Berlins and Outs,  Feeeeelings

Let’s talk about depression and bicycles

I was biking home from the doctor’s office yesterday when I heard church bells loud and clear in an otherwise secular neighborhood full of restaurants and bars. I turned a corner and saw the church. It was a cathedral with a small courtyard containing a statue and two tall stone bell towers. As I pedaled past, I saw a child, no more than six, back to the street, staring up at the church, entranced. The adult standing beside them waited nonchalantly, eyes on the cell phone in their hands. I continued down the street and a small dog with auburn and white fur and a curled tail turned from the storefront where its owner was presumably shopping and started howling at the church. The bells were still chiming out over the neighborhood catching my attention, that child’s attention, and a dog’s attention, if no one else’s.

The scene made me smile, and chuckle a little. I felt happy to be alive in that place and time, sharing in a child’s wonder, amused by a cute dog. I have to be present when I’m riding my bike so I don’t take a wrong turn or get hit by a car or crash into a pedestrian. But paying attention to my surroundings for safety’s sake has the invaluable side effect of making me feel alive and in the moment in a way that I rarely do.

After a month of hosting visitors at our apartment in Berlin, this week has been a bit of a reality check. I have to start the third draft of my book, and get back into practicing German, and take a hard look at our finances. So, of course, my depression decided to flare up this week.

I feel weird saying I have depression or anxiety. Those feel like big diagnoses for my comparatively small problems so I tend to not claim those terms or talk about my mental health in that way… Which is sort of silly considering I take two medications daily to manage my mental health. But here’s how my inner monologue tends to go: The doses on my meds are super low and I know people with much more severe depression and doesn’t it trivialize their illness for me to have the same thing? I used to tell my therapist I didn’t think I was sick enough to deserve all the help I had access to.

She would reply, “so you think you should have waited until you were sicker before you sought help? You hear how that doesn’t make sense, right?” She was a little sassy sometimes. We got along pretty well.

These days when my depression is bad, it mostly manifests as a malaise. I’m disinterested in everything. I wake up in the morning and lie in bed and think, gosh, nothing sounds worth getting up for. It’s not an I-have-nothing-to live-for feeling. I have thankfully never had suicidal thoughts. It’s just a numbness. And the fact that I have an amazing life makes it worse because my logical brain starts yelling at my emotional brain that I’m being a horrible, ungrateful person for not appreciating every moment.

Malaise can also make small tasks feel insurmountable. And it’s compounded by the anxiety I sometimes feel over doing literally anything I’ve never done before. This includes fun stuff like going to a new coffee shop. What if the menu is only in German or I can’t find a place to sit or the waiter laughs at me? I become physically afraid of the potential for uncomfortable social interactions. I need to have a plan for every new experience I decide to undertake.

And it sucks because I love to travel, which is basically all new experiences. I once told E that what I wanted from my life was to see new things, eat new foods, and stand in new places, as often as possible. So this anxiety over simple things frustrates me. It doesn’t feel like me or the version of myself I aspire to be.

What does all of this have to do with biking? Well, yesterday I overslept and when I went to take my medications I realized I was going to run out of one of them over the weekend. I had noticed this a couple days ago, but then forgot about it. The doctor’s office was open until noon so there was plenty of time to get there and get a prescription but I hadn’t been planning on doing that. It threw me off and felt really challenging to leave the apartment and bike to the doctor’s. We moved at the start of August so this would be a new bike route I’d never taken before. My logical brain knows that biking makes me feel good but my emotional brain gets hung up on the handful of bad experiences I’ve had biking. It says, what if this is a bad bike ride and you end up in an even worse mood? Better to not risk it.

I sat on the couch with a cup of coffee as E got ready for work and considered not telling him I was almost out of meds. I could pretend I didn’t realize until it was too late and put off having to go to the doctor’s office. If I told him, he would make me do it, because he’s supportive like that. I told him.

“What can I do to help you get this done?” he asked. “You could leave the house at the same time as me,” he suggested. But I wasn’t mentally prepared to leave the house yet. It wasn’t part of the plan. I hated that I was so tied to the plan. I just wanted to drink my coffee and sit on the couch and hide from the world. Instead I updated the plan.

“I just want to drink my coffee and then I’ll head out around 10:15.” I told E. He said okay and left for work. I didn’t end up leaving the house until 10:45, but I still made it to the doctor’s office before they closed and asked for a new prescription (in German, I might add), and I got to bike through a new neighborhood. Berlin isn’t a city that’s known for it’s canals, but there are several – all of them with parks running alongside – and my route unexpectedly took me through one. Berlin is good at green space and it was nice to see more of it.

Getting a prescription is a very small task, but I have to celebrate stupid shit like that because it’s hard to accomplish anything when I’m depressed. And really I accomplished so much more than that. I biked six miles, and I noticed my surroundings, and I felt happy and whole and inspired to write this post.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

One Comment

  • stace

    Emma, this was excellent. It’s so good to see you writing again. This piece was very well planned out, interestingly descriptive,
    and sweet at the same time. I never heard you talk about any of this before, so was proud you took it on so bravely. And I found it clever how you combined it with something that can be a cure for these particular everyday ailments, and so much more. Exploring on adventurous treks is a cure for most anything, I think. That’s why we try to do it daily. It sounds like you have a handle on this tiny obstacle in your life. We all have something.
    But not everyone has the creative insight, or the support you have to assist as tackle such things. Hang in there girlie, and never let malaise stop you from walking out that door. Sending love~

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