I didn’t know what I was fighting at 16, I just knew my weapons of choice—young adult novels and poetry, alternative/punk/emo music, a One Direction fanbase Facebook group of friends I had never met, lacrosse, and writing lyrics or quotes on everything I owned. My school notebook had the Saosin lyric “You’re not alone / There is more to this, I know / You can make it out / You will live to tell” smudged on the back in sharpie. My locker had a picture of Ernest Hemingway’s quote “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places” taped on the inside. I think I reblogged My Chemical Romance’s music video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” (the Dialogue/MTV Version) every day on Tumblr. I was a walking homemade self-help book taking pieces of whatever I found hopeful and making it my own.
I’m 22 now. I am still fighting, but I know what I’m up against and I know why I fight.
My mental health destroyed any consistent friendships I had in high school because I was just “too serious” and couldn’t “just relax.” In retrospect I don’t blame the people I lost because I couldn’t even handle or understand myself; we were taught all about algebra we wouldn’t even use and nothing about this universal issue of mental illness. For years I was just coping, just waiting for this “phase” to pass because I blamed it all on the high school environment. Even if it was just situational, I should have asked for help. I’ll revisit this but know: if you want help, you deserve help and should ask for it.
The thing with a mental illness is your reality does not necessarily reflect reality. This is hard to overcome when you’re convinced everyone hates you, when you are sure you’re in danger, when you’re sure there is no way it gets better. I couldn’t understand that, so I escaped it.
Music became another realm for me to go to, a safe place where I got to be alone without actually feeling alone. I downloaded a few albums on my Nook which would end up being my portal to that place: Mayday Parade’s S/T, Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, Paramore’s All We Know Is Falling, Relient K’s Mmhmm, All Time Low’s Put Up Or Shut Up, Secondhand Serenade’s Awake, and My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade. I had no idea the emotions I was dealing with back then. I could have never written about them myself, but somehow I was able to identify with the pain a lot of these artists were singing about. It was the cathartic release I needed. I don’t want to say that music saved my life but I also don’t want to imagine where else I would have turned to deal with life if I had not had music that was both empathetic and hopeful.
When I made it to college I was sure all my problems would disappear. I was still carrying my baggage around from years past, but I was moving forward so I didn’t think it was weighing me down. I was still alone but I was happy to be in a new place where no one knew me and I could find myself. But we need other people, we deserve a support system.
I started to understand music more deeply; I had always been highly empathetic but I was starting to have my own experiences that I needed to work through. I remember once at a Pierce The Veil show, their lead singer Vic said “Take this song and make it your own.” I finally gave myself the freedom to access art in this new way where a song could be about a breakup but for me it would be about losing my grandfather etc. In high school I was really numb, music was just something I consumed and used. With age, music became something I needed to be involved in directly.
So freshman year when my internet friend Erin asked me if I wanted to go to a show in Washington DC to meet our other internet friend Kaile, I let myself say yes. We had all met through that One Direction Facebook group but liked the same music outside of that. We went to the Resolution Tour with Action Item, Paradise Fears, and Before You Exit. That one date turned into going to the Pittsburgh and New Jersey dates of the same tour. It was my first experience with traveling for music and realizing I found that feeling of home hundreds of miles away from my actual house. The people at those shows were complete strangers to me, yet I felt as if I were a part of a community, one that accepted me right where I was. Ever since, live music has become an important part of my life: It has helped me find my best friends and given me a reason to travel all over the country. It still is one of the few social environments I am comfortable in, it’s hard to even express how crucial that is for my mental health.
All of this wasn’t enough, though. I couldn’t go a week without having a panic attack. I either slept for 14 hours or not at all. I wasn’t taking care of myself and I didn’t care. I was scared of myself, of where my own mind would go. I wouldn’t even allow myself to drive a car. I felt totally out of control. I was cancelling plans whenever I could. I had self-diagnosed myself with anxiety at some point as if just knowing what it was, was sufficient.
Going into my senior year of college I re-read The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. I finished it on campus and walked straight to the counseling center. Those first six weeks of therapy were some of the hardest. I was relieved to have an official diagnosis but I finally had to deal with all the burdens I had been carrying around. I had to start understanding how my brain worked, how to recognize when it was wrong, and how to fight it so I could live with it. I didn’t want to tell my family but I wanted to continue getting professional help somewhere more permanent. I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult, and maybe they didn’t totally understand, but they were still understanding enough to help me. I had never given anyone the chance to help me. I had always just assumed everyone knew something was wrong with me but didn’t care enough to ask. My only regret is that I didn’t ask for help earlier because I deserved it, we all deserve to understand ourselves and have other people that try to understand us.
We all have mental health. We can all practice self-care. I think we can learn something from therapy. Don’t let the stigma that surrounds therapy and other professional help to stop you from reaching out. There is nothing weak about asking for help; in fact, one of my strongest moments was walking into that counseling center. I don’t share my story for who I am, I share it for who I was because 16-year-old me needed this honest conversation about anxiety/depression even if it is dark.
“Recovery” is a journey, not a destination. Some days waking up and living is enough. Some days you still have to cancel plans or take a break or admit you’re struggling and that’s okay. Mental health is just as important as physical health. You deserve to be honest, you deserve to have friends and family that support you and don’t make you feel like a burden, you deserve to KEEP LIVING to your full potential despite whatever it is you deal with.
That’s why I see myself as a fighter. I have new weapons now too: Sometimes a pen is a sword and paper is my battle ground. I take care of my body so I can keep fighting. I have a strong army around me in case I need to rest. I have my books with characters that teach me how to fight. I always have and always will have music to help me; to be a war cry; to block out the battles for a moment so I can think; to remind me I’m not the only one fighting; to encourage me to push through; to connect me with other warriors (maybe that’s you). But the point is I fight. I fight for myself and my dreams and my passions. I fight the causes I believe in and the people I share life with. I fight for the moments I feel invincible and the days I make an impact. I fight for the lies I once believed about myself and the people who still need to learn the truth. I fight for my role in the world because no one can replace me, no one can live the life that I will. We are irreplaceable.