How to cope: Power Animal on dealing with mental illness

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Keith Hampson | April 28, 2014

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When I was 14 I was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. Then, later, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD. It feels heavy and dramatic for me to write that, but it shouldn’t. These are essentially illnesses. In my life I’ve also had the flu, mono, and pneumonia, but for whatever reason that first sentence is, of course, much harder to talk about.

I've dealt with depression for most of my life, “dealt” being the key word. I operate in a sort of constant defense mode against it. This is what often makes me almost dismissively optimistic when it comes to trivial everyday stuff. It’s what motivates me to meditate or go running whenever I feel worried about anything. I’ve gotten better at dealing with it as I’ve aged and it has made me a stronger and more proactive person.

Like most people, though, I do get kind of bummed out when I get sick. I've had about 10 episodes of being bedridden sick for days at a time in the past year. I had a team of infectious disease specialists trying to figure it out but they never reached any definitive conclusion. I’ve been fine for a couple of months now so I think it’s resolved itself, but it was pretty frustrating. I wrote an album's worth of material during those episodes, and, for whatever reason, the songs dealt with a lot of stuff that I went through a long time ago but never totally processed. The last thing I want to do is dwell on this further and throw a pity party over it, but it stresses me out to release these songs and start playing shows again without clarifying. I hope none of this comes across as melodramatic. At the moment my life is generally great on pretty much all fronts.

…So I was diagnosed at 14. From that day forward all of my symptoms seemed to worsen until I dropped out of high school when I was 16. Basically I just stopped living for about two years. I've blocked out the memory to the point that I barely recall how the time was spent. I didn't work or anything. All I remember is waking up in my basement at 4 p.m. every day, completely immobilized by my depression. Getting out of my bed felt like stepping into a freezing river and attempting to swim upstream for eternity.

My Tourette's got pretty bad. I made a lot of noises, head jerking, eye twitching, etc. Attempting to read a book meant reading a few words, jerking my head around the room and losing my place every 10 seconds. Many people found the need to express how annoyed they were by the noises I made. I felt ashamed and completely alienated. I didn't know anyone else who had Tourette's. It made me feel like I'd never be able to relate to or be understood by another human being.

At some point in this dark period of doing nothing, though, something switched and things started getting better. The frequency of my tics began to decrease. I learned how to meditate, which helped me tremendously, so much so that I could get off all the medications I was taking. I still took something for my tics for a few more years but nothing else, really. That’s when Power Animal began. I started recording songs and my brother would walk by my room in the basement and yell through the wall how he thought they sounded cool. He eventually talked me into actually making a band and playing shows. I could go on forever about all the amazing things that have happened and all of the wonderful people who’ve come into my life since then. To summarize, I somehow came to be a well-adjusted adult. I've figured out a fulfilling and meaningful life.

My tics have decreased drastically in recent years. I've gotten better at suppressing them in front of people and most people wouldn’t even guess I had it anymore. I still get asked if I'm “having a seizure or something” once every couple of months, and I still need time to let all of the suppressed tics pour out in between time spent around people. Usually whenever I go to the bathroom anywhere there’s a lot of jerking my head around and making uncontrollable gestures with my hands. As I write this on my laptop I get stuck every couple of minutes, sort of looking as high up at the ceiling as possible, quickly back down to my desk, and then doing this weird thing with my neck that I don't even know how to put into words. But most of the time it doesn't really bother anymore.

I do still on occasion get in little ruts, though, and sometimes if I'm feeling down, every tic becomes reminder of that period of my life. I'll suddenly get this rush of what that felt like to be so alienated from the world. One of the reasons I'm writing this is to alleviate some of that alienation, both for myself and, hopefully, for other people who might be going through what I went through. That chunk of my past is something I've carried around for a long time and it's felt too heavy to speak about with hardly anyone besides a few close friends. I'm hoping this can take some of the weight off of it. I’ve begun to open up about this more. For the longest time, though, when someone asked me if I was having a seizure or why I dropped out of high school I would get dodgy as hell and pretty much just lie. I don't feel like doing that anymore.

Life is way too short. The stigma around mental illness is a huge problem. So much unnecessary pain is caused by it. What I’m doing won’t make a significant dent, but if this could make one person feel less isolated with their struggles then maybe all of that suffering I went though could be made less pointless.

Anyway, here is one of those songs that I wrote a few months ago when my I was ill and stuck in bed.

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