The Struggle

By the time I joined the MPHS drama club, casting for Cheaper by the Dozen was complete. It was my sophomore year and I felt like should be playing a sport; instead of auditioning for the fall play, I joined the tennis team. I eventually walked into the auditorium hoping to be a part of whatever happened in there. Mr K, the director and theater teacher told me he didn't believe in understudies so there wasn't a role available for me. However, he allowed me to become the stage manager, a position I held through every drama club production for the rest of my high school career.

Cheaper by the Dozen is a based on a 1948 novel about a family with twelve kids and their father's unorthodox parenting strategy. During one of the dress rehearsals, Mr K stood next to me and pointed to one of the guys on stage whose character was an elementary-aged kid. He said, "It's a shame you didn't audition. If you had, I would have given you his part."

Mr K was pointing to a lanky kid named Daniel. He taller than most, over-sized for his character’s age. On appearance alone, I would have been a better fit. I was short, barely weighed 100 pounds, and looked younger than Daniel.

It's a good thing tennis practice kept me away from the casting call. Daniel was a damn good actor, and he used this role to prove his skill. He was given the lead role in almost every production after that. Harold Hill in The Music Man, Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac. Even in smaller roles, Daniel shined. His father helped build many of our sets including the elaborate stairway and second story balcony for Neil Simon's Rumors.

During our senior year, I began eating lunch in the auditorium, joined by Daniel and a few other students. Drama class immediately followed lunch as we prepared for our spring production of Into the Woods. We had great discussions while we ate, youthful debates on politics and religion.

Observing Daniel for three years on stage, I was impressed. If any of us had the potential to become famous, it was him. Through our interactions as peers and in those lunchtime conversations, I saw him as one of those kids who had it all together. It seemed like the fates were in his favor. The world was his for the taking.

After graduation, we lost contact. Social media didn't exist in 1997 and I only made efforts to keep track of my closest friends. In '99, I moved to Boise and my classmates became strangers and memories. For years, I knew nothing of what happened to Daniel or any of the other kids from Marysville-Pilchuck. Until Facebook.

High school wasn't the happiest era of my history. When I started connecting with former classmates through Facebook, I was (and still am) highly selective. While I do assign great nostalgic value to the music and movies of the 90's, I have zero interest in reliving my teenage years. There is no former glory to go back to, the best years of my life are happening now. The former classmates I've "friended" on Facebook are those who I am genuinely interested in knowing what's happening in their lives today. Daniel is one of those individuals.

When we first reconnected online, I was unsurprised by the kind of man he became. Married, lives in the Seattle area, embraces and celebrates geek culture, works in marketing, and looks like the kid I remembered from years past. Except he's bald now. I was also happy to see he's still acting. Daniel regularly performs in Shakespeare productions, is active in the local theater community, and has received several praising reviews. More than any of our classmates, he appears to be living out his childhood dreams. Over the past few years, I've found greater admiration and respect for him than I ever did when we were kids. Hopefully, someday soon, I can make a trek back to the west side of the state, see one of his shows, and meet him at some hipster bar for drinks to catch up on the lives we've lived for the past 20 years.

Even in Daniel’s charmed existence, despite those things he posts which fits within my preconceived notions of his personality, he occasionally surprises me. Last week, he posted the following message:
"I suffer from depression and anxiety. I've carried around a persistent sadness since as far back as I can remember. I'm not suicidal but these thoughts run through my brain on a near daily basis."
Daniel included a video of notes written by people who have suicidal thoughts while they're not suicidal. Statements like:

"It's having this numbing ache inside you don't know how to mute."
"They're fleeting but frequent thoughts that attack you even when you feel completely fine."
"It's like being trapped in a brain you're unfamiliar with."
"It's not really the thought, 'I want to kill myself,' but more, 'I don't care if I die.'"

image courtesy of The Mighty

At my lowest point, I had similar thoughts crashing inside my mind. I never felt suicidal. I never wanted to end my life. I carried too much Wesleyan guilt and shame to commit any form of self-harm. Yet I felt as if it would be OK if I perished in a tragic accident or as the victim of a random act of violence. The video Daniel shared echoed voices that used to haunt me. I knew I wasn't alone in my thoughts, thousands of Americans struggle with some form of depression. Yet I was surprised to see Daniel admit he was one of us.

I should know better. Artists like us are often prone to melancholy. Our talents are frequently borne from pain, from the darkest recesses of our psyches. Singers, musicians, painters, writers, actors, and other creative types. We all seek to exorcise our demons through our chosen craft. I also know that depression doesn't discriminate against age, race, gender, religion, or financial status. Success doesn't make you immune. Popularity and accolades do not inoculate your mental health. Achieving your dreams cannot protect you from suffering. Anyone could be struggling with anxiety or depression - even those of us who appear to be happy or have it all. Humans are complex creatures and there is more going on inside us than we ever display.

Daniel and I share a goal. It is the reason he posted the video and why I am writing this post. We both want to inspire someone in need of hope. We both believe mental health issues need better representation. We want to end the stigma against mental illness and create productive conversations about it. In my experience, the negative impact of depression lessened the more I talked about it.

When it was worst for me, I got help through counselling and medication. Daniel is in the process of doing the same. Our journeys look very different, yet we share the same message.

You are not alone.
You are valued.
You are important.
You are needed.
You are loved.
You are strong.
You are courageous.

Even if you don't feel like it, those seven statements are still true. Daniel and I stand as proof that there is light in the middle of darkness. Whether it is through a crisis hotline, a professional therapist, or a friendly face like mine or Daniel's, help is available.

If you need someone to talk to, please send me a message on Facebook or Twitter. You can also call the National Suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741-741.

1 comment:

  1. I am a specialist in mental health and human services with the ability to distinguish various substance abuse issues in order to assess, refer and intervene with correctional populations to enhance health, safety, and security.