I was five years old when a sad spirit entered my orbit. One minute it wasn’t there, and the next minute it was. Seated at the kitchen table having breakfast with my family, an opaque film suddenly divided the air between us, their voices garbling like my ears had been submerged in water. My pupils zoomed out like a camera unfocusing. I felt myself staring but looking at nothing as the first wave of melancholy washed slowly over me. I looked at my father and mother. They were smiling and talking to me, and I was smiling back, participating physically but observing it all from someplace removed. Despite retaining an awareness, in that moment, of my incomprehensible love for them, I was quietly overwhelmed by uncertainty. How well did I really know these people and why had I been placed in their care? Why were we living in a house, sitting at a table? I felt like I’d been dropped from the chaos of the stars down into a world of tidiness that I was expected not only to understand, but to accept.
The first nightmares also began around this time. Not monster-under-the-bed nightmares, but nightmares that inhibit one’s ability to distinguish dreaming from waking life. Nightmares that I was sure were actually memories. Nightmares that looked apocalyptic and felt prophetic. There was also the recurring dream that my parents had died in a car accident, a house fire, or some other preventable tragedy. Losing my parents is still my greatest fear, one that will inevitably occur, and I will struggle with this all my life. I would lie awake at night obsessing over death, life after death and the question of its existence, and what it might look and feel like to live forever, spinning out over the idea of my consciousness living on without a physical form.
The concepts of eternal life and of ceasing to exist forever, respectively, have plagued me equally since I can remember. In those choked moments of fear, my baby skin cold with sickening existential sweat, I regularly convinced myself that my heart had skipped several beats and that I was definitely having a heart attack. I’d breathlessly make my way down the stairs and into my parents’ bedroom and alert them to the fact that I was, without question, having a heart attack and that I might be dead any minute. They’d then soothe me, give me some water and maybe a banana to eat (food has generally been a comfort to me; I am deeply southern). My mom would scratch my back and sing soothing words of relief, and then maybe my dad would help me build a fort behind the couch, in which we would sleep together. I would feel safe, but aware that the comfort of their security was but a temporary salve.
When I think about the friendships I made as a small child, what I remember most are the expectations I attached to them. I was the friend that got sad if the person I was hanging out with all day decided they didn’t want to sleep over. The fun would end, they’d go home, and I would spend the rest of the evening feeling rejected and abandoned. I needed too much and I could feel it. In my adolescence as I became more self-aware, I noticed that I did not see my friends struggle in the ways that I struggled. This is not to say that my friends didn’t have problems, but the nature of their trouble felt less nebulous than my own. Some of them were dealing with parents’ divorce; others were struggling in school. They may have been burdened, but I could tell that they were not burdened by the same anticipatory grief that I carried with me.
It’s important to note here that I was not just depressed. Quite the opposite, actually. I think I’ve always experienced the good stuff on a heightened plane. I felt, and still feel, joy as ecstatically as I imagine a person is built to handle, deeply in my organs and all the way down into my toes. Wild and permeating rapture, in its rawest form, can manifest as a supernatural ability to view even the banal through a prism of hypercolor. Something that people who do not know depression first-hand rarely understand is that the presence of depression does not automatically signal the absence of joy. Rather, the depression lives in the apartment beneath the joy. It morphs the shape of the joy, places a limiting lens over the hypercolor so that the colors return to their pre-augmented state. For anyone who has tried to understand the nuance of depression but can’t seem to fully grasp it, one way that I will try to describe it is that depression is like waking up beside someone in your bed who claims to know and love you, and having absolutely no recollection of who they are. It’s like walking outside into the sunshine on a cool summer morning, with every reason in the world to be smiling, and not being able to slip out of the disturbing yellow sensation that something is wrong. It’s like being born with a built-in case of the Sunday Blues. Each stretch of joy is punctuated, or even swallowed whole, by the suspended anticipation of its end, every pleasure rivaled in real time by the inevitability of its comedown. Something I’ve come to know about myself is that I am abnormally sensitive to lighting. If there is light coming in through the windows but the interior space is not well and warmly lit, I turn instantly melancholic. Around 4:30 pm is the most devastating time of day for me, when the transitory window closes on the day and yet it is still not night. This comedown, which suspends me between the hope that the morning can bring and the hazy comfort of the night has unsettled me since I can remember. I seek out especially incandescent lighting if I am indoors at that time, and I avoid restaurants and other social settings with lighting that is either too fluorescent or shadow-bathed.
When I was 14, a strange illness took over my life that even now I can only really describe as a hex. I got in the bathtub one night and brought my copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night in with me, as it had to be read for class the following day. I sat in the bath for hours and finished the book, and when I finally got out of the tub I immediately noticed that something inside my vagina felt abnormal. It hurt, but I couldn’t identify where it hurt. It was generalized and seemingly innocuous and it went on for days before I allowed myself to panic. Once I’d given myself the green light to consider what the pain might be, the paranoia was unstoppable. I convinced myself I had an STD (I had never even come close to having sex) and that I must have sat on an infected toilet seat at school or in a restaurant and contracted one of the life-ruining diseases I’d seen too many photos of in sex-ed (or “health class,” as my private, Presbyterian school called it). I kept my affliction hidden for months while expending endless energy hoping furiously that whatever it was would just go away. But it didn’t go away, and the more I thought about it, the worse it became. I became so fearful that I opted to subject myself to the temporary but horrendous discomfort of telling my mom what was going on.
The next four years of my life, I was in and out of gynecologists and urologists. Of all of them, only one was a woman. They probed, swabbed, scraped, put their fingers in me, put metal objects in me. After each invasion, they all said the same thing: Everything looks normal. All tests were negative for disease and no one could find evidence of even a mild irritation. During one of the early visits, a biopsy was performed and several cysts were discovered on my ovaries. The OB-GYN seemed confident that the vaginal pain I was experiencing was directly linked to the cysts and prescribed me birth control to shrink the masses. The cysts went away, but the pain did not. Two years into our search for answers, my mother took me to a vulva specialist at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, an hour and a half from home. We made this trip monthly until the specialist confessed that he was not going to be able to provide any answers for me. He sent me home with a prescription for Cymbalta, which he said he hoped would alleviate some of the depression caused by the inability to find a cure for my pain. I did eventually locate an explanation for my affliction in an online forum: it was called vulvodynia. There was very little information about it, as not much research had been done on the subject, and it was commonly dismissed by professionals as a psychological issue rather than a physiological one. In reality, it is both. The most concise description I found for it is that it is characterized by a localized manifestation of physical pain, but that it originates in the brain. Quite literally, I had a depressed vagina. I took the medicine diligently for two years, through the end of high school and into my first semester of college in Nashville, Tennessee.
My first winter away at school proved to be a seismic shift. I had begun to take my medicine irregularly, failing to take it at the same time every day, and occasionally forgetting to take my daily dose at all. Those who have had any experience with depression medication know what I’m referring to when I say that I regularly felt like I was falling head-first through the floor. I’ve heard some folks refer to this sensation as “brain zaps,” and if the medication’s routine is disrupted at all, they can occur in infrequent waves or consistently throughout the day. I didn’t like the way it made me feel, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Even when the medication was doing its job, I felt that the familiar existential dread I had coped with for years had been replaced by a more sinister passenger: apathy. The medication had cut the highs and lows not just from my depression and anxiety, but from life itself. I wasn’t seeing a therapist, I wasn’t being monitored by a doctor, and the medication was a bandage that had lost its stickiness. I’d like to emphasize that I am in no way demonizing any individual’s decision to go the pharmaceuticals route. I am well aware that these drugs, when taken under the right supervision and with proper trial and error, save lives. But I was doing it all wrong, and I didn’t ask for help. During that time I would do things that cause me to physically wince in dismay now, like getting into my car and driving for two or three seconds with my eyes closed just to see what would happen. After I did that a few times, I recognized that the Cymbalta was not the right thing for me, and on a day when I was meant to pick up a newly filled prescription I just didn’t show up. I went cold turkey and spent the next weeks in withdrawal while going about my days at school like nothing had changed.
When winter break arrived and I went home to Georgia, my parents looked at me like they couldn’t believe I was the same person they’d sent to college only six months prior. I’d gained 10 pounds, box-dyed my hair black, and was so depressed that I was practically mute. I slept the whole time I was there, emerging from my childhood bedroom for meals and nothing else.
At the end of the visit, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and told me that they had arranged for me to see a Christian counselor, and that I had to talk to her at least once before they’d feel OK about sending me back to school. I somberly acquiesced, and when the time came for me to attend the session, I completely snowed her. I smiled, insisted that my parents had misinterpreted my disposition, and told her I was looking forward to going back to college for my second semester.
I met Emilie the first week of the new year. We were inseparable, and as the friendship deepened, the strange pain that had been living in my vagina for years disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived. The relief the healing brought should have been celebrated, and in my own way I did celebrate it, spiritually speaking, but the depression did not dissolve along with the physical pain. I knew why it didn’t dissolve, and I did everything in my power not to confront it. I was in love for the first time, I was sure of it, and I didn’t know where to turn. I chose not to tell Emilie my feelings, first concealing them quietly, and then painfully and passive-aggressively when she fell in love with our best friend, David. (She and David eventually got married; we laugh about it all now, and they are still some of my best friends.)
My plan to ignore the inevitability of my sexual awakening failed spectacularly, and soon I started to test the waters by jokingly suggesting to my closest friends that I might not be the most heterosexual person they knew. By my last year of college, I was fully myself, accepted by every one of my friends, with the exception of a few who, for religious reasons, stopped wanting to hang out, but I was still riddled with anxiety about having to shield the truth from my parents. I had decided firmly that they could never know, because it would shatter their hearts into a billion pieces, so I hid in plain sight.
In December 2012, I graduated a semester early, self-released my first album the following month, got my heart irreparably crushed by a lover in the spring, and embarked on one of my first real tours in the summer. One of the last shows I played on that run was in Kansas City, and my bandmates and I, along with my dear friend Aly, who was co-headlining the tour, stayed overnight in a home that belonged to someone I’d never met. The show was just OK. I was feeling burned by the long drives and disrupted circadian habits, and I was looking forward to going to sleep and starting again in the morning. My memory bank replays the next few moments in slow motion: I stretched out on the couch and opened my phone to check my email once more (generally just a bad idea) and felt my throat seize when I saw the email from my mom. It was short. Someone at my parents’ church had heard from someone I went to high school with (who had heard from God knows where) that I was Not Heterosexual, and my mother wanted to know if it was true. My bones went liquid, my hearing gave way to a high-pitched ringing, and my skin stung like I’d fallen onto a patch of hot needles. Without knowing how I got there, I was face down on our host’s floor, my mouth buried in an oriental rug to smother my sobs. I did not sleep that night.
These events made for the cleanest break I could’ve imagined, but at a high cost. For some, letting their loved ones in on their queerness proves to be a positive experience, but mine did not. It was a choice that was mine to make, in my own time, if ever, and that choice was ripped from me. My story is not special; this kind of thing happens every day, and for many the repercussions are far more devastating than what I experienced. When I got back to Nashville, I got the words Strange Mercy tattooed on my arm, a reference to a St. Vincent song and album largely about justifying questionable means in the interest of carrying out what one perceives to be the greater good. I had it carved into my skin to remind myself that nature’s teleological design is smarter than I am, and to resist its insuperable blows only delays that which is inevitable. Less than a month later, I packed up my studio apartment, put everything in storage, and moved to New York City.
I’ve been in New York for a little more than five years now, and it is better for my temperament than any other place I’ve lived or visited. I love that the streets here are populated 24/7, because silence makes me uneasy. I like living in an apartment building, because knowing there are warm bodies just on the other side of the wall keeps me from feeling isolated. Getting older has not relieved me of my depressive propensity. It will follow me as long as I live and it will constantly threaten to infect some aspect of my world, achieving minor successes here and there along the way. My range of control over this proclivity is limited, but I have noticed that range stretching to make room for more life, better life, every day. This rewarding expansion is the fruit of a relentless pursuit of Optimal Joy and a whole lot of Letting Go.
I desire wellness of the mind. I desire wellness of the body. I desire wellness of the spirit. So I run on the treadmill. I lift weights. When it’s warm out, I try to walk more often than I take the train. I now know that on the days I don’t sweat, I’m far more likely to become sad for no reason. I try to eat a whole avocado every day. Extensive research on the microbiome and the gut-brain connection—they’re so connected that most of the serotonin in our body is located in our digestive system—led me to examine the relationship between what I eat and how it hurts or helps my mind-body-spirit connection. I spent years fine-tuning, finding out what makes me feel good, and removing everything that contributes to inflammation, lethargy, angst, and unpredictable mood swings. I live with a hiatal hernia (they’re very common and are usually detected with a barium swallow) and if I stick to the healing foods, I am able to keep it from flaring up and causing me agonizing pain.
My quality of life has changed drastically for the better. It’s harder to eat healthily when money is tight, and financial stress wears me down as much as the next person. I still get bummed in the summer when people leave the city (and me) behind without notice for their upstate weekend jaunts, just like I used to when my friends didn’t want to spend the night. But now when I feel the familiar blanket of melancholy closing in to snuff out my joy, I try to make wise choices. Instead of hitting the self-destruct button, I treat myself like I would treat someone else in my state of mind. I ask myself what tomorrow’s me is going to thank today’s me for doing, and for not doing. I used to turn to whiskey, sad music, and bad food help me cope with sadness. Sad music might have helped me to feel less alone, but it also gave me an excuse to dig my heels deeper into the sadness. I still drink alcohol, but only the kinds that agree with me, and only with food on my stomach, and only in the company of other people. Marijuana saved my life, and I could write another 3,000 words about that alone, but I’ll save it for another time. I still listen to music in periods where I feel receptive to it but it isn’t unusual for me to keep it away for months at a time. I hardly listen to anything that sounds sad now, even on the best days, as it does not serve me relief the way it once did. I give myself something to look forward to as often as I can. I take myself to the movies, I use my body for pleasure, I read poems, I buy myself flowers, I drink water.
My relationship with my parents is better now than it’s ever been, and we talk almost every day on the phone. I privately and publicly acknowledge that I’m working with less dopamine and serotonin than quite a few folks, and I try to laugh about it as much as I can, not because I’m trying to minimize its gravity, but because I’m hell-bent on lapping up every drop of magic this planet will agree to entrust to me while I’m here. I refuse to lean into darkness, and I vigilantly surround myself with people who don’t encourage me to lean into it. These are often the same people who won’t fully understand when and why the harder days are hard, and sometimes they even keep their distance when they don’t know how to respond to it. That can be isolating in its own way, but it is all so much better than it used to be.
It’s remarkable to be here. I get to feel the glory and gravity of the earth at the same time as everyone I love. To now know how it feels to be madly in love, to walk around in it, bathe in it, drink it and smoke it, show it off when I want to share it and keep it private when I want it all to myself, without fear of rejection or of what anyone else might think of it, is a gift greater than anything I could’ve hoped for myself when I was young and scared to death. Depression does not discriminate. It has no regard for social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, religious practice, political party, regional borders, or age, though any number of these factors have the potential to trigger or exacerbate a depressive bout. But please hear me: if and when it descends, like Sylvia Plath’s stifling bell jar, it’s a sure thing that it’s going to lift again. It’s always going to lift again.