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

Bad Body Days

The air has been beautiful lately. Even at my most tired, I have opted to walk to work in the early mornings and soak up the sun’s first rays peering through my neighborhood’s gold and crimson leaves. The air has also been biting on these occasions, but unable to give up the smell of the night’s rain on the pavement, I have pulled my scarves and sweatshirts from the back of my closet, and inhaled the changing seasons.

This particular time of year is usually one I find difficult. This time around isn’t especially different, although I have been taking steps to avoid the annual hibernation and shutdown I have experienced in the past decade. The frost gets in my bones and saps my already-meager supply of energy. I have written about this before: it is debilitating. So far, I am still able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and I can laugh honestly.

By this time I have generally barricaded myself under my warm covers and turned away from an active social life, save one that exists only electronically. But I find myself participating as actively as I can in this small town where I know only a few people. I have learned the limits of my energy in this past year and in doing so I have begun to manage it as efficiently as I am able. So in this sense, I suppose this year has been different. Of course, that is not to say that my worse days do not make an appearance. This time, it is not the icy air and the falling leaves that has saddened me. Nor is it the early evening onset of a darkness that is so deep it lingers into the morning as I make my way to work, when just a month ago I could breathe in a brightening dawn. Rather, it is as I reach for my woolen coats and see my sweet summer dresses, hardly worn, that I feel a desperation to put off the impending winter.

When I am truthful, I can admit that I spent the whole of this summer in turmoil with how I perceived my body. More often than not, it was my distaste and loathing for my physical appearance that reigned over my practicality. Most days I chose to wear clothes that were ill-suited to the temperature rather than reveal whichever part of my body was causing me shame. My back was spotted with acne that I felt should have cleared up years ago. In my embarrassment, I forewent tank tops and dresses and my shoulders remained pale and unkissed by the sun.

I am unsure if the troubles I have with my physical appearance are a symptom of my emotional difficulties, but somehow they have become intertwined so tightly that sometimes it is challenging for me to decipher the feelings I am having in relation to my body. This post has been brewing in my mind for some time now. In fact, the first paragraphs have sat on pages in my notebook for weeks, but every time I attempt to continue, I stare blankly at the paper and instead flip aimlessly through my phone. Sometimes I am apt to believe that I have trouble expressing this because the feelings themselves have passed and become irrelevant. Other days I am painfully aware that the relief of these feelings is only temporary and at those times I find the things I want to write so personal and humiliating that I have no desire to do so.

Maybe also, in some small part, is the principal that has been drilled into my head: talking about one’s body is essentially forbidden. I am acutely aware of what women are supposed to look like, and like everyone else in the population, I know exactly where I do and don’t measure up. This creates its own problems; I have learned to feel ashamed about the physical parts of me that do not adhere to the model. At the same time I have been taught a distaste for vanity and whatever pride I could potentially take in my body has been smothered. In a single breath I have inhaled these ideals and as a result I have been blinded to the parts of me that may remain attractive to the popular standard. Worse yet, as much as I’d like to subvert this, I catch myself considering this The Standard. Society dictates that I am only allowed to look a certain way, but that I must never, ever take pride in the parts of me that are deemed acceptable. It is a vicious and detrimental combination.

I suppose that I can imagine I’m basically attractive. But this thought has taken years of work to say and believe, and on many days it still does not ring entirely true. I asked Miguel the once, “How long have you known you were hot?” I can tell that my questions are strange to him. I know that he doesn’t experience a physical self-loathing in the same manner I do. I watch him strut around the house completely undressed and I am stunned by and envious of the confidence that seems to come so naturally to him.

“Have you always walked around like this?” I ask, “It’s just so foreign to me.”

He looks puzzled. “But you’re naked all the time,” he says. It’s lost on him that learning to be nude in his presence has been a difficult and painful process for me. Even now, over a year after he first saw me bare and vulnerable, I always avoid his steady gaze.

“Stop staring,” I tell him.

“I’m just looking.”

“You’re inspecting.”

“I like your body; I want to learn every line.”

I know Miguel means it sincerely. Even so, I tense up. I can feel a spotlight on each imperfection. As I lie there rigidly, I recall every stretch mark, spider vein, clogged pore, and every hair. I can never stand this for as much as ten seconds before I push him away.

I wonder if he knows how much these insecurities have affected our sex life. I can think of numerous times that the moment was heavy and our sexual tension was high but I could not bear the sight of my body. As much as I wanted him, my anxiety took over. There have been times I begged for him to turn the lights out even though it was disruptive and somewhat killed the mood. There have been times I have wriggled away from him, humiliated at the thought of him seeing the blemishes on my back. Time after time I have kept my shirt on under the guise that I was cold.

Some days I sit in front of my full-length mirror and stare at myself hatefully. I have begun to carry weight on my small frame and my hips spill over the top of my jeans.  My upper arms jiggle and new stretch marks crawl down my inner thighs and up my sides. I am angry to watch my size 4 body acts as though it is a size 14. I see so many girls who are both considerably larger and more radiant. They carry themselves and own their pudge in a way that I am just not capable. I am bitter that I am fortunate enough to be a size that is supposedly attractive and somehow I still feel morbid and disgusting. I stare at the mirror and I cannot unsee the small hairs on my upper lip, the too-big pores, and the acne scars.

On these days I opt out of social activities. “I’m having a bad body day,” I tell Miguel. He doesn’t understand; he thinks I mean I’m sick and offers to make me soup. There have been times that I have felt this way but kept silent and that he has told me I look good. When this has happened I have been certain that he can see how terrible I look that day and that he is trying to make me feel better. Only later do I realize that he may have actually meant it.

That is another part of the problem: I am not able to take compliments at face value. I generally have such a poor opinion of my body that I assume compliments are in someway insincere. Most times, I feel as though I am being mocked. When I can see that the attention is genuine, I conclude that the person must be some sort of creep. I have difficulties believing that “normal” people would find me attractive, and so I determine any admirer must in some way be predatory.  I have posted nude pictures online on multiple occasions when I have felt inadequate. And in a more artistic move, I have modeled nude for a photographer friend. Always, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Still, I pinch my belly in the mirror and look on with scorn.

I am practicing. I have given up on the hope that my breasts will ever grow and I have found positive aspects of their size. I am trying hard to look at the jagged purple marks on my legs and hips and to say, “yes, those are my stretch marks. Those are my stripes.” I want to glance at the little blue veins popping up on the back of my knees and thighs and feel unphased by them. I am trying to accept that I am aging physically and to think of all the weathered women I have known and how glorious they were in all of their experiences and laugh lines.  Certainly there are things that I could try to reverse some of my flaws. But generally they are expensive and ineffective. It has become more important to me at this point to ease out of attempting to attain physical perfection: instead, I want to look at my body with a forgiving eye, and then a loving one. None of this comes easily to me, but I am grateful to know that Miguel is a safe place for me to struggle through these lessons. Our bodies are so much a part of our identity and it is cruel to be unaccepting of them. For me, it is a big first step to be outing my struggle in this way. But sometimes when things are said out loud they lose some of their hold on you. And now, I am going to go easy on myself.

Letters to Colin (4)

Part 4:

In eighth grade I got depressed. Hardcore in-your-face depressed. I specifically remember that it was in March, right before I turned 14 that the heaviness started to hit me hard. I remember because this was at the time that we went to war with Iraq and I was furious. It was the first time I really paid any attention to politics and although I wasn’t particularly well-versed, I knew that I was unhappy with what was going on. I remember nonchalantly mentioning something to my mom about how stupid I though George Bush was and being horrified to learn that my thoughts and opinions had veered off the path of my family’s. It’s not that I ever considered changing my opinions, but at a time when I was feeling pretty disillusioned already, it was a hard lesson to realize that you are a black sheep in your family, even more than you initially thought. The entire experience was very distressing to me, and although now I know it wasn’t the real problem, I kept telling everybody, “It’s the war. The war is making me depressed.”

I found solace in a friend I met in a Lord of the Rings chatroom, back when chatrooms were still a thing. His name was Seth and he was 32. It’s weird for me to think about that now, because Miguel is nearly 30. I’m not sure what I would think if he was conversing daily with a 13 or 14 year old online, and truthfully I don’t know what was going on in Seth’s head, but he was a great source of comfort to me. He lived in New York and had been depressed basically his whole life. He told me I needed to “learn to embrace the things [you] cannot control,” and told me I was wise beyond my years. I felt like, for maybe the first time, someone was really seeing me. My friendship with him felt profound. He gave me music recommendations. I printed out most of our conversations and reread them when I was feeling on edge. I was once having a conversation with my mom and how miserable I was feeling. I don’t think I ever told her I was depressed. I didn’t trust her. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversations about it, but I do remember that they were jerky. There were no connections; no understanding or empathy. She could see my angst as clearly as the day, but she did little to help it. I was barely allowed to see my friends outside of school and although I was 14 my bedtime was still 8 or 8:30. One time I tried to wear pajama pants to school and my mother grounded me for three full weeks. I spent most of my eighth grade year not allowed to use the phone or leave the house. I don’t think my mom had any real interests and hardly had friends anymore, so I was also condemned to her house-bound lifestyle. Anyway, we were once talking about how “angry” I was or something and I quoted something that Seth had said to me. “Where are you getting all of these quotes?” And then she forbade me from speaking to him anymore. It was devastating.

Sometime during this, I developed a pretty hardcore anxiety disorder. A compulsion, really. This isn’t something that I’ve ever really told anybody, but it’s very important to the story. Miguel doesn’t even know this (yet). Do you know what trichotillomania is? It’s basically compulsive hair-pulling, especially in situations of extreme stress. At some point during this terrible year I noticed that some of my hair is a very different texture then the rest of it and began pulling it out. I don’t know why. It was just a thing. But it got really, really bad. I had a really huge bald spot on the top of my head and another behind each of my ears. I didn’t even notice that I was pulling so much hair until much later. By then there was really nothing I could do about it. I always wore my hair up, but as the hair began to grow back it would poke through in these weird clumps of short hair. It was so humiliating and terrible that even now (a full decade later) when I wear my hair down I check the mirror before leaving to make sure I don’t have a bald spot.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

1. This is one example of how damaging my experience was at the time, even though the effect was mostly superficial.

2. When my hair was growing back my mother would make super mean comments about it. She never asked me if I was okay or what happened or what was going on with me so that that had happened. Instead, if my hair would part because of the regrowth she would sneer, “Oh, I see you have your SPIKES OUT tonight.”

3. Soon, my mother also had a bald spot. For a little while I wasn’t sure if she was just sick and so her hair was thinning, but I’m pretty certain that she also started pulling her hair. This was the first real evidence of my mother’s mental illness, although I have never said this out loud. I really, really believe that she saw there was something wrong with me and that she mimicked my behavior. She’s supposed to be the sick one, you know. More on that later.

As the last few months of the school year went on my disposition grew progressively worse. I was close friends with Delilah at the time and she was in a similar state of angst. Admittedly, I think we worked off of each other. At first we thought it was funny to wear all black because we were essentially becoming the people our families had warned us about. We already felt so detached that it seemed like a good fit to just go for that. We were unhappy and pale and wrote angsty poetry. We questioned the concept of normalcy and listened to Rammstein. I threatened to shave my head or dye my hair pink and my mom told me she’d kick me out.

Towards the end of the year I had my eye on a cute boy named Will. Delilah had the same idea. She moved faster than I did and they “dated” for about three weeks. I was jealous and felt betrayed but said nothing. I still remember the note that she wrote when she broke up with him. It said, “I do know that I don’t love you. How can I love you when I don’t even love myself?” I don’t know what he said.

Around the same time I had to stop speaking to Seth, I began to seek solace in my Uncle Adam, my mother’s brother. There was no particular thing that happened to lead me to this, but he was amused by my 13 year old self tromping around in combat boots and we somehow we connected. My uncle was perhaps also the black sheep of the family, and although we never discussed it outright, I gathered that we aligned ourselves politically. I met Adam’s girlfriend, Emily, and her three children. She lived in the white house right next to the elementary school, where my childhood friend had lived when we were much younger. Emily also took a liking to me and from time to time I would babysit her kids, all of whom were witty and interesting. Emily also introduced me to her friend Alena, who lived on Conway Street on the Buckland side, right next to that old reservoir and down the road from Cricket Field. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Towards the end of my eighth grade year, Delilah and I took a turn for the worse. I don’t know if that’s fair to say. We took a significant turn. One night Delilah smashed a bottle and dragged the jagged pieces against her forearm. We had never done this before. Hearing about it chilled me. I decided to follow suit and began scratching my wrists with safety pins. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the hot June air and was constantly terrified my mother would see. I was uncomfortable with the whole experience, really. It was fun to listen to angry music and be bitter and wear all black, but self-injury was a new line to cross. Finally, I decided to talk to Delilah’s sibling, Aubrey, about it. I called them up and confessed what I knew. They were receptive and concerned and I spent the rest of the night feeling sick to my stomach.

To my relief, Delilah quickly forgave me and life continued as normal. I felt like I had talked her off a cliff and although there was maybe a little residual tension, it was negligible. My cuts healed up, as did Delilah’s. On the last day of school we and a bunch of other friends piled into a van and rode to the house of our friend Jeanne to celebrate the start of vacation. Halfway through the afternoon Delilah took her leave and sat outside in the yard. When I went to her, she refused to speak to me. She barely spoke a sentence to me the rest of the party and soon it was time to go home. Hurt and confused, I left. For weeks and weeks she screened my calls and returned none of them. I was utterly devastated.

My already-shaky mood plummeted. My mother met some guy named Jeff and we spent most days at his house somewhere near Barton’s Cove. He was a fairly standard redneck from what I remember; exactly my mom’s type. He had a son just a little older than my sister, who would have been only four at that point. I resented the time we spent there, but truthfully I would have resented time spent anywhere. I was miserable. I don’t know how aware my mother ever was of this. I think she was so interested in Jeff that she didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just too unequipped to really deal with it or even understand the depth my of unhappiness. I remember that we were on the way to Jeff’s house once and she asked me if I was okay. Or what was wrong. Or something that only barely touched the tip of my iceberg. I’m sure I brushed off her question, unable to properly express myself and also certain she would not understand. I wasn’t so far off: she never asked again. By the end of the summer her relationship had fizzled. He told her they were better off as just friends and she was pretty heartbroken. Although I’m well aware of my mother’s own dysfunction, I wonder how much of a damper it was to their relationship to have an angry teenager around all the time. I actually feel really sad for my mother about this one. I remember that she had this cattail thing we found on a walk that she had carved “Jeff #1” into one day. It’s really painful to have to throw stupid little things like that away and in hindsight I really do feel for her. She stayed in bed for a couple days after they broke up. I think my grandmother may have come to the house and sternly told her to get herself together. I feel for her.

I spent most of my time sitting in a tree and listening to music. I had discovered Nirvana and Tool and Stabbing Westward and the melodies and lyrics spoke to me like nothing I had ever experienced. I wrote endlessly: mostly lyrics to the songs I had fallen in love with, but also a few terrible songs of my own. I also kept a journal on the family computer and I wrote in that pretty avidly. My friends had grown weary of my constant lamenting and one or two of them also began to detach from me. I had little social life at all, save for one friend who lived down the street from my grandparents. We shared poetry we had written and talked about books. One time, in a fitful need to speak to someone who would understand me, I emailed Seth. I had no time to write a proper email, as I was fearful my mother would catch me. Instead, I attached the word document that held all my journal entries from the summer. I spent the next three days in a heightened state of anxiety, terrified my mother would somehow find out I was writing to Seth and using my email, which had also been forbidden. What happened instead was at least as bad.

One day towards the end of summer I got the call I had been wishing for, for months. A missed call from Delilah flashed on my grandparents’ caller ID. I was elated. Hurriedly, I called her up. My heart pounded. “Hey, what’s up?” I was tentative, afraid of exposing my excitement. It became clear that this was not a social call. Her voice was hard; steely. I asked her if she was angry with me, annoyed, furious. In reply: “I hate you.” Her words hit me in the gut. They sat with me and sank me. She told me to check my email and hung up. Frantically, I got on the computer when I got home. I was anxious in all directions: afraid of what the email would say, afraid of getting caught, afraid of learning what I had done to deserve this hatred. In truth, I don’t remember what the email said. I don’t think it answered any questions. Certainly, it didn’t justify the sudden disposal of our friendship. I recall only that Delilah had decided randomly to check my email and saw that I had recently corresponded with Seth. She read my entire journal. She knew everything. She knew my pain and still loathed me for a reason I could not find. What’s worse was that she knew I was going against my mother’s word by speaking to Seth and I spent the rest of the summer paralyzed by the fear that she would sell me out. I was so blinded by my hurt and fear that I hardly even noticed how invasive and terrible it was for her to log into my email. But then, we never notice these things until much later, do we?