Inspired Writer Contest Finalist
Light on Serotonin, Heavy on Creativity
When my mental health consumes me, it is the stories I find in art that help me breathe differently
I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not love a good story. My parents began reading to me at a young age, and I picked it up on my own pretty early. Soon you could find me making up my own stories with dolls or trying to navigate the world with a book in front of my face. At some point my parents stopped sending me to my room when I was in trouble because that’s where all my books were and it was where I would rather be.
My favorite moments of the day were when I could pretend I was somewhere else, crossing the Grand Canyon on an adventure or living in the lost colony of Roanoke. I had lived 1,000 lives before my tenth birthday, each of them a place I could bury my heartache. I beat depression back for years with the books I loved the most and the movies that I sang along to and the stories I scribbled in notebooks when I should have been paying attention in class.
I’ve been unemployed for 16 days. I’m upset and frustrated. I want to go out to my favorite restaurant with my friends, order one of their on-tap cocktails and some ricotta doughnuts and stay until the waitress that somehow always manages to serve us has to remind us they are closed.
I try watching Designated Survivor. I want a political show but I need a break from The West Wing so I try Keifer Sutherland and Kal Penn but suddenly I’m weeping and can’t place why (this seems to be happening a lot). I scroll through Netflix and then there it is. Twister.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched the movie, I’m always pleasantly surprised to recall that Cary Elwes is in it and by the end my knees are curled up near my chest and I’m yelling at the screen for Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton to get their act together and work out their marriage and get Dorothy set up in time and goddamnit, run!. There is adrenaline and desperation and a deep ache to see things turn out alright.
At least I’m not crying.
I am barely a teenager the first time I think about suicide. For months I go to sleep hoping I won’t wake up, disappointed every time the sun breaks through the curtains. I write a letter I assume no one will care about and shove it in the back of a drawer in my mother’s bathroom, hoping it scares them.
It does, but I tell them that it’s an old letter and I’m fine. “I don’t think about that anymore” is just one of the many lies I will tell about my mental health in the coming years.
I bury myself in teenage cheerleading movies and Sharon Creech novels and start listening to music the popular kids like and no one is more surprised than I am that I start high school in one physical piece.
“Tell me about why you watch the same shows over and over again.”
I inhale, avoiding eye contact with the video of my therapist. “I mean, I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
Pressing the bridge of my nose with two fingers, I stare up at the ceiling as if I can see the words better if I search for them in my brain. “They make me feel better,” I finally say, pushing the words out with a breath. She doesn’t respond, waiting me out. For a moment I think I can beat her in our game of silence and then the words fall out of my mouth. “I watch certain tv shows and movies over and over because the people in them who love each other also want each other and are enough for each other and all I’ve ever wanted is to be enough.”
We’re both silent for a while, my head pressed against my palm. I could tell her my whole body feels like a ball of anxiety, but I think she already knows.
I hear her open her mouth before she speaks and I look up. “Why don’t you tell me how quarantine is really going?”
My favorite sound sophomore year of high school is the rattle and bang of the rolling doors on the costume closet and the vanities behind the black box theatre. It was my sanctuary, an unsuspecting hallway that looks like storage during the day but is full of sound and makeup and costumes after hours. The months I spend stage managing Calamity Jane bring me to life, helping me find friends and reminding me how much joy theatre brings me.
The costume mistress is the mother of one of our lead actresses and she pushes me to be the best version of myself. Her daughter makes me laugh and I find myself spending more time in the theatre than I spend anywhere else. It’s the first place I feel safe in years. It’s also where I learn how to shimmy (from the costume mistress) and fake an orgasm (from her daughter).
When the show ends, several of the cast members join the track team and I follow along, despite not having run track or done a sport since middle school. I throw javelin and shotput and discus and watch two of my friends pole vault for weeks and spiral deeper into depression.
I miss the theatre. I miss how the black box felt. I end up in therapy and on an anti-depressant before the end of the year. It feels like drowning.
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
I don’t remember who shared the minute-long video of Andrew Scott reading Derek Mahon’s “Everything is Going to Be All Right” but thank God they did. I lose count of how many times I get lost in his accent and the words before I finally fall asleep.
When people ask if I collect anything I usually tell them shot glasses, but the truth is that I have been collecting books for most of my life. I own nearly 1,000 now, stacked on book shelves and in precarious stacks around the perimeter of my bedroom. I’ve only read about half of them. For years I have found it comforting to own them.
My favorite feeling in the world is the moment right after I finish a good book, when the only thing I can do is clutch the book to my chest and take a deep breath. It is as if the book has laced itself under my skin and needs a little extra time to fold back within itself. Each time, it takes a little bit of my depression and anxiety with it.
The year I learn about unrequited love is also the year I wish you could forget certain songs or poems. The boy I think I’m in love with dips me in Jackie Greene lyrics and Robert Frost poems and when our friendship falls apart I wish the stanzas and verses would vanish into thin air but try as I might they’ve latched on. It doesn’t matter how many books I read, I can’t get rid of them, not for years.
“This eight weeks has been a disaster, and I spent the first two weeks absolutely binge-watching Madam Secretary…”
“It was perfect, it was exactly what I needed. And then of course I watched literally everything I could find that has Téa Leoni in it because I was like, this is exactly what I need right now.”
“You are literally my father, he loves Téa Leoni so much. Like you guys could just hang out and watch The Family Man together and everyone would be happy.”
“Oh, it’s my favorite Christmas movie, I would be stoked.”
I interview Caroline for my art and mental health podcast on the same day I pack my desk at a job I’ve held for three-and-a-half years. It keeps me from crying for the first time in several days. I’m emotionally exhausted. And heartbroken.
But somewhere there is a man in his 60s that I’m marginally connected to who loves one specific actress as much as I do and that’s good enough for the day.
The therapist I see as an adult is the only one I’ve ever had that actually seems to be helping. Others got me through specific moments by the skin of my teeth, but this one feels like she’s pushing and elevating me in a way I’ve never before experienced. I start to see who I can become and how I can live with depression and anxiety instead of constantly trying to fight them.
She teaches me to believe in myself differently, and she encourages me to invest in the things that make me feel better. When I berate myself for using food to cope she says, “Everyone uses food to cope,” and when I make fun of myself for watching Parks & Recreation again or listening to Harry Styles’ Fine Line for the 44th time, she tells me to be nicer to myself.
“It’s okay to like the things you like and cope the way you cope,” she says. “There isn’t anything wrong with you for being who you are.”
A few months later I notice that I’m coping more with art than I ever have and my heart feels less cracked and bruised. The hard days still exist, but the pain doesn’t last as long.
I’m at the shampoo station at my hair salon when the song comes on. My stylist and I are the only ones there, and we’re both masked and sanitized. I’ve just asked her where the playlist came from and suddenly I have this deep feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I might be sick. James TW’s “Incredible” is playing, though I can’t place the song right away. I spend the four minutes it lasts trying to figure out where I’ve heard it before and why the rock that seems to have been sitting in my stomach for 100 days suddenly feels heavier.
When I get back to her station, I type the Song into my Spotify. I’ve played the album it’s on before, I realize, and add it to a playlist. I forget about it.
Later, as I’m driving home, it starts playing again. I haven’t cried in weeks (I’ve been purposely avoiding it), but as soon as I try to sing along I’m weeping, wiping tears from my face with the back of my hand as I drive. When I get home I realize the rock in my stomach is gone.
I let stories carry me, holding me tight as I navigate some of life’s heaviest moments. Sometimes they make it just a little bit worse but mostly they make it better, providing me with a soft spot to land when my mental health is at its most difficult.
I am grateful for the stories I’ve read and listened to and watched because I know I’d be different without them. I am thankful those stories have tangled with my depression and anxiety and can help pull me back to the light when I get lost in the canyon my brain designed for me.
I might be light on serotonin, but when I’m deep in the right story, I don’t even notice.