Depression and the Urge for the Road

To call Bitola (Битола), the second largest town in North Macedonia, a backwater is almost an understatement. An entire nation-state’s second largest town is hardly ever a backwater. Los Angeles is the United States’ second largest city. St. Petersburg is Russia’s. Montreal for Canada. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s. But Bitola only has 60,000 people, hardly a metropolis. North Macedonia (Македонија), a former Yugoslav republic, is itself small. Population the size of Vermont. Its main exports are agricultural. Long haired shepherds that look like they came out of a children’s picture bible can still be seen along mountain roads surrounded by their flocks, and most people still heat their homes with wood in the winter giving the entire country the smell of hardwood smoke for 5 months out of the year.

Bitola is beautiful though, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to live there. Ottoman architecture mixes with the plaster crumbling remains of the town’s 19th Century heyday when it acquired the nickname “City of Counsels,” referring to the numerous consulates of foreign governments once located in this border town at the edge of Europe. The old covered market—still in operation seven days a week—is a mixture of vaulted low domes and makeshift tarp walls and coverings surrounded by stalls where you can buy fresh meat and milk, nuts and eggs, local delicacies and the fruits of the earth. Mosque domes and minarets and an iconic brick clock-tower compete for skyline prominence with snow capped Mount Pelister (Пелистер), which overlooks the city to the West casting long afternoon shadows in the summer and sending the entire town into early night in the already short days of winter.

Пелистер Pelister Битола overlooking Bitola Baba mountain snow capped peak
Snow capped Mount Pelister overlooking the town of Bitola

It was during those painfully short winter days in the shadow of Pelister’s peak where I sank into one of the deepest seasonal depressions I have ever known. My partner was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the university there, a year long gig, and I was along for the ride. I was finishing up a grad program in philosophy, and since I was on a writing fellowship and only needed a laptop and a few books to work on my dissertation and no particular responsibilities beyond that, I had all the time in the world. Two people given to seasonal depression living together in a strange place where neither of us spoke the language or knew anyone.

Some of those short winter days, after her teaching duties at the university were done for the day, we would make our way to only supermarket in the city center, stock up on junk food, and watch from our 9th floor balcony as the sun made its way at only 3:00 in the afternoon behind the snow capped mountain, sinking us and our adopted temporary home into an early night. We would then binge on Milka and Ritter Sport chocolates. Eastern European Lays potato chip flavors like paprika or tzatziki. The healthiest thing I think we ate all winter was local homemade ajvar purchased from the farmers’ market, a smoky spread of roasted red peppers slow cooked in olive oil, on bagel chips. Wine was less than 2 euro a liter, so I was drunk as often and as easily as I’d like.

I am a wanderer and always have been, and here was my chance to explore a place with an unfamiliar and beautiful alphabet, a hospitable and vibrant food culture, a town full of architectural gems and post-industrial decay mixed with the crumbling remains of its belle epoch past ripe for exploration. A region with ancient Greek ruins, hills above to hike littered with abandoned churches and the telltale remains of the past to poke our noses into. And all we could do was gorge ourselves on trash food and wallow in melancholia. By March my time in North Macedonia and the Balkans was coming to an end, and I had virtually nothing to show for it except for disturbingly rapid weight gain and an increasingly sluggish metabolism.

Sitting just 15 km North of the Greek boarder in that landlocked space between Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece, Bitola’s Spring broke in mid April. The days grew longer, and as the temperatures warmed, the smell of wood smoke from people heating their homes gave way to the balmy fresh smells of spring’s rains and budding foliage. Pelister no longer hid the sun in the mid-afternoon. With those lengthening days my lethargy gave way to wanderlust and my gluttony for sweets and fatty carbs gave way to a desire for greens and fresh fruits. Only a month and a half left of my time in the Balkans, and all of the sudden I had the urge to be on the move.

My partner and I rented a car, a little Kia with manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive. We had the car rented for a month; we were done sitting around. We were going to see as much of North Macedonia and the rest of the Balkans as we could in the little time we had left. I learned how to drive a stick shift on the fly with a “fuck it” attitude to the frustrated honks from other motorists when I stalled. By the end of that month I could drive a stick shift with the best of them. We saw medieval monasteries in the lake town of Ohrid. Saw the post-industrial decay of Albania. Sarajevo’s war torn streets being rebuilt into the cultural hub it once was. The stone and terra cotta magnificence of Dubrovnik. Peerless local wine and homemade cheese in Montenegro. Canyons. Lakes. Fortresses. And from a high peak, the beauty of the Dalmatian coast.

The contrast between the depression of a Winter spent indoors with no vision or desire and the Spring of exploration and openness to the world could not be starker. The transformation it wrought in me was permanent and drastic. As I watched myself go from a troll who could barely blink in the sunlight to a sun eating worshiper of the world’s good things, I realized that I must always explore places and their capacities to affect people. Time is short, and I was fortunate to have any of it. Experience new tastes and smells and sights and visions. Must be open to things. Never sit still. Oh, of course depression has caught up with me many times since and it will again, but I have never, since then, lost sight of the deep and abiding wanderlust in my soul and the need to express out of the experiences that are my attempt to satisfy those desires.

To experience. To create. To encounter and produce the new. To move about the world on my own terms. To find ways to live that are different and my own, as much outside systems of domination, exploitation, and community killing artificial scarcity as possible. To think through these things and communicate them through art and writing. This is who I am; I have no choice.

Depression, seasonal and chronic, both of which force me out of routines and revelries periodically, is not something I’ve conquered. Nor is it something I merely live with. Rather, my time in Bitola, the winter’s depression and the coming to life convalescence that was as much spring’s doing, as it was an act of will, taught me something, if not about depression in general, then at least about my own mental health. None of us can choose a different neurobiology. We can medicate it and hack it and take it to therapy, but in general, the background conditions of how our affectivity relates to the changes in our environment is not something that is up to our conscious, volitional will. What I learned is that I am given to depression, to times when nothing happens, when I can barely breathe or drink a glass of wine or cook a decent dinner… barely. But those times come to an end, and when they do come to an end, when the morning is bright and inviting instead of making me want to put blankets over my head and wish for the end, these times are all we have, all I have. I’ve begun to think of depression as a gathering up of strength. A shepherding of internal resources for the times when I will be on the move, creating and exploring.

We are each given three score and ten—give or take—and for those of us who struggle with depression that time is carved up with bits of death between the periods of life. To create the self is to shape the bits of life into something beautiful, something that you can say yes to, something you can will to return eternally. And the bits of death in between, the depression caused by lack of sunlight or the exploitation of capital and breakdown of functional community or bad genes (or as is usual a combination of the three)? For a depressive like me, those times make the creative exploration possible. I would not be who I am without having to continually convalesce from the deepest night. Not something to regret, but something that motivates me further to write and explore and create and hopefully live differently and do a little bit to create a world and a life we can say yes to.