mental health

Emotional Squalls and Musings on Surviving a Creative Life

AlexiaCoaching, Happiness

A couple of weeks ago, I brought my husband and kiddo up to Seattle for my high school reunion. We did the tourist thing for a few days. We took a ferry ride, rode the Seattle Great Wheel, hit up the museums at the Seattle Center, ambled around the Woodland Park Zoo, and even had a pit stop at Pike Place Market.

For most people who live in, or have visited Seattle, Pike Place Market is synonymous with great fish, fresh produce, eclectic restaurants and housewares, expensive parking. But for yours truly, who hadn’t been to Pike Place in just over two decades, it’s a reminder of one of the darkest days of my life.

When I was in high school, shortly after my grandmother died, I had a depressive episode. And like most people who experience depression, I did it, for the most part, alone. I didn’t have a vocabulary to give voice to the tsunami of grief that had overtaken me, nor could I make sense of why one traumatic event had reminded me of another—the sexual abuse I had experienced (and never been able to fully forget) during the first few years of my life. Not wanting to burden anyone with all my “stuff,” I didn’t let anyone in on how lonely or hopeless I felt.

I buried my grandmother a week before my sixteenth birthday. And the only thing I wanted for my birthday, like most sixteen-year-olds, was my driver’s license. I had an insanely over the top car waiting for me—my dad’s heartfelt attempt to try to take my pain away. All that stood between us was my driving test—which I failed, when in the last five minutes of my test, I ran through a stop sign that popped out of the side of a school bus as I drove by.

I went home that night, equal parts angry and ashamed, grabbed every over-the-counter-drug I could find in my house, told my mom I did not want to go to school the following day (the last day of school for the year), and planned on taking everything I’d hoarded after my mom and stepdad went to work.

Thankfully, I never got a chance to execute my plan.

When my friends saw that I wasn’t at school, they came over. Now, at no other point has a friend shown up at my house uninvited. Yet on this day, four or five of them did, demanding we all drive to Pike Place Market and “hang.” (I’m sure they didn’t say “hang”, but in my head, well, it amuses me to think that they did.)

Please don’t think I take lightly what I almost did. I’m horrified that I almost swallowed several bottles worth of pills because I failed my first driver’s test. As I write this, I think of my family—my family of origin and the family I have created—sickened by what my selfishness would have cost them and me. Fortunately, I don’t have to revisit that darkness for very long.

Too many of us, however, unfortunately do.

The day after my family’s trip to Pike Place Market, I woke up to the news that Kate Spade had taken her own life. And of course, a few days later, Anthony Bourdain did the same. I suspect you, like me, have been shaken by these tragic deaths. For whether you have struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts, or those close to you have, these celebrities’ deaths are a painful reminder that too many with depression and mental illness struggle alone, and no amount of financial success or fame can prevent it.

As a creative person, I know that my ability to feel each and every one of my emotions deeply is one of my greatest strengths—with clients, on stage, in my writing.

And, as a creative person, while I can find beauty in the unlikeliest of places, I also have the capacity to go dark—fast.

One of the most important lessons I took away from my friends showing up for me, and likely saving my life, is that I don’t ever have to go through anything alone. While I didn’t have another depressive episode until right after my daughter’s birth, when I unexpectedly found myself in one at that time, I immediately told my mother and my husband. I didn’t mince words about how scared, lost, and depleted I felt. And while I have never felt suicidal since high school, given my history, I also knew it was not wise for me to be alone—in any sense of that word. And fortunately, I never was.

I am not a mental health expert, but I have lived with depression and anxiety at various points in my life. I find it devastating that the CDC reports that suicide rates have risen by 25% in the last twenty years. There is one death by suicide in the world every forty seconds. It’s the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 15-24, and while male suicide rates are 4x’s higher than they are for females, women attempt suicide 3 x’s as often as men (and experience depression at 2 x’s male rates).

I don’t know what the answer to our global crisis in mental health is, but I do know that the following four principles have helped me navigate through the emotional squalls that my life as a performer, educator, parent, spouse, and entrepreneur have brought my way.

I share them in the hope they may facilitate insights or comfort for you, or someone you care about. Please feel free to forward to the people in your life.

1. When it feels like the universe is serving me triple-stack crap pancakes, I procure quick evidence that where I am, and what I am experiencing, is only a temporary resting place. Sometimes I read old thank-you notes I’ve kept to reconnect me to my intrinsic value. Or call someone I love and thank them for being in my life. Or, on particularly dark days, I’ll look for the easiest thing I can do to climb even just one rung up the joy ladder (like take a bath or cut my toe nails).

2. When I am in the midst of an epic low, I also do whatever it takes to laugh from time-to-time. Binge-watch all four seasons of Jane the Virgin. Call what I am experiencing a “bum-bum biting moment.” Trick myself into thinking I am the future subject of a Hollywood movie.

Okay, let me explain that last one. Whenever I find myself going through some epic sh*t, I visualize what’s transpiring as blockbuster-worthy. (In case you are curious about what that looks like for me, when I visualize my movie, I like to go straight to a climactic moment when Anne Hathaway (playing me) has her (my) big breakdown (probably with much better hair and waterproof mascara).

Of course humor and distraction don’t cure pain, but by providing deliberate, short-term relief, they can help with the overall intensity and duration of it.

3. Someone once told me, if you ride any emotion all the way to the end, without fighting against it, you will find joy. I don’t know who to attribute that idea to, nor do I know if it’s been validated, but I can tell you that since I’ve allowed myself to be unapologetic about what I’m feeling, AND let other people in on my highs and lows, they don’t feel so scary (nor last so long) anymore.

4. And most important, when I’m having persistent thoughts or feelings I don’t like, I seek help. Period. (And, I love the people in my life enough to temporarily upset them, by suggesting they seek help when I know they need it too.)

If you, or anyone you know needs mental health support, I highly recommend the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin