On the Death of a Man Who Didn’t Know He Inspired Me

This morning I woke to the news, shared all over Facebook, that a man named Nathan had been battling depression for years, and now he is gone.

I grew up watching this tall, powerful looking man, then just a boy but never seeming so, performing on various stages around my hometown. I had the bug so bad. I wanted to be amazing like the people in Varsity Singers, our town’s show choir. Whenever I was cast in a local show, the leads were my heroes. I was a total fangirl to those near me with talent. Just by being close to them, I felt more empowered to follow my dreams.

I imagined myself singing duets with the guys, me in a short sequined dress, belting my heart out, while fog rolled in around us. It was the only glamorous thing to hold on to in that little town in Indiana, and I clung to that like my life depended on it.

It did depend on it. My early hormones threw my yet undiagnosed depression into a whirlwind. My home life was rocky, to say the least. I swung between mania and deep pits of despair, often surviving on adrenaline alone.

I wanted to kill myself so many times. I fantasized about it. I wrote suicide notes in my journal. I got so close on more than one occasion, I terrified myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. There was no support system that I knew of, no one that I thought would understand. I didn’t know how to put into words pain that was so crushing I just wanted it to end.

I had my dreams, though. I had my younger siblings watching me, too. They needed me. So I needed my dreams. I had to believe there was a shiny, beautiful future waiting for me if only I could survive and make it out.

Nathan was one of those performers that lifted me out of the pit and into a place of hope. When he lifted his voice to sing, you felt it in your very core. His voice was full of beauty and power. You couldn’t help but watch him onstage, somehow magically moving his large frame so gracefully around with the other dancers.

He was older than me by a few years. I was too starstruck to ever speak to him, though we had many friends in common. I thought maybe, years later, we would both be on Broadway, and I would walk up to him and sort of casually say, “Oh, remember me? I used to be such a fan of yours!” But of course now we would both be big stars, so he would laugh and be flattered.

That would be extra amazing because his laugh was so amazing. Authentic and true and loud and lovely. His smile was so shiny and joyful. He seemed so happy to me.

And now he’s gone. He’s gone.

I wanted to share this today because I’ve had mental health issues on my mind in a big way lately. Earlier this week, a young family friend was stabbed while she and my cousin were providing volunteer health services to the homeless. She was rushed to the hospital and made it through, thankfully, but the man who stabbed her explained all. He is schizophrenic, and off his meds, and the voices in his head told him to kill one of the girls.

He could have killed her. Or my cousin. Because of a very real mental health issue. Just like that, all of our lives could change. Just like everyone’s life is changed that knew and loved Nathan. Just like so many, many more.

Recently, a woman shared a video about how “depression is all in your head.” I’m not sharing it here because it’s disgusting and I don’t want to give it more clicks. She shares a lot of controversial videos, but this one was particularly reckless. Her advice for beating depression ranged from somewhat true (“Just work out!”) to completely ridiculous (“Compliment people more!”) She has clearly never battled actual depression, so speaking about it as if she has some type of authority on the matter is beyond irresponsible.

Being sad is not being depressed. Your depression can’t be compared to the depression of others. What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. I hate meds for myself, but some people truly need them.

If we don’t truly shift and start working together in this country (and all over the world) for real, true, effective mental health support, we are going to experience more heartbreak and more loss, not to mention a huge amount of suffering that could be eased or prevented. We are all human beings, just doing our best on this planet. Let’s love each other. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s be there and fight for each other.

We have to stop dismissing the need for better and better mental health care. Today, I’m recommitting myself to supporting legislation, organizations, and information that can create real change. I’m doubling down on my mission to get rid of mental health stigmas that create shame and make people afraid to ask for help.

Nathan never knew how much he helped me on my darkest days. He had no idea. Probably very few of those people in my hometown did. Still, all these years later, he’s inspiring me to do better and be my best self, to use my voice in a powerful way.

Even if I’ll never have the power in my voice that he had in his.

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