Saturday, June 4, 2016

Musicians and Mental Illness: Cause

(part one of "Musicians and Mental Illness")

One of the most disheartening things about dealing with depression is the experience of having numerous people disappear on you. Some friends (that I thought were the kind of friends that would reach out) didn't reach out. Some stand silently at a safe distance, perhaps waiting for me to stop writing these articles, "thinking" or "praying" because that is all they know how to do, or that is all they choose to do. These are not the heroes of my tale.

It wasn't all bad. I had friends go out of their way to chat with me. I had friends purposefully make time for me, spending time in the same room as me, breathing the same air. I know that not all of them know what I am going through but they are with me, I can somewhat tell that my existence means something to them. All humans need this, a sense of belonging. We are wired in this way.


After I posted my first two articles on depression, a multitude of friends (a mix of close friends, acquaintances, and people who don't know me anywhere except on Facebook) rushed to my side in an unexpected way. Private messages. Several of them checked on me for several days in a row and still do. Their empathy and stories of similar struggle poured over me with empathy. The people who helped me the most were other people who have struggled with depression.  

I don't mean for this to be a "sit down, shut up, and listen" article for the rest of you who have never struggled with mental illness, though it may seem that way. You just don't know. You are perplexed that anyone could feel this way, and you most certainly do not understand how this feeling could fester and how despair could grow so deep that someone would want to take his or her own life. No, it's much easier to say this is "in our head" (no shit), or "these acts are selfish". Well, you can relax, this article isn't primarily for you anyway. This article is for those of you who are struggling with depression or anxiety.

Meet 22 musicians who have dealt with depression and anxiety. They agreed to participate in a questionnaire to help connect with others who may be struggling in the same way. If you are a musician struggling with mental illness, you are not alone. We are with you, you are with us. We know your frustration and hurt, as evidenced by our experiences we will be sharing in the next three articles. Feel free to reach out, even if you would like to post anonymously. 

I think it's important to point out that when I presented this article to the participants, several were surprised to find they don't have a story as heartbreaking as others. This is not a contest, and if it was it would be the kind where we all lose. Depression is depression. Anxiety is anxiety.

What do you think is the root cause of your depression and/or anxiety?

"I think that in my case, I have a genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression based on talking to my family about my thoughts and struggles. Although I am the first one in my family to be diagnosed with depression, others have suffered from both diagnosed and undiagnosed anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. I think my depression manifested because of anxiety related to social awkwardness starting in middle school. I had a lot of trouble making friends, and even once I had a small group of friends, I was extremely anxious whenever I had to be around people who weren't my friends. I remember when we had testing days in high school and our lunch schedules were swapped around, sometimes I would eat in the restroom or band hall because I was so nervous walking in a lunch room filled with people I didn't know."

"Inadequacy. I've known since junior high that that's my personal demon, not that it helps much in fighting it."

"I believe the root cause of my anxiety and depression lies in the final words of my primary professor at the end of grad school. It set me up to continually doubt myself and filled me with fear that I wasn’t good enough to be successful. So much so, that when I eventually attempted to branch out and do other things and had a setback, it led to a downward spiral of depression."

"The root of [my] anxiety stems from a sense of feeling like I'm alone, feeling like I'm going to fall flat on my face, feeling incompetent, and feeling inherently not good enough. I'm sure that's all rooted in my relationships with my parents along with being teased when I was younger. A lot of that anxiety is in the past, but sometimes I get anxious that I'm just going to fail at life, and end up on living on the streets...The root cause of my depression in the past and when I experience it in present is the feeling of not feeling like I matter, that people wouldn't really notice if I never called them or contacted them again. I guess it's the the lack of close intimate real relationships."

"Negative thoughts about myself, poor self-image, generally worrying too much about my future, and wanting to be liked by others."

"Who knows. Probably my massive amount of attempts and failures. My momentary motivation that is only squashed by something, either of my own fault or someone else. Both have happened multiple times. I think I get frustrated when people (including myself) disappoint me and it just spirals from there. Anxiety for me has been just classic "holy shit life is happening, you need to get it together." When something doesn't go right, depression kicks in. They fuel each other so hard."

"I can remember feelings of self-doubt and not belonging in elementary school due to bullying and from my father being hard on me about various things. Later on when music became my career I equated my self-worth to how well I played. Perfectionism started to take hold and I put more and more pressure on myself. I was never living up to the standards I thought I should have. When I began to have physical issues and my playing really took a nosedive, that's when I felt like depression was setting in. It affected my home life with my family. I was grumpy all the time and was easily irritated. I couldn't think of anything else - it consumed me...Weight issues. In 2000, I weighed close to 300 lbs and tried the Atkins Diet. A year later I had lost probably 80-85 lbs. I've hovered around that area since then, and have never achieved my goal. While I am proud of the fact that I lost that much weight and have mostly kept it off with a little yo-yoing, I always focus on the fact that I never got there. Always focusing on the failures and not the successes. The story of my life. So now when I look in the mirror I cringe at what I see and wonder how in the world could my wife be attracted to me."

"It's definitely a combination of a lot of factors but a few things stick out. I'm what's called an adult third culture kid, which is a phrase used to describe adults who for at least part of their lives were raised in a culture that was not that of their passport or home country. I didn't reintegrate all that well when we moved back to because I'd seen more of the world than most of my friend's parents. So it was difficult to relate to other kids and my social skills suffered. 
The next part was my desk mate in grade 4 was murdered by her father. So I had to understand death and cruelty around age 10, well before anyone else I know. When people pass, I have to really try hard not to seem callous, but that's exactly it. My soul is calloused.
Then I academically stood out by a wide margin to my peers, and was bullied all through junior high school for it, in addition to being smaller than everyone else. Teachers would unintentionally encourage it by handing tests back in order of the grades, so I'd always get my tests back first and teased that I got 100%. I was also named top athlete and strongest musician at my school at this time, and pestered that I couldn't let other people have the spotlight.
Then there was the acne, and how no girl I had a crush on ever wanted to go out with me, despite asking. Once I was in high school the damage was already done. I'd been laughed at a few times asking people out or to dance I just stopped. In high school the social dynamics changed, but It want any less lonely. The band program was huge and I was the star for 3 years, but people didn't seek out my company despite thinking I was "popular". So I practiced, did well in school and soccer and basically disengaged socially...I didn't feel anything at all."

"I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually abused by my parents. My parents were abuse victims themselves. Part of the cycle, you know? Instead of accepting that I would never be good enough to them, I shifted and I switched, anything to gain their approval. It didn't matter how many times they pointed out how I was inadequate, I hustled. Decades later, numb and exhausted, I realized that I was just a sweet girl, good and highly capable, who was squashed by the people that were supposed to love her as she was. I started to say out loud that I am an abuse victim, and I drew some boundaries to protect myself (which is necessary) and I found myself very alone. Depression came with the emotional pain and isolation. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and find my younger self, give her a hug and tell her that there is nothing she has to do to be good enough to anyone...that she is good, amazing, smart, and that she will do great things."

"Most of the time, I think that I'm seeking validation. That I want my actions, choices, and performances to be respected, approved, validated. Writing this out makes it seem like a cry for attention, but that was never it. Shit, as a music major, I got enough attention, but still spiraled into depression in my undergrad."

"The root cause of my shame, anxiety, and/or depression is my parents, for sure. I never felt like I would be enough for them. I continue to feel this way."

"I'm still trying to figure that out. I think part of it is that there is a history of mental illness is in my family. Another is that I have always had, to some degree or another and almost ever-present melancholy which comes and goes. At the same time I know there are shame issues associated with always having known/felt that I was different (my sexuality, preference, etc) than what I perceived my peers were. My self-esteem was usually, and sometimes still can be, low. This has been a biggie and self-talk associated with self-doubt has, without a doubt, not helped matters."

"I get my sense of self worth mixed up with how I perceive other people to perceive me."

"While I can never be completely sure, I am of the impression that the root of my depression came from a mixture of genetic chemical imbalance, perfectionism, and a past struggle with my closet homosexuality."

"The root cause for my anxiety/depression is multi-layered.  I fear being unworthy, unworthy of being loved.  I have an awesome boyfriend of 14 years now....we've been through a lot of really bad stuff - bad illnesses on both sides.  Yet I fear that I am not worthy of his love.  In spite of receiving glowing evaluations over the past several years, I fear not being good enough.  I struggle with comparing myself to others.  I was older when I returned to school (college) and struggled with comparing myself to those who were younger and had to work harder to keep up.  I am very much an introvert and am shy and bashful and find it hard to make friends and struggle with being able to talk comfortably with people.  I find it easier to talk to a group of 5, 6, 7 and 8 year olds than I do adults.  I also fear people leaving me - being rejected and being left."

"I know the number one cause of my depression and anxiety comes from a serotonin imbalance-it runs through the females on my mom's side. I also suspect hormonal imbalance as well (also inherited from my mom). I didn't realize these were the causes at first, though. I had a very clear picture of what depression looked like. To me, depression was gloomy feeling sad all the time and not wanting to do anything. I had formed this image through countless anti-depressant ads and general media exposure of what it meant to be depressed. I always thought of myself as pretty optimistic, and if not cheerful, at least positive. Sure I was shy, and paranoid that people don't like me, but that's just a little social anxiety, right? I would outgrow it. My issue (not the right word, but it will do for now) has always been that I spend a lot of time in my own head. The mind can be a powerful thing and I was constantly in mine, thinking, planning, and twisting things around. Instead of talking to people I would hold those conversations in my head. Or if someone would say something to me I had to over-analyze it to death. It took several panic attacks triggered by my intense fear of being physically sick to make me realize this was something more than a little social anxiety."

"Fear is what most directs my depression: fear of not being liked, fear of not being good enough, fear of the unknown, fear of what might have been, fear of what I cannot control..."

"I believe my anxiety/depression is part nature, part nurture. I think my baseline anxiety level has always been higher than normal, dating back to early childhood. Combine that with the guilt based interpretation of Southern Baptist theology and the anxiety and feelings of shame about any mistakes I made or sexual desire felt, and the anxiety got worse over the years. The anxiety ended up leading to an eating disorder (binge eating) and with that, came depression."

"...Isolation and being out of my comfort zone. My problems really started after I was in an accident in 2009.  I began to be incredibly depressed and have panic attacks multiple times a day.  This lead to a very heavy increase in my drinking to temporarily relieve symptoms, and had a huge impact on my social life.  In 2013, I was in an even worse accident that landed me in the hospital for a month, and I was diagnosed with PTSD.  It has been an every day struggle every day since, for multiple reasons."

"I'm almost 100% sure my depression is hereditary.  My mom and I had all the same symptoms, almost down to how we feel in the morning vs. at night. I feel like depression waits dormant until something sets it off.  Like a great loss, or a large event.  Maybe I had just lived with it for so long, I didn't even realize it was there until shit hit the fan, and I couldn't even live with myself anymore."

"The fear of letting myself down, or letting down those who follow me. The fear of not representing myself to the image I have in mind."

"I'm not entirely sure what the root cause is (I've always been a melancholic child), but I know for certain that family and trauma associated with my family contributed to and supported it. There are many other things that supported it too but at the end of the day, I think having a more of a truly supportive family could have lessened the blow of my predisposition to depression. I hesitate to say that my parents caused it, but they certainly exacerbated the shit out of it and didn't help me deal with it. Supporting children should be about more then putting a roof over their heads and food on the table, or even driving them to music lessons and protecting them from harm. The emotional understanding and the willingness to let them develop into their own person is far more important, and that's what I was missing in my heavily surveilled childhood."


These illnesses can occur out of predisposition, they can be fostered by the lack of love and belonging we experience at home or in our communities, or sometimes it can be the result of something that came out of nowhere. There is no motivational poster that can wield the power of connection and empathy. If you have a story to share, feel free to comment. The internet is not the safest place, but I will do my damn best to keep this forum safe. When I set out to do this questionnaire, I didn't realize how much I would heal from reading and rereading these stories. I hope for that same healing in others.


  1. After graduation the fear and anxiety of finding a "new" community and career to fit in to and being accepted amongst highly professional musicians really set in... And grew... To the point where I have pushed myself so far from music and the career path I was on that I don't even do it anymore. I have been completely outside of the "music loop." There are several factors that happened along the way, including "adult bullies" in the music industry that perpetuated my anxiety, to the point where I would physically become paralyzed. I would then just stop. I would literally have the "fight or fight" feeling towards the end of my music career that I literally "flew." I ran. I ran as far as I could from the paralyzingly anxiety that started to consume me.

    Music was my life, my joy, my therapy, and the depression and anxiety that has now set in post music career suppresses me from getting back out in to the world of music. It's the vicious cycle of depression and anxiety of music not being a my life now that perpetuates and keeps me from not doing music. And the more I want to break free, the more I isolate myself. I feel as though I'm a "lost soul." Music was my purpose. And now that it's gone this whole new level of depression and anxiety keeps me isolated. As the years have past it's more of the anxiety that keeps me away... Am I good enough? Have I lost my musicality? Will I ever feel the way I felt when music was my life? Will people judge me? It's the constant worry that perpetuates the fear, that stirs the anxiety, that feeds the depression. When will enough be enough.....

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Roger. I had a conversation with an actress friend of mine, we were talking about how there's no exit therapy from the arts. I am Magent being a singer was a large part of your identity and when it was taken away, your identity went away too. That loss of identity is traumatic. I'm going to look into this further and hopefully come up with some kind of dialogue or solutions surrounding that. As a teacher I'm going to be more aware of educating my students about their options, and how they can still be connected as musicians even if they decide to do other things.

      Lastly, I am learning more and more and more how adult musicians can be some of the biggest freaking bullies the world has ever known, subversive and pervasive shaming, blaming, and downward social comparison. Discharge of pain and discomfort on students and fellow musicians deemed disposable. I hate that and it pains me to think of how someone could hurt you In that way. You do not deserve that.

      Thank you for reading and I hope this article has brought you empathy.