A certain slant of light

My goodness me, it’s been nine whole months since I flew back to London from Japan. This was not my plan. I was supposed to be in Mexico by now. But as you’ll probably have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my life quite frequently deviates from the plans I make for it. Over the last two years I’ve become more and more firmly convinced that I don’t really need to plan anything at all (beyond visas and meals), because most of my richest experiences and fondest memories are the ones I didn’t script in advance.

Unfortunately, the last few months of my life have been rather short on rich experiences and fond memories. You’ll have been wondering, I’m sure, why I haven’t been blogging so diligently since I got home, and what the story was with this mysterious ‘health condition’ that’s kept me grounded for so long. The answer is, I’ve been depressed. Perhaps I should have just told everyone from the outset, but it’s rather a difficult thing to admit to. No one gives you ‘get well’ cards when you’re depressed.

Depression, in its several forms, is actually a fairly common aftermath to a journey like mine, and explorers are starting to relax their stiff upper lips and to be more frank about this hidden sting in the tale. Rob Lilwall writes that he feared falling into despair in the months after finishing his ride home from Siberia. Juliana Buhring admits to suffering from depression after her record-breaking circumnavigation last year. Several other people I’ve spoken to, on and off the record, tell me they’ve had similar experiences.

Somehow though, being in such illustrious company doesn’t make it any easier. The last few months have been extremely difficult, in ways that I still find it hard to explain or even articulate. Now that the tide’s finally going out, I look back at the way I’ve felt and behaved and I barely understand it myself. It’s what Emily Dickinson describes as “the Distance / On the look of Death” – the sense of something so awful (in all senses of the word) that it can only be understood when in the midst of it, yet only articulated from a safe distance.

But I don’t want to talk too much about all the details and symptoms of depression – partly because my recovery is still ongoing, and I want it to be a private rather than a public process; partly because there’s actually an awful lot to be said about depression, and I want to limit (or at least pace) myself, otherwise I’ll end up writing too much (you’ll have noticed I do that, when I get my teeth into an idea), and turning this into a mental health blog (and there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that, but I wanted to be a travel writer). I think one of the many reasons that I haven’t been able to write for the past few months has been my unwillingness to make this depression part of my story by talking about it. You’ll know, from previous posts, how eager I am always to tell a good story, and also how inherently suspicious I am of ‘good’ stories, and how I like to pull them apart in search of more interesting ones.

But there’s more to writing than just recording and reiterating. Writing doesn’t just document reality – it also changes it. Consider this beautiful passage:

Writing is alchemy. Dross becomes gold. Experience is transformed. Pain is changed. Suffering may become song. The ordinary or horrible is pushed by the will of the writer into grace or redemption, a prophetic wail, a screed for justice, an elegy of sadness or sorrow. It is the lone and lonesome human voice, naked, raw, crying out, but hidden too, muted, twisted and turned, knotted or fractured, by the writer’s love of form, or formal beauty: the aesthetic dimension, which is not necessarily familiar or friendly. Nor does form necessarily tame or simplify experience. There is always a tension between experience and the thing that finally carries it forward, bears its weight, holds it in.

(It was written by Andrea Dworkin, but I didn’t want to tell you that before you read it, because people are so often put off by her reputation.)

I was suspicious of trying to turn the raw and ugly horror of depression into prose, of combing it out into its constituent thoughts, of arranging it into polished sentences, coupling them neatly together with commas and semi-colons and garnishing my efforts with an aphorism or two – in short, of writing a redemption and a resolution that I couldn’t yet feel. Depression is a monster and a nightmare, and it can’t be tamed with words – or anything else for that matter. I was also, for a long time, simply unable to step far enough back from my depression to be able to look at it critically, and think about how I might express it. Some of that suspicion remains. After all, no one ever really solves depression – they just find a way out of it. I can’t make sense of it by writing about it.

Language has its limits – I know that now. But, as Dworkin observes, it also holds phenomenal transformative power. I discovered this three years ago, when I started telling people I was planning to leave on September the 1st to cycle round the world, and suddenly it became reality; a thing that was going to happen, rather than a daydream. So despite my scepticism that I could write my way out of this hole, and my deep reluctance to talk to the whole world about what’s been going on in my head, words are probably the way forward. I worry that writing about my depression will make it more real – will inscribe it as a part of myself and my story that I’d rather censor or ignore – but I’m also now sure that writing about something is my surest way of changing it, of turning suffering into song, of exploiting that very productive tension that Dworkin describes between experience and aesthetic form, of growing, of pushing and pulling myself forward, of becoming better.

You’ll know though, if you’ve experienced depression yourself (and a lot of people do these days) the deep ambivalence one feels in sharing it with the world. You know, somehow, that honesty is the best policy, but you’re also terrified of what people might think when you tell them. Afraid that they’ll consider you weak; that they’ll reject you; that they’ll tell you you should just cheer up (as if you hadn’t thought of that). This fear can be one of the major barriers to recovery.

I’m reading a book called Depressive Illness: The curse of the strong. (Written by psychiatrist Dr Tim Cantopher; it’s short, and designed to be readable even by people who are seriously ill. If you’d like to borrow it, and live anywhere in or near London, drop me a line, and I’ll deliver it in person.) It’s proving helpful in many ways, but its main argument, as you’ll have guessed from the title, is that depression is an illness that afflicts the strong, not the weak, and arises from the body’s limbic system (which normally regulates mood, among other things) breaking down as a result of repeated stress – and the stronger the person, the more stress they’ll take on, and the less willing they’ll be to back down and take a break when things get hard.

I refused to believe I was depressed for a very long time (most of the  past year), and even once I’d admitted it (someone sent me a checklist of symptoms, and I had all but one of them), I still foolishly thought that if I just kept going with everything, and refused to give it any attention, eventually I could conquer my depression through sheer strength of will, and make it go away. This didn’t work. I’m reminded of words I wrote myself, almost a year ago, and which apparently I still have yet to take fully to heart: “There are enough stories of triumph and bravery, and I’m disinclined to write another one. Let this one be a tale of failure and cowardice if it needs to.” Yes indeed.

Of course, there is a middle ground between triumph and failure, bravery and cowardice, and that’s where I am now. I am better – ‘better’ being a relative term: not as ill as I was; not as well as I will be, but moving steadily along from the former towards the latter.

So where now? Well, I’ll be staying in the UK for the next year or so, taking advantage of some opportunities that have come up here, and trying to take care of myself a bit better than I have been. I still plan to cycle the Americas – in fact, I really can’t wait – and I still have over half of the funds I started with (for some reason it’s very important to me that people don’t think I quit because of financial mismanagement), so that looks certain to happen, as soon as the moment’s right.

In the meantime, I have a lot of regrouping to do. Around the time I flew back from Japan I broke my nose, a tooth, my camera, my kindle, my headtorch and various other expensive, hard-to-replace things, and a few months later (deep breath), I crashed in London and wrote off my touring bike (proving my oft-repeated argument that couriering is more detrimental to bikes and kit than any other wheel-based activity). At the time, I felt dolefully as if the literal falling-apart of my life was mirroring what was going on psychologically. But now I’m almost back to normal, and remember that starting from scratch is something I’ve done before, and am unafraid of, and by now pretty good at. It’ll be fun putting it all back together again.

So, I’m back. I’ll start blogging again. (Now I’ve got this difficult post out of the way, I’ll hopefully find I have a lot to say again, and if nothing else, I don’t want this sitting on the front page for too long.) If you’ve sent me an email over the last few months, you can now expect a response in the not-too-distant future (sorry about that). And if you were wondering where I was – I was here all along.

Leave a Comment

51 Comments

  1. Posted October 21, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Excellent writing as usual Emily, I’m sorry to hear about your struggles but I’m glad you’re coming to terms with them! Best of luck with your next adventures, and I hope you do join us back on the road someday not too far away!

  2. jan
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Good luck…and get well! All the best from Vienna.

  3. Zero
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Welcome back! I’m sheltering from the rain whilst waiting for work here in Manchester, and you have just cheered me up no end! It really doesn’t seem to matter what you write about – it’s always a joy to read.
    If depression really is such a common experience amongst travellers, then it is something that a travel writer should address. Either that or you start a separate blog: thatdeppressedchick.com!

  4. Posted October 22, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Welcome back, I for one have missed your words. The second of my followed bloggers to suffer with depression. Interesting to see that you both stopped blogging for a while then returned at a point in the recovery process. Take care of yourself

  5. Posted October 22, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily,
    Welcome back!
    A beautifully written post as always.
    And honest, as always.
    Well done for being brave and open and writing this. Did you read Sarah Outen’s very similar post a year or so ago?
    Al

  6. Val
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Emily it is so brave of you to post this blog. I was worried about you so I am happy that you are feeling well enough to start writing again and hopefully also to start riding again. I wish you the best on your recovery.

  7. Abdul Rauf
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily.
    I was so anxiously looking for your posts, they have always been very rich and inspiring for me to get on two wheels- never let it stop.
    Have a speedy recovery and best of luck for your journeys ahead.

  8. Precious
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    I’ve read all of your blogs over the last 2 weeks (fast reader and dying for an adventure!) – both as a Bike Courier and World Traveller and have found them amazingly motivational! I’m based in London (right next to Brixton Cycles as it were!) and would love to bribe you with cake and tea to hear more about your adventures. Any advice would be very, very well appreciated

    Thank you for the inspiration x

  9. Ally
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Your post brought tears to my eyes because I could relate so much.

    Trust me, writing does help. It’s scary, but cathartic……and it helps others more than you know.

    You’re a great writer, such a beautifully written post.

  10. Posted October 23, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    What a brave, interesting and eloquent piece of writing. I have yet to be publicly open about my experience with depression and I commend you for being so honest about yours. It’s inspiring to feel that you are not alone in having felt this way. I hope that you feel much better soon. I’m so sure that you will, and I don’t even know you.

  11. mike
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    beautifully written, as always. Tough content though, and horrid to think of what you’ve been going through over the last n months since we did gin n cake in London last year.

    Fancy a brew and a bike ride? I have nothing to offer except a firm handshake, plummy accent and general platitudes, but it’d be fun to catch up and talk nonsense!

    mike

  12. Don
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m not quite sure how to express how good it is to read something from you again, albeit on a difficult subject. Having children was the only thing that could lift me out of several years of dragging ‘blueness’. I sincerely hope your writing will do the same for you.

    And if and when your cycling adventure re-starts I’ll be following avidly as before.

    Best wishes,
    Don

  13. David
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    :-)

  14. Malcolm
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    It’s great to hear your voice again. So sorry to hear of your illness. i have found that meditation and cycling and writing all help, although they don’t cure. Good luck
    Malcolm

  15. Clarion
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you.

    That’s a very honest and open post, and, yes, I do know how it feels, as do so many suffering in silence, as you say.

    Consider this the Get Well Soon card you say no one gets.

  16. Stephanie
    Posted October 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    I wish I were as eloquent as you so I could let you know how deeply touched I am by this piece. But I’m not, so I’ll leave it at this:

    You write beautifully. Prayers and kind thoughts from Cebu, Philippines. :)

    Stephanie

  17. Tom Adshead
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post – beautifully written as always. Depression runs (walks? skulks?) in my family, and if I had read more descriptions of what it is like to be depressed, I could have helped everyone a lot more over the years.
    I had an epiphany when I read David Foster Wallace’s description of it in “Infinite Jest” and if you write about depression, then someone else will have a similar epiphany when they read your words, too. Depression is the defining disease of our age, and the more people know about it, the better we will be at dealing with it.

  18. Tony
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Very sorry to hear what you have been through Emily but it is fantastic to have your blog to read again. I can’t count how many times I have clicked on that link only to be firstly disappointed and secondly disturbed to find no new post. Welcome back and thanks for the post.

  19. James Leitch
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    your return to posting has certainly uplifted my spirits, I wish I could return the favour, thank you. It’s good to see you back.

  20. fluff
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    beautiful emily! you’re more of an inspiration every day. big love from kathmandu.

  21. Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Best wishes for a full and speedy recovery. The phenomenon of post adventure depression. Not something I have read about before. Seems like an ideal topic for a chapter or two.

  22. Duncan
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I stumbled across your blog and have been enthralled over the past few days, particularly …
    “there are thousands and millions of other people like this – like me – in towns I’ve never heard of, in countries I haven’t yet visited, going round to each other’s houses, cooking and eating and drinking together, chatting about what went on at work that day, clowning around and laughing at each other, reminiscing about the past and making plans for the future”
    So true and so easy to forget, All the best and thanks Emily.

  23. Richard Tiller
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Tims book was the start of my recovery process. Only when I read it did I realise the depth of my condition and how I’d got there. It was a massive revalation that other people shared the same issues as I, and understood in some way.
    There’s no one fix but many contribute in the process. Although you’re not travelling, you’re still on a journey. It’s not about the destination.
    * hugs *

    RT

  24. Brian
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Welcome back Emily – have missed your words and wisdom. As someone who has been battling through depression myself over the past few months, your words really did resonate with me. Reading about your travels was something that really helped my recovery process – as did purchasing Alastairs travel books, purely from the positive things you’ve said about him. I especially liked the part about depression being an affliction of the strong….. I’d never looked it things that way and looking at aspects of my life over the past 10 years, I can see where that comes from.

    Take care and keep getting better.

  25. Ed
    Posted November 2, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Great to have you back. Although I have no experience with depression your outlook on life is mightily impressive. There’s too much routine in this world. Don’t ever stop!

  26. Kira
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Emily hi, it’s normally when cycling around London that I think to remind myself to check back here to see if there is a post, so it was wonderful on returning home today to read this post, and on a day that began with a conversation admitting my own haunting depression. So I related but also I felt for you. It’s brave of your to write about it, to open it up here on your blog, but I also appreciate your need for privacy. Great reading that stunning Dworkin quote, gave me food for thought. You’re always welcome in Deptford for coffee and cake.

  27. Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily, does community help or hinder relinquishment of depression? I wish that you will find a way back to your process.
    Andy

  28. Posted November 5, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Really great to hear from you again Emily. I have missed your writing – always eloquent and thought provoking.

    Of the many bike touring blogs I have followed, yours was the major influence in me now finding myself in western china 14,000km from home.

    An inspiration. Wishing you all the best.

    JP

  29. E
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your post and book recommendation. I hope that writing is as helpful (or even more so) to you as reading both of these has been to me.

  30. MuleManning
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily, glad your posting again, my curiosity got the better of me and I did ask on LFGSS about the latest gap in posts. Hope you weren’t offended by the invasion into your privacy and my apologies if you were!

    It’s a shame to hear that your depressed. I hope you keep making progress and if you ever need the kind words of a fan I would be honored to oblige

    Stay safe
    Stu :)

    Ps I don’t think any of your readers would begrudged shameless self promotion of your talks 😉

  31. Andrew Rutherford
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    glad to hear its getting more into your control now despite the bumps, bruises, breaks and busted bike.
    I have read lots of stories of people settig off and cycling the world and the universal truth from all of them is that its not the cycling or the adversity that is the challenge but that something inside themselves. Discovery, understanding, despair, all mixed together to make the person that chose to discover themselves. That is the hardest journey clearly and it is part of the story too.
    I am glad though to hear you are lifting your head again and yes having spent years swimming in various seas of depression words can be transformative.
    go girl!

  32. Posted November 12, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure you know, but it’s always hard to face, that censoring and ignoring only leads to repeating what you’d rather not. Speaking, or writing, making it real, is possibly the only real way to stop it. Defining, delineating, making clear what is unclear has been my only way of coping when things went to pot since before I knew what “coping” was.

    Not sure if you’ve read this before but here’s another awesome attempt at bringing out what was breaking down. http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html

  33. RobH
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Good to see you writing again Emily, take care of yourself.

  34. Richard
    Posted November 16, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I have checked in on your blog for a while, but I wish you a well in your recovery.

    Depression is a horrible hole, once you are in it there appears to be no way out. Hopefully with the support of your family and friends you will find the way to climb out of that hole.

    I look forward to your future posts

  35. Posted November 17, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Miss Emily! We talk about you all the time and send you our loving! What a brave blog and what an incredible woman you are. Enough said. Now, when are we gonna have that Corona together? We catch the ferry from LaPaz to Mazatlan today. Wanna meet on the coast at Puerta Vallarta for Christmas? Big lovings to you. Always remember that, regardless of what is going on inside your head, inside the minds of everyone you meet is a mountain of inspiration created by you. xxx

  36. qudsia
    Posted November 18, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Hey sweetie. Lots of love coming your way. Take good care of yourself. You’re never far from my thoughts. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I so know what you mean when you talk about depression. We’ve all been there, and scared. Xoxo.

  37. Steve Rowley
    Posted November 19, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Glad you’re back!

  38. Posted November 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    I have been following your blog for quite a while and it’s no secret to say you were one of my initial inspirations for my own trip. I think you are very brave to admit to depression, it is still very much an illness that few understand and it was also the very reason I began my own journey.

    I hope you return to complete your travels, you write so well and eloquently that yours has become one of my favorite blogs. Good luck from a fellow RTW’er.

    Derek

  39. Bert
    Posted November 24, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Good to hear something from you again Emily, and good luck with everything!!

  40. Mary
    Posted November 24, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I’ve been checking in periodically to see if you had abandoned your task, abandoned your blog or for any news at all. I’m glad you’re feeling better and look forward to more of your writing.

  41. Posted November 24, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Oh yes, i know this deep hole well enough. After coming back to Vienna from the first leg of my cycling-trip to Asia, i didn’t get out of the house for weeks. It took me three months to get back on track, and only because i started working again… But always remember – you’ll start to feel better eventually!

    Totally unrelated – we just finished the KKH 2 weeks ago – well, at least the parts that are still open to solo travellers. Sost to Gilgit that is. And it was like a sunday afternoon ride, with fantastic tarmac all the way, a lot easier than your experience.
    From Gilgit to Mansehra the police put us in the 17h bus convoi. Finally from Mansehra to Islamabad we had a police escort following us and a guard with a machine gun posted in front of our hotel room*. Not much left of the challenging adventure i’ve been dreaming about for years :-( Still the landscape was impressive, and it’s a very peaceful place.

    *No threat whatsoever though, just police commanders fearing to be hold responsible _if_ something happens.

  42. Susie
    Posted November 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Welcome back to the blog Emily.

    We have missed you and your insight – and although I HAVE seen you since your return, not nearly enough. I hope I can sort out life so that it becomes easier for us to catch up a bit more often!

    This post, although it must have been challenging to write, is a great one – your honesty and willingness to shine a light on what must be a relatively common experience is much welcomed.

    xxxx

  43. Posted December 1, 2013 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    I just read about you in The Bugle and was going to see if I could invite you to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as you rode through North America. Sorry to hear that you’ve changed your plans. Would have loved to meet you. We’ll leave the invite open, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

    Jeff Della Penna
    104 – A East Barcelona Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505 USA (505) 231-5039

  44. Sleastie
    Posted December 11, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Delighted to see you are back and writing, and well done for being brave and writing this post. I have had many many pleasant evenings reading through your blog backwards, forwards and sideways this year, and I was concerned at what might have happened. All ready for more when you are.

  45. Jacqueline
    Posted December 14, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily,
    good to read your words again, I’ve missed them for a long time and even stopped looking at your blog. You are an inspiration the way you put your ideas and actions in words, thank you for that! I wish you a good and warm time, all the best Jacqueline

  46. Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    I hope you’re feeling better. I realize you didn’t finish your unicycle journey overseas. But that’s not the only thing/cycling that defines you. Remember that. Hope your pains will go away eventually.

    I was quite chilled when I discovered that another blogger-cyclist-traveller in Ottawa area, committed suicide this summer. She and I commented on each other’s blog casually. We never knew each other at all. She seemed to be such a go-getter but it masked her difficulties with her boyfriend who didn’t understand for travel (which some of it was solo) and he broke off from her. …

    Hope you don’t travel down that path. Hope you get together with a friend or so for the holidays.

  47. David
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Merry Christmas, Emily! :-)

  48. Joop
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Hello Emily,

    I hope you can enjoy Christmas and i wish you all the best and hopefully good travels in the next year.

  49. Posted December 27, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Emily, a great post, beautifully written, about a difficult subject.

    Bravery has a million forms and sometimes just getting through each day takes an immense amount of it.

    A million best wishes from someone who has been not where you are but in very deep dark places of my own. I would second meditation as a very useful tool to aid recovery.

  50. Sara
    Posted December 31, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Emily, I am sorry you are fighting depression. I have struggled with depression since I was young. It is easier to talk about past episodes, but not so easy to talk about when I am struggling with it. I am planning my own tour and am currently struggling with depression. The tour is kind of my bucket list item…which in some ways frightens me. It is my goal, my reason to get up, and I do worry about how I will feel when return. I think there is a part of me that wants the open road to heal me, and I am worried about coming back just as depressed but now without a reason to get up. I suppose I will continue telling myself to stop worrying about days that are yet to come and just survive this one.

    I hope you are doing better mentally and physically. You have inspired me to venture off as a lone female on my own tour. And with this post, you have given me a helpful warning/reminder to keep watch for signs of depression when I return…and I should be braver and ask for help. I too try to conquer my depression through strength of will while knowing I am only treading water and won’t seek help until I know I am drowning. It feels pathetically stubborn and yet I continue. It is frustrating to know depression, to know it lies, to understand it in all logical ways, and believe it anyway.

  51. Rocio
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Dear Emily, so happy to read you again! I didn`t know what to think anymore about you disappearing so suddenly…I think putting yourself out there like you do and talking about what you have been through so honestly, with all the good and the bad, is very brave actually! I just wanted to tell you that your front panniers are now touring in Indonesia! You have been back for 9 months already, 9 month is a new birth! Recover soon! Huge hug!