THE LONG HAUL: Speaking Honestly About Mental Health
Rachel catching some rest at the airport (photo by Miss Tess)
This year I was asked to be a part of an AmericanaFest panel called “Speaking Honestly About Mental Health.” I’m not sure exactly why I was chosen for this panel, except for the fact that my songs indicate a plethora of unresolved feelings and I’m perhaps known for speaking a little too honestly in general.
At the time I was asked about this, maybe June or July, I was feeling pretty good. Tours were up and running, COVID cases were down, I felt in general control of my life, and the anxiety that I’ve struggled with since my early 20s was keeping its distance from my day-to-day life. So I agreed happily to being a part of the panel, thinking that I could offer some moral support for those struggling with anxiety and depression as I had in the past and some tips for handling social media burnout and tour fatigue.
Well, it turned out by the time the panel came around, I was in such a state of mental distress that speaking honestly was not really an option. I bumbled my way through the questions, tried not to cross a line I couldn’t come back from for fear of breaking down, shouted a bit about social media, and generally didn’t get too vulnerable.
August was a wild month for me. I packed my schedule so tight that I had only one day in the entire month without traveling or gigging. And several times, I flew or drove overnight to reach my next obligation in time. I played Mountain Stage in West Virginia on a Sunday night, drove five hours home to Nashville, got on a 5 a.m. flight to Denver, and was teaching in the Rocky Mountains the next day at 11 a.m. I drove from Salt Lake City to Memphis in two days in order to make a really exciting recording session. After being in the studio all day, I drove home to Nashville, grabbed some clean clothes, slept three hours, and flew out at 6 the next morning for a show in Madison, Wisconsin.
The crazy part was that I was loving it; absolutely thriving on the momentum and the adrenaline of travel and performance. I felt like I could do anything, move mountains, play a million shows without ever sleeping. But when I finally got home, the first week in September, I fell apart completely. I hit the most intense emotional low I’d felt in years, probably since my very early 20s when I’d been severely depressed and anxious. Here’s what I found out, after some conversations with mental health professionals: That superhuman feeling I was getting? Yep, just a nice, month-long hypomania episode. I was in overdrive and then I was broken.
The next few gigs I did after that month on the road were absolutely brutal. Every decision and movement felt impossible. When I took a wrong turn I felt so angry I wanted to punch somebody in the face. I was exhausted, I had migraines. I was trying so hard to hold it together in front of my bandmates, but I knew they could feel my terrible mood rolling off of me in the van. I needed a prescription for a medication I had taken in the past, badly, and was finding it really hard to get from the health clinic. They didn’t want to give me a refill without an appointment, but they had no appointments available and I was honestly scared by how badly I was feeling. After trying for a walk-in twice, I begged them for a telehealth appointment and they finally agreed, even though they were mainly reserving those for COVID-related appointments at the time.
So there I was, miserable at a soundcheck in Charlotte. We had woken up at 6 that morning and driven seven hours, and we had three hours to drive after the show. My head was pounding, the sun beating down on me, with my phone balanced on my guitar while I soundchecked, desperately trying not to miss the one phone call that would allow me to get a refill on the one day I was home in Nashville before leaving for another two weeks on tour. What the hell am I doing? I thought. Why am I doing this? These were all my choices. Nobody was forcing me to gig or tour this way. Why was I creating this misery for myself?
The problem was, I was making decisions in a state of euphoria and experiencing the results of those decisions in a state of depression; what a disaster. I was afraid to talk to my team about what was going on for fear of seeming like a liability, someone who wasn’t stable enough to be worth investing in. I wanted to be strong enough to just handle it. So instead, I reached out to two of my best friends for advice.
“I’m having a mental health crisis” I said.
“We had no idea,” they said. “What’s going on? You always seem like you’re doing so great!”
“Well … on Instagram!” I replied, “That’s just a professional lie!”
Their reactions made me realize what a facade I put up to the outside world. But I think I owe it to others who struggle with mental health to be a bit more honest now that I feel like I can be. Last month was terrible. I felt terrible, the world seemed terrible. I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like my music, I didn’t like my body, it was a brutal place to inhabit. But I have had amazing support; my husband and friends and bandmates and family have all been incredible. And I am feeling better. I am newly medicated, and I found a therapist that I like. I want to believe that this pandemic will one day be over and somehow climate change will not destroy us all and capitalism will be reformed and justice and peace will prevail. In the meantime, I will watch detective shows and eat ice cream, and if you’re doing that too, I want you to know that you are not alone, and you can feel better.