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The Black Dog in the Room

I read a lot of interviews with musicians.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s something you do to keep on top of what’s going on in the music industry and to research who you’re interviewing.  It’s part of what we do here at Girls at the Rock Show.  Over the last several years I have noticed a trend – more and more musicians are talking openly about their battles with mental health issues.  And there’s a reason for it.  According to a recent survey of and report on 2,211 musicians and people associated with the industry by Help Musicians UK, musicians and people who work in the music industry are more than three times likely to suffer from depression than the general population.  Let that sink in.  Three times more likely.  A staggering 71% of people who responded stated that they’ve experienced panic attacks and anxiety, 65% admit to suffering from depression. By comparison, 19% percent of the general population of the U.K. (one in five adults) has experienced depression and/or anxiety.  And musicians are not alone.  Study after study of people with high artistic ability shows that mental health issues often go hand in hand with highly creative people.  I recently interviewed a person who plays in a band about how mental illness has affected them both personally and as a group.  And while working on pictures from the show and transcribing the interview, it hit me that I, too, have a story to tell about depression and anxiety.

People who don’t know me well often say that they want my life.  I smile and laugh and tell them that while taking pictures and interviewing people is fun, it’s not all sparkly and glamourous.  Until now, only my family members and closest friends have known that I have suffered from depresssion and anxiety for a long time.  I practiced law for seventeen years.  There is a reason why dentists and lawyers have high suicide rates – no one comes to see us because they’re happy and that takes its toll.  By the time I realized that I had a serious problem, I could no longer do simple things like check voicemail/email, answer phone calls, return phone calls, respond to emails or even go to the post office to pick up mail.  Trying to do those things was just absolutely impossible.  Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  I tried laughing it off, but eventually I realized for my own good that I needed to leave the legal profession.  I also summoned up the courage to seek help and I want to be honest:  while I could admit to myself that I had a problem, telling my family and sitting across from my doctor and telling him that the wheels had fallen off my life was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I started on medication and it had to be changed several times before we found the right one.  I eventually felt good enough to go off of medication for a while, but it later came back with a vengence.  I restarted counseling and medication in January of last year and am happy to report that things are better.  But saying that does not mean that I am cured and that every day is rainbows and kittens. I have accepted that this is a condition that ebbs and flows and even though there are more good days than bad medication is going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

A lot of people  describe depression as a “black dog.”  That phrase is often attributed to Winston Churchill; author Matthew Johnstone wrote a book entitled “Living With A Black Dog” in which he likened his experience with depression as a big black dog that constantly stood between him and happiness.  And I like that metaphor.  It stands there in front of you and growls and barks and tells you that you’re no good and you don’t deserve to be happy.  It makes you anxious – daily chores and routines become unbearable and undoable and people who don’t know what you’re going through can’t for the life of them understand why you can’t just get up and go get mail out of a box and even if they DO know they still don’t understand.  And it tells you things about yourself that you start to believe.  For example – people tell me all the time that they admire my photography.  I smile and nod.  Truth is, there are times when photos sit in their files after the initial run-through and cull because I let my black dog convince me that I suck at photography.  I also quilt.  I have a lot of quilts that have gone unfinished because the black dog is sitting on them and laughing.  There are nights when I shoot shows with anxiety levels that are so high I can barely stand the thought of walking into a photo pit with people I don’t know and the black dog tells me that I don’t belong there.  Not every day, not every night, not every show, not every quilt.  But that dog is a stalking horse that has its own arrival and departure schedule.

I’ve finally recognized and accepted that there is no reason to let this continue – partly because I’m tired of letting it trick me into self-limiting what I do.  Things do not have to be this way and I have the power to put a leash on that damn dog and tell it to heel.  Frank Turner covered the song “This Year” by the Mountain Goats for Project Calm as a “torch song” – one that inspires you to change your emotional outlook.  “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me. ”  And to be honest, depression colors what I do artistically in a positive way.  I go back and look at pictures I’ve done – some concert-related, some street photography, some still lifes, etc., and I see where the way I see the world is affected in a positive way by what I deal with.  For example, most of my concert work focuses on the individual band members as opposed to full stage shots.  I favor introspection over interaction.  My landscapes usually have one or two people – never a crowd.  And I like that.  I really do.  Because see – I may have a black dog but now that I’ve recognized and admitted that fact and have him under control for the most part, I can play with him and let him off the leash now and then and see what we can do together.  We make a pretty good team.  And that’s my story.

You don’t have to live with this burden pinning you to the wall, throwing you up on the ceiling, or knocking you down to the floor.  Trust me.  Trust every person who has ever said that it doesn’t have to be this way.  It’s not easy.  I know.  But there is a way around it and it starts when you get angry enough that you want your life back.  Find someone to talk to.  Admit it to a friend or a doctor.  Get help.  If you are having a hard time getting help, tell someone you need help getting help.  It gets better.

Thanks to people in the music/entertainment industry who are speaking publicly about suffering from and dealing with depression and other forms of mental illness, the stigma is slowly starting to crack.  New cracks develop with every voice that says this is what happened to me, this is what I went through, this is how I got help, this is what I did to get better.  This is the first time I’ve spoken out openly about it and it’s scary.  But I have a platform from which to add my voice and make another crack.  And a leash to keep it all in check.   If you’re reading this, it means that I found the courage to hit the “Publish” button.  You can do it, too.

This Year – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW0VJla8hVc

For help in the US, go to https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/immediate-help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
For help in the UK, go to http://www.samaritans.org or call their hotline at 116 123.  The call is free.

Finally, The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is dedicated to preventing male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK:  https://www.thecalmzone.net/

(Shout out to my dog, Moses, for letting me use his picture.  He’s a good boy, yes he is.)