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.
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.