I had just taken my first Metro ride in Paris. Although I relied heavily on my iPhone Metro app, I found that the system wasn’t that difficult to navigate and I could easily pinpoint the fastest route to my destination: the Eiffel Tower. It was my first day in Paris and I figured that beloved monument should be at the top of my list. I emerged onto the cold street, the sky gray and threatening above me. It was December, after all, and a balmy 45 degrees. I huddled myself as best I could into my thin jacket and scarf, trying to shield my face from the harsh wind. I looked around as I made my way along the river, and a sinking feeling began pressing itself into my gut.
This is Paris? I thought to myself. It was my first trip to France, and while I was aware of the fact that it would never look as it did in the movies, I was still conjuring images that resembled Sydney Pollack’s 1995 version of Sabrina. I saw myself as Julia Ormond (minus the incredible haircut), strolling along the Seine with my camera and my journal and attempting to “find myself” in Paris. I’ll be honest – I also saw myself kissing a 90s Harrison Ford on the Pont Neuf but who hasn’t had that dream?
I was ending a three-month long journey in Europe that began in Iceland, led to two months in Ireland, and then three weeks in Italy. Paris was my last stop before heading home from a trip that was supposed to last a year. I had arrived on a work visa in Ireland, intending to stay for my allowed six months, and one disappointment after another (along with a dwindling bank account) led to me deciding it was time to leave.
I suppose I put a lot of pressure on this great city. “Paris is always a good idea,” or so the movies told me. I kept walking, kept putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that what I saw next would stir something inside of me that I had been missing. The heavy scent of failure had been trailing me for months and it was clutching me even now. There we no lovely trees or flowers in my line of sight – the landscape was barren and that was the way I felt. Every way I looked seemed a reflection of my own state of mind.
You’re in Paris. I reminded myself of this fact over and over as if this alone was supposed to cause elation, joy, feeling.
You’re in Paris. You’ve been dreaming of Paris since you were fourteen. You’re here.
There was no dramatic music or soft lighting that occurred when the Eiffel Tower finally came into view. The buildings and lifeless trees gave way to a glimpse of its structure. I kept moving, not stopping until I was directly across the street. Finally, I stared, waiting. Waiting to feel moved. Waiting to feel anything. After a few minutes, my eyes burned and tears threatened to fall. Not from joy or wonder, but from sorrow.
I had been doing well when I began my journey. I had energy. I was managing to find laughter and enjoyment in my days and I was happy moving from one activity to another. But it didn’t take long for my depression to remind me, like an old friend, that it was still there. Soon I was spending more time inside my hostel, laying on a thin mattress with my headphones on instead of tackling the next tourist spot on my list. A quick meal and Netflix became more appealing than facing the anxiety that would leave me folding in on myself in the middle of a crowded restaurant or pub.
Depression and anxiety have been a part of my life since I was twelve years old. More than half my life has been spent with their hands on my shoulder, coloring every move I make. During the worst years of my depression, there were many days I could not find the strength to leave my bed. I would eat nothing or everything in sight. I would suffer panic attacks that left me crouched on the bathroom floor, near vomiting, unable to breathe. Through the years I found different ways of dealing with my mental illness. And yet no amount of therapy, medication, herbal supplements, lifestyle changes, and continued healing would take it away entirely.
But perhaps a new country might. Or so I had led myself to believe. I drank in the Instagram feeds that showed me colorful, perfectly posed views of this world and read the stories of people whose lives had been changed by setting foot on a new continent. I clung to the Pinterest quotes on wanderlust like they were living water sent to quench my unending thirst for being made new. I wanted a new country to fix my broken self. I wanted to step off the plane and transform into the woman of travel blogging fantasies. The woman I was assured I could be – all I had to do was go. But this was all a facade. A virtual reality.
The truth is that when I stepped off of that first plane in Iceland, I was exactly the same person. I was a still a woman with a broken past, healing and going after what she wanted in life but hindered by her mental illness. When I landed in Ireland, I was still a woman whose insecurity kept her from trying too many new things due to the fear of not being “good enough.” In Italy, I was still a woman who was fighting that crushing feeling of defeat that came with knowing nothing in life was going according to plan.
And when I walked the streets of Paris, I was still a woman who had to fight, each and every day, to open her eyes and rise up out of that bed and choose to live. Paris would not save me. As much as I wanted it to – as much as I hoped it would – there was no magic spell cast or Eat, Pray, Love moment that changed the way my brain functioned. I was still me.
I was disappointed in the fact that I was not able to simply enjoy the gift of travel that I had been given, but now I recognize that just because my experience was different than the socially expected norm – just because I didn’t fit into the mold of the “perfect” traveler – did not mean that I was failing, or that failure was even possible. The Eiffel Tower didn’t cause me to grin from ear to ear or prompt a perfectly posed photograph and it didn’t erase my sadness. But I kept going anyway. I kept venturing out even when my personal brand of traveling included just as many lows as highs, my sadness intertwined with happiness.
The next morning, I rose early and once again boarded the Metro, taking it to Le Marais to explore the district I had heard mentioned by so many. I found a small cafe away from the crowds because it’s easier for me to relax if there’s fewer people. I didn’t berate myself for this fact – I simply accepted it as what I needed. I sat down and ordered a Café au lait and, since they were out of croissants, the owner brought me half of a baguette. I was definitely not going to complain about being given a piece of bread as long as my forearm and instead slathered it in butter and strawberry jam and ate while silently watching people walk by.
It wasn’t a perfect moment, or even a perfect day. It would still involve finding myself a little lost and fighting off the unwanted advances of a man who thought helping me order tacos meant I would have sex with him in the back of the restaurant. It would still involve obsessively repeating the name of the Metro stop where I would get off of the train because I was terrified of missing it or looking like I didn’t know where I was going. But right then, I was sipping the best coffee I had ever had and the air wasn’t too cold and the buildings were beautiful and I was content to be on my own and enjoy my surroundings in the best way I could.
It’s been one year since I was sitting in that Parisian cafe, and it has taken this long for me to not look back on that trip with grief and regret in my heart. When I first came back to the States, the regret over the emotions I had no control over was enough to make me avoid discussing my trip with anyone. I am not really the person that they want to hear about traveling from, I thought to myself. I was convinced that my voice didn’t count since I didn’t fit into the mainstream mold. I thought that I would sound ungrateful and spoiled if I was honest about how difficult that journey really was for me. I felt like I had thrown away my chance of seeing the world, and wasted the experiences I did have. But my experience still means something, and my voice – all of our voices – are worthy of being heard.
I am living with depression and anxiety but the point is that I am still living.
I am still doing brave and beautiful things, conquering fears and following dreams and seeing the world exactly as I am. It doesn’t matter that there were some nights that I could have chosen to go out and see more of the city but instead stayed in my hostel, reading a book. It doesn’t matter that I could have fit more activities into my day but instead gave myself time to slow down and sit in a cafe for four hours because I needed to rest. The places I saw, the people I talked to, and the things I did were exactly what was right for me. Maybe not for someone else, but this is my story, and I have given myself the grace and space to live it the way I choose.
Maybe Paris didn’t fix what I saw as broken, but maybe that was because it didn’t need to be fixed. I may wish that depression and anxiety would no longer be a part of my story, but I know that I can keep on living, even with both of them present. I can explore, travel, dream, and adventure exactly as I am, in my own way. And I can have a hell of a time doing it, too.
So here’s to the travelers, the dreamers, the adventurers, who don’t fit the mold. Here’s to those of us living with mental illness and doing hard things anyway. Here’s to all of us who see the world on our own terms. May we never allow anyone else to cloud our stories or make us feel as if we have something to hide. May we choose to be ourselves and live, just as we are.
And if we find ourselves in Paris, staring up at the Eiffel Tower, may we recognize that whatever brought us there is a testament to our own strength and resilience and belief in the beauty of this world – and that is even more astounding than any landmark.