A couple of months ago, I was asked by To Write Love On Her Arms to do a post on my experience with depression, music, and being a suicide survivor.
This is my story.
For as long as I can remember, my greatest aspiration has been to study psychological resilience and music. Having begun touring as a singer from age three, my furthermost joy and identity were formed in creating and performing music. As I attempt to place these thoughts in tangible form, I’d like to explain where the past year of my life has taken me, and how this hope has finally come to be realized. I’d like to tell you how music saved my life.
On July 9, 2013, I grabbed sushi with a dear friend from college. It had been at least a year since we’d seen one another due to his relocation to another state. We had a wonderful dinner, his charisma weaving grandiose patterns of laughter and jokes to make up for lost time. To this day, he remains the only friend who could ever get away with his hysterical manner of picking me up and spinning me around. It was simply his way of saying “Hello.”
The following afternoon, as I was on my way to Stanford University to cover a behavioral science and creativity conference, I received an urgent phone call from the Los Angeles Police Department. After an inundation of bewildering questions and the request that I be sitting down, I was alerted that my friend had sustained a perplexing and potentially fatal injury. The following two months would consist of a blur of countless ER, ICU and eventually hospice visits, and even more fatigued phone calls from detectives, friends, and families in attempt to speculate every detail as to my friend’s condition. After failing to regain consciousness, my friend died on August 21, 2013 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was twenty-seven.
In the months following my friend’s suicide, the protracted plagues of devastation, anxiety and sheer panic made it painfully clear that I was suffering from severe depression. I had battled fear before, but the danger of self-harm from my perceived terror of abandonment now hit an all-time high. Something about being the last person to see my friend before he took his life had finally made my very existence seemingly unbearable. I simply couldn’t imagine a reality where I would ever feel whole again. Somewhere along the way, however, something began to penetrate the walls I had built. Maybe it was that night of such unbearable emptiness, resulting in my frantic request of a trusted friend, “Why can’t you just tell me it’s going to be okay?” I’ll never forget his response: “Because it’s going to be okay whether I say so or not.”
For possibly the first time, I realized that no matter how much people love and cherish you, sometimes, they can’t be there. It was not until this year – twenty eight years into my life – that I was truly faced with the chief insecurity of uncovering and confronting my own sense of self. It hit me then: I had built my entire value solely upon the affirmation of others. How would I ever afford unconditional love and hope if I did not possess it for myself? It took more correspondence with prudent souls, more star-filled nights, more floods of tears and more compassionate, tough love from friends than I ever thought possible, but eventually, I began to understand that a lifetime’s lacking of my own self worth had been, in fact, the greatest torment of all. Slowly, with the help of my music and a lot of blind faith, I decidedly began the harrowing task of turning inward to face a past that had hidden profoundly in the dark for far too long.
As I discovered that in music could be found the tools for defense, it quickly became all but Pavlovian. With each resurfacing memory of the loss of my father, of my friend, or even the type of violations that I as a young woman should never have had to endure, it began to feel like there was no margin in what could be taken from me, save my headphones screaming louder than any external threat or captor. I recalled that when at age eighteen I witnessed a childhood crush lose his longstanding battle with cancer, a piano, and occasionally present kindred spirit, taught me that three keys struck within a proper distance could form a chord. Those chords at once revealed the earliest potential of more than an escape – they provided the will to keep going. It was within the process of witnessing my own hopelessness slain by the dogged determination playing before me like a vivid, striking film sequence that I cemented an acute desire to help others through their pain.
It was not quite until really digging in to the psychology of music that I found the possibility of a way not to dull the pain, but utilize it for courage. When my collapsed sense of self risked self-harm, gentle souls appeared to remind me of what I’d already overcome. When the radiant pangs of feeling alone threatened to overtake me, I discovered mercy and anticipation in composing. When I found myself paralyzed by the searing agony of depression, exterior melodies stepped in to share my burden. This award of music had not only provided oxygen for my lungs; it had yielded a powerful breed of strength and beauty within me – the will to struggle, and the will to survive.
While covering a music industry event in Hollywood this Spring, I had the pleasure of speaking to Benjamin Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan. As a friend had alerted me of Ben’s advocacy for youth suicide prevention (The You Rock Foundation in particular), I took the opportunity to ask him what it was about the process of creating music that had helped him in overcoming adversity.
“When I was growing up, I had a lot of difficulties in school. I had certain learning disabilities that made it difficult for me to process information in the way it was presented by a typical school curriculum. My experiences left me feeling extremely isolated and insecure. When I started playing music, I realized that intelligence had nothing to do with one’s ability to excel in the classroom environment. It gave me passion. It gave me confidence. I was able to make friends and also figure out new ways of learning. Creating give me purpose every day and will for the rest of my life… Music saved my life.”
The Dillinger Escape Plan live at Porter’s Pub, San Diego, 2014. Photo by Diana Hereld.
Like Ben, I never cease to be amazed at music’s capacity to bring about a mental resilience. I know music to be a healing tool, because we are living attestations. It is utterly apparent that the pleasure of simply working in music sustained me through my more anguished, desperate moments. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis stated “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton said “The only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point and does not break.” I have felt this terror, and desperation – but I have also perceived the call of this courage.
A little over a year ago, I got the call about my friend. Over three hundred and sixty five days have passed since the night I thankfully had the cheek to gleefully yelp “Love you, buddy!” after my friend as he walked away; one hand in the air like an old fashioned movie star. Over the past twelve months, I have been granted more exposure to trauma, mental illness and mercy than I’d ever imagined possible. I have been made aware of more triggers in my subconscious than I felt I could handle, and I have been forced to confront them head on. I’ve loved and lost more deeply, and written more music than ever before. I’ve applied to, and received a full fellowship to attend my top choice grad school for music and psychological resilience beginning this month. My friends have become my family; my songs that rare blend of confidant and hope. Though I have feared the dangers of losing emotional jurisdiction over my own life the most, I have realized that sometimes, it’s okay to let go, and press on – even when the route is unclear. As Bukowski famously quoted “As the spirit wanes, the form appears.”
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my friend. He touched the lives of so many, and I can only pray that I will one day repay him by giving back the selfless love he radiated to everyone around him, and by furthering the cause to ease the hearts of those struggling to find hope.
I want to tell you, dear reader, that regardless of the tactless tragedies or inconsolable madness you may be undergoing, there are others. It’s not just that you are not alone – of course you’re not. You are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, a humanity of enduring creatures, and an enclave of people who not only want to understand, but do understand. As unimaginable as it might sound at times, there is so much love to be found. If you’re standing on the beach at sunset, savor it while it lasts. If you’re going through hell, keep going. The impermanence and temporal nature of existence only contribute to its need to be treasured. For me, it has been my faith in God, and the self-awareness, hope and love I have found and tried to share though music. In the end, it is very possible that only we can save ourselves, but it is often the intrinsic beauty of life and dear ones surrounding that offer the priceless reminder that we can, and should. In the profound words of author Jennifer Hect, “We are indebted to one another and that debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.” Please stay, and please keep going. You can make it though, and it will be more radiant and precious than anything you can possibly imagine.
Diana Hereld, UCSD, Fall 2014
To those who have sustained me through the darkest and brightest of times:
As I continue to research the neurology of self-destructive behaviors and the psychological interventions that might be employed via music, I can only convey my infinite gratitude for whatever role, small or gargantuan; you have played in my life. I love you all. And thank you for the music.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
For more information on what The You Rock Foundation is doing to help youth overcome depression, follow them on FB and stay tuned for their official launch at http://www.yourockfoundation.org . Follow them on social media here –
For more information on Benjamin Weinman and The Dillinger Escape Plan, visit here and here.