Almost two years ago, I made the decision to leave my role as a middle and high school teacher to pursue a Master’s in Theological Studies. It was both a difficult step to take, and also one I felt was necessary in order to follow a dream I had to research religion and music more deeply.
If I am being truthful, I regretted the decision almost immediately. As my first semester of classes began in the Fall of 2016, I found myself struggling to justify why I had left a job which had given me purpose to earn a degree that would just require another degree to get me as far as I believed I wanted to go. I started to experience the feelings I felt when I was 12 and 19, those feelings that became the days themselves and cast their long shadows over months. It didn’t make sense: I was privileged enough to study for my Master’s, something few people get to do, and I was about to propose to my then-girlfriend, whom I had loved for years.
But like those previous times, I knew that this emptying feeling had nothing to do with how good life seemed and everything to do with my internal wiring. At the age of 25, I decided to enter counseling for the first time in my life. In my first consultation, I was directed to a semi-private computer to complete an inventory, and found myself in tears as I checked “yes” for each box: Do you have trouble focusing? Do you avoid social interactions? Do you watch entire TV shows and forget what you just saw? Do you wake up after a full night’s rest exhausted?
I wanted to be able to answer “no” for even just one question. In my consultation, the counselor walked me through the inventory, indicating that though she could not diagnose me as a psychiatrist would, my results suggested a strong precondition for anxiety and depression, including social anxiety.
This shouldn’t have been news to me: despite how others view me, I have often found social situations overwhelming, especially when I don’t know the majority of people there. I had spent my first semester of graduate classes avoiding social invitations by peers, and I had even spent a few classes staring at the wall and avoiding eye contact because I was experiencing panic in the middle of lectures.
Luckily, counseling is something that works well for me. I attended sessions once a month, working through various aspects of what I was struggling through, how not being a teacher had made me feel purposeless again, why I often find myself feeling worthless despite my accomplishments. I made an album about anxiety and depression so that I could heal through music and so that others could feel less alone. And slowly, over the course of six months or so, I began to get a sense of myself again.
I don’t remember the point where I started getting better, and getting better didn’t mean that every day was perfect, but slowly, eventually, life’s color came back. I married my best friend in October of last year, we started leading a community group with our best friends, I started writing for a hip hop blog that I greatly admire, I received word that I will have my first journal publication this year, and today, I graduate from my Master’s program and will return to teaching high school this fall.
I say none of this to brag; each of these moments came with a reckoning with myself. I witnessed my own internal struggles affecting the ones I love, and I continue to feel anxious over responses to articles I write and send out into the ether. It is at times overwhelming, but I am learning that celebrating my accomplishments is in no way prideful but a way to love myself, in spite of how I sometimes think about myself.
I can’t pinpoint the exact reason I felt the need to write about my struggles with mental health on the day of my graduation, except to say that maybe I didn’t think today would come, that I would somehow not finish this degree, and that I have means something to me that I want to hold onto for the fleeting moment it is here. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a whole new set of problems, but today, I have this.
Maybe, too, someone out there needs to hear that these moments are possible, even if not permanent. Maybe someone needs to hear this so that they feel they have permission to seek help, or talk about mental health openly and honestly with others. I was ashamed to talk about it, and doing so now is like gutting myself open, but it is also freeing to not hide what is human about ourselves.
And this, too: yesterday, the body of Scott Hutchison, the singer of Frightened Rabbit, was found in Scotland. He sang openly about his depression throughout his life and brought a lot of love and light to my world when I really needed it. On a day that I am celebrating, I broke down in tears while listening to Frightened Rabbit’s song “Rained On,” which I had only heard a few times before. Its lyrics express a lot of sentiments about living with depression that I have felt: “All this lying in the sun doesn’t fill my cup,” and “I don’t plan on feeling empty for any longer than a month.” The former captures the guilt and emptiness of having every reason to be happy but not feeling it. The latter captures the sometimes fleeting promises we make to ourselves that it won’t always be like this, when for too many people it really is.
I wish Scott was still here. I am holding space for his family and friends in my heart in the days to come. And as I celebrate with my family and friends today, I will try not to take it for granted, I will try not to regret my own depression affecting my ability to make friends in my program, and I will try to bring the same light to others that Scott brought to mine. As I was listening to Frightened Rabbit yesterday, I was struck by these lyrics that I have loved for years but never hit quite like they do now:
When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
I think this is one of the most hopeful statements one can make about death. Scott’s loss is immeasurable, but in this song he seems to locate his hope in someone carrying on after he leaves. He impacted his corner of the world in a way that will be felt long after he’s gone.
Søren Kierkegaard defined education like this: “I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself.” As I finish my Master’s degree, and I step into my next role, I’ll hope for smoothness but try to accept the rough edges, that I might go through another depressive period, and I might have to work again to get back to a sense of wholeness. And this seems to me the entire point of my education thus far: Learning to accept every part of life and of myself, however difficult. Learning to celebrate every good moment, to see each as significant and worthy of pausing for. Learning to catch up with myself, the person I want to be, that others see in me, always.
And I’m learning to live up to this, and nothing more: while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.