Somewhere I Belong: Music, Mental Health, and Me

I wasn’t sure who I was or was becoming, but I was sure that whatever it is I was going through, whoever wrote this music understood.

Your teenage years can be some of the most difficult yet rewarding times of your life. A time of huge physical and mental transition, you begin to question yourself, think abstractly, compare yourself to others, and otherwise try to find your place within the rest of the world.

One of the most difficult parts of developing during this time is the angst and paranoia of “fitting in”, of becoming part of a larger whole – something I’ve always struggled with even in my adult years. That, coupled with the challenges of developing and realizing one’s own self-identity, makes for a very interesting decade-plus in the life of any young person. Let’s not even get into puberty and body issues!

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Creed – Weathered (2001)

One of the traits that develops during adolescence is musical preference and taste. According to Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise (McGill University), the age of fourteen is a “sort of magic age” for the development of these tastes. The music a fourteen-year-old listens to will help shape and guide the boundaries of themselves and their peer groups. There have even been studies that attempt to quantify and anticipate an individual’s musical preferences based solely on personality traits. Nuts, right?

Growing up in a Caribbean society, I was exposed to many forms of urban music including Rap, R&B, Reggae, Dancehall, and Soca – all forms of music I still love today. I’ve always felt at-home listening to these genres of music, and even had a short stint (in my late teens) producing Hip-Hop beats and Dancehall tracks for local artists. However, it wasn’t until a chance meeting with another set of genres that I began to experience a shift in musical taste. It became a pivotal point in my life, as it was really a shift in how I understood, approached, and appreciated life in general.

 

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Linkin Park – Meteora (2003)

It was March of 2003, and coincidentally enough, I had just turned fourteen years old the February before. I don’t recall if it was MTV or another music outlet, but after flipping through channels I stopped on a music video being played on the station. The song started with four eerie chords, undoubtedly reversed and processed electronically in some way for effect. My hair stood on end, and a chill swept its way across my body. Before I could process what was happening, the chorus of electric guitars hit, and I – for lack of better words – lost my shit. The song – “Somewhere I Belong” by Linkin Park.

I’d heard of the band a few times before (I had sheet music for “In The End” – another great song), but it wasn’t until Meteora was released that I really began to appreciate alternative and progressive metal/rock music. I would later expand my interests to include electric guitar (a guitar you can plug in? What?!), rock drumming, and learning more about rock music. Bands like Audioslave, Blink-182, Coheed, Creed, and Fuel started to replace some of the edgier, more gangster music previously cluttering my Zune (bet you haven’t heard that in a while). More importantly, the music I was into became less about partying and having a good time and more about angst, feelings, and questioning yourself. It was about struggles with faith, fitting in, spirituality, sexuality, and even conflicts in relationships – themes that matched exactly what I was going through as a fourteen-year-old male. I wasn’t sure who I was or was becoming, but I was sure that whatever it is I was going through, whoever wrote this music understood.

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Chris Cornell (Soundgarden/Audioslave)

My teenage years would pass, and my adult life would begin.  I still keep many of the same bands and music in my playlists (now you can stream the stuff – thanks Spotify), and I routinely go back to those times, through music, where I was figuring myself out. I still struggle with self-identity and my mental health in a lot of ways, however it’s this music that really helps to get me through. Whenever I have a rough day (trust me, it happens a lot), I always go back to that collection of music that really captures how I’m feeling in that exact moment.

Sadly, though, too many of the artists I listened to then and now are dyingº, becoming victims of substance abuse and/or mental illness leading to overdose and suicide – preventable issues if only we reach out, if only we recognize the signs in others. If you or someone you know is suffering, even silently, please make the effort. If you’re struggling, please talk to someone. If you know someone who really needs it, reach out and show them that you’re there for them. Show them that life is worth living. Show them this life is somewhere they belong.

 

 

 

 

Continue reading “Somewhere I Belong: Music, Mental Health, and Me”

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My Experiences with Race, ‘Blackness’, and Self-Identification

While I am also Canadian, this is one thing I’ll never say sorry for.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at a table at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday. I was among the first to arrive, so I sat within a small group of open chairs and waited for the others. Eventually the chair to my right was the only spot open, and a tall, black male with dreadlocks walked in and was invited to it. Someone in the group made a comment along the lines of “Alright, let’s keep all the black people together!” to a few chuckles. The comment was lighthearted in nature and intent, but the experience got me thinking. Was I OK with the comment? Was I offended? I honestly wasn’t sure.

I first learned about race (and racism) at a very young age. My parents, a black Bahamian father and white Canadian (of Greek descent) mother, had and raised my sister and I in The Bahamas – a predominantly black, Christian nation. Here, I would first learn that I was “mulatto”, a term used to describe a person of mixed white and black ancestry. I knew I was different in that sense but, in my eyes, I didn’t really look or feel different. I was “black”, or so I thought.

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Fam-jam, circa 1998.

Things would change one day while I was sitting at my desk in grade 2 or 3, flipping through my composition notebook. I had accidentally left it behind the day before, and was surprised at what I found. Many of the pages had been defaced in black ink, with terms like “Phillip is a bitch”, “sissy ass”, and “white boy Hatcher”º scribbled all over them.  I remember being more concerned at the time that I was running out of pages (I was a studious kid), rather than feeling upset or offended over the slurs. The event did, however, leave me with a lot of unanswered questions. Was this genuine hate? Or was it just some child taking the piss because he/she had to stay behind after school? Was it because I was mixed and lighter-skinned than them? Or was it simply a rebellious act with no hate or evil intent behind it? I couldn’t be sure, but the events would lead me to question my identity for some time.

High school would come and go, and it wasn’t until I moved to Canada in 2006 that I had my first real tastes of the racism and stereotypes that I had previously only seen in the media or read about in books. I enrolled in an Engineering program, studying Computer Engineering at York University from 2006-2011, and was frequently the only student of black descent in my courses (in fact, I was one of two black Caribbean-born students graduating from the program in my year – shout out to Leonard Lewis). It was also around this time of my life that I learned that a black man could be turned away from professional and academic opportunities, not for lack of qualifications, but simply for being black. This is something I still struggle to wrap my head around today. It is extremely difficult for me to accept that, not in 1817 or 1917, but in 2017 this fact remains true.

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High school grad., 2005

Being the only black face in an academic or professional setting can be daunting, and makes for some pretty interesting experiences. I remember walking into the first day of a third year Calculus class early and having the professor ask me if I was sure I was in the right room. As a joke (and partly to avoid awkwardness), I said “Oh wait, this isn’t Contemporary Black and Urban Music for Non-Majors?” (not sure if that course actually exists, it should though). I followed that up with “Nah, Vector Calc’ right? I’m good.” I am sure the professor was just trying to be helpful – we actually got along very well after that and I did fairly well in the course – but the incident would leave a sour taste in my mouth for a while.

A few months after I graduated, I started my current job. The following day or so after a department wing night, one of my coworkers said in a huddle, “Did you know Phil talks white at work?” – in reference to my tendency to speak more naturally (I have a Bahamian accent, especially after a few drinks) outside of a professional setting. I wasn’t offended by this comment (in fact, I think the term ‘talking white’ is hilarious because I don’t really know why “white” means “professional”), I just thought it was an interesting way to phrase that I was being articulate and well-spoken in the office.

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Me, 2016.

My experiences with racism and stereotypes didn’t stop at university, unfortunately, and were not just limited to corporate meeting rooms. Once, I joined a soccer team in my neighborhood in an effort to get back into sports. I ran track, swam, and played several other sports in school, and had always enjoyed being active. One game after a breakaway in which I scored, someone on the other team made a comment along the lines of “Wow, that guy’s fast.” A teammate of his then said “Come on, he’s black…he’s supposed to be.” I wasn’t sure how to react, so I didn’t. Yes, it’s true, black people tend to be more predisposed to being athletic. To me, though, I wasn’t fast just because I was black. I was fast because I spent hours on the track and in the gym, and that comment seriously undermined the work I put in to get there.

One time after that, I was having a discussion with a friend about a topic I can’t remember, and it got a bit heated. I ended up raising my voice and moving my hands in efforts to hammer my points home, and was met with “Alright, now you’re getting all black on me.”

“That’s interesting, so the minute I get passionate and expressive about something I believe in…I’m too black for you.”, I responded. I was tired of not being able to react, to be emotional, to be outspoken without it being attributed solely to my being black. Their response was “I’m sorry, I’m just not used to it. You understand.”

No, I don’t.

On another unfortunate occasion, I was texting back and forth with a friend in a Whatsapp group, and he mentioned a female friend of his “liked black guys”. Already taken aback (I’m usually very wary when someone says this), but keeping the mood light – I responded with “Sure lol, send her a pic I guess.” Her response both angered and surprised me.

“Oh no. I like classy black, like Michael Ealy or Jessie Williams black.”

Oh, alright. So you “like black guys”, but only if they’re lighter-skinned, lighter-eyed, soft-spoken, non-threatening heartthrobs. Sounds a lot like American media, right? Noted. I don’t remember what her background was, but she wasn’t that attractive, anyway *Kanye shrug*.

If you’ve been following me so far, that means I’ve been black, too-black, not-black-enough, and also not “classy black” – which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a thing.  If it was, I’d be classy black as fuck…just ask my coworkers 🙂

You can also add one more thing to that list, and that’s being unapologetically black. While I have struggled with my sense of self-identity in the past, I love being black and of black descent, and that won’t change anytime soon. While I am also Canadian, being black is one thing I’ll never say sorry for. You understand.

 

Continue reading “My Experiences with Race, ‘Blackness’, and Self-Identification”

Why I’m Afraid Of Ghosts

So, in my growing list of fears, you won’t find actual ghosts or zombies or vampires.

I am deathly afraid of ghosts.

Not the paranormal kind, mind you (in fact, I enjoy a good horror movie). I’m talking about something – in my mind – a little more sinister.

I’ll give you a quick scenario. You just met someone, maybe at a bar or a restaurant or on the bus and you exchange numbers. You text back and forth for a while, and things seem to be going smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, nothing…you’ve just been ghosted.

“Ghosting”, according to Urban Dictionary, is the act of suddenly and inexplicably ceasing all communication with someone.  No phone calls, no texts, no bone threw or hint given. It’s been described as horrible, selfish, and inconsiderate, and I am in agreement with all three. I hate that this word exists in any sort of dictionary, and I hate that it happens to even the best of us.

I’ve been ghosted more than a few times, and my experience with ghosting ranges from mild to utterly heartbreaking. Once, I was texting back and forth over a few days with someone I met in a bar the month before. One day the texting stopped with no explanation. Bummer. Whatever, move on right?

On another occasion, I had already gone on a few dates with my ghoster. Things seemed to be progressing well, dinner was great, and so was the conversation. We planned another meet-up, and were texting up until an hour or so before I was to pick her up. Then the texts stopped. Cool, maybe she’s just getting ready right? “I’ll meet you at Kelsey’s,” I texted before I left the house. If you guessed that this anecdote ends with me eating dinner and tossing back rum and cokes alone in a dimly-lit restaurant, you’re right. I never heard from her again. The food was good, though.

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Actual text.

This next time resulted in the most depressive episode I’ve experienced to date, and it took me a long time to be able to even write about it. I had been seeing this person for months, and was on top of the world emotionally. I was feeling confident that hey…maybe I’ve got this whole life thing figured out.  While we lived a bit of a distance apart, we made efforts to see each other regularly. We had done the whole “hey let’s post about each other on social media” thing, had a collection of mutual friends, and were even planning to move in together. Needless to say, I was riding high.

One day, things stopped. I didn’t get a “hey babe I’m on my way to work” text, no “Good morning boo thang” snap, no phone call on her drive home. No response to my texts either…strange. Monday night would go by, then Tuesday, then Wednesday – the first night I got any decent amount of sleep (shout out to melatonin). I woke up Thursday and everything from social media was slowly disappearing. I was watching myself be erased from someone’s life, one post, one memory at a time. Eventually, there was nothing left. No photos, nothing.  The worst part was that it wasn’t like they ceased to exist as a person: the Snapchat stories, Instagram selfies, Facebook status updates all continued.

Did I dream that all of this had happened? Surely this must not have been real. I was crushed, and would spend the next several months trying to pick myself back up again (a story for another time). If not for a few good friends and some good old-fashioned therapy (I owe you Carolina) mixed with 10 mg of Lexapro daily, I may not have been around at the time of this writing.

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Thanks, Twist.

See…the problem with ghosting for me isn’t always the act itself, but rather the emotional fallout from being ghosted.  I’m not here to demonize people who ghost, but whatever someone’s reasons are for cutting someone else off completely…it’s disrespectful, cruel, and a huge blow to my self-esteem. It can take a huge emotional toll on your best days, and is devastating at it’s worst. I’m not saying I’m a perfect person (I’ve ended relationships in less-than-ideal ways myself – but always openly and honestly), or the perfect lover or friend, I’m saying I deserve better. We deserve better.

I read somewhere once that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. So, in my growing list of fears, you won’t find actual ghosts or zombies or vampires. You’ll find rejection, indifference, and the thought that I could potentially go from meaning everything to someone to meaning nothing at all.

Things I Wish I Could Tell My Dad (Without Getting Choked Up)

I’ve never opened up to my father about my struggles with mental illness and the other difficulties that come with being an emotional man, and I wish I could.

My father and I didn’t always have a positive relationship. In fact, I spent most of my childhood resenting him. His abrasive, aggressive style of parenting was a stark contrast to the way my mother approached the subject. Not one for patience, his strike-first, talk-it-out-later attitude made it very difficult for a young, developing son to open up.

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Dad and I, circa 1989.

You see, growing up in a third world country such as The Bahamas, men are supposed to be “hard”.  Keeping a tough exterior, to many young men there, is paramount. “It’s important they think I’m a thug,” exclaims a young man in a popular video series. “You’s a sissy aye?,” another youth barks to his companion. Boys just don’t cry.

In my 28 years of knowing him, I’ve seen or heard of my father crying four times – three of which happened at funerals of close family members. Those times were my only look into my father’s emotional side. Before then, I wasn’t sure that side of him existed.

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Daddy at his new bar, The Rockin’ Cafe.

The fourth was more recent – after a string of financial difficulties and a few unlucky breaks, my mom told me he broke down one evening at home. The Bahamas was hit by a hurricane last fall – delaying him in getting his dream of opening a restaurant off the ground. The pressure of working in a seasonal profession (my dad regularly takes guests on fishing trips in good weather, and does odd jobs otherwise) and providing for a family all came to a head. In my opinion, I think that would make the most stoic man crack.

I’ve never opened up to my father about my struggles with mental illness and the other difficulties that come with being an emotional man, and I wish I could. I am still working up the strength to, and I know one day we will be able to share that moment. Until then, here are some things I wish I could say without breaking down myself.

  • It’s OK not to be OK. There are good days, and there are bad. You don’t have to feel great all the time, and if you don’t right now, that’s perfectly fine.
  • You may not want to talk right now, but if you ever do, I am here for you.
  • It’s OK to take a break.  Even though things may not be going well right now, take a step back and appreciate all you have already accomplished.
  • You are not weak. Depression and mental illness should never be seen as signs of weakness, rather that your mind needs a break from being strong.
  • I love you. I know we may not always see eye-to-eye, but I’d never let the fact that one of us may be struggling come between our relationship as father and son.
  • Thank you for being a father, and for being there. I appreciate everything about you and accept you for who you are, including your struggles.

If you are struggling with similar issues, or are unsure of how to speak to someone close to you who is experiencing depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness – I hope these few points are helpful.

 

 

 

Mental Illness and Me

More importantly, I found that – even though it was a part of me – I didn’t have to let my mental illness define who I was as a person.

I have a few confessions.

First, the photo of myself above is a few years old. Save for the occasional grey hair in my beard and a bit more muscle from a new gym routine, I don’t think I’ve changed too much physically.  Mentally, though…that’s a different story.

Second confession: I have mental illness, and have been suffering from various forms for most of my adult life. The photo above was taken in between various depressive episodes that year, when I was trying anything and everything to feel better.  I had decided to take an acting class and, requiring headshots to apply, I called up a photographer friend of mine (thanks Kendell) and we set a date. Many of the photos on this blog are the results of that meeting.

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Here’s another shot.

The acting class, admittedly enjoyable while it lasted, didn’t help long-term. While I was becoming better at acting like everything was OK, it was just that…acting. I had learned techniques to portray myself as someone else, when I really wanted to be a better me and not feel the crushing effects of depression and anxiety.

More time would pass that year, and with it more attempts at feeling better. I tried yoga, meditation, various over-the-counter supplements such as kava and St. John’s wort, and good old natural vitamin D – getting outside as much as possible. I was playing soccer and basketball in various leagues, and doing well – whenever I could get out of bed, that is.

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Won a soccer championship that year. Go Albion!

Depression, to most people inexperienced with the concept, is feeling sad or upset or various combinations of negative emotions and that’s it. The thing that most people don’t tell you or know about depression and other mental disorders is just how difficult it is to get yourself going when you do find yourself in that state. You struggle to do ordinary tasks that the average person would do on autopilot. Getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, going to work…it’s all orders of magnitude more difficult when you’re suffering. On top of that, you know that whatever you are feeling is irrational, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling that way and you can’t shake it.

Your relationships also suffer. You become the friend that never wants to go out anymore, the son that doesn’t speak to his mom as often, or the boyfriend that doesn’t put in as much effort as he used to.  Putting everything you feel into words isn’t easy and sometimes feels impossible, so you eventually stop trying. You shut everything out, and most times just want to be alone.

If you’re sensing a trend here, there is one. Whether it be self-confidence, interest in various activities, relationships, or otherwise, I lost a lot when I went through bouts of mental illness.  I also found some things, though. I found strength to continue pushing through, and to continue working on myself. I found out who really was in my corner, and who wasn’t. More importantly, I found that – even though it was a part of me – I didn’t have to let my mental illness define who I was as a person.

If you’re reading this and are going through some things of your own, getting help and reaching out is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you want to get better, and are willing to try.  You at least owe yourself that.