For most of my adult life, I’ve lived amidst the dizzying swirl of depression, anxiety, and grief. As someone who prides herself on spreadsheets and enthusiasm, it’s a reality that is jarring for most people with whom I peel back that layer. But, the thing is, the persona I outwardly present feels authentically me just as much as the ghosts that haunt me. I’m just the kind of person who feels most things at a 10 — the good and the bad.
Like many who’ve suffered, I’ve found that the deeper I’ve fallen, the more capacity I have for joy, surprise, and delight. I’ve had some of my life’s most beautiful days alongside some of the more devastating. The hardest part is not knowing which day you’re waking up into.
In the rituals of home, I have habits that add a buffer to the unknown of what mood a certain day will bring — morning coffee, the same smoothie bowl breakfast, the strange zen of adult coloring books, re-reading dog-eared poetry, listening to the same podcast round-up. They add infrastructure to a lot of unknowns; they form the pattern that reminds me of the rhythm of who I am when I tend to lose the way.
But the thing with long-term travel is that infrastructure instantly vanishes. Of course, I knew this going into it (my coloring book did not make the cut of what I wanted to lug on my back for months on end). And the prospect of having to rebuild that structure daily was somewhat freeing. Some habits can make space for fuller expression, but some confine. I wanted to get to the core of which structures built me up and which ones trapped me.
In the past two weeks, the groundlessness of a habit-less life caught up with me. I had multiple days of waking up into a version of me I didn’t recognize. And when you’re already in a foreign land, feeling foreign to yourself can be deeply isolating.
One thing I’ve slowly learned about myself is that I cherish time alone. And when you live and work in close proximity with a lot of people (we lovingly call it adult summer camp), that’s hard to come by. So I started to carve out time — time to bring some of the structure back, most of which involved intentional alone time. I walked to gelato listening to my favorite podcast (On Being, which you should listen to immediately), woke early to silently sip coffee in our staff kitchen, and recited the poetry that reminded me of myself.
I write this on the upswing, the place I most often write coherently and publicly. There isn’t much out there (and certainly not on social media) of people in their depths, but I felt the best I could do is share a piece of me from its brink. Because perhaps the most surprising piece I’ve discovered so far in this journey is the power of vulnerability.
While I live comfortably at the crossroads of joy, sorrow, and wonder, I recognize that I present largely the positive: the part of me that relishes a plan, who thrills at discussions of history, feminism, Harry Potter, Beyonce and Thomas Hardy. So this week, I did what I rarely do: I let it all go. When people asked, “how are you?” I actually answered.
One afternoon, I came into the kitchen to work a dinner shift. Our cook, a not-to-be-crossed yet endlessly endearing Italian woman, greeted me with her standard “ciao” and dramatic sigh about the impossibility of today’s dinner prep. As I put on my apron, I told her: I may not be on my best tonight; today had been rough. She nodded, and we worked silently for the next few hours. Known for her biting-perfectionism, she caught herself before yelling at my sub-par zucchini-cutting form. And when dinner was over and I came in to tidy up the kitchen, she pushed a plate of extra dessert over. “For you,” she said. She thanked me for being honest, and we chatted about her tough days. We agreed dessert solves most things.
In the days after that, I opened up to new friends here and life-long ones at home. I sent emails and made Facetime calls from the ugly moments, not just the ones when I was filled to the brim with awe, excitement, or wine.
Certainly, vulnerability is not a cure-all. It has not flipped a switch in me permanently, and I know the ebbs and flows will continue, as they do for so many. But I do feel it’s made a tiny crack in that perfect orb I so carefully maintained. These moments of honesty in a strange land have allowed me to see the rituals that perhaps tethered me to an unbreakable facade, and the ones that will allow me the freedom to grow. There are habits I can keep (obviously, coffee) and ones I can expand into — authenticity, self-care.
And while I’ve long intellectualized the notion that we are more similar than different, experiencing that sentiment firsthand, over a plate of leftover cake, moved me profoundly.
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. Our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door. – David Whyte