In January of 2003, I fell into a terrible depression. I was plagued with frequent panic attacks, thoughts of suicide and obsessive-compulsive behavior. I stopped going to school, I stopped leaving the house and cut off contact with friends. I was sent to meet with therapists and psychiatrists, where I was prescribed a regiment of heavy medications four times a day. With a lack of results from the medications, I began seriously harming myself and eventually made an attempt on ending my life. This then lead to my first spell in a children’s psychiatric hospital. I was 14 years old.
At the time, no one could diagnose the cause or trigger for the change in my mental health. I was terribly confused and felt helpless. My life suddenly seemed to have no meaning and my identity was solely my mental illness. In 2004, that slowly began to change when I began seeking out music that resonated with me in ways it hadn’t before. I picked up the NME, bought a record player, and read obscure French and German music blogs. I found Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Edith Piaf, and Lhasa De Sela. In my parents’ record chest I found Joy Division, The Cure, and Billy Holiday. It was through music that I was gradually able to forge meaning, develop understanding, and build new identity. These artists were able to convey everything I was feeling. They found a way to relate it all lyrically, or just instrumentally. It was all there. The more I listened, the more I understood what was happening to me. I was learning to stare the beast in the eye and openly acknowledge its presence. When I got my hands on a guitar, I had found a way to flesh the roots of my issues out in front of me.
On this day 10 years ago, I found and bought my first guitar. In November of 2004, I was spending time with family in Lincolnshire, England. It was still ferociously difficult for me to leave the house and be around so many people. My therapist had worked with me for months to develop a game plan just for this trip. It was going to be difficult and draining. And so she heartily encouraged me to reward myself with something special. I thought an acoustic guitar would be perfect.
I found the guitar on November 11th, 2004 in the city of Lincoln. I had been seeking out antique shops when I noticed one not too far from the cathedral. In the corner of the shop window, I could see a small nylon string guitar. It was a bit tattered and missing a couple strings, but it was perfect. I paid 25 pounds and walked out with it.
Two days later, it was my 16th birthday. I took a plane from London into Detroit. It was on this plane that I noticed Jack and Meg White from the White Stripes sitting upfront. I sheepishly asked an attendant if I could have them sign my guitar. It would be a sort of guitar christening from one of Michigan’s most notable rock bands at the time. I was then invited up to meet them. They were very kind and seemed almost excited in my interest in learning guitar. It’s an excitement I now experience when I see young girls taking the same interest in playing music.
As we waited for luggage at the Detroit airport, I sat on the floor against a column and plucked away on the guitar. Jack walked past, smiled, and said, “That’s cool.” It was an approval; a gesture that playing an instrument is nothing short of a brilliant decision. In its own way, it was an act of compassion toward myself.
Now remember, at this point I didn’t personally know anyone that shared my mental struggles or a similar affinity with the music I was listening to. I didn’t really know anyone in general. I just had my precious music. So I took Jacks comment to heart. I made an intentional decision that things would be different and this guitar would help facilitate better days.
Today I know how my mental health issues began. When I was 7 years old, I was molested at school. The school did not take care of the situation and so the abuse continued. I was never asked if I was ok. I was never taken seriously. I was sexually assaulted two more times in my later teens. Again, I was ignored.
Silence only furthered my shame and with shame it made it harder to openly tell my story. Songwriting allowed me to finally open myself up. It guided me toward self-prevalence and compassion. I’ve come to accept who I am and have let go of the terrible things I once thought I was. It gave me a safe space to discern it all. The practice of songwriting produced the foundation of who I am today.
10 years later, I am still struggling with depression and anxiety. I have written about it and have been forthcoming with others. From this, I now clearly understand that my illness does not define me. I have experienced trauma, but I am not my trauma. I don't allow it to trounce my humanity, but instead propel it through the practice of songwriting. This is the channel I embrace and the meaning I forge from it.