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John Riceburg: Don’t let Berlin’s winter kill you

Berlin's winter can be brutal for everyone. But it can be particularly hard for expats, when much of the city is deep in the German provinces with their relatives. John Riceburg looks back at his own hard times.

Image for John Riceburg: Don't let Berlin's winter kill you
Photo by Nina J. G. (Flickr CC)

I can remember it so clearly: A floodlight in the courtyard was shining up into my darkened bedroom. The shadows of the falling snow wandered across my roof. And I was staring at my new iPhone, trying to figure out if the fall from the fifth-story balcony would kill me. But actually, because of the snow, it would likely cause only severe injuries.

I have relived this memory so often over the years, slightly changing the details each time, that it is now probably complete fiction.

The facts are: It was December 31, 2009, and I was in the middle of a psychological collapse. Something bad had happened in the autumn. I’m embarrassed to write it down now, just an absolutely typical mid-20s setback. But I had lost a job that meant a lot to me, was in the process losing some people that I cared about and I was overwhelmed.

I was angry, and I fought back. But as the reality sunk in that there was nothing I could do, that I would have to move on, something in my brain snapped. On New Year’s Eve, I woke up after a long night of drinking and I couldn’t get up.

I had broken down during the holidays – the time of year with the most suicides in Germany. Berlin’s winter is brutal for many, since our species is not made for this endless darkness. But it can be particularly hard for expats, when most of the city is deep in the German Provinz with their relatives. I had actually looked forward to staying at home, to enjoy the eerie emptiness of the neighbourhood and work on a book. I did actually finish the book, but at what price?

I couldn’t get up for a long time. For the next three months, my bed was like my little prison. I watched The Wire, a friend came by in the morning with some Brötchen and my flatmate would share some food with me in the evening. I said terrible things to some people, lost my bank account, and cut myself with a razor. I started going to therapy and taking antidepressants.

Now, five years later, I wish I could tell a story of triumph – something like one of the many inspiring pieces after the tragic death of Robin Williams. By the second year, I got back into the daily grind, but the truth is I suffer from mental health problems to this day.

German society doesn’t talk much about depression – how do you make people understand that you’re horribly ill when you don’t show any physical symptoms? “Migraines” is my frequent code word for my illness. Looking back, I think I would have done better if I could have admitted to myself and my friends that a personal setback was driving me insane.

The last five years have included plenty of joy – I’ve had a good time writing for this magazine, not to mention falling in love and getting married. I learned how many of my friends had their own struggles with depression, and I hope I’ve been able to help some of them.

I’m glad I didn’t kill myself that evening. In fact, on New Year’s Eve 2009, I did eventually drag myself out of bed and went to a demonstration in solidarity with the prisoners at the Justizvollzugsanstalt Moabit. At the afterparty, I met two young Maoist women from Greece and we all went bar hopping through Neukölln. It was only a brief interlude from a long illness, but it was still a strangely fun evening.

Come to think of it, there are worse places to have a breakdown than Berlin.

So if you’re having a bad time this Silvester, please try to get help. Psychotherapy is covered by insurance in Germany, even if it can be hard to get an appointment. But there’s a Krisendienst available round-the-clock by phone. If you’re a student, you can also get help from the Studentenwerk. And above all, talk to people about it. Together we can survive this winter.

P.S. I listened to the song “Stay Positive” by The Streets about a million times. No forced optimism here – even the lethargic notes on the piano express the malaise of mental illness. And after three crushing stanzas, Mike Skinner reminds us: “When you feel better tomorrow, you’ll be a hero. But never forget today. You could be back here.” That’s what I’m trying to do. Never forget today.