My Mental Health

On August 1, 2015 I woke up with some pep in my step. I had slept well. I felt excited about all the things. It was Saturday and I had nothing to do. I spent it relaxing and it ended on a high note. Life was good in Buford, GA. On August 2, 2015, I woke up and took my car to get an oil change. Then I came home. Twenty minutes later, after a pile of pancakes and maybe some OJ, my life stopped. My three-plus year relationship came to an end, unexpectedly. 

I. Got. Dumped.


The following few weeks were a whirlwind nightmare. In my life, to that point and since, I have not cried so frequently and so violently. I confided deeply in people who have since confirmed that they always deserved my distrust. I was treated poorly, frigidly, in my own, now-temporary home. I didn’t practice. Eventually, I moved to a different part of Atlanta. I stopped caring much about my teaching. I played some solo concerts on which I (literally) sightread some music. I wrote a blog titled, I Don’t Like My Job. At some point, I had a small episode, and I sought help.

I was depressed, and I had been for a long time. Ten years, at least. Since March 2005. To put it lightly, I wasn’t particularly thriving. I had just cut my studio by 50% to make room for more important personal, couple time. I was making enough money to pay bills, but just barely. Throughout August, my depression worsened. I wrote a suicide note. The person I would usually turn to in a time of such devastation was interested in completely different things and people. So I talked to someone else. Someone with a prescription pad.

It was the best thing that I ever did. My life turned around. Things became rapidly better. And it had to happen that way. I had to hit bottom before I could rebound. 

In the first line of his (incredibly important and poignant) blog regarding his own mental health, composer Nico Muhly wrote, “I have been, it turns out, unwell for a long time.” All I could think was, “Me, too.”

When I read Nico’s blog back in the early-summer 2015, I felt a sense of absurd kinship with the brilliant composer. I have not achieved near the success that he, himself, has achieved, nor do I expect to ever rise to be half the musician that he is. At that time, I had never been on a cocktail of medications to keep my long-time depression at bay, nor had I seen a therapist on the regular since...ever. What struck me and resonated within me was how he found himsef unable to feel the personal and professional satisfaction that comes with doing great work.

Like Nico, I could not remember the last time that I felt personally or professionally fulfilled. Because I don’t know him, I can’t profess that we have had the same experiences. My family doesn’t talk about problems. (That I am writing this blog and revealing this much personal information would certainly be horrifying to my mom, should she ever figure out how to read this - or any - blog.) In fact, my immediate family live our lives as five, separate and distinct individuals; family events are viewed as a nuisance. Perhaps as a reaction to this upbringing, I spent the past ten years living my life for other people, seeking the community that I missed throughout my childhood. 

In 2005, I was a self-conscious college sophomore, concerned with my friends accepting me as a musician, practicing to impress, rather than practicing to improve, when I practiced at all. In 2008, I found no joy in my continued development, instead only feeling distress with newfound challenges that were probably too hard to overcome, especially for a mediocre talent like myself. In 2010, it was about whether or not this-other-guy-named-Justin would enjoy my recital performance and whether he would still love and respect me - as a person, a musician, anything - after he listened to 90 minutes of my playing. In 2011, I toured and performed to prove to a professor that I was worthwhile, hoping that applause would fill the void that was left when it became obvious that he neither cared about nor respected me. In 2013, I taught to earn and I earned to live, not for myself, but to be better for someone else so that I would be worth it: worth all the disappointment, the constant frustration, and the strange professional schedule that came with being with me. At no time did I identify as a person, with a personal life, and personal relationships. My cello was my only reliable friend and my career the only social life I needed. In 2015, I was set adrift, 30 and alone, with nothing but a dozen students who may or may not have enjoyed playing the cello and probably didn’t enjoy my funny, funny jokes.

The instrument had become part of my aching, part of my loneliness. Rather than the partner with whom I had worked so closely for more than a decade and with whom I had achieved modest success, my cello was a symbol of the hurt, the emptiness, and the broken promises that I had made to myself. I couldn’t practice because it just led to more sorrow. I was in pain, and when life and work conspire against you, it seems as if there is only a singular, very final, way out.

When a musician doesn't practice, they don't maintain their ability: they actually get worse. When one is depressed, when one already feels that they do not deserve any success (to say nothing of that which they have achieved), when even the sound of a dog’s sneeze is enough to bring on a deluge of tears, nothing can be accomplished. So, I got worse.

I couldn't play a C Major scale. I couldn't get through a Bach Prelude. “Turning it on” to teach my amazing students was near impossible. Nothing made it better. I felt helpless and hopeless. I had no one and no motivation. I couldn’t bring myself to do what I had been trained to do. The soundtrack to my life was made up of playlists I had titled, “Calm,” and “Don’t Be Cry.” I listened to far too much Journey and never enough Einstein on The Beach. Eventually I stopped listening to music altogether. Schubert was meaningless drivel and Bach was a cul-de-sac. I became ensconced in political discourse. I posted daily quips from Trump’s Twitter feed, and countless articles about Bernie. I went to the lake and watched cable news and went for long, slow runs and drank bad wine that I bought at the Kroger. I didn’t shave. I hugged Mylo. 

I tried everything. Except practice. Never practice.

And then: I went to therapy. 

I was put on medication. It helps with things. My general attitude is no longer so harsh and my sarcasm is (hopefully) humorous, rather than biting and snarky. My doctor told me that I would begin to see a mellowing in my reactions to small annoyances. I found myself asking students to, “tell me what can be better,” rather than, “tell me what sucks?” My general outlook became rosier, more positive. A dark cloud lifted and I began to see the sunshine. I started to feel proud of who I was and what I was accomplishing. I haven’t used my car horn since September.

I am now a happier person. I am a more positive person. My studio has nearly tripled in size, and while teaching is still exhausting, my students are awesome and they are achieving incredible things, amazing me week after week. Performing is a fulfilling, near-religious experience. When I listen to Knee 5, I smile. Talking to strangers is easier. I no longer try to mentally outmaneuver those with whom I disagree and to whom I feel superior. (And it should go without saying that I try to avoid the feelings of anger and superiority altogether!) I laugh deep belly laughs when Mylo races across the footbridge, all 11.6 pounds tugging mightily at his leash, yearning to see his friends at the dog park. 

I am happy with my life. I am introspective without being withdrawn. I am contemplative without beating up on myself. I am selfless wthout being a doormat. My successes leave me fulfilled and excited. My failures encourage me. I have been left wondering, “Where has this person - these feelings - been for the past decade?” Who I was four, six, twelve, and 120 months ago is a distant, happily-overcome memory. I am ready to welcome all that awaits me, and I will do so joyfully.

I suppose I have a person to thank for that.