Depression Riding Shotgun

I was seconds away from buying the soonest plane ticket from Fiumicino to JFK, instead of my long-awaited flight to Dublin.

I had been living as a student in Rome for nearly five months, and I could not stand it any longer.  I wanted to go home.

It wasn’t that I was homesick.  It was that I had no will to live.

I was sitting in my shared apartment, face fresh with tears, staring into the harsh glow of my laptop screen, and wishing I had listened to my psychiatrist when he had warned me, back in New York, that I was not ready to be travelling abroad.

Everything up until that moment – the confusing Roman tram rides, walks through ambling cobblestone streets, and nights spent sipping watered-down limoncello alone – felt like a huge mistake.

In the end, it came down to what was practical.  I compared the price of a trip from Rome to Dublin, and then how much a flight from JFK to Dublin would cost if I ever wanted to attempt the trip at a later date.

It was decided.  I would stay in Rome for the rest of the semester, so I could fly to Dublin at the end of the month.  Otherwise, chances were, I would miss my opportunity to ever visit Ireland in my lifetime.

I am aware that this sounds like the most privileged conundrum a person could have – Dublin or New York?  Not to mention that I’d already travelled all over Europe for those last couple months.  I was in an extraordinary position.  I was nineteen years old.  I was living in Rome.  I had the funds to travel to London, Venice, Milan, Zurich, and Prague.  I was studying art in Italy for fuck’s sake.

I was also miserable for nearly every single second of it.

I’m still ashamed to admit to it.  I’m unable to meet people’s excitement when they ask to know how study abroad was, let alone justify my lack of enthusiasm.

The truth is, I travelled abroad while clinically depressed, and I have absolutely no idea how to explain that to anyone.

What people don’t understand, is that Eat Pray Love is a fucking myth.  The Lizzie McGuire Movie – as near and dear as it is to my heart – is completely outlandish.  There are no Disney moments in real life.  Places are just places.  They have no magic.  When you go there, you bring your own problems with you.  You experience new things, and you can let those things change you – but that is entirely dependent on you.

There is no denying that what I had was a once-in-a-life-time experience.  But that doesn’t necessarily imply that it was a good one.  The fact was, I was severely depressed, and the decision to study abroad in Rome for over five months meant that I was also making a choice to go untreated for all that time.  Believe it or not, moving to a new country, going to classes with new peers, and attempting to learn a new curriculum isn’t exactly a cure-all when it comes to mental illness.

While I was living over there, steadily slipping deeper into self-destruction and suicidal ideation, I had a lot of well-meaning people telling me that I just needed to get out more.  Go on more adventures.  Try to make new friends.  Meanwhile, I didn’t feel safe in my own apartment.  I dreaded going to class each day.  I lay awake in bed each night, and entertained thoughts of how I would prefer my roommates to discover my dead corpse.

There are no simple solutions when you are living with mental illness.  Depression cannot be cured with plane tickets, or visits to Roman museums.  It cannot be put at ease by long walks by ancient aqueducts, or quaint visits to cafes to read books.

Why the fuck should it?

If you are living with a mental illness, I want you to know that it is not your fault that you are not “better”.  Progress is slow, and to anyone else, it might look like a series of failures.  But fuck anyone else.  Don’t get better for them.  Get better for you.  The fact is, you are never going to be your “best” self.  Throughout your life, you are going to have to constantly maintain yourself, change, and grow.  It won’t ever be easy.

But it will get easier.

I want you to know that I am proud to have stayed alive long enough to make it to Ireland.  Despite everything I’d been through up until that point, it wound up being one of the most rejuvenating, incredible experiences of my life.

But I want to share with you a little secret.

It had nothing to do with Ireland.

It had everything to do with the fact that I had learned how to be by myself; and how to be happy with myself.

I am still learning how to be happy with myself.  It’s a process.  Not a goal that you attain once, and then is solved forever.  Life cannot be won like a video game.

I’m sorry that I can’t tell you my solution; I wish I could tell you I travelled Europe with my depression riding shotgun, and lived to tell the tale.  But this isn’t a Disney channel movie, and life still goes on after our happy ending rolls the credits.

That’s okay.  Because when places have no magic, that means we make our own; and have been, in fact, for our entire lives.  It means we are making our life happen, rather than the other way around.

We just have to make a little more magic.

Want to become involved in the arts? contribute to my thesis film!

Shai Cotten