I have depression. You get over it.

This time of year is always difficult for me. The monotony of winter takes its toll and I become a hermit, not leaving the house. I don’t see the point. I write funny essays and drop quips on Twitter, while pretending that everything is okay. The internet is a great cover. No one knows that I’ve been wearing the same sweats for a week while eating a diet comprised solely of baked goods and cappuccino.

I’ve been through this cycle for many years now. Eventually I remember that to be a badass I have to engage with the universe, get dressed in clothing with zippers and buttons and move forward.

Andrew Solomon’s TED talk spurred a much needed discussion about how to talk about mental illness, but even more importantly, emphasized the importance of talking about it, period.

Every time there’s a shooting, or a suicide, or some other tragedy, we talk about “what has to be done.” How do we get people the help they need? Why didn’t they tell someone? What did we miss? At the same time, we start labeling people. She must be bipolar. He’s schizophrenic, right? They were on meds. They weren’t on meds.

I had a disagreement with an acquaintance who implied that the medications used to treat psychiatric disorders were the root cause of mass shootings. That’s just what struggling people need. More shame and judgement piled on top of the mountain of crap they’re smothering under. Better not get help, because someone might find out. It’s much better to slog your way through, year after year, making yourself and everyone else around you miserable until it gets better. Unless it doesn’t.

This acquaintance didn’t know that I have dysthymia. I don’t hide it, but I don’t announce it either. So when I heard the TED talk and read the subsequent articles and discussions it occurred to me that those making generalizations are working from a faulty sample. It’s time for people living with mental illness and those who love and support us to step up and tell the rest of world to get over it. We are everywhere. You just didn’t know it.

Hopefully my friends and family will attest that I’m not the least bit scary, unless I haven’t been adequately fed. I’ve even been known to be intelligent, competent and somewhat funny on occasion. This is not because my depression is not a problem. This is because my depression is a problem that I deal with every single day. I actively manage it, so that it can’t control me.

I know I am not alone. When I talk about my experience with depression, invariably someone tells me that they’ve sought treatment at some point or another.  At the same time, someone else will say “But your life is so great.”  I  merely respond, “It is, but I still feel like shit. That’s how I know it’s depression and not just that my life sucks.” “Just focus on your blessings,” they say. Really? I wouldn’t tell a diabetic, “If you put your mind to it, in no time you won’t need that insulin at all.”

So I’m publicly owning my depression. Honestly, with as effed up as our world is these days, I’m more suspicious of people who can’t acknowledge they’ve lost their shit once or twice. If society can make a sex-symbol out of high-functioning sociopathic Sherlock Holmes, surely it can see the rest of us with mental illness a little more objectively.

And perhaps someday we’ll look back and see that stigmatizing people because of mental illness was just plain crazy. Until then, speak up. I’ve got your back.

It’s only the first time once

Last year, I went to a chamber music workshop and it changed my life.  I had the kind of honest-to-goodness, light-bulb-over-the-head, tomorrow-is-a-new-day experience you hear about on Oprah.  I came back using words like “transcendent”, “revelatory” and “epiphanic.”  I’m not even sure epiphanic is a word, but I used it with great conviction, so no one called me on it.

For the entirety of the workshop, all I wanted to do was play music.  Between rehearsal, sight-reading, practicing and talking with other musicians, I don’t think I slept but for a few hours–even then I had headphones on, learning by osmosis.  At the recital that caps off the weekend, I looked at the members of my quintet and thought “remember this moment.” Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thanking my coaches for showing me the light. I’m surprised they didn’t take out a restraining order.  I can be sort of intense.

So when they announced this year’s workshop, I had my application and check in before the day was out.

I just got back.  It was a great experience.  Not earth shattering, or axis shifting.  Instructive, confidence building, fun, yes, but the heavens didn’t open up and the angels didn’t sing.

Last year, I was new to the workshop–in fact, new to playing chamber music.  I was more than a little intimidated. Unlike orchestral playing, in chamber music you’re very exposed.

To prepare, I signed on to study with a violinist I admired.  It was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting me ready to go, but it also illuminated just how much my technique was lacking. But there was more to it than that.  Not only was I insecure about my musicianship, I was insecure about a lot of elements of my life.  I was ripe for an epiphany–or a nervous breakdown.

Since then, I’ve come a long way.  The grasshopper is still studying with the master, and I’ve logged many hours with a bow in my right hand.  I’ve played in a few ensembles, both as the lead and as the wing man.  I have a clear vision of my place in the musical world, and what I’d like to accomplish. I’ve also cleared up some of the issues that clouded the rest of my life.  I entered the workshop at a very different place compared to last year.

On Saturday, the evening before the recital, rather than staying up all night sight-reading and practicing, I shared a few bottles of wine with a rowdy table of storytellers, capped it off with a quiet conversation with friends, and went to bed at a decent hour.

I woke up the next day looking forward to the concert.  No jitters.  No anxiety.  I wasn’t let down, but it was just so …. different from the last time around.

My quintet rehearsed one last time, and we bickered about tempo, and who wasn’t coming in where they were supposed to be.  I looked around the circle at their faces, these really wonderful people I shared this experience with, just as I had before.  And I thought, “remember this moment.”  And the light bulb went on.

Last time everything was so new.  It was all about me.  My abilities, my performance, my experience.  This time, it was about my ensemble.  About us.  How we related to each other.  How we settled conflict.  How we worked together.  It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was really, really great.  I realized that it was the perfect bookend for the year, the culmination of everything that last year’s workshop set in motion.

It was a capital-M moment masquerading as a lower-case-m moment.  I could never repeat the experience of last year–it’s only the first time once.  Closing the circle was the best way to set the stage for the next leg of the journey–maybe that will begin at the next workshop.  I already know I’ll be back.  I accidentally left two concert stands behind in our practice space.  The workshop director told me she’d hold them for me until next year, so I haven’t scared them off yet.

Have you had capital-M moments you might have overlooked?

p.s. For those of you still wondering, my son’s bathroom door is still closed.  The wasp lives on.

Words by J.B. Everett

Photograph by Kenneth McFarland

In Spite of it All

The fate of Sunday evening hinges on the outcome of my son’s basketball game.   If it’s been a good game, the last night of the weekend is safe.  It not, we are in for hours of disgruntled teenager.  An unhappy teen is a like a tree falling in the forest–it requires an audience, even if he “doesn’t want to talk about it.” If his first words are “I suck,” it’s time to open the Chardonnay.

A good game is defined not by whether my son’s team has won or lost, but by whether his level of play meets his expectations.  He’s a solid ball player–neither awesome or awful–and he plays in-house league.  House league is akin to a well-organized neighborhood game.  All of the kids know each other.  They have one practice a week.  They don’t have to try out.  Everyone plays.  But that doesn’t seem to make it any easier for him.

I certainly understand.  I spent most of my teenage years thinking “I suck.”  We didn’t use that word back then.  It was a far stronger pejorative then, than it is today. As the R-rated meaning fades with time, it works for me, an apt description of the vacuum of self-doubt that can pull one down.

I’m a violinist.  Like my son, solid but not stellar.   I used to panic before  every concert and competition.  My mother, tired of the drama, suggested that it might be time to quit.  I was appalled. What was she thinking?  All I could say was, “But Mom, I LOVE this!”

I didn’t get a handle on it until a year ago. Until then, I treated performing like a roller coaster ride.  I’d close my eyes and breathe deeply until it was over.  I managed the stress, but couldn’t remember anything afterwards. No magic.  An instructor finally talked some sense into me.  She said that she enjoyed hearing me play, but watching me play was another matter. “Let it go,” she said. “If not, what are you doing this for?”

Half of a memorable performance is an audience.  I like performing now.  I smile when I play. I make a lot of mistakes.  No one has ever asked for their money back.

So when my son heads out for the game, I tell him to have fun. He scoffs. “What if I suck?” he says.  I tell him, “You don’t have fun because you don’t suck.  You have fun in spite of the fact that sometimes you do.”  And no one cares.  Least of all me.

So I tell him to go and find something to love.  The thump of the ball against the floor, and the chirp of squeaking tennis shoes.  The smile of his best friend after he makes a basket, and the sharp satisfying sting of the high-five they share afterwards.  The weightless feeling when he leaps for a rebound, and the faces of his teammates as they line up for a free throw.  And I tell him that if he hits that three, remember that too, and soak it in, because these moments are rarer than you think. And he ignores me.

Life Sucks, says the bumper sticker.  Yes, sometimes it does.  But in spite of it all, it rocks.

Photograph by Mvongrue