An Open Letter to Lindsey Stirling

Hey Lindsey-

I have a bone to pick with you.

Last week you came to Boston and I was fortunate enough to see you at the Blue Hills Pavilion. I have been listening to your music for the last few years and I have been hooked ever since the first song I heard. Your show was beautiful. Sharing your music with some of my closest friends and my very musically-inclined boyfriend satisfied me in a way that not much else can. But the truth is that you said some things that truly marred the evening for me and I haven’t yet let it go.

Towards the end of your set you put down your violin for a heart to heart with the audience. You spoke of how you are often complimented on staying so true to yourself and not being afraid to do so. You confided that you have not always been this way and that you suffered a bout of depression. I wish you had stopped there.

You see, when you continued on to say you were self-absorbed as a depressed person and that you simply had to change your mind, you stopped being helpful. I could no longer identify with you because I was instead disappointed and somewhat insulted. I believe you when you say that you practiced changing your frame of mind the same way you practiced your arpeggios worked for you, and I am truly glad for you. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is that simple for everyone.

I have now been aware of my depression for over a decade, though I suspect it was present even in my childhood. I am as well-versed as anybody could be in the routines of self-care. I try to sleep well, eat well, hydrate, do things that make me feel good, enjoy the sunshine, etc. But the fact of the matter is that sometimes none of these things work and sometimes I am simply not capable of doing any of them. I promise you that if I could think my way out of depression I would have done so many years ago. Instead, I am left hoping to be functional at best and proud of myself when I go a full two weeks without randomly considering suicide. This is an illness; it cannot always be walked off.

Please know that I do not intend to one up any experiences you have had; depression doesn’t behave the same for everybody. But this is the point that I am trying to make: your experience is not universal. As you must be aware, there is a certain stigma that people who are mentally ill must battle. It is a kind of illness that is not widely understood and often gets brushed off in ways that are harmful – frequently by people who are close to us. We are often misunderstood as lazy or flaky or self-absorbed when we are simply not as able as an average person. It is not about choice; it is about capability. 

Your music has become my go-to writing music and I have written countless blog posts and letters while listening to it. II believe I understand very clearly the emotional messages conveyed in your music that you described to us last Saturday. I understand the deep somber beginnings and the crescendos of hope. You have helped me and inspired me with the beauty of the pieces you have composed more than you could fathom. You have, in your own way, already saved me.

This is why I am asking you, Lindsey, not to insinuate that your experience is the same as mine or anybody else’s. Please do not speak as though you are the authority on depression and the way out. You have such a large audience to hear you; please do not reaffirm the stereotype that people with mental illness need only to think their way out of it and to try harder. Please do not blanket all of us with your statements while neglecting that we do not all feel the same things, we are not capable of the same things, and we do not all have the same resources.

I believe fully that your intentions are only good. When you are next on stage and sharing your struggle with your fans, tell them this:

“Depression is terrible.”

“It gets better.”

“You are worth it.”

Yours,

Marie Billiel

Here are some of my very, very favorite resources for helping people understand depression and its stigmas:

Adventures in Depression By Allie Brosh

What if People Treated Physical Illness Like Mental Illness? via HuffPost

Depression Quest By Zoe Quinn – This is about as real as it gets, folks

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Letters to Colin

Have I ever really told you my story? Grab a coffee; it’s a long one.

My very oldest memory is from when I was two years old. I’ve since figured out that it was probably in December of 1991. My parents were getting divorced. We lived in a condo in Turners Falls and I still remember where we had the kitchen table, the bookshelf, the couch. The kitchen, the second bathroom. This night I was playing next to the bookshelf that stood against the wall between the dining room and the living room. My parents were at the kitchen table across from each other and the light was dim. My mother stood up, I think she was crying. My father stayed seated. She walked towards me and I remember that I must have been very small, because as she came to me I remember only seeing to her thigh. In my memories she was wearing shorts, which doesn’t make sense if this was happening in December. Maybe it was just an earlier fight. They are dysfunctional people. Likely, they were fighting all the time.

I don’t have really any memories of my dad after that. I’ve tried and tried for years to come up with something. Sometimes I think I remember playing with him in the big raked-up pile of leaves in the fall, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that that memory is fabricated from a certain set of photographs I’ve gotten my hands on. The pictures didn’t wake anything up; they just put an idea in my head. I can remember one other time I saw him as a small child and it was after he moved out. He came by to visit me and read me a bedtime story. I was being difficult, as kids always are at bedtime, and I remember him scolding me with my full name: “June Marie Billiel!” This has stuck with me all my life and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first time I understood that that was my full name, which is sort of strangely profound in itself, or if it is the first time the tone in which my name was being said was harsh enough to stick with me. Maybe both.

I’m pretty sure that my mom used to tell me that my dad never ever came to visit me after he moved out. She’s close to right, if my memory is to be trusted. But I remember this one time pretty clearly. But who knows, maybe he was just there to pick something up or to fight with my mom or to sign a divorce paper. I guess I always just assumed he was there to visit me, even though I don’t have any real reason for thinking that.

Next I remember going to the courthouse in Greenfield. I think that was the official end to the marriage.

Somewhere along the line my mom met this guy named Eric. My grandmother told me that I used to call him Dad. We drove down to Florida with him and a cooler full of sandwiches and lived there for almost a year, I think. I have no idea what he did for work or how my mother met him or anything like that. I remember very little about him, really. I vaguely remember his face and I remember that he used to take me fishing out in back of the condo we lived in. Sometimes we had to run back inside the house because there was an alligator that would come by and hang out on the beach from time to time. I’m pretty sure we never caught anything. One time I was holding a cracker in my hand and a duck came over and bit my finger. Another time we walked along the beach and I found a coconut and took it home and painted it. I kept that damn thing for years, even after we had moved back to Mass and even after I moved to my grandparent’s house. Now that I have to be careful about acquiring too many things it seems insane to me that my family let me keep packing it and bringing it everywhere.

We were in Florida for hurricane season too. Eric and my mom duct taped up the windows and the sliding glass door but somehow my mom still thought that she should bring me to preschool the next day. Of course my school was closed, and I still have the image of her running up to the building while I sat in the car so that she could read the sign on the door. Seems stupid to me now, and dangerous too. Who knows what she was thinking.

Anyway, things were fine with Eric as far as I knew as a four year old, which is admittedly not very far. One day he and my mom got in a fight. He threw her through the screen door and I was standing right in the room. She got back up and came inside and told me to call the police. As she got back up Eric shoved her into this little desk my grandfather had built for me. I asked my mom what the number to the police was because I didn’t know about 911 yet and Eric came over and ripped the phone straight out of the wall. Next I remember my mom checking out the huge gash she had up her legs from being thrown into my desk, but it was days later. Did the neighbors call the cops? Was Eric arrested? Why else would we have still been in that house? I don’t know. I don’t even remember sound from that time. I remember only that I was supposed to call the police and I imagine that my mom yelled it at me. But I’m sure there should have been screams and that Eric would have been shouting too but I can’t recall a damn thing. Was I afraid? I don’t even know what I felt, although I’m sure it’s in my head somewhere.

We left after that, although I don’t know how quickly it happened. When we got back it was winter. My grandparents owned the place we had lived in Turners and apparently it was just the same as we had left it. I don’t remember having to move any furniture back, although that could just be a flaw in my memory. I do remember that as soon as we got back we had to shovel all the snow off of the deck and I had this little red shovel that in retrospect was probably useless, but I helped my mom all the same.

Eric showed up again around my 4th birthday. I was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner or cake or something and my mom had gone upstairs when he peered through the window and waved at me. I ran over to let him in and then I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again though, as far as I can remember.

Next my mom became a junkie.

There was this guy named Russ. I don’t know where he came from, but my mom always pegged him as the one who introduced her to heroin. I’m not sure when or where or how it started, but I learned later that my mom has always had a thing for painkillers, although I don’t actually think she’s entirely aware that she abuses them. Anyway, she used to tell me that even the first time she shot up she had a high tolerance, and I suspect her previous opiate misuse was to blame.

Our lives quickly descended into madness. I can’t even really piece together everything that happened in a real timeline, but I know that for a couple of years our lives consisted of driving to Holyoke late at night and sometimes crashing on random people’s floors. We bought groceries with bad checks I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone anymore because there were always bill collectors and maybe even cops calling. I don’t know if the police part is true, but as a little girl that’s what I thought was happening.

There were always people in our house and sometimes I’d come downstairs in the morning and my mom and a bunch of people would just be passed out on the living room floor. One morning I came down and the news was playing while Russ and my mother dozed in front of the tv. I woke my mother up and asked her if I could change the channel. After she said yes I changed the channel to cartoons and Russ abruptly woke up. He snapped that he had been watching the tv and smacked me across the face. Hard. Truthfully, I don’t remember his hand connecting to my cheek, but I can say with complete certainty that that’s what happened. I have a memory that immediately proceeded this: my mother running with me up the stairs trying to get away from him. There was yelling and when we got to the top of the stairs and Russ was still behind us so my mom turned around and pushed him down the stairs. My mother is a small woman, especially on an opiate binge, and Russ was not a small guy. I think this was the kind of adrenaline-fueled Mama strength you hear about. Mom locked us in the bathroom and although I don’t know how we got out or we got Russ away, I can remember her sitting on the toilet, just peeing and crying.

The next time I saw Russ his arm was in a sling and he told me he was sorry for what happened. But just because Russ was gone doesn’t mean the smack was.

Everything else is a bit foggy. I have mostly glimpses: my mom shutting her bedroom door in my face with a syringe in her hand; driving hours and hours back and forth from New Hampshire to buy cartons of cigarettes and back down to Holyoke to sell them for enough profit to get a fix. We had something like 100 tag sales to help with this new found expense too. A few lovely pieces handmade by my grandfather were lost this way.

I had some shitty kids to play with nearby. There were two kids whose dad sometimes went to jail who lived next door to me. The girl was a little too old to really care about me, but the son, Matt would often play power rangers with me in the woods behind our houses. There was a little frog pond across the street too. There was this super old tiny graveyard and then down behind it was the pond. Sometimes I would catch frogs and then bring them home and put them in my kiddie pool. One time I came home and couldn’t find the frog that had been happily swimming around when I left. I asked Matt if he had seen my frog and he led me to two cinder blocks. He lifted the top one up and showed me the remains of my frog that he had crushed. To this day, this makes me feel sick to talk about. I’m still not sure if this was just classic destructive boy behavior or if this kid was a little sick, but if I listen to my gut I have to say it’s the latter. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded now, but when I look back i just think the whole cul de sac was poisoned.

I also made friends with an elderly lady at the end of the row named Margarite. After I lived with my grandparents sometimes we would go to the condo and do work on the house. I went to visit her each time and then one day someone told me she didn’t live there anymore. I don’t think anybody explained to me that she, or really that anyone, died. But somehow I am sure I knew. Maybe I could smell it. Maybe it was just the air. Too still.

There was also a lady right next door who I befriended. Her name was Gina and my mother hated her. I learned later that she was a social worker. Go figure. She was a good one though.

One weekend I went to my grandparents’ house while my mom went off to party. I’m told that she asked when she should come pick me up and they told her that I was going to be living with them from then on. I don’t know how I felt about this. I have a vague idea that I asked my grandmother a few times when mom was coming back and she kept telling me I would be with them, “a few more days.” Then I was meeting the principal at BSE and he gave me a stuffed panda bear to hold overnight before my first day in kindergarten at my new school.

I don’t believe the whole transition could have been as painless as I remember it, but who knows. During dinner one of the first nights there I confessed to my grandparents about some of the goings-on with my mother in the previous week. I guess they must have been quizzing me, but I only really remember talking to my mom on the corded kitchen phone after dinner and telling her, “I told Gram and Gramp about Wednesday,” and apologizing. She told me it was okay. I guess she must have known it was a lost cause at that point.

That’s enough for tonight.

Melancholy

Depression is a lonely thing.

Even now, in a generation that is becoming more and more vocal about the issue, I find that I– and presumably others like me– still safeguard our ailment and rarely allude to the severity of our experiences. My best guess as to the reason for this, is that despite the barrage of awareness campaigns that have begun to sweep the internet, there is still an underlying attitude of discomfort– a recoiling– towards any type of mental illness. If someone is not suffering from some sort of trendy or movie-style horrifying and intrusive disorder like DID their ailment tends to be overlooked.  For most, depression and anxiety disorders are seen as noninvasive maladies. Maybe this is one of the biggest disconnects. Let me say this: depression can be downright crippling, whether or not it is visible.

The other day I mentioned my depression in passing and my boyfriend shocked me: “You never talk about your depression.” He’s spot on. I was stopped in my tracks, bewildered by the truth in his words. I have been aware of my own difficulties for years, and suspicious of them years before that. I have always pretty readily and casually alluded to my depressive spells in the company of both acquaintances and friends. But the truth is that I rarely delve deeply in my explanations. I think I have always assumed that those who are close to me will witness the alteration in my behavior and moods and thereby understand my varying states. I’m learning now that this is of course unreasonable and like everybody, I need to start speaking more frankly about this.

Today I woke up at eleven. I could have gotten up much sooner. I should have, too. But some mornings greet me with a certain heaviness that I still can’t properly describe. I can’t say for sure if it was triggered by the intense talk I had with Miguel a few days ago, or if it is simply something that lurks and lingers within me. Maybe neither; probably both.

I have what feels like mountains of work to do: emails to write, phone calls to make, laundry, cooking, cleaning. When I write this down I am aware that these tasks are standard. I understand that they are basic and universal. But somehow I find myself completely incapacitated and the weight of these simple chores sentences to me my dark basement bedroom where I sleep fitfully and accomplish nothing. Miguel noted the other day that I am good about giving myself days off when I feel like I need them. I agreed with him, deciding that I was too unequipped to be able to explain that in truth I never give days off. The days that I spend in bed watching tv shows on Hulu are not days that I have designated as easy going vacation days. They are days for which I had many plans. Whether or not I do anything is irrelevant to the amount I feel I need to do. There is always something for me to do. There is always something I am not doing. I am almost always shame spiraling.

I suspect that my shame spirals are at least half of the reason I stay down once I begin to feel heavy. I haven’t yet been able to forgive myself for the way that I am and it makes it difficult to recover from those trying days. Sometimes I don’t pay a bill on time and my only instinct is to hide from that bill. Other times I get an email or a phone call and I don’t return it as quickly as I should. Sometimes I don’t do the laundry. Sometimes I forget to make an appointment. Or get gas. Or make lunch. Or write a blog post. Or anything. Any one of these can send me into a whirlwind of guilt and a suffocating sense of uselessness. I’ve tried to explain this to friend in the past and so few people truly understand it. I am not reluctant or resistant or even lazy. In my mind I am constantly failing, and whether or not that is accurate in real-life standards is completely off the table. In every ounce of my body I know that I am a failure and I know that I should be better: I should be more responsible and organized and stable. The truth though, is that I am not. I am overwhelmed by this realization and the guilt and shame of it leaves me despondent.

In my years of dealing with this I have gotten better at coping with it. Sometimes dragging myself into the blinding brightness of the sun is all I need. I feed myself better when I can muster it and sometimes I honestly just need a nap. I try to laugh. I try to go out for lunch with a friend. I call someone I miss. My ups and downs have been recurring for over half my life at this point and I am finally starting to feel like I have begun to hone my skills in combating what can quickly turn into self-destructive behaviors.  But depression isn’t always that predictable, and it’s certainly not always so yielding. Even now, familiar as I am with the symptoms and cycles, I find that it slinks along behind me and I become aware of it only when I become the victim of its brutal hold on my throat. I choke and retreat to my bed, forgetting to eat, crying myself to sleep, and utterly unable to express myself.

Sometimes I get mean. I become hateful and resentful and lash out at my boyfriend, in spite of his unwavering support.  I can see the mess that I become and I am ashamed by how morbid and pathetic it is.  No matter who I have to support me during these experiences, I always feel like I have no one. I grow bitter when I am told that I am loved because the words drip of sarcasm and mockery. My experiences prove to me again and again that those I rely on will ultimately disappoint and abandon me. I spend the last of the energy I can summon on attempting to will away those around me so that I will not have to endure the fallout of being left once more. My emotional pain becomes so severe that I can’t move and I feel like every bit of me is also physically injured. I feel it straight down into my fingertips and although I lay silently, somewhere in my head I howl like a wounded animal.

I’ve recently decided that the very worst part of falling this hard is that I lose all my outlets. I get so tangled inside my head that become unable to articulate through speech or through writing. This doesn’t happen to me every single time, but when it does it is horrifying. Long gone are the days when I wrote angst-filled poetry and drew pictures of razor blades and angels with bloodied tattered wings. Gone too, are the days when I could hide in my room and drag a blade along the supple skin of my leg when things got too bad. I have outgrown this. The fact that I still have days so bad that I feel desperate enough to consider it is almost too disgustingly shameful an admission. I’m not 14 anymore. I haven’t cut myself in 8 years. Besides, how could I ever hide such a thing from someone who sees my bare skin on a daily basis? If nothing else, this is truthfully what most likely keeps me from regressing in that way. I am always toeing the slope to that shame spiral.

I look for other outlets too. It’s no real surprise that when I can’t pick myself up my relationship suffers. Specifically, my sex life. Nearly every day for the past week I have come home from work, masturbated, and gone to bed. Yesterday, as I was about to engage in this new routine, it occurred to me that I wasn’t even sexually frustrated. I wasn’t satisfied, to be clear, but I was also not seeking an orgasm as an end to any type of arousal. Jesus Christ, I thought, is this really the only way I can experience any sort of pleasure right now? After that I masturbated and went to sleep.

I get suicidal too. This has been a very, very well-kept secret for years. When I was in an abusive household as a teenager, still cutting up my legs and writing in a journal I freely admitted when I wanted to die. After I moved out my life improved to the degree that I didn’t experience lows that bad until years later. Feeling that I wasn’t supposed to struggle with that in my adult life, I tucked it away and never told anybody until I realized how important it was that I said it out loud. The truth is that suicidal isn’t exactly the right word. I don’t plan to kill myself. I don’t write suicide notes. I don’t fantasize about how life would go on without me. Sometimes I wish I would die, but even those impulses are fleeting. I drive to work and wish I would get in an accident. Some days I hope I don’t wake up. I can say with certainty that I will never act on these thoughts because they are nothing more than flashes in my mind. The business of dying right now is too inconvenient, really. Too messy. I don’t even want to die, exactly. It’s just that I wish everything would just stop.

note: it has taken me two months to write this. today was the first day i felt like i could write in the last 6 months. i am not proofreading this and i will not edit it because writing it at all in the state im in is nothing short of a personal triumph.