The black moods I’ve been experiencing recently have made me fairly reflective recently, pondering choices I’ve made and paths that I have taken over the ensuing years, just trying to sort out how it is I got to the place I am.
This summer will mark the 20th anniversary of my first serious academic excursion to Italy as an undergraduate. I spent a few months in Florence studying art history. I’d been to Italy a couple of times before — I was lucky to have a mother who considered exposing her son to the outside world important, even if it was financially burdensome to our family — but this was the first opportunity I’d had to put down some roots, and explore a single locality from a rather (amazingly!) spacious furnished apartment just north of the city center. Although there have been two intervening decades, I still remember that place like it was yesterday. Among the furnishing was a single record player, which was amusing, because there were only three albums in the house: John Lennon, Barry White, and Frank Sinatra. We had every possible social situation covered.
That was the summer I truly got to know Italy, and fell deeply in love with her.
I returned the following summer to visit a friend who was in the same program that I had been, and a couple of years later — after that, however, my personal life hit the rocks for several reasons. Looking back, the paralysis of depression was one of them. A promising continuance of my academic trajectory was cast aside, and I labored in limbo until I could get myself together a few years ago. But a triumphant return to Italy — like a hillbilly Odysseus — was always my goal. It was a marker of my progress. It was what I sought.
A couple of days ago marked the first anniversary of my return trip, this time to spend a few months studying and doing research in Rome. My triumphant return wasn’t quite what I had envisioned it to be — which was fairly modest, to be honest — because in the weeks before my flight, I’d experiences another depressive episode. There was no way I was going to back out on the quarter doing research, so my doctor prescribed me some meds and orders to keep in contact while I was there. I hopped on a plane to Paris on March 25th, hoping for the best.
Of course, any of you who know how anti-depressants work realize that it takes a few weeks for the medicine to take effect. In the days leading up to leaving, I’d dreaded even the idea of going, which I knew was not natural for me. When I sat on the train from Fiumincino to Termini, there was no overwhelming sense of happiness at achieving one of my longstanding goals, returning to Rome for academic reasons. There were no tears of joy. There was an emptiness, and an overwhelming sense of dread. The feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake. Which is an awful feeling to have all by itself, but it is worse when you realize that you’re a lucky bastard and are doing something that thousands of people would instantly switch places with you to do — and you’re sitting there, feeling awful because you’re doing it. Even if you understand that those feelings aren’t chemically normal, having a decent level of human self-awareness forces you to feel like an asshole for even thinking it, which in turn compounds the original feelings of dread and emptiness. It was like being stuck in a feedback loop.
Overcoming this feeling took some time, and it certainly took medical assistance. But it is heavy on my mind now, not only because I feel so low at the moment, but because it serves as a handy reference point: feeling emptiness at something that had served as goal, and having the self-awareness to grasp that this was not normal — and the hope that is caused now by the knowledge I was able to subdue these feelings, eventually. In fact, I ended up experiencing the best moments of my 2012 while over there.
However in the meantime, I’m reflecting on this piece of my past in order to make better sense of the moods of my present. And because I miss Italy deeply.