Published On: January 28, 2023 Contributor: Khari Clarke Creative Credits: Images courtesy of Khari Clarke
On a crisp autumn evening in November 2017, I was in Amsterdam enjoying a ‘Pizza and Beer’ themed boat tour through one of the city’s many canals. This four-day trip to the Netherlands was the second leg of a European trip that started in London a few days prior. It marked my first time in Amsterdam, my second time in London, and my third time in Europe overall.
The reflection of holiday lights, which decorated the city’s buildings and bridges, gleamed across the otherwise murky and foreboding canal waters, providing many photo opportunities. One photo, in particular, I caught right before passing beneath an illuminated drawbridge, whose lights pierced through the moody ambiance of the canals and dazzled like a constellation of stars in the night sky.
Impressed with the quality and composition of the photo, I posted it to my Instagram. Shortly after, a random Instagram user who wasn’t following me left a random, yet poignant, comment under my post: “A man who flies from his fears may find he has only taken a shortcut to meet it,” they wrote.
At the time, I didn’t truly understand the quote’s meaning, nor did I know it was a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of The Rings series. Years later, however, this quote has become a mantra for me, serving as a reality check when interrogating my intentions and questioning whether I am making a decision for the right reasons. These words have carouseled in my mind even more as of late since picking up and relocating to London a little under two years ago, after 30 years of calling Brooklyn my home.
In an inspiring personal essay, Khari Clarke shares how he tapped into his inner reservoirs of resilience to face his mental health, ultimately leading him to a London move after a lifetime of calling New York home.
“It was one of the first times in my life I could remember that instead of ‘flying from my fears,’ I chose to face them, and it permanently altered my relationship with my mental health.”
I have not always been an adventurous person. From as far back as I can remember, social anxiety and bouts of depression governed most of my actions. Growing up, it was very common for me to exhibit hermit-like behavior, in which I actively sought the comfort of familiar places or “safe” spaces. This manifested in me spending large parts of my pre-teen to teenage years preferring the reclusiveness of staying at home on weekends and playing video games, while my two brothers went out and socialized in our neighborhood. At their most extreme, my mental health struggles resulted in me missing nearly half a year of school due to hypochondria, and by age 16, I was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression — having to meet with psychiatrists and a therapist on a weekly basis. These times were some of the darkest days of my life; at times I was so enveloped by feelings of hopelessness and fear that I didn’t know if I would make it to the other side of them or if there even was “another side” to them at all.
The turning point in my life came shortly after this diagnosis when, following my longest depressive episode in 2007, my parents forced me to interview to be part of a study abroad program called People to People.
People to People was founded by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and sought to inspire teenagers to travel and become world citizens. To participate, a candidate goes through a series of interviews, and if chosen, they get to join the other elected “student ambassadors” on a month-long trip to various countries. I was elected to join a group of other Brooklyn high school students to travel across five countries, starting with Italy, followed by Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and finally ending in France over the course of a month.
In those 30 days, I grew more than I’d grown in my 17 years leading up to them. During a hailstorm in some Austrian flatlands, a fellow student was knocked unconscious by a golf ball-sized hailstone and I carried her a mile to our hostel. At another point in the trip, my then-girlfriend —a student I met a few days into the trip — rolled her ankle during a hike, leaving her unable to walk and me to carry her down a steep mountain in Germany to safety. Due to the precarious situations that found me rising to the occasion to make sure others were safe, one of the trip chaperones gifted me a Superman t-shirt. More than my outward heroic moments during the trip though, the bravest act I took was mustering the courage to board the plane for the trip at all.
Embarking on this trip to Europe as a socially weary and depressed teenager helped me recognize the true scale and scope of the world. It set forth a journey for me to discover my place as a member of it, after years of doing most of my living in my own mind. It was one of the first times in my life I could remember that instead of “flying from my fears,” I chose to face them, and it permanently altered my relationship with my mental health.
Over the decade that followed, I continued to challenge myself through travel, starting with road trips across state lines on trips with friends, and then graduating to cross-country flights to the West Coast and down to the Caribbean. Inevitably, my travels brought me back to Europe, which would end up being my next home.
In September 2016, following a turbulent flight from John F. Kennedy Airport to London Heathrow Airport, I landed in London for the first time. After an hour-long train ride from the airport, we emerged from the train station in the South London neighborhood, Brixton, where I was overwhelmed by a strange sweeping sense of familiarity. It felt as though I entered a parallel universe version of New York, where the vehicles’ steering wheels were on the right side instead of the left, the MTA subway was replaced by the London Underground, yellow taxis were black cabs, and all of the buses were red and double-decker.
Amsterdam, through the lens of Khari Clarke
The similarities didn’t stop at transportation. The Crown Fried Chicken restaurants that I grew up on in Brooklyn were PFCs (Perfect Fried Chicken), and corner store “bodegas” were replaced by “Off Licence” shops (which, as a native New Yorker, I hate to admit I’ve come to prefer at times). The Brixton community also had a rich and authentic West Indian influence, with a litany of mom-and-pop shops, family-owned Jamaican restaurants, and street vendors — which as someone of Jamaican descent, crescendoed the experience perfectly for me.
The juxtaposition of being somewhere that felt foreign, but that bore this inescapable familiarity left an indelible mark on me. Because of the innate comfort the city provided me, London became the launching pad for all of my future European travels. I returned the following year on the aforementioned trip to Amsterdam in 2017 and then again in 2019, sandwiching a trip to Berlin between a few days in London.
By March 2021, I finally made London my home, right before my 30th birthday. With this impending milestone, I felt the need for a fresh start and to shed layers of my identity that no longer served me. By this point, social anxiety and depression were still parts of my life that I was working to manage. Although I had matured and been in therapy for years up until my decision to move, relocating to London felt a lot like my 16-year-old self going on the People to People trip. On one particularly difficult day, in which I was reconsidering whether I was mentally prepared for the move, my father said to me, “Son, a person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Though phrased differently, the sentiment of my J.R.R. Tolkien mantra found its way back to me right before this pivotal change in my life. So I stayed on the road to my destiny.
The process of finding a place in London was my first apartment hunting experience,meaning my first actual living space would be whichever London flat I chose. Luckily my partner, Bridget, had relocated to London from New York a year prior through her job. This provided a landing pad for me to get my bearings when I arrived, and also someone to coach me through each process of the move. She resided in Canning Town, East London, so naturally, that’s where I started my search.
East London neighborhoods like Canning Town had changed considerably from their storied reputations from years prior. Previously, these areas were known for crime and gang-related violence. An Uber driver candidly told me a week into my move, “Back in the days, Canning Town was only good for two things: getting robbed or stabbed.” Much like Brooklyn, a wave of gentrification spread across East London, which I’ve been told was primarily a result of the construction of ‘Queen Elizabeth Park,’ which was concocted in Stratford for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to be held. This ushered in new faces and new interest in developing the once condemned areas in London’s eastern neighborhoods.
London was back on pandemic lockdown by the time I arrived, so my first and only in-person viewing was in an East London neighborhood called Poplar. It was a modern one-bedroom flat with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony. It was a part of an estate with a concierge and 24-hour gym and was 30 minutes away from Central London. I signed the lease the same day as the viewing.
I’ve now been living in London for over two years, and in many ways, I feel like I’m still transitioning into life here. I’m still in therapy, I’m still tussling with my mental health, and I still struggle with social anxiety. However, I also remember my J.R.R. Tolkien mantra and think about how not fleeing from my fears allowed me to discover myself. I look around at my flat, complete with a gallery wall of art pieces I collected over the years, vinyl records of my favorite artists, and various other music memorabilia and art pieces that reflect the essence of my creative interests. Even in the midst of transition, I feel like all of my experiences up to now have equipped me with the tools I need to meet the challenges of my life head-on.
When you’re a child, your parents might have marked the wall above your head to show you your physical growth, but mental and emotional growth are harder to track. The most impactful way to track my growth, I’ve found, has been to be honest with myself about my fears and be intentional about the roads I choose to take — several of which have led me to London.