This Wild Life

This Wild Life

Dear Mila,

My life is never going to be the same […] and in that discovery, I became empowered.

 This quote has been lingering in my mind for quite some time now and I wanted to share it with you.

It is from the movie “My Beautiful Broken Brain”. The film is about a young woman, Lotje Sodderland, who suffers from a stroke at the age of 34. When I saw the trailer for the film for the first time, I knew I had to see it. It is not just a documentary about a person who’s had a stroke. It’s an homage to the beauty and uniqueness of life. As a filmmaker, she instinctively knew that she needed to document her experience and her path of recovery. The viewer follows Lotje from the first days after the stroke through her first attempts of reading, writing and talking, her discovery of “a portal where [her] brain once was […] to another dimension” and all the way to meeting David Lynch, a world famous movie director. From the moment I heard Lotje talk in the same halting manner that I had, I connected with her.

Watching her go through what I have been through gave me strength. Not only did I have the opportunity to see a story very similar to mine, I also got to see my own story through the eyes of an outsider and I had the opportunity to ask myself questions, I never really dared to ask before: “Would I change what happened? How would my story have gone if I had been a different person?”

Lotje seemed to deal with her fate a lot better than I did at the time. She seemed upbeat and always strong, never shedding a tear, never screaming “WHY ME?” against a wall in her bedroom, never angry. But knowing the tremendous loss and pain she’s endured, I think I was able to see beyond what the screen showed. It is, in my eyes, the biggest flaw and deepest truth of the film: It’s impossible to fully understand, unless you’ve been through it.

As much as I wish I could have been as positive about what happened as Lotje was, I realized that I acted and reacted the only way possible for me. And that’s ok. As I run through the past year in my head, over and over, I cannot see myself falling apart in any other way than how I did. Because that is who I am, it is what I needed to recover and to come out of it the way that I did. Because only through falling apart can I now understand the depths of mental illness and other hardship that other people go through. It is only now that I can lend a hand to those suffering and be someone they can maybe turn to. Sorrow comes in all forms and sizes and no one has the right to downplay anyone else’s misery. Strangely, going through something that felt so isolating gave me the strength to reach out to others.

“I don’t care whether you stood with the great, I care whether you sat with the broken.”

Would I change what happened? – No, probably not. Behind me lies a nightmare. A burden I do not wish upon anybody. But something has changed. Now, with the mark of one year, I am willing and able to let it go, or, maybe more importantly, accept the accident and the stroke as part of my story. Because, just like Lotje, knowing that my life will never be the same empowered me to an extent I did not dare to imagine.

It may seem that before the stroke I was living my life to the fullest. But maybe I wasn’t. I was limited in my own thoughts and expectations of reality. Having a traumatic brain injury forced me to look at life in a completely new way. Not only did I have to ask myself where my life would go from here and what would happen if I did or didn’t recover. I also needed to understand what had happened to me and what I could do to heal. This thirst for knowledge took me deep into the world of Neuroscience, where I learned the most important lesson of my life: I can do anything!
Our brains are capable of the most astonishing accomplishments and changes. With enough effort and the right tactics, even my Swiss-Cheese-Hole-Filled brain could learn whatever I asked it to. Hell, it was possible for me to “unlearn” depression and even past traumas became vanquishable in the prospect of ongoing brain plasticity. Suddenly, everywhere I look I see possibilities. Going back to university seemed no longer daunting but an exciting way to test my brain’s abilities. Everything is up to me and my brain now. I am bolder and more courageous. Instead of destiny or fate, I now choose to believe in nothing but life: My life, which I almost ended by my own hands. I believe that everything is a coincidence. And therefore everything is what you make of it.

And this leads me to my second empowerment. The realization that I, I alone, made this life. It is mine. In it’s entity, with everything in it. And hell, no, it’s not perfect. In no way it is. But it is mine, and with that alone, it is beautiful, because nothing leaves you feeling more powerless than having your identity taken from you. But given the choice between a fight for my old life or the opportunity to become someone else, I chose myself. Because through this fight, I became who I needed to be, who I was going to be the whole time. It was a yes to my past and with that a yes to the future.

Sure, for some people, life dishes out the nice silver plates with nothing but fancy, well-presented hors d’oevres, ready and easy to grab. While some of us – me, for example -, well, we get the proverbial lemons not handed, but thrown at us. So, now, I decided to order a bottle of tequila to go with those lemons. Come to think of it, Tequila fits better with my life anyway. Because I think it’s been pretty wild so far.

I was cheated on, lied to, kicked, hurt, bullied, and rejected. In the past 365 days I have found and lost the love of my life, all in one year. I have fought through depression and suicide. One year after a stroke I am back at university, going strong.

On February 14, 2016, Valentine’s day, the day of my very own anniversary I climbed onto the back of a motorbike again, arms spread out, bumping across dirt roads, speeding under palm trees and into a sunset, skin fuelled with sun rays, hair soaked with salt water. And I remembered that there will be days when we soar over the jungle like a bird. It was my very own New Year.

In my 27 years on this planet I have so far traveled to 23 countries by myself (and there’s many more to come). During those travels I have met soul sisters, have been robbed, drugged, danced on tables, surfed big waves, scuba dived with manta rays and sharks, swam with wild dolphins, had sex on beaches and rooftops, saved animals, jumped out of a running car, slept at strangers houses, got tattoos, had to hide from scary men and cried my eyes out over the unfairness of the world. Together with my family I have dealt with accidents, severe illnesses, mental illnesses and devastating losses. I have learned 4 additional languages, have worked for some of the biggest companies in the world, had a successful modeling career and dropped it for traveling, got published as a writer, got fired, crashed a substantial amount of cars, scratched my knees, broke my arm, broke my heart and got arrested for standing up for my beliefs. I did everything the wrong way around, so that even for me time makes no sense anymore and I tend to forget how old or young I am.

And while I was sitting on the back of that motorcycle exactly 1 year after the accident, I knew, it was this way or none.

Obviously, the list could go on forever and ever. I am not saying that my life is any wilder than anyone else’s. But it is mine. And when I look at the list of all the things that happened to me, the accident and the stroke go pretty well with the tone of my life. Of course, this is not just magically over now. The physical disabilities still stick with me – who knows, they might be there forever. I will have to live with them, and most days are still difficult and often painful. There will be days where it’s unbearably hard and seemingly impossible. But I am traveling again. I am in Indonesia. I am on a motorbike. I am in the ocean. I am on mountains. I am alive. It seems like I have lived life differently to many people until now, so why not keep going like that?

So I’m gonna take that lemon and I’m gonna take that tequila. Who knows, I might just end up dancing on the bar!

Love, A.





Depression and other story tellers: The stories they told!

Depression and other story tellers: The stories they told!

Dear Mila,

Guess what? You were not the only one reading my last letter to you. In fact, all of a sudden, it seemed like an incredible amount of people were interested in what I had to say to you. It was scary and it was wonderful.

I went from feeling like no-one would care if I died to receiving thank you messages from strangers for writing my letter. Isn’t that beautiful? First my friends told me that they thought I was brave and how much they liked my writing. But then, all of a sudden, I received messages from people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time or didn’t even know at all.

And the most astonishing thing happened: as a reaction to my letter, people of all kinds and from all places started reaching out to me, telling me about their own stories. All of a sudden, it wasn’t that depression was the storyteller, THEY were. Oh, the stories they told.

The world travelers who suffered from anxiety or depression their whole life and still managed to become impressive and magnetic people who devoted their lives to adventure.
The athletic suffering from a chronic illness with a usually very low life expectancy.
The women’s rights activist who used to suffer from low self-esteem and fought anorexia. Or the academic who proved that everyone can find their place no matter what your burden is.
People who all of a sudden fell into a dark hole of anxiety of depression without any previous trauma or incident, struggling to get their life back together, that had so suddenly fallen apart.

What had been just a letter from me to you, to get it off my chest, had become a motivation for those people to write to me and reveal themselves to me. Most I had never seen or met before. Many told me that it is easier for them to talk to me about it because they didn’t know me and they knew I wouldn’t judge. Which is not entirely true.. I did judge! I judged that all of them were incredibly brave humans who deserve someone to listen to them and understand.

I was so moved and overwhelmed with all the responses I got for that letter! As much as people are thankful for me writing it, I am even more grateful for their responses. It made me feel less lonely. For the first time in a long time I felt something like pride again. But most importantly, I was able to help! Obviously it didn’t have a big impact on each and every reader. But if just one person picked up a phone instead of a bottle of pills after reading it, or if someone felt lighter after telling me their story, it was a win!

Only through this did I realize how small deeds can help. How listening really helps. How many people are just waiting for someone to listen to them and how, by doing so, you may just safe a life.

In my online dating profile it says that I’m an “activist”. For a long time I thought I was just lying to myself. But now I realized that you don’t have to chain yourself to trees or throw paint at people’s coats to be an activist. As much as I’d like to do those things (I’d really love to throw red paint at all those fur coats!), I can’t right now. I am still limited by my body and my mind. But what I can do right now is listen and write and share my story.

As an adolescent and young woman I was always told not to reveal so much of myself, not to tell all my secrets. I was a talker and often confessed my most honest thoughts and feelings to everyone who would listen. They warned me that people would use it against me and try to hurt me with everything they knew about me. I didn’t understand.

And they did use it against me and they did hurt me with it. But you know what? That’s ok! I kept and will keep telling my truth, my story, my thoughts. Because I don’t want to live in a world where people have to hide their reality from others out of fear of being hurt. My story and my past are not something to be ashamed of. Neither are my thoughts. And therefore, there is nothing I need to be afraid of.

Mila, being vulnerable is ok! Sharing you story is important! Speaking your truth, your inside and talking about your experiences is crucial. It is who you are. If we all did, maybe a lot of people would feel less alone, less hopeless?

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. 

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Novelist
Now this all sounds so lovely and candy-cotton-fluffy. But is it? No, it’s not. Reading my letter did not heal anybody from depression, anxiety or any other illness. Getting such wonderful feedback did not all of a sudden cure me from my depression or pick up the low self-esteem I have accumulated over the past 27 years. But it’s a step. Writing it helped me heal a bit more. Reading it and telling me maybe helped someone else heal just a little bit more, too?
It is now time for me to tell my story. I think it does matter, after all.
You will see that maybe I am not who you thought I am. But I hope you will love me, still.
Until the next letter