I’d like to discuss something that I’ve only ever told the closest people in my life – I struggle with mental illness. I knew something was wrong since my early teens, but I didn’t admit it to myself (and seek formal diagnosis) until I was in my first year of university. After I saw my doctor, I let the stigma surrounding anxiety and depression rule my life. I felt ashamed, and I didn’t think anyone would understand what I was feeling. I held back from talking with people because I didn’t want to be judged negatively. I isolated myself out of fear that one of my friends or family members would find out that I wasn’t okay.
At one point I was sitting alone in my dorm drinking myself to sleep every day, I had stopped attending class, and my workout regime crawled from seven days a week to zero. I gained close to fifty pounds and was placed on academic probation. It felt like I had hit rock bottom, and it was incredibly scary. I was worried that I would end up doing something to hurt myself, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of putting my family through that sort of trauma.
I also knew that depression wasn’t something I could deal with alone, but I still wasn’t ready to ask for help.
It’s the stuff I find hard for discussion,
How the fuck do you explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?
(El-P – Poisenville Kids No Wins)
In the meantime, I buried myself in music. During the twelve awake hours a day I was spending isolated in a twelve foot by twelve foot dorm room, I nearly always had my laptop playing some sort of music. The majority of the time I was just laying there listening doing nothing else, and it very much became my life.
Hip-hop in particular became home to me, and I started exploring and experimenting with new artists. I really started to get into music by El-P, Killer Mike, Open Mike Eagle, Blueprint, Shad, Eyedea, The Roots, Aesop Rock, and so many others that I won’t even attempt to list them off right now. For the most part, the music just served as a distraction that I happened to enjoy. I found everything from the production methods to writing styles interesting.
More importantly however, these artists were at times exploring dark paces they’ve been, and I felt like I could relate to the music. That’s when it really clicked. Holy shit, I’m not by myself in this. There are other people who are experiencing the exact same thing as me who probably also feel alone.
It took about a year to get to that point, but my perspective changed entirely.
Now if you never had a day a snow cone couldn’t fix,
You wouldn’t relate to the rogue vocoder blitz.
(Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass)
As crazy as it might sound, it really was a bit of an epiphany. The idea of opening up to those close to me didn’t seem quite as daunting. I told family members, I told some of my closer friends, and for the first time in a long time I was honest with myself about the severity of where I was mentally. As you’d expect, the people I opened up to had various reactions. A few withdrew themselves from me, but most were beautifully supportive and remain friends to this day.
Most importantly though, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I started getting professional help. Not a whole lot of it, due to financial issues, but enough that things started to turn around. I started to pick up athletics again, my grades improved dramatically (though, I ended up dropping out two years later, but not for performance reasons), and I stopped drinking every day.
For lack of better phrasing, I felt like a different person.
Make you wanna sing, clap your hands to it,
Nod your head a little bit, maybe dance to it,
And reminisce about the good times you had to it,
Not sure what I’d do if I never had music.
(Blueprint – Mind, Body and Soul)
Now, I’d be fully lying to you if I said things ended completely happily. Anxiety and depression are still things that I battle with at times. Recently I hit another low. It didn’t last nearly as long, but it was a reminder that these things can linger. The difference now is that I’ve established the support network to fall back on when things get difficult, and it’s become an invaluable personal tool for keeping myself in check. I feel like I owe reaching this point to music.
So what I really want to say is, thank you to the artists who showed that personal side and vulnerability. As much as none of them will probably read this, it helped me accept things about myself that were incredibly difficult to come to terms with. I’m in a much better mental place because of it.
If you’re reading this and you think you’re dealing with something similar, remember that you’re not alone. I know that it’s really easy to slip into mental isolation, and there are still times where I have to really force myself to not purposely cut people out as well. I can’t stress enough how much simply opening up to someone supportive can help. Take advantage of whatever resources you have. It’s never easy, but I believe it’s worth the fight in the end.