Let's talk about our feelings.
lifting the burden of silence from depression and mental illness
Conner Singh VanderBeek
Voice of the author
I spend more time on the Internet than I want to. It’s as if each site is designed to suck you in for as long as possible: what’s trending, how many likes, how many shares, what we can be upset about or laugh at today. And the Internet is not a very patient place. It consumes quickly and seems to forget even faster. It makes you self-conscious about what you post and even more preoccupied with how you post it. Are these the right hashtags? Will this get likes? How come all those people are getting so many likes, when what they’re posting isn’t even as interesting as what I am? Content isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t grab your attention within ten seconds.
When BuzzFeed launched Mental Health Week last December, I was struck with a strange dilemma. I am mistrustful of the platform’s approach, since the shotgun list-and-picture approach to stories and experiences cuts out a lot of nuance in favor of content that challenges you less but makes you spend more time on the site. I was worried that BuzzFeed would miss the point of mental illness by glossing over it with Band-Aids and bright pictures. In some regards, the site did a good job, but an article titled “31 Important Mental Health Tips You Should Try Right Now” really rubbed me the wrong way.
It’s not my place to denounce the article. It was well-intentioned and has likely helped countless more people than I know, but my experience with mental illness is that is not a condition I can fix with motivational memes. I might feel listless and uninspired for weeks at a time before I can even consider quick-fix strategies like journaling and tea, because mine is a slow battle. Mental Health Week ends, and I still feel just the same.
I started this project because mental illness needs conversation and empathy more than it needs pats on the head and quick fixes. Our culture is one that nervously covers up mental illness, but it doesn’t take the time to process it. Maybe this is because of how short the Internet has made our collective attention span, or maybe we haven’t yet learned how to accept our flaws in a society that obsesses with being the best. Somewhere out there, someone is feeling worthless and completely alone, and we need to make sure that person knows how common and prevalent that feeling is. And when we do, we can be one person closer to breaking the icy grip silence holds over mental illness in our society.
The following nine pieces are accounts of depression and anxiety that an exceptionally brave group of individuals has contributed (and me). With the help of a talented team of musicians and writers split between Northern California and Chicago, I have set these accounts to music in an attempt to bring out the nuance in the stories and to create a medium that people will stop and listen to, that they will reflect upon and learn from. My hope is that you, the listener, the reader, will find yourself or someone you know in these pieces, and that this project will bring us all closer to understanding how to work through mental illness.
So, let’s talk about our feelings.
"Some coffee in the morning"
David Alejandro Hernandez
Voice of Conner Singh VanderBeek
Some coffee in the morning. When I’m groggier or I’ve hit the snooze, then an oolong. One on the floral side. Something I don’t have to think about.
The coffee would need attention. I can’t botch the ratios of grounds to water to milk to sugar without expecting some bad luck later on. Might as well stay home that day. But nothing in the morning can hurt me. Worst I get are jitters, which wash off in the shower. The simple fact of the sun is enough. A little agitation is permissible. The long day of struggling with drafts, sitting in class, and working 4 to 10 is still ahead, and I’m better off alert. What for now can pass off for nothing more than alert.
I pack my bag. Lightly for a hot day when excess weight would drench me. Textbooks for my lectures, if I plan on going. Notebooks: an unruled pad for drafts and sketches; a medium notebook for course notes and bits of text; a pocket-size for no real reason. Pencils and Post-its. Most important, a book that I don’t need to have on me. Typically poetry. A sudden distraction and way out of the situation. Recourse.
The book right now is James Schuyler’s Collected Poems. Morning is over, and I’m nearing the time of reflection. Willing or unwilling. Time when I realize that I haven’t set a word down, read anything not on a backlit screen, or worked on an assignment, despite meaning to have done all three. In an hour the sun will set and finding a distraction will be the imperative. Today I wasn’t scheduled to work. Someone else would think thankfully. But it doesn’t change much of anything. If at work, the distractions come unbidden. I don’t have to seek them out for myself.
I’m not alone in this. This is the message of the book, the notepad. Friends and the significant other. “Sometimes it helps / to know someone has already thought / what you are thinking,” writes Olena Kalytiak Davis. But then, “Sometimes it doesn’t.” It isn’t yet clear which tract this night will follow. To be sure, it’ll be one or the other.
This is all that is meant by fate. Finding room for it in your bag. Reading a book through the lens of its table of contents. Each morning fills out its night, as the bed made prefigures the one that will be unmade. That bed, your intimate Ship of Theseus, has changed, but it never changes. Sunrise to night, then back. The sun does its one arc. You’re at one end of many, many. But one. It only—if sometimes alarmingly—makes sense.
"That February cut deep"
Conner Singh VanderBeek
Voice of David Alejandro Hernandez
That February, I had a fixation on knives. Well, sharp objects in general. It was the coldest February Chicago had seen in 140 years, measuring at 13.1 degrees below the average. As the unbreakable freeze cut into the collective morale of the region, I found my gaze lingering on anything that could dig into my skin, as if the arctic air hadn’t done so enough already.
I stopped shaving. I called friends over to help me cook. I told nobody. My friends were happy to be fed in exchange for chopping onions and garlic, anyway.
One night, despite it being three degrees outside, I went on a walk so I could temporarily bar myself from staring at my cutlery drawer. A friend of mine was clocking in work study hours at the gym a few blocks from me, so I packed some sweets and told her I’d drop by to say hello. She thought I was mad for even exercising the thought of going on a lakeside walk in this weather, but she didn’t dig any deeper. I walked her home after her shift ended and returned home having successfully burned an hour in the cold. I found the frigid night more pleasant than staying in with my thoughts.
The following week, I tried to tell my friend what was going on in my head. Ironically, I then had to console her over what I had shared. “It’s not really that bad… I mean, I’m not going to act on anything, but sometimes I don’t trust myself when I’m alone.” She didn’t respond well to it – something like “I’m sorry. I can’t help you, and it makes me feel bad that I can’t.” It was my fault for thinking I could share this secret, I guess.
We spoke less and less after that. I continued hosting dinner parties and maintaining my unkempt stubble. February’s excruciating crawl gradually gave way to warmer weather, and the spring thaw that finally brought people outside again made it seem as though they were feeling the warmth of the sun for the first time in their lives. Though that February cut deep, I was fortunate to have no scars to hide when it was warm enough out to wear short sleeves. The older ones had faded enough.
Voice of Conner Singh VanderBeek
It seems to come in a three-day wave, pulsing like some primordial cosmic rave. The first day remains functional. Tasks, though heavy, complete themselves. Meetings, dates, classes, all done. I skip toothbrushing. I awake to a dull ache in my throat. The kind that trumpets your vulnerability to the rest of the body. My planner slips out of my hand and falls with a apologetic thud to the ground of the coffee shop that I needed to go to in order to reclaim myself, that I needed to be seen in, in order to still maintain the freedom from questioning. From peering eyes and the upturned eyebrow. My thumbs punch without feeling away, calling out for the help that I want and cannot stand. Somehow the loneliness wins, dulling the vibrations and consolations. Fitting that my roommate is playing an old blues record, and I huddle in the corner, drowning out seventh chords with my own singular, fundamental cry. The throat gets thicker. Somewhere in this book of poetry I'm reading someone is yawping away at a younger version of the world. But I'm just stuck on passages like "The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom, / It is so." Amen. I brush my teeth and beg the sleep. But the third day is when the throat releases and the rain of life tears down my cheeks. Nothing looks bright ahead, except the pale scepter of a damp morning. Which admittedly is something. The poet is partial to the second day. Those that have more practical applications, the third. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Today is the second day.
"Of Purcell and Self-Worth"
Voices of Savannah Couch and Lauren Biglow
A little bit about me, first.
I sing, I like the Peter Sellars staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and I enjoy the company of people. I think it’s important to really get to know a person, because, if I don’t, who will?
And now, the scene.
I had a small role in a Purcell opera, so I sang some of the harmonies that no one pays a whole lot of attention to. One of the stage hands and I had some history, and the person I was getting to know wanted me to back out of the project because of that. I started to doubt myself.
This wasn’t some high-profile project – it was just a student-run production that would look good on a resume. So what was the big deal? That one voice was enough to bring me down.
“Why do you need to do this? Someone else can.”
“It’s just a stupid opera.”
And, my favorite: “I’m going to beat him up.”
Yeah, this guy actually threatened violence against someone else so that I would quit.
And Aeneas said,
“In spite of Jove's command, I'll stay.
Offend the Gods, and Love obey.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Nahum Tate, writer of the words of this opera, but this story was not love, and the only Gods were my dignity and the person I shout to when I’m frustrated and no one else is in the room. Sometimes that person is Jesus, sometimes God, sometimes Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach and I have had a long, extremely troubled relationship).
This story was supposed to be about me performing in a small opera for the first time and having a great time, but instead it was a power play by some jerk who made me feel worthwhile then used that position of power to dictate what I could and couldn’t do. This bit part ended up representing something I neither intended nor imagined out of it, and it made me feel so profoundly stupid and at fault for getting in that situation that I didn’t have the wherewithal to get out of it. I blamed myself for what someone else was doing to me.
But I didn’t break anything off. The production needed me, and I thought this stupid guy would change his mind. He only got more stubborn with time, and I only felt worse. We don’t need to get into that.
Let’s just say that I still believe that everyone is worth time and attention, but that I wasn’t so sure that was true of me anymore. I did the opera and dumped the guy, but only after months wondering if I was worth anything without him.
It is in others that we find the greatest sources of self-deceit.
Take it away, Mr. Tate:
“Great minds against themselves conspire
And shun the cure they most desire.”
"The light that was once inside of me"
Victoria Reid Grabowski
Voice of Elisabeth Lusche
I have suffered with depression for as long as I remember. I remember being 9 years old and coming home and just crying. At 11, I started to cut myself. I felt so alone and I just wanted to numb the pain I was secretly feeling. I felt that I couldn't tell my parents. They were always so busy so I didn't want to burden them. There was already so much pressure on me. At 11, my mom was pressuring me about college and getting straight A's. I always fell short of those expectations no matter how hard I tried. At 14, a freshman in high school I felt more alone than ever. I was so lost. I would come home every day and sleep. I didn't know why I was always so tired and why I needed to sleep. I remember calling in sick a lot because I couldn't get out of bed. My mom got tired of me always calling in sick and took me to Kaiser. It was then I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. I was put on Prozac, but it didn't help much. Towards the end of the year, I attempted suicide. I had a stash of OxyContin, Robaxin, Valium, sleeping pills, and other miscellaneous pills, and I took them all. I don't remember much after that, but I remember that I wanted to never wake up again. My mom found me in time and was able to take me to the emergency room.
I was always grounded. Always alone. I wasn't allowed to have anyone over or go anywhere. I didn't want to feel that way anymore. After I survived my attempt, I found ways to cope with how I was feeling. I started to surround myself with better friends and I felt a little better. I didn't have another bad spell until I was 19 years old. I can specifically remember wanting to drive my car off the road. I came home every day from work and would lay in bed and sleep and eat. I was miserable. I contacted Kaiser again and was able to be diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. After being given a bad anti-depressant, I decided to stop taking it and try and find ways to make myself happy again. I moved out and found people who really wanted to make me smile and be there for me.
Here I am now, 23, and I am suffering a terrible depression spell. I have a hard time convincing myself to get out of bed. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I feel empty. I want to smile again. I want to be happy, but I don't know how anymore. I feel alone. I hope someday soon I can find the light that was once inside of me.
Conner Singh VanderBeek
Voices of the author (epigraph) and David Alejandro Hernandez
“I shake–and will–from time to time, whenever I happen to consider what could shake.”
–David Alejandro Hernandez, “Furnishings”
I can confidently say that one of my more loyal ticks is the trembling of my hands. A high school teacher once told me that a fever is never the disease, but a manifestation of one’s body fending off illness (“You can’t say that the Great Depression was caused by the tying of economies to the gold standard, but that that practice was a symptom,“ he explained). Tremors are never a standalone phenomenon, but rather are always indicative of something more sinister and subcutaneous: physical strain, a shortcoming of the mind, a muscle’s protest, a nerve’s refusal to communicate with the brain. In any case, the shake is not an image of stability.
This is not the image I have of myself. I’m not supposed to shudder when I experience the sounds of traumas long since repressed. I wrote those away long ago to pretend I could assert control over them. This shudder is not the version of me that others see: confident, independent, steady. They see someone who moves swiftly, deftly, with a care behind each movement that does not offer itself to any reading deeper than being totally in control. At least that is what I hope is the case. Depending on the day, lifting a heavy jug of water to serve a congregation is the single most difficult task I may face, though this, too, is simply the fever responding to something more endemic.
In the depths of winter, we feel as though we cannot predict the season’s end. Day after day, our cheeks red with the bitter cousin of sunburn, we trudge through the ice and snow and sludge that accumulates on the pavement and shows in the bags under our eyes. We shiver and cross our arms, hunching over to restrict how much our bodies can move, because clenching arms and shoulders and teeth offers the promise of respite, if I can just ignore this cold for a few more blocks. If I can just ignore this tremor, the underlying anxiety, the fear of losing control, the terror of relapse, for a few more hours.
"Upon coming to an intersection with one road and something else"
Voice of Miki Nagahara
I have to cross a road to get home
Every day I approach the road and every day I think the same thing
If a car came around the corner a little too fast
And skidded on some ice
The patch of ice that sits about a foot and a half from the curb
Would the car slide towards me?
And if it did
Would it hit me?
And if I saw it coming
Would I move?
Would I see it coming with enough time to make a conscious decision?
Or would my instincts just take over?
And if I did have time to actually think about what I wanted to do
Would I want to move?
Or would I just stand?
I don’t think that I would move towards the car
I have never been a decisive person
But would I delay long enough to still be in the way when the car came?
They would surely say it was an accident
But I am sure that I would move
At least on instinct
And am I just thinking as I wait to cross the road
As numerous cars speed by at a safe distance
Or does this all make me suicidal?
I do not believe I would commit suicide
But does my worrying damn me?
Does all of this mean I have depression?
Is my mental state more precarious than I realize?
Would I be diagnosed?
I maybe would be
But I don’t think I want to die
But I don’t know if I would move
There’s a break in the cars
I cross the road and convince myself that what I was thinking wasn’t important
"No one walks alone"
Voice of Sharon Ghag
No one walks alone in this world, no matter how hard they try. I've never been able to explain any of it, but it just doesn't seem possible.
When I was young, I had a hard time reaching out for help. My parents saw depression and anxiety as a weakness of character. I wish they hadn't felt that way. I believe they suffered from depression and anxiety themselves; those conditions run in my family, no doubt. My father would never admit mental illness and therefore never sought treatment. He was miserable his whole life. Two of my sisters and I suffer from depression, but we've all gotten help.
Now I am 53 years old, and I have no problem reaching out, talking, and taking medication. Life is too short to feel like you’re constantly fighting some invisible demon alone, or that you’re being buried in a hole, too frightened to cry out for help. I've tried every angle: denial, resistance, giving up – but now I walk hand in hand with my mental illness. Instead of trying to will it away, I take care of it as though it were a younger sibling. I pay attention to it, give it its medication and accept that it's a part of me. Like panic, another mercurial sibling, the more I tried to push it away, the more tenacious it became. I work best with my depression by making sure it is cared for.
No one walks alone in this world, no matter how hard they try. There are so many people out there who know exactly what I’m going through, and that brings me comfort.
"2016 in 15-minute intervals"
Conner Singh VanderBeek
Voice of Savannah Couch
Lillian Reasor, harp
Miki Nagahara, violin
I made a list of New Year’s resolutions. It had two items on it: get into grad school, and make it to 2017. I hadn’t made any serious resolutions in probably eight or nine years, so I did this as an exercise in good faith.
Grad school is a simple enough item, since I’ve already completed the majority of my applications. All I’ll need to do is put on some nice shoes and take a few interviews here and there, then I should get in somewhere (right?).
Making it to next year… now, that’s always been an item that my friends and I say in jest, but it made it to the serious list this time. It’s a simple enough feat, turning each tomorrow into today, putting one foot in front of the other. But then there are bad days. It must have been a bad day when I wrote that second item.
“Make it to 2017.” I actually stared at the line for several minutes after I wrote it. I have never acted anything out that would really warrant its presence, but such thoughts have definitely crossed my mind. They were just thoughts, though, not intents or plans or anything like that. I stared at that item and couldn’t take it off.
My mom once told me that, when she was struggling through the worst of her thyroid condition, she had to change the way she dealt with the passage of time. During the good stretches, she could take things by the week or month, but then things slowed down so that taking life a day at a time meant she was doing well. She told me of the months at a time she had to take in hour-long – fifteen minute-long – intervals where she couldn’t get off the sofa at a certain moment, but maybe she could in another fifteen minutes. And when she still couldn’t get up, she set the clock forward again and again until she got up again, dusted herself off, got back to work, and sent both her boys through college. When she falls down, she uses that philosophy to get back up every time without fail.
Whether I view 2016 as 366 days, 8,784 hours, or 35,136 fifteen minute intervals, I just have to take things one step at a time.
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