Walking Through the Dark: Learning to Take Mental Health Seriously

A lot of people know parts of this story. A few people know all of this story. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, someone who struggles with mental health issues. I offered my story and they offered theirs. We are in different places in our journey, but they told me my story offered them hope that it is possible to get better. It is with the desire to offer others hope, that I share my story publicly.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt ‘not good enough’. This is an abstract, hard to define feeling, which made all my attempts to ‘fix-it’ equally abstract and hard to define. This feeling would frequently manifest itself in forms of anxiety and depression, which I’ve spent years masking with cynicism, jokes, and irony. There have been days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, because ‘what’s the point?’. I have had anxiety attacks in airports, where I’ve had to fight the urge to leave the airport and not get on the plane. Once I had a panic attack while sitting in a board meeting. I did my best to cover for my sweaty palms and made a joke about being worried about the train schedule. Usually though, the symptoms aren’t this dramatic. Mostly I just felt an unexplainable void that I repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to fill.

Many people who feel this way try to use drugs and alcohol to try and cover up the way they are feeling. While I enjoy a good beer, or three, and that one time I had half a puff of a cigarette, I am way too much of a wuss to truly do any chemical damage to my body. Instead, I masked my feelings with workaholism. As far as addictions go, workaholism is a pretty good one. On the surface you look like a successful human being. But there is an insidiousness to using as a coping mechanism. The disparity between the outward appearance and the inward feelings becomes untenable.

Working as a composer is a great field to be in if you want to appear ambitious and feel inadequate at the same time. It is really easy to establish an ever-moving goal post that you can never quite reach. The ‘work’ that goes into writing a piece is often not goal oriented. You can spend a week diligently ‘writing’ and come up with only a few bars. Were you ‘working’ those days when you stared at a blank sheet of staff paper and failed to fill it with notes? What is a ‘good piece’ anyway? Is this piece ‘contemporary’ enough? ‘Experimental’ enough? Will the audience like it? If the audience likes it does that mean I sold out?

I spent most of my undergraduate career convincing myself I was the worst musician in the building. Naturally, I won one of the top awards the school gives to graduating seniors. This should’ve been a wake up call about the difference between my self-perception and the way the world saw me. Instead I kept on powering through. Almost immediately after graduating, I started working for a major music publisher in New York City. I regularly interacted with leading composers and arts organizations from around the world. It was beyond my wildest expectations. I spent the vast majority of my time just waiting to be fired, convinced that they had made a mistake when they hired me. I left that job and built a music program at a summer camp. Everyone involved loved the new program, told me how great it was, how much they loved me. I worried that my next mistake would get me fired.

As a composer, I started to receive awards and commissions. I started to have my music performed across the United States. I applied for every award, residency, and commission I could find. I won some. It didn’t fill the void. Eventually I decided to go to grad school. Ever the ambitious workaholic, I chose to go to study abroad. I said it was to save money and to experience a new culture. This was partly true, but mostly I needed to prove that I could do it. To whom, I’m still not sure. This set up the most successful professional year of my life. I wrote a bunch of new music. I had a premiere inside an indoor rain forest (about 4 weeks into living in England), Symphony Hall in Birmingham, and was still having my music performed in the US. I had an artist residency in Portugal. It was all I had ever dreamed of doing. I was doing it. Last May, I turned in my final portfolio for the year and then immediately spent a week crying in bed.

I had achieved everything I had ever dreamed of achieving and never felt more unhappy or alone. There was still a void. This was an eye opening realization. It was a turning point. I recognized, for the first time, that something was deeply wrong with how I was being in the world. I remember saying to myself:

“I want to be happy. If that means quitting music, then I am quitting music. I don’t care where I am or what I’m doing any more. I just want to be happy. I am done living like this.”

(You can hear a shell-shocked version of myself talk about this on Dennis Tobenski’s podcast: http://musicpublishingpodcast.com/mpp3/)

I’ve spent the last year digging deep into why I am the way I am in the world. Why there is such a huge gulf between how I see myself and how others see me. I started to tell friends that ‘I think I may have anxiety issues’. They usually responded with ‘no shit’. It turns out I wasn’t covering as well as I thought. It turns out my friends and family still loved me, even though I wasn’t always my best self. Eventually I started to recognize that their love for me had very little to do with the things I was trying to use to justify loving myself. They didn’t care about my career accomplishments. The awards I won or didn’t win. They didn’t care about the number of stamps in my passport or what my job title was. They cared about me. I started to recognize that maybe I should also start caring about myself.

Progress has not been linear. While I was doing a lot of work on my own, I still refused to get professional help. Therapy was for ‘other people’. I don’t like drugs. My problems aren’t that big. I was doing ok until this past November, when world events kicked my anxiety into high gear again. I started to have panic attacks again. Thankfully, one of my closest friends, one of the few who knows most of this story, really pushed me to get the professional help I had so long put off. They listened to every excuse I could come up with and called me on it. This led me to eventually signing up for a counseling service. There is a waiting list for counseling here, but even the act of admitting I needed help was a big step forward. I attended a group session on anxiety and immediately felt less alone. I learned a few tricks for dealing with anxiety attacks, but mostly it was the recognition that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t ‘crazy’.

Eventually I started going to therapy. While the process is still new, I already feel much more grounded. Therapy isn’t the beginning for me, (I always have to do things my way), but rather the culmination of a year’s worth of work.

“We go forward or fall back
Forge ahead or veer off track
Flaming out, we fade to black
Stars careening as they beckon
It’s just open road ahead
The sound of twilight, maps unread
Nothing’s perfect it’s been said
This is pretty close I reckon”

Looking at my life with this newly developing perspective, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. I recognize how much struggling with mental health has affected me. It has been this cloud that has followed me around, regardless of where I was or what I was doing. I’ve experienced professional success, but haven’t always enjoyed it. I recognize the destructive impact it has had on my personal relationships. It is really hard to let someone love you when you don’t really love yourself. At the same time, I recognize the positives. Ambition and challenging one’s self aren’t necessarily bad things, if they are done for the right reasons. I like to think that having gone through this, and recognizing it, has made me a more empathetic, caring person. Taking ownership of this struggle makes me feel like I can really do anything I want to.

At the same time, I look at this moment with a lot of hope. This is where I am. I am here. Getting to this place has sometimes been rough, but, taking a moment to look around, it feels pretty great. I have been blessed with a lot of friends and family who love me, all around the world. I have been to some incredible places; I plan on going to more. If this is where I am, let’s start from here. It’s as good a place as any.

There is a cycle that many who struggle with mental health will recognize. There are dark moments of struggle and there are moments of clarity, when you take a look at yourself and realize that things are really fucked up. These episodes of clarity usually take the shape of a series of drastic changes that never really last. I have several sets of painting supplies from that time I was going to start a new hobby because I have changed. I quickly reverted to old habits. There is a part of me that is worried that I am in an extended version of one of those episodes. But, deep down, it feels different.

This isn’t about making superficial changes. It is about discovering a deeply rooted sense of self. It is about learning to love all versions of myself. Or really, it is about recognizing that the different ‘versions’ of myself are actually one person. I am learning to love that person, not in spite of his flaws, but because of them. My flaws are as much a part of who I am as my good traits, and who I am is worthy.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I offer this story, not to elicit sympathy, but to offer hope to others who are on their own journey. No matter how low you feel at the moment, you are not alone. You are not broken. There is a pressure to ‘feel better’ immediately and then using your failure to feel better as yet another reason to stay in a dark place. Work to avoid this. Recognize that you’re in a dark place and that that’s ok. There are days when you’re not ok, and that’s ok. There are days when it is two steps forward, one step back. There are days when it is one step forward, two steps back. And even that’s ok.

We are all walking through the dark. Hopefully this story can be a pinprick of light in the distance, just as other people’s stories have been that light for me. Together we will keep walking towards that horizon, off in the distance.