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People ask each other how they are all the time, but I’m convinced they don’t want a straight answer. The realm of acceptable responses to this question is somewhere between fine and great with little room for variation. People are not prepared for something heavier—they don’t know how to listen, and they don’t know how to respond. Better to hide from one another than share real emotion. It’s not clean, it’s not easy. I don’t talk about this not because I feel uncomfortable, but because you do. Do you really want to hear it?
I used to play the harp. I don’t anymore, though I automatically say yes when someone asks me if I play an instrument. It’s like a tick I suppose. I have a huge harp at home sitting in a corner of my living room. The red dust cover matches the red couches in the room, but underneath it’s a shiny black. 46 strings minus the ones that have broken off from disuse and seven gold pedals with black rubber padding. I haven’t played in two and a half years. It’s sat there just as I left it—some odd sheet music on the stand, wooden dowels and new strings sprayed out on the seat. Sometimes I take the cover off and run my hands over it, but mostly I prefer to imagine it’s not there.
I played the harp for ten years, and I was really good at it. Nothing about the harp was casual. From the stress of competitions to auditions to weddings and events, playing the harp was physically and mentally hard. My teacher pushed me and kept pushing me. She wanted me to go to conservatory, to become professional. When I didn’t want to take a part or do a gig she would say, “Morgan you’re so good! You’re losing an opportunity.” So I played until my fingers blistered over or bled. I played with band-aids on and soaked my fingers in baking soda—“to toughen the skin,” she said. I couldn’t handle it. I hated how people stared at me in orchestra, and I resented my teacher for making me feel guilty but also strangely dependent on her approval. She knew how to extract every ounce of potential from me, to get out of my talent what she thought we mutually wanted.
October 2012 I was on my way to an orchestra concert for the Connecticut Youth Symphony. The concert was at the University of Hartford, a crumbling old establishment separating the projects of Hartford from the West Hartford mansions. My harp was already there–I had brought it earlier, my parents and I had loaded it into the car like pros. Passenger seat forward, pillow placed here to protect the strings, sliding it in at just the right angle . . . but this time I was driving alone. I parked the car and willed myself to get out, but I couldn’t. I sat there in the parking lot for about 10 minutes, looking outside at the other kids carrying in their instruments. Panic was the sole emotion that I could register, and I knew I was done. I drove away, and haven’t played since. I never found out what they did without a harpist in the concert.
Thinking about those ten minutes sitting in the shitty parking lot of shitty UHart hurts, a deep in the pit of my stomach kind of pain that I don’t know how to describe or talk about. It was the first failure of many. After that day my life started to fall apart. I stopped going to classes, I quit the sports teams that I was on, and I retreated entirely. It was my senior year of high school, but I was never there. I stopped showering and I stopped sleeping through the night, instead sleeping through the day. I was terrified of closing my eyes and would scream through the night. At this point I had to make a choice, not graduate or take a medical leave from school. I didn’t know how to choose. My parents made the decision for me, so I left school for three weeks, got a therapist, and started taking medication.
No one tells you that medication can hurt, too. I went through four different kinds: Prozac, Abilify, Welbutrin, and Deplin. All had their special brand of side effects. I got headaches and nightmares, shaky hands, nosebleeds, vomiting, and aches. The shaky hands have lasted—I still can’t do things requiring fine motor skills. My once steady musician’s hands now twitched involuntarily. The worst of all, though, was a feeling of nothingness, of complete indifference. I didn’t care about anything, I didn’t care if I lived or died. In fact I preferred the latter. Sharp things, moving cars, and high places now had a special appeal. I could never say this to my parents, though because I knew my mom would cry. Sometimes I’d sit on the edge of the tub and stare at a razor for half an hour. I didn’t want to shower, but maybe that razor could make me feel something. This scared me more than anything because I knew I couldn’t trust myself.
If I wasn’t going to reach for that knife or step into the intersection then I needed to let out my pain and anger in other ways. In my days of lethargy where even getting off the couch was an effort I turned to smashing things. It might sound ridiculous, but I had this need to destroy. I took plates out of the cupboard and smashed them on the ground, I threw eggs at my dad and his car, I threw rocks at sheep when my mom forced me kicking and screaming to take a walk with her to the farm across the road. I went to a social worker and a psychiatrist for a whopping five hours a week. I went through two psychiatrists—one South African man who wore weird slippers and asked me questions from behind a computer screen and a hideous pink leather couch, and one woman whose office was auspiciously decorated with cows and Freud. The smashing and the therapy in conjunction with meds and an unhealthy amount of One Tree Hill (the worst soap opera in existence) got me off the couch, through college applications, and finally graduation. It was nothing short of miraculous given that I had gone to maybe an eighth of the classes I was supposed to.
I had finished high school, but my demons were not finished with me. I took a gap year hoping to figure out my life. I was no longer a musician, and I was no longer a student, so what was I? All my friends left for college, and I stayed home and started working. I worked in retail, I worked at schools, and I worked as an assistant for a hoarder who sold crap on EBay. I started listening to angsty music and dyed my hair. I went to Uconn almost every weekend to visit my friend and partied a lot. Instead of smashing things I turned to hooking up with boys. I competed with my friend to kiss as many boys as possible. Guys looked at me like an object and that’s how I felt. There’s an old mother goose rhyme that my family revised when I was little. It went “Morgie porgie puddin’ and pie kissing all the boys and making them cry.” I guess that’s what I started doing, but the boys were not the ones crying. I could pretend that it was fun and what I wanted until we got stranded in the woods at 5 in the morning. My friend didn’t have any underwear on, and I didn’t know how to get us home, all I knew is that I had to get us away from the self-proclaimed army soldier named Juan. I got us home after a few hours of walking and a ride in a stranger’s car, but I didn’t feel at all safe. I may be able to resist the razor, but I still couldn’t trust myself, and I couldn’t trust others either.
The boys kept coming, but things changed when I met Sam. It was May and I was out in California for my sister’s college graduation. Sam was her best friend’s brother, and he was at the backyard graduation party that my sister had with her housemates. He said “I like your dress”–it was black with a zipper all the way down the front –“Easy on easy off.” He realized that was the wrong thing to say and looked nervously at his shoes. He then asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to write a book. After that night we started talking all the time. He gave me ideas for books that all resembled versions of The Hunger Games—“that’s a terrible idea,” I would say– and he told me I was smart and kind. He lived in Boston and I was in Connecticut, but it didn’t matter. I felt respected; I liked looking at myself through his eyes. I was so much cooler, funnier, more put together. I left for Middlebury three months later and Sam stayed in Boston; we don’t talk anymore, but I think of him often.
With my first year of college almost over, many things have changed, but some things have stayed the same. Over the past three years I have had to make a choice. My depression was part biological, but I needed to take responsibility for the part of my sickness that I could control. I sat in a hole for almost two years, and only I could get myself out of it, so I had to decide—stay down there or climb out. The masochist in me kind of liked that hole; it was comfortable and convenient, but it was not just me who was hurting by staying there. The people that I loved were suffering too, and though I might not have cared about my own wellbeing, I cared about theirs. People can tell you that you are worth something, that you have a reason to live, but none of their words matter until you decide they do. I could not rely on my family, my friends, my doctors, or Sam to make me better; in the end all I had was myself. I chose out of the hole and I choose now to speak about it.
I still take my medication, I still have shaky hands, and I still haven’t touched the harp. It is hard not to regret the time that I lost sitting on the couch, throwing rocks, and getting involved with boys that did not matter, but all of these things have made me stronger. I can now believe Sam. I am smart, and I am kind. I don’t know if I’ll go back to playing the harp. I certainly won’t be the professional that my teacher always dreamed, but I know myself better than ever before. My mom likes to say that I’ve been through hell and back. The saying does go, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” That’s all I could do and all I can keep doing.