While this isn’t the traditional coming out story that the title may imply, the harsh reality is just as painful, full of emotion, and utter fear. At 47 years of age I am facing the realization that I am one of the growing number of people who suffer from some form of mental illness. While the pandemic has been sheer chaos and has cost so many lives and all but destroyed the performing and travel industries, it has provided me with a somewhat positive note. With so many gigs cancelled and travel coming to a halt, I have been given time. Time to reflect on myself and get to some issues that reared their ugly heads. Usually I would be so busy running around for work, teaching, and performing that I would never have noticed the actual emotional rollercoaster that anxiety brings, with added bouts of depression. Distracting myself with all the things I do on a daily basis helps me ignore the sleeplessness, the complete exhaustion, the worry about everything possible under the sun. High Functioning Anxiety is no joke, and while it makes me seem like an incredibly efficient employee and someone who can accomplish so much, it does take a mental and physical toll.
I think the best place to start my story would be just after I completed my doctorate and was sitting on the floor with my Labrador, Jackson. Out of nowhere I started to cry and couldn’t stop. It turns out there is an actual post partum-like depression that can follow the completion of an enormous undertaking like doctoral studies. I knew I felt off and spoke with someone about it who prescribed a short term antidepressant. Within three months or so, all the issues seemed to disappear. I was off the meds, and life was back to my normal hustle and bustle.
A few years later, there was a cascade of situations in my personal life: new job, relationship issues, divorce, and the clean up after all of that. Still, I was so distracted that I didn’t have time to notice how I really was feeling inside. When I wasn’t focused on work, or trying to support my family however was needed, I would simply focus on rehearsals, or projects, or work. Then, everything came to a dead stop with the pandemic. I suddenly found myself alone with way too much time to get inside my own head. I started hearing the little voice we all have. One of my professors used to refer to it as the “itty bitty shitty committee.” The only thing was, this time it wasn’t interfering with a performance, it was commenting on daily life. I was talking myself through every possible scenario of how something might go wrong with every choice I made. It was maddening but the desire to protect myself enabled me to think of every possible outcome, how I would handle it, and how I would recover. I was finding myself worrying about things that might never happen. I was losing sleep over thinking about how someone reacted or might react to a situation and trying to interpret every little nuance of the event over and over to determine the full meaning. Did I mention this was maddening? I knew this wasn’t right but I wondered if it was normal. Did everyone else worry about everything as much as I did? I worried about things that happened 20 years ago and wondered if I had made the right choices then, and almost in the same stream of thought I would be worrying about something I said earlier in the day and if it made someone mad.
Someone with High-Functioning Anxiety is just someone who experiences anxiety but manages daily life like a champ. In all honesty, the anxiety we suffer contributes to things like problem solving, because we have processed every possible scenario and have back up plans for our back up plans. We seem helpful, because we are worried that things will crash and burn if we don’t pitch in. We are hardworking, self-sufficient, detail oriented individuals, because if we don’t do it by the book perfectly by ourselves, we will somehow fail and that is just unacceptable. On the outside, we seem successful and we have it all together but on the inside, we are exhausted from trying to keep it all going. Exhausted.
So, I am sharing my story because I am on the road to taking care of my mental health and I know I am not alone in my experiences. I wanted to share some realizations that I have had that are helping me to find my way. First and foremost, anxiety and depression can destroy lives and I encourage everyone to seek help from a mental health professional. This doesn’t make you weak or damaged, it means you are taking advantage of available resources and taking back control of your life. Mental health professionals are there to help when we need it most.
One thing I have learned is that it is ok to say no! I have stepped down from several positions in organizations to give myself breathing room. I have also turned down some gigs and limited my involvement in my “extra” stuff. I have decided to focus my attention on the activities that are most important to me, that I am most passionate about. I can always add to my plate but only if I have time and the desire. Some of these decisions were very hard because I very much enjoyed the groups and people, but I made the decision based on time involvement and potential level of stress that might be involved. So far, I still feel like I made the right choices. I have had offers to return to some of the organizations whenever I would like and in positions that would have far less responsibility, like playing in a group without the responsibility of helping to run it.
Another thing I have learned is that people will make judgements regardless of what you say or do. Everyone can’t be my friend and I can’t force anyone to like me or be anything other than who they are. This was tough and is consistently challenging. I am a people person and I want people to like me. I also want to see the best in people. Unfortunately, not everyone is sincerely supportive and not everyone has my best intentions in mind. Sometimes the best of intentions come from a selfish place and trying to circumvent the cruel actions of someone who isn’t being malicious, but just having a bad day or venting isn’t worth it. Sometimes you just have to let it go! It is challenging to not take something personally and most of the time, things aren’t personal!
I’ve learned to be mindful—well, I am learning to be mindful. I try to be in the moment. Focus on my current situation rather than what might happen. When worrisome thoughts about something that may not happen pop into my head I try to identify them for what they are. When I have negative thoughts or emotions that are not connected to anything, I call them out for what they are, extraneous. Why am I sad or worried? Is there a reason to be sad or worried? Are my feelings and thoughts appropriate at the moment or are they blown out of proportion or not connected to anything at all? Strangely enough, this has been my greatest bit of defense. Even as I write this, I have been feeling emotionally sad throughout the week. I have to keep addressing the emotion because there is nothing for me to be sad about. The weather is blah, but life is fine and there is nothing directly influencing the sadness. Rather than spiral from sadness into the depression that could follow, I acknowledge how I feel and try to process it logically. I basically try to reason with myself that this emotion is inappropriate currently and try to focus on what is happening in the here and now. Being mindful has helped me to acknowledge my feelings, identify causes if there are any, and redirect myself back to living in the moment.
Finally and most importantly, I am working on acknowledging that I truly have experienced trauma in my life. I am a survivor of child abuse, abusive relationships (mentally, verbally, and emotionally), I have experienced divorce and the death of a spouse and everything that comes with that (a lot to unpack). I have scars and bruises that have contributed to my mental state. While these traumas are in the past, they do catch up with us eventually. PTSD is real and doesn’t just come from being in a war. Our brain doesn’t differentiate between types of trauma.
I know there are many of you out there with similar scars and maybe you can connect to this article in one way or another. I hope that this helps you realize that you are not alone and that these feelings and mental health issues don’t mean you are broken. It just means that we need to acknowledge that we may not be as strong as we think we are and we may need to lean on others. This isn’t a sign of weakness, it is a path to happiness. If you are experiencing any of these feelings please talk to a mental health professional. I know I speak for the team at The Flute Examiner when I say we love you all and value you as friends and colleagues. Be happy!