If I must be sad, I will be sad in Paris

Content note: I talk about depression and past suicidal thoughts in this one. If those aren’t safe subjects for you, it’s a great time to close the tab or try something else.

Early in my trip to Paris and Barcelona, I took the Metro from Montmartre to the center of the city. I sat by myself, watching the texture of the tunnel racing by and feeling how deeply sad I was. Unlike other depressed trips, trips I’d taken hoping for distraction and even managing it sometimes, it felt like different environments only made it purer, this distilled sadness washing over me, cold and astringent.

I laughed at myself a little, at the absurdity of being on an amazing trip I’d looked forward to for months and feeling like refried shit. It’s useful to be able to do this without thinking the harder feelings aren’t legitimate and real, but I’ve learned to, and I did that day. Sitting on the train, looking around at all the lovely people and their beautiful winter coats, heading between one place I loved and another, I knew that the weather in my brain was utterly absurd and utterly true.

It was then that I found my frequent mantra of the trip: if I’m going to be sad, I’d rather be sad in Paris. I could be sad on my couch, but instead I’m sad somewhere I adore where all my senses get fed. I have a less-glamorous version of it for home: if I’m going to be sad, I can do it while wearing clothes I don’t hate, while enjoying takeout from my local Thai place, while my hair is clean, while reading something good, while the floors are swept, while feeling a little soothed and seen. It still sucks, but it can suck marginally less with some effort, when I can spare it.

The Louis Vuitton store in Paris with a large sunburst decoration spanning one entire side of the building

At the moment, I assume that everyone is massively emotionally wounded in some way, and I have since roughly June 2020. I think people were largely doing not great, thanks in the beforetimes too, but after almost two entire goddamned years of downs and ups and downs, things opening and closing, good guidance and terrible, dreams deferred and altered and abandoned and resuscitated and held close and shoved away, no one’s ok. The depth of the wounds varies wildly, of course. Mine right now have to do with my scant handful of emotional outlets (dancing, readings, seeing art, trying to make more friends) suddenly being unavailable again after I’d become accustomed to some small liberties, to say nothing of the unaddressed damage of the last pandemic length of time.

And these things do not disappear simply because you choose to travel.

Like my time in New York this summer, this trip slipped into a tiny gap of space and possibility that I chanced into through stupid luck. This one landed neatly between “everybody get boosters” and “oh fuck, a new variant.” We left on November 25th; if it had been three or four weeks later, I think I would’ve canceled all of it. Instead, it was merely complicated. Instead, it was a few days into the trip, out of North America for the first time since my fairly disastrous 2019 trip, that I read that a new variant was rising, that the US was already issuing racist travel restrictions, that things were happening and the larger meaning and the effect on us remained unclear.

Running home didn’t seem wise. Instead, there was only to dive ahead with precautions.

A closeup of a small part of a Monet waterlilies painting with streaks of purple, brown, and green

But yes, as the prophet Adam Sandler explains in the video linked above, being in Paris and Barcelona didn’t change who I was and how I felt. I went to Europe and remained the same sad me who’s been circling the drain since March 2020, when the pandemic started and my cat died and other personal things went absolutely off the rails, when I wraithed around my apartment asking my partner over and over if this was the end of the fucking world.

He told me, with confidence I still do not share, that it was not.

In the months that followed, I became accustomed to everything being painful most of the time. First I lost my interest in cooking; later, I lost a lot of my interest in eating, a deeply surreal state. It didn’t mean I needed to eat less, but I lacked the energy to put any real force or interest behind it. Strangely, traveling did not entirely resuscitate this. I delighted at these fish-covered flatbreads in Barcelona we had for several meals; I bit into a ball of goat cheese like a creamy apple on the Île Saint-Louis; I remembered my love of those one-euro waffles you can get on Metro platforms in Paris and crunched my way across the city. Gratins and soupe l’oignon and pintxos and infinite croissants. I experienced brief moments of joy that were heavily enabled by old memories, and I considered that a victory.

I’ve been reluctant to talk or write much about this, since lots of people don’t have the cash for this kind of trip (as inexpensively as I try to travel and as much as we lucked out with relatively cheap direct flights) and my luck at slipping out just before another wave in 2021 was extraordinary. But the thing is: if you’re depressed at home, you’ll be depressed there too. And that’s ok! It’s still worth trying things and reminding yourself, however briefly, that being alive can be pretty fucking good.

In 2007, I embarked on what I called the Depression World Tour. It’s the last time I was what I think of as chemically depressed, though I’ve been situationally depressed a couple times since, including now. Working with a psychiatrist and trying to trick my brain into wanting to be alive via a series of medications, I decided the best thing I could do was hit the road for six weeks, my laptop and remote job in tow. It was actually a national tour, not a world tour: I saw friends in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York before visiting my family in Florida and New Orleans.

Sometimes I even kind of forgot that I’d spent the previous several months having visions of laying down in the grass and staying still for long enough that the rain would dissolve me. Or that I had to remind myself to wear a seat belt in cars because a part of me welcomed the risk. Friends and new places jostled my brain away from routine enough that the background noise of this living shit’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it got crowded out.

It worked until the flight home. I had a window seat and stared across the wing at the setting sun, and the feelings settled onto me like a wet wool blanket: heavy and total and like a dark hug. Ah yes, I thought. Here I am.

I got home, found the right antidepressant, and stayed on it for a year. The thoughts vanished. Better living through chemistry.

The interior of a Barcelona restaurant, with a hanging sculpture of a voluptuous woman dancing through the air

In this era, the feelings seem to stem from having survived via learned helplessness. I’m not an essential worker, so often my best contributions to things not being more terrible were donating money, tipping heavily, and staying the fuck home. I did this for long enough that I’ve lost some of my old skill for pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on, even in this era of laying low. I got some of that temporary agoraphobia that I know lots of people have experienced. Outside is bad. Inside is good. Ergo: stay inside, where it’s all predictable and safe. No room to thrash, no room to dream. Just put another episode of the show du jour on.

My entire adult life has been predicated on wanting more, and suddenly it was actually dangerous to do so. It’s had effects on me that I’ll be unraveling for a long time.

And, of course, it makes travel difficult because travel is only about uncertainty and trusting that you’ll be ok. Pushing back against a language you don’t know to find an understood shared space, pushing back against the unfamiliar to go boldly forward and experience wonderful new things, pushing back against homesickness with the confidence to believe that worthwhile living is on the other side.

For the last two years, that hasn’t been true. We’ve all been wading through life that’s tepid at best, a horror at worst, assuring ourselves that continuing to be alive is worthwhile and all this living shit actually is worth it.

It took me two weeks, but I think I came to believe it again.

We spent five nights in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then another three in Paris before our flight out. At the end of the first Paris segment, I sat in the bed of the adorable Montmartre Airbnb, crying and feeling a weight on my chest because I was doing this wrong.

Quick aside: you can’t do this wrong. It’s not possible. You can have a bad vacation; I certainly have. Still, the only real risk is being a shitty guest somewhere you’re visiting. You can’t do vacation wrong.

But I sat there in the adorable bed nook beneath a robin’s-egg-blue duvet that matched the cabinets and curtains, and I knew that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had managed a thing or two per day – this museum, that meal, trying to see and do things without asking too much of myself – but it wasn’t enough. Paris is my favorite place in the world, and I was trudging. I knew I was trudging. Everything hurt, and I was just passing through, like a pale visitor in my own life.

When I get these big feelings that I want to turn on myself like a weapon, I try to make the feelings into specifics. What did I think I should be doing, since apparently I wasn’t doing it? I made myself list all the things I hadn’t done that suddenly weighed on me: a street art walk through Montmartre, another walking tour, Sainte-Chapelle, a proper fromagerie visit, more vin chaud, Pere LaChaise, one of those zoo lights things that are everywhere now, walking along the Seine, the thumb at La Défense. A lot for two days! But I promised myself I’d come back and do everything I wanted until it stopped being fun.

Tall stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with part of the altar in the foreground

Part of the problem was that I’d lacked the ability to plan properly before we left. All I’d managed to do were the obvious time-sensitive bookings: the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Sagrada Familia. All these top-billed things, but none of the stuff that I usually ended up thinking about after a trip, the small random joys I linger on as I ease back into my life. And without a plan and something to work toward, I felt like I was squandering this thing I’d longed for.

And I spent two joyful, madcap days in Paris when I got back. One day I walked more than 15 miles. I zoomed back and forth across the city in a way I’d never recommend to anyone else but which felt like freedom. I saw centuries-old stained glass and said hello to Oscar Wilde. Illuminated, articulated tardigrades. Wheat pastes decorating apartment building walls and bulletholes from the liberation of Paris. Finally, just in time for all the panic of getting home, I remembered how to feel open and safe – at least for an hour or two at a time.

I’ve tried to keep it with me as I return to my life, but it’s been hard. Going out dancing (vaccines and masks required, bless San Francisco) had become a regular catharsis, but less than a week after I got home, that began to feel unsafe too. Masks required but not entirely enforced inside; rising omicron rates; the ongoing threat of long covid; the fear of possibly giving it to one of the scant handful of people I see in person. I’ve shuttered myself inside again.

An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a figure with arms, legs, a large mouse head with red eyes, and a little horn-shaped musical instrument

It’s better than the terrible 2020 months of the pandemic era because I am mostly alone, because I know these steps, because I know how to get regular exercise without the safe option of a gym, because I know where the armor starts to buckle and how to address it when it comes up (and it will again). And because I have more recent memories of eating a galette along the Seine and watching people walk and bike by, of dancing on a goth boat in Paris (yes), of seeing 400-year-old costume sketches at the Louvre and being totally enchanted by this cartoonist of yore, of lighted creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, of good meals, of the winding streets in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, of laughing like a stupid child at caganers, of seeing the Mediterranean beneath our plane, of deciphering the constantly evolving graffiti in Gràcia, of long train rides and easy Metro connections, of other ways to be. Of life sparkling again, just for a little while, and of that sparkle happening because I made it happen.

They’re distant again, but they aren’t gone. I’m contained again, but I’m not dead, and I don’t want to be.


Large illuminated lanterns in the shape of jellyfish and other sea creatures

Travel, like other big experiences, gets enjoyed in stages. There’s planning, which I largely missed this trip. There’s the relatively brief period of actually experiencing it. And, after that, the memory, the longest stage, and the one worth optimizing for, if I have to choose one. I knew, sitting on that train and feeling my heavy, lonely heart, that when I thought of the trip later, I’d feel happy. “If you’re going to be depressed, kid, you’ve picked a great place for it,” I thought. I laughed, wrote in my journal some, and set off into the future, where those memories are sustaining me now that I’m an indoor cat again.

The trip was never going to be anything but a mindfuck, and it delivered. But it delivered on everything else too, so even though I cried, even though I wrestled with deep and difficult feelings, even though everything was twice as hard as I remember it being for the intrepid traveler I used to be, it was worth it.

The thing for me to remember: it is almost always incredibly worth it. And when that falters? It’s still pretty good.