone else like me.

In that moment, I let go of the shame. I forgave myself again. I stopped calling myself weak.

Because being able to scale that icy hill…that is not weakness. It’s strength.

And calling ourselves names never ever helps.

So, today, instead, I’ll remind myself that it’s okay to struggle, to be imperfect. I’ll tell myself that depression doesn’t make me weaker, but, rather, shows my strength. I’ll remind myself that I’m beautiful and loved and making a difference.

And I’ll go on living this beautiful, difficult, grateful life.

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34 Comments
  • Ali
    January 30, 2014

    Such a beautifully written post. I’m so sorry you’ve been feeling depressed! I know it’s not always easy to reach out, but please know I’m here to chat if you ever need someone to listen. I’m just a skype call away, no matter the time zone. I’m glad you were able to pull yourself back up that mountain. I hate that the Swiss immigration people are taking so long, but hang in there. I really think if they were going to say no, they would’ve said it by now. Like I said, let me know if you want to talk!
    Ali recently posted…Scenes from PoznanMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks!

  • Lori
    January 30, 2014

    I don’t think anyone has expressed exactly what happens to me as well as these words you’ve written. Thank you.

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      You’re welcome. And thank you for your comment. Always nice to know I’m not alone.

  • Patrick
    January 30, 2014

    Great post about a hidden topic for tons and tons of people. I met you at a conference in MN and I think you were just getting ready to start your journey (?) but I’m glad I’m still following you. Keep up the great work!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks so much.

  • Natasha
    January 30, 2014

    I love reading about how far you’ve come. I think it takes such strength to be this open with your depression struggles and I’m so proud of you. I love you lady!!!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks! Love you back.

  • Angela
    January 30, 2014

    It was great to meet with you today Gigi. I have everything crossed for your badass proposal!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Great to meet you, too! Looking forward to that hike once the weather warms up.

  • JenniferTobey
    January 30, 2014

    Lovely post. Thank you for your view point and honesty. The words I will take from it are “depression doesn’t make me weak, it shows strength.”

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks.

  • Janet
    January 30, 2014

    You have captured the experience of depression perfectly. People don’t realize that you are never cured of depression. Those of us that have it, have to work at being happy. It doesn’t just happen for us. We have to do the things you have described: being grateful, forgiving ourselves for real or imagined shortcomings, surrounding ourselves with beauty.

    We also have a tendency to hyper-focus on the negative and have to force ourselves to remember the positive.

    This is why I love your posts. They help me to do this. They encourage me to be grateful and inspire me to climb back up the hill.

    My experience with depression has also shown me that depressive periods (at the bottom of the hill) are signals that I need to change something in my life. They have forced me (through misery)to make wonderful improvements in my life.

    Thank you so much for your posts that help me remember the joy at the top of the hill. It is so easy to forget that it is there.

    I am leaving next week for a trip to Peru, Bolivia and Easter Island. Your inspiration has helped to make that happen. Thanks again!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Wow. This absolutely makes my day. So glad I could help – and congrats on your big trip. Enjoy!

      And I agree. The depths of my misery have often been the thing that inspired big, positive changes in my life.

  • Christine
    January 30, 2014

    Ditto what Lori said. Thanks so much for this post!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thank you.

  • Rebecca
    January 30, 2014

    We are our own worse critics in our heads and then that translates to how we feel. I used to get depressed as well but, the biggest and best thing that has helped me is to be more aware of how I feel, taking care of myself, pamper myself to help me feel good inside and out and of course my daughter helps me a lot too. It is hard to become depressed when you have a usually happy, bouncy 4 year old to take care of and who loves you a lot no matter what.
    Rebecca recently posted…Thursday NatureMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      I’m so glad you have her. :) Sounds like she’s your sunshine.

  • Sally
    January 30, 2014

    All the best, Gigi. I’m hoping the Swiss immigration authorities get it together as soon as possible! The good thing about ASAP is it usually arrives, eventually. :)
    Sally recently posted…An Unrelated-to-Travel Video of My PuppyMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Thanks!

  • Soltera
    January 30, 2014

    Depression has never been my demon, so it has been easy for me, in the knee-jerk interior of my mind, to kind of “meh!” depression in others. Now, however, my brother is being treated for depression, and I am thinking more compassionately and clearly about the disorder. The transparency of your descriptions is incredibly illuminating for my struggle to understand. Such courage, Gigi, such strength!

    • gigigriffis
      January 30, 2014

      Wow, thanks. I’m so glad that I can illuminate things a bit. Have you seen the depression piece at Hyperbole and a Half? If not, that’s another great (and funny) and enlightening piece.

      • Soltera
        January 31, 2014

        Now, but I’ll head right on over there. Thanks for the tip!

  • Victoria
    February 4, 2014

    Gigi, this is a really beautiful post. Thank you for being so honest. I’ve also been depressed, especially following my Mum’s death a few years ago. Learning the triggers is still an ongoing process. It upsets me that depression is still often seen as weakness. I think almost everyone is battling demons in some way. It’s just that some are more honest than others, and in my opinion it’s better to let it surface and face it, rather than bury it and hope it goes away. Life is beautiful, it’s also hard, and it sounds like you’re finding your way pretty well. Hope your visa comes through soon. :)
    Victoria recently posted…17 reasons to love HelsinkiMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      February 4, 2014

      Thank you. And well said.

  • Carrisa
    February 9, 2014

    This is beautiful. And touched on so many thoughts I haven’t been able to put into words. Thank you for sharing!
    Carrisa recently posted…Weekly Stats | January 27 – February 2, 2014My Profile

    • gigigriffis
      February 9, 2014

      Thank you.

  • Ashley
    December 28, 2014

    Gigi, thank you for this amazing post! I’ve just found your site and am so amazed at your writing, courage to travel and succinct description of something I’ve been battling myself. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • gigigriffis
      December 29, 2014

      Thank you.

  • laura diaz
    May 23, 2015

    Hello Gigi, I am just so impressed with your blog. I can´t stop reading it. A lot of coincidences in our lifes. I admire you, I admire your good and bad moments, because all of them make you the person you are.
    Please, never stop writing and sharing with all of us your experiences.
    Good luck and keep in touch.

    Laura (Toledo)

    • gigigriffis
      May 23, 2015

      Thanks, Laura!

  • Andrea
    August 29, 2015

    Everyone who has struggled knows that we are true warriors! And I think you are very brave and aprecciate this article because I understand that it keeps coming back and it feels like slipping. I thank you very much for sharing this with us. Keep being a strong travelling woman. Love, Andrea

  • Ayse
    September 6, 2015

    Gigi, I am following you and admire you to the fullest.

    I found you while I was googling about being a fulltime traveller on a low budget.
    By reading you I got an answer to all of my questions (& fears) in my head, since
    – I have a small dog which I don’t want to leave behind me while I am travelling
    – I was afraid to travel alone (not anymore as you helped me)
    – As far as I know myself, I suffer of depression which goes on & off

    Thank you for being yourself and for the inspiration !

    With Love

    Ayse

    • gigigriffis
      September 6, 2015

      Thanks! I’m so glad to be a help.

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