On Mental Health (Remember You Are Loved)

20180511_163639This morning I shed more than a few tears after reading about the death of Frightened Rabbit’s singer Scott Hutchinson. To be honest, I haven’t listened to their music, although it sounds like it was extremely powerful and touched countless lives. But it’s not that part that got me. I cried because he was a real person who was experiencing real suffering. I cried because too many musicians have lost their lives to suicide. And mostly I cried because so many people I know and love dearly are also dealing with depression, and they have probably felt the same darkness that Scott did that day when he ended his life. This breaks my heart.

I want more than anything for my friends to make it through the darkness to see another dawn, for them to reach out for help when they need it instead of suffering alone. I want them to feel safe telling me if they are suicidal so together we can find a way to get to the next morning. I want to hug them and hold them through the worst moments and I want to sit and sing and laugh with them when things get better. I just want them to make it to tomorrow.

This isn’t something I talk about a lot, but I know what it feels like to be a prisoner of your own dark thoughts. I have dealt with depression, anxiety and PTSD at various points over the past 17 years, or half my life. At age 17, I sank into a depression that left me tender and vulnerable to overwhelming sadness. I cried several times every day until I was twenty, when my good friend Lauren finally talked me into seeing a counselor. The counselor said I had depression, but I did not believe her at first. I have always been a go-getter, so had trouble accepting that just trying harder wasn’t going to fix it. She literally had to walk me through the list of symptoms of depression – I had eight of the nine. She put me on Prozac and we began weekly counseling appointments. At first I didn’t notice anything, until a couple months later it dawned on me that I hadn’t cried in a week. This was such a wonderful, refreshing realization – like stepping out into a beautiful spring day after being trapped in a dark and musty old house for the longest winter of your life. I know it’s hard to picture feeling happy again when you are depressed, but I am here to tell you that it is possible.

Unfortunately, a year later, I experienced near respiratory failure and almost died in the hospital. It turns out I had asthma but the doctor who was treating me just saw my small stature and assumed I was a lost cause. He told my parents I was going to die, and it is only because my mom sought a second opinion and a new doctor ordered a life-saving round of prednisone that I am here today. It was a traumatic experience that left me extremely skeptical of doctors. It also left me extremely anxious. I started having panic attacks regularly and I often chose to stay in bed rather than face the world. I was literally frozen by fear. I started failing my classes, and I eventually decided to drop out of school all together, moving home in the middle of my senior year of college to be closer to family and to get some much-needed counseling. Still on medication, my new therapist tweaked the dose and prescribed an as-needed anxiety medication that gave me calm when panic attacked and also peace of mind knowing it was there when I needed it. During this challenging time I learned that it’s ok to uproot your life if things aren’t working. I leaned that seeking help is so important – help from family, friends, medication, counseling, support groups, religion – you name it. Any proactive step you can take is always better than suffering alone while your world crumbles around you.

After I moved back to Duluth, relative stability followed, I believe in no small part because of music. I started performing when I moved back home, and this gave me a kind of joy I hadn’t experienced in many years. I still dealt with anxiety, but it was manageable. And no matter how crummy I felt before a gig, I always felt better afterwards… I truly believe that music is medicine. I decided I felt ready to try living without medication, so with the help of my psychologist, I gradually tapered off my anti-depressants. Anyway, it was after I returned to Duluth that I finally graduated college, which felt great after 6 long years. I also met my husband Paul during this time. Falling in love was a new and exciting experience… Although our relationship has seen its share of turbulence, I have always felt that we could be honest and communicate with each other, even when things get hard. I am so grateful for his constant love and support.

Then when I was 27 I was hit by a car when crossing the street as a pedestrian. The driver was looking down and crossed an entire intersection to hit me in my wheelchair. I only survived because I was able to turn away from him fast enough and he hit the back of my chair instead of crushing my body. I was extremely lucky that as a person with Osteogenesis Imperfecta I didn’t even break a single bone. But not all injuries are visible, of course. After the car accident I experienced nightmares and extreme anxiety in and around cars. My health anxiety also resurfaced with a vengance. I started second-guessing every minute physical symptom I experienced and a few months later I was dealing with a full-blown case of health anxiety. I was googling diseases left and right, spending hours by myself shamefully researching extremely rare health scenarios. Deep down I knew it was irrational but I couldn’t stop. It was a compulsion that left me feeling very trapped, anxious, and alone. I was starting to feel a deep sense of despair, so I decided to return to counseling to get my anxiety under control.

This time I regularly saw a counselor named Mary, who helped me to put a name on my suffering: PTSD. Although my obsessive thoughts and irrational anxiety felt shameful to me, she encouraged me to stop judging myself and helped me to realize that any person under the age of 30 with two near-death experiences would have to deal with the burden of trauma… That it would, in fact, be abnormal if I just walked away from these experiences with nothing to process. So we began to dig in to these issues and she taught me many helpful tricks for disarming negative, obsessive thinking. And she was just someone to talk to – it was so helpful to share my burden with another person who I knew was trained to carry it with me.

Since then, my anxiety and depression have ebbed and flowed, but I feel more equipped to handle them now. I am also much more willing to seek help early on, before things get out of control. For example, right after I won the Tiny Desk Contest, I signed myself up for therapy and got regular counseling for nine months. Not that anything was wrong, but even good stress is stress, and left unchecked it can take a seriously dark turn. My depression still reappears from time to time. When I get too run down or too busy for too long I will experience that extreme tenderness that is the face of my depression. As soon as those crying jags start up again, I know it’s a red flag to seek help right away. I actually met with my counselor over video chat while we were in Ireland at Christmas because things were getting too heavy in my mind. Technology, when used for increasing access to medical care, can be a lifesaver.

My anxiety is more constant, and it’s part of me I am learning to accept and manage rather than wish away. I do ok when I am healthy, but at the first sign of illness my normal coping skills pretty much evaporate and I just have to make it through the darkness. I have learned who I can talk to when my health anxiety is bad, and I avoid WebMD like the plague at all times. I am sure there will be times in the future where my anxiety will feel unbearable, but if that happens I am now prepared to seek shelter until the storm passes.

If I have learned anything from my experiences with anxiety and depression, it’s that time changes everything. You will not be stuck in the same place forever, especially if you reach out to get help. Seventeen years went by in the blink of an eye, even though the darkest parts felt like they would never end. But they did end, and I am still here, feeling glad to be alive. I am grateful to the medication, counseling, family, close friends, books and music that guided me to a brighter space, a space with a little more room to breathe. If and when the walls start closing in again someday, I hope I will return to these sources of help. I wish the same for you.

My dear friends, there is no shame in medication. None. There is no shame in getting counseling. Not a bit. There is no shame in telling your friend, your wife, your coworker, or a suicide hotline that you are not doing OK. No shame whatsoever – in fact, it’s the very bravest thing you can do. Holding on gives you the gift of time – because time brings change. It’s inevitable. And with the right support you won’t have to live in this darkness forever. I know because I have been there.

If you are feeling hopeless, please know that you are not alone. Although I have not experienced many suicidal thoughts, I have definitely faced despair. And so have countless others. There are times when we’ve only made it out alive because of the grace of friends, family, counseling, and medication. And we want you to grab hold of these lifesavers as well.

The saying goes, love your neighbor as yourself… But I would challenge you to reverse that saying for a moment. Love yourself as your neighbor. If you saw another person hurting, you’d want them to get the care they need, right? Well, you are that person today. You are absolutely worthy of care. Please reach out when life feels too difficult to bear. Hang on another day so you can eventually find yourself in a better place and come to know your reason to keep living.

I am cheering for you and sending you my love, and so are the millions of others who deal with depression and anxiety. And I want you to know that I am so damn proud of you for surviving this day, and the next, and the next. Your efforts do not go unnoticed. Remember that you are not alone – please reach for another person’s hand when you feel overwhelmed. Together, we can help each other walk through the darkness and into the light.

Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.