I have just a few hours left of my 21st year. It is wrapping itself up. Loose ends are tying themselves, the curtain is closing, the finish line is approaching, etc etc. Looking back all I can think about how it was one of the most intense years yet. And on top of that, all I can think is that every year has felt like the most intense one yet. When it all comes down to it, I am just grateful to have lived another year. This particular year was more painful than previous ones. I am in the mid morning of adulthood and the sun is fully up and with that, nothing is hidden anymore. The chemical imbalances in my brain really showed themselves this year. A whirlwind move back from Europe to a city I’ve always known but never lived in threw me into an extremely strange process of unlearning and learning a new place at the same time, while simultaneously trying to understand myself after a year of ineffable change and regain some kind of footing financially.
On the night of my 21st birthday I was at one of my favorite bars in Berlin with a tall, slyly smiling boy I met in German class and after telling the bartender that it was my 21st birthday, he replied in an adorable british accent, “On my 21st birthday I drank whiskey alone and cried, so let’s drink whiskey together and not cry!” And proceeded to provide us with free shots throughout the night. It was a blur of dancing and laughing and candlelight and train rides and to be honest I don’t remember most of it, but I remember walking back from the train just as the sun started to color the sky that early morning pink that most of us miss everyday and laughing. I remember not fully understanding how I had achieved such a milestone age in a country where it wasn’t really a milestone. I remember thinking what a tornado of a year 20 had been. I remember feeling like I’d aged 10 years in those 12 months. I remember not fully feeling the ground beneath my feet but not having the ability to deal with everything that had hit me in the months before that day. I was confused and lost and ungrounded, but at the same time, happy and excited and light. I went home to my flat the next day and watched the sunset from my window and once again, was overwhelmed by the absolute grandiosity of life. But that’s not a feeling exclusive to birthdays for me.
The synchronicities of my last few months in Berlin were shockingly obvious, providing a lifeline, a common thread, through the spinning nights and laughing sunrise cab rides that made up the rest of the summer. Life was dizzy and confusing and moving way too quickly for me to keep up with, but in an attempt to ride the waves of it all I let go and just ebbed and flowed. I laughed and danced and swam the summer away, until suddenly, somehow, the time I had been trying to avoid in the poems and songs I’d been writing rang the doorbell and announced itself. August rolled around and I had two weeks left in Europe, and as much as I was counting down the days to leaving I didn’t feel ready for it. One month and one week to the day after turning 21, I got on a plane back to the US after a year in Berlin.
My mom came to visit just before I left and helped me pack up my small 4th floor room. With suitcases bursting at the seams we piled into an Uber and headed to the airport. I was excited to leave and so, so sad at the same time. I was saying goodbye to Berlin and to so much more: to a version of myself, to an apartment, to a lover, to a train system I had learned in a language I hardly understood, to a relationship, to a school, to a few handfuls of new friends. I was also saying goodbye to heartbroken nights and hazy days, to a large pile of anxiety, to financial stress, to the struggle only the German bureaucratic system can provide, and to the loneliness you can only feel in a city where you don’t speak the language.
20 or so hours of travel later we landed in Chicago and I was excited and exhausted and confused and relieved. I don’t remember much from the first month of being back. It was hot. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in a year. I went back to the bar where I used to work and recounted the good, bad and the ugly of what Berlin had been and it all felt good but far away at the same time. To be honest, I dissociated most of September, and at that point I didn’t even know what dissociating was. It was scary. I vividly remember sitting in the HR office on the first day of my new job, holding back tears and choking down a panic attack as the office policies were read to me. I didn’t recognize the version of myself that was sitting in that chair, barely over a month from returning to the states and feeling so lost and so heartbroken. I didn’t recognize the city I’d spent so much time in and always wanted to live in. I didn’t recognize the language and I was still accidentally saying “excuse me” and “thank you” in german in the grocery store. October was much of the same, and November. Bouts of dissociation kept popping up through December and with Wisconsin winter on top of that I felt like I was floating most days. Sometime in January I got a diagnosis: Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder (DPDR). A pretty unknown anxiety disorder that causes a feeling of disconnect from oneself and their reality. Depersonalization is the normal human reaction to trauma that allows you to grab your child and run from your burning house without thinking, but when this reaction persists once the trauma is no longer present, that is when it becomes a disorder. On top of this, panic attacks are common, a feeling of “going crazy”, a feeling of not recognizing oneself, constant brain fog and random confusion. A whole killer cocktail. Having a diagnosis was comforting, and made me feel less alone and less like I was “going crazy” every day. It was weird and hard to explain to people so usually I just didn’t, and I slept a lot this past year. I slept a lot and cried a lot but slowly but surely I made my way back to myself.
Countless times I’d run from my desk into the bathroom struggling to breathe from an anxiety I didn’t understand. More than a few days I remember going outside and calling my dad or my mom crying, pacing in the parking lot and hoping no one from inside the office could see me. I watched a lot of sunsets from the window behind my desk and wondered how I'd let my life get so heavy. Midwest winter sunsets at 4:30 in the afternoon didn’t help. I didn’t think I’d ever re-adjust to this country or this city or the changes my brain had gone through in months of anxiety and isolation in Berlin.
Despite this I still went dancing, I still laughed with my friends, I still cooked a lot of delicious meals and enjoyed my apartment and having a full size bed again. I still went out and explored this city and found beautiful parks and wrote a lot of poems and made a lot of collages and painted a lot of pictures. I held the job and still have it, and although it isn’t my dream job and I won’t have it forever, I have coworkers that make me laugh every day and I’m learning good lessons about myself and the corporate world. Spring slowly peeked it’s head out, and then summer too, and with it a lightness that only Midwesterners understand after a long cold winter. The longer days of sunlight helped.
The best part about DPDR is that it’s curable. It is an unlearning. It is only as dangerous as my fear to face the trauma that caused it. The more I heal from that, the more I stay grounded in my body. The more I meditate and exercise and journal and remember who I am, the less I dissociate. The more I unpack what a hurricane Berlin was and everything that’s shaped me up until today, the easier it is to settle back into myself.
I have a lot to celebrate this year. I faced a lot of demons this year, put a lot of work into my brain. I fought my mind for months and fell back in sync with myself. I opened myself back up to the universe, a force I had pushed away for a long time for fear of it bringing more pain. The growth this year was so big, and for the most part, very painful. I’ve had more panic attacks this year than ever before, but as I write this now, alone in my apartment, I feel content. I feel proud of myself. Despite the unconventionality of this year, it was necessary. I have regrounded myself. I have found peace with a lot of things and a few people I thought I’d have to keep at arm's length forever. I have laughed a lot and fallen more in love with my best friends, something I didn’t think was possible. I am so lucky. I have made new friends and found new parks to lay in and new clubs to dance in and new lakes to swim in and new windows to look out of. Last year my brother calculated the 7 hour time difference and called me at exactly midnight in Berlin as I was stepping off the U-bahn, and this year my first happy birthday text came 6 hours early from a friend in Kenya. How lucky am I to have lived this globally already? How lucky am I to have laughed and cried and sang and danced in as many countries as I have? I am lucky and I am grateful and I am ready for a new year.
With 22 I hope to celebrate my strength every day as much as I have while writing this. I hope to continue to grow comfortable relying on myself like I used to. I hope to learn more and grow more and laugh more and dance more and see the beauty and tenderness of life more often. I hope to fight for what I believe in and make a change. I hope to find a path I enjoy walking on. I hope to be present each day and not let anxiety steal so much time from me. I hope to enjoy my days, and deepen my friendships and make new ones. Most of all I hope for happiness and contentment for myself, the way I am feeling it right now writing this. I hope to meet my higher self and continue to show up as her, strong and accepting and confident, the self I know I am. It’s going to be a powerful year, I can feel it.