How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Anxiety Medication

"Relative to other careers, the stresses musicians face are unique," writes a member of JR JR.

My earliest memories of psychotherapy are of playing Uno with a child psychologist. I was a very hyper child, and Attention Deficit Disorder was a newly popular and rapidly spreading diagnosis. Not much else sticks out to me, but I do recall overhearing my parents discussing how they would pay for it without consulting our insurance, because they didn’t want any mental health treatment to be a part of my permanent records.

That was a prevalent sentiment for my parents’ generation. Mental health issues were something to be hidden, and treatment was seen by some as a sign of weakness. It wasn’t until very recently that I found the strength to pursue mental health treatment as an adult, and it’s changed my life for the better in all ways possible.

Back when I was a kid, I was diagnosed as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but would later find out that OCD habits were symptoms of a broader disease. I experienced a high level of anxiety for the past few years. I mostly attributed this to my career as a musician, which is ill-matched for someone with anxiety. I spent the first four years touring around in a conversion van, sleeping on strangers’ floors, and driving long distances to play for empty rooms. Once, at a show in Phoenix, we were playing for the bartender and sound guy alone in a bar, and even they both took a 20-minute break during our set. It was a lot of feeling like a failure, and it wasn’t conducive to having any sort of schedule or stability. Being on stage in those situations was always hard for me, and I wondered why I didn’t enjoy that part of being in a band. I was always waiting for something to go wrong, and my disease was screaming back at me constantly that my fears were warranted. I believed that if I could just get to a place where I had some sense of stability, most of my insecurities would fade away. After all, the American Dream involves the pursuit of financial security explicitly, and it follows that the lack thereof might be a primary source of strain in one’s life.

My band JR JR’s last album, our self-titled, was by far our biggest commercial success. Our song “Gone” was a “hit,” and in that fall of 2015, we were on a tour that was going fairly easily. But the anxiety was getting worse. Even success brings its share of worries. There are always growing expectations from the corporate side of the industry and fans alike, and music is a business where you’re only as “good” as your last release. I’ve never had illusions about that, and it’s not my intent to complain about my job—I kind of like pressure if it’s creative, to be honest. But the stresses musicians face are unique, relative to other careers. In many professions, the longer you work, the higher your pay, until you retire. Music can sometimes work in the opposite way as the entertainment industry has grown increasingly youth-obsessed. As a performer who’s been working in music for a decade, the passage of time becomes another source of anxiety.

On one of the last nights of tour, we played a show in Columbus, OH. During the set, a member of the audience yelled something at me which I mistook for an insult. The floodgates opened. I had a mini panic attack on stage and ended up berating our fans, who make it possible for me to play at all. I belittled the audience and insulted their city. That moment pushed me to ask myself what was really going on in my body.

I decided to find a therapist, and I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder—a disease that affects about two percent of Americans. It’s like carrying around a dark cloud that filters reality through a series of scenarios, which all end in the worst possible outcome. I was still resistant to medication (which I, like my parents, irrationally viewed as a sign of weakness) so I tried to change my diet and learned Transcendental Meditation. TM has been a huge help and is something I highly recommend to everyone, but as the symptoms persisted, my therapist said, “Would you judge a diabetic person for taking insulin?” I had never thought about medication in this way, but upon her suggestion that I was in a parallel situation, I decided to try it. It made a world of difference—all of the work I was doing felt easier and more effective. The combination of meditation, medicine, and talk therapy has changed my perspective for the better. I wake up with the ability to feel excited, and my energy levels now allow me to feel more present and calm throughout the day.

What this process has made me understand is that our brain chemistry dictates so much of our impulse and mood. When you’re hungry, tired, elated—it’s chemical. How much control do you have over your mode when you’ve not eaten in a long while? I describe the anxiety that I’m living with as being as natural as that, and the medication that I take as comparable to my daily caloric intake. Brain chemistry is not something that someone can control on their own, and it’s not a weakness. Medication has allowed me to see looming dangers that once might have spiraled me into a state of panic and prevent them, and is simply a part of my reality in the same way that hunger or thirst is.

Pain is a universal emotion, and we all feel it, whether it’s comfortable to admit, or not. I believe that it’s our job as artists to talk about uncomfortable issues in public. It’s our job to get people thinking, to move them emotionally, but also toward different places and attitudes. (Of course, it’s our job to make them dance and forget about their troubles, too.) We’ve reached a juncture in history where I believe that any pretense or irony I could hide behind isn’t serving a purpose at the moment. We have attempted to make work that serves a social purpose, and I hope “Same Dark Places,” a JR JR song about contending with self-doubt and worry, can provide some comfort to someone.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope to help let people know that mental health needs to be destigmatized in our society. Anxiety is a disease that I’m thriving with. It’s a sign of strength to seek help, and there are incredible treatments available—learn more about them at the National Institute for Mental Health’s website, which also has information about other mood and stress conditions. Most of all, I’d like to encourage us all to attempt to live with a more present sense of compassion—to one another, and ourselves.

Joshua Epstein plays in the band JR JR. You can follow him on Twitter here.