I’ve spent the better part of the past three years in a deep clinical depression from which there seemed no escape. I am finally starting to feel like maybe existence on this big imperfect rock hurtling through space might be worth it once again — but I’ve found that I am emerging from my depressed years as quite a different person. The things I once liked no longer seem all that exciting to me, while other things are suddenly taking my interest. I feel so lost and unable to start on a new journey while on such uncertain ground. How do I start living again?
-Recovering but Unrecognizable
First of all: congratulations. This re-emergence you’re embarking on comes less often than birthdays, takes longer to get through than wedding planning, and is just as tough as making it through high school — and all of those events come with cake, and maybe even balloons. Before we get into the hows and whys of what happens next, I want to take a second to cheer for you and your emergence, as incomplete and imperfect and even tenuous as it may be. Blinking in the sunshine after a long darkness is worthy of celebration, no matter what comes next.
Wherever you find yourself, you’ve gotten this far — and now it sounds like you’ve gotten stuck in your new self. Why wouldn’t you? You’re seeing the people and opportunities around you with new eyes, tasting with renewed appetite, moving through space in new patterns. You’re easing out from the depression that has constrained you, healing from an illness that’s known for consuming lives whole. Plus, three years is a long time. It would be more puzzling if you’d stayed just the same, diagnosis or no.
That’s the first step: to remember that you’re already on a journey, wherever you hope to find yourself at the end of the new ones you might take. My guess is that reaching for a new path is part of what pulled you out of your depression in the first place. The uncertain ground you mention? That’s that path moving under your feet. Depending on the day, perhaps this might sound like a disaster: the earth shifting under your feet when you weren’t even sure you were ready to go anywhere sounds frightening. I know. But before the existential panic sweeps thunderclouds over your newly cleared patch of sunlight, imagine, for a second, what it means that life just doesn’t slow down, even when we do.
It means, for one thing, that FOMO has some fertile ground in which to fester. None of the good alien movies will wait for you to make time in your schedule, and none of the taco trucks will linger while you decide what you even want for lunch. Job boards will wax and wane with opportunities while you decide whether to quit or go back to grad school. The people who might change your life order coffee and get on the bus while you tie your shoes. Of course the thought of missing it all is terrible. Fear hovers right behind possibility like a sticky, warped shadow.
But that shadow means the opposite is true, too. (Shadows are, besides retinal burns, the best evidence of light, and they’re by far the safest.) That parade of what-ifs you’re missing as you find your feet in your new existence doesn’t stop for you — but it doesn’t stop after that, either. When you’re ready — and you will be ready, once your shoes are tied and you know the way to the taco truck — the possibilities will keep unfurling. That path shifting under your feet? You get to choose where it leads.
You don’t have to work so hard to move one way or another. Let that thought sift through the cloud cover, too. You, just as you are, are enough. Whatever is coming next, however long it takes, you’ll be in the right place to catch what you need when you’re ready. The perk of there being a lot to miss is that there’s a lot to hit, too. So take the time you need where you are, tie your shoes. There’s no hurry.
While we hover here for a second, I want to tell you something a little gross. You know about moths. How they start as caterpillars, scooting around and chewing up the leaves on somebody’s flowers. How, when it’s time, they wrap themselves up in cocoons made of silk — silk that hardens to protect them in their vulnerable changing state, how about that for a metaphor — and stew in there for a while. How they eventually break that cocoon wide open and climb out with whole new bodies, wings attached, and go on to migrate somewhere or maybe hurtle their bodies tragically at light bulbs. It’s a miracle — but that final metamorphosis is not the metaphor I’m reaching for today. Instead, it’s the goo. Did you know that the transition from crawling to flying involves something akin to melting down completely? The entomologists might call it something else, but for our purposes, “goo” suffices. And the greatest, scariest part is that later, the moths remember what the caterpillars knew. The memories make it through the goo. The essence of that creature, whether winged or walking, survives. You, too, will stay you. Just maybe a little newer.
You’re on the verge of something, just like that caterpillar marinating into its future self and reaching out to crack its silky confines. And when you get out of this cocoon you’re breaking open, when you’ve gathered your gooey essence back into the outlines of your body and discovered just how far your wings might take you now, the question, I think, will not be about how to start down the new path, but how to get to know the new you who walks on it. (Or, er, flies.) Step one when you are lost, after all, is figuring out where the sticker is that tells you: “You are here.”
It’s harder when there are no maps and no stickers. That’s when you have to reach into that deep, hidden layer that knows the important stuff before you notice that you know it. You’ve been cut off from that noticing for a while, I imagine. As depression loosens its grip on your attention, you have a chance to reacquaint yourself. What does it feel like to walk a new way to work in the morning? To read somebody else’s favorite novel and then argue about it? To say “no thanks” to a standing invitation and take yourself to a movie instead?
Or maybe to write in a journal and then burn it, to try a yoga class and hate it, to draw nudes while feeling awkward. The thing isn’t the point; the point is to examine more of the life you’re living as it hurtles you along. To cultivate attention and discretion. You don’t need to draw naked people, but you really can’t help but pay attention if you do.
You mention that some new things have piqued your interest lately. That’s good; notice them. Trust them. Connect the dots between the way your guts feel and the choices you make. Stop doing whatever turns you sour or leaves you flat; turn up the volume on what turns you on. Look at some art, whether or not you “get” anything about it. See what you like and what makes you want a snack break, and also what makes you want to throw your snacks at the stage. Move your bones, whether with a walk in the sharp winter air or by learning to repeatedly hit something heavy with a fierce look on your face. Reconnect your brain to your body if they’ve lost touch with each other.
Do this for a while, with purpose, and then make a list of what fills your well and what drains it. Make a list about people, too. You don’t have to start any fights just yet, but make a note about the ones who make you feel small, and don’t be so quick to return their phone calls. And perhaps more importantly, make a note about the ones who make you feel powerful and capable and free, and maybe even send one to tell them so.
The path is moving, but that doesn’t mean you have no control over it (besides, you know, the fact that we have very little control of most anything — but that’s a question for another day). You get to choose what to keep and what to drop, even if you’ve carried it with you for the last three years or even the last 20. And as you investigate, imagine, immerse yourself or throw away your every paintbrush and vow never to touch another canvas, the question you’re asking will be its own answer. As moth or caterpillar or even cocooned goo, we’re living all the time; we can’t help it. But you get to discover — and decide — how you want to do it.
For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.