This is the first part of a two part series describing the first depression and mania of my life. It is a first draft for one of the chapters in my working memoir. For other stories in my memoir, please see my posts in my “Story series” category.
Between my eighth and 15 birthdays, my whole life revolved around ballet. By the time I was 14, I was taking about seven classes per week, almost exclusively on point (point shoes). I studied with a former principle ballet dancer from the New York City Ballet, and felt a special pride in that fact. My parents recognized my seriousness for this art, though didn’t hesitate on occasion to complain about the cost of the lessons, shoes, and body wear. They also often complained about having to drive me to and from classes five days per week, mostly after work. My classes generally ended at about 9:15 pm each night, past their desired bedtime. But unlike them, I had endless energy.
Pretty much all of my friends were ballet friends. Though I had to go to school (public school) each day, I was a bit of an outcast there, partly because some kids thought I was stuck up (because of ballet), and others rejected me for having been friends with some of the less popular kids in the class. This didn’t bother me, though, because I felt the quality time at ballet made up for the less desirable time at school.
Looking back, I recall frequent moments of elation as I pushed my young self hard physically, and felt at one with music I adored. I couldn’t get enough of this. I’d continue my practice in the studio after classes ended, and every minute at home morning or night. My dancing, and the accompanying music, felt like a gift from God. Sometimes I felt like I was flying. My choreography was the equivalent to writing poetry.
At 14 years old, my ballet instructor arranged that a couple of my ballet friends and I audition for the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City. That is the ballet preparation school for the New York City Ballet Company, one of the best ballet companies in the United States. You can imagine my excitement! All I dreamed about day and night was becoming a prima ballerina, and this would be the first major step to achieving that dream.
I remember when I first auditioned, I went with my ballet instructor (mom didn’t join me). I remember them asking about family income on a form. I had zero idea how much money my parents made, so later realized I grossly underestimated this. The audition itself was a bit more challenging than my usual ballet classes, but I kept up fairly well. I was disappointed in myself a bit, because at this age, I didn’t feel that I danced quite as well as the year before. My body was going through changes. I had a major growing spurt. I wasn’t as sure footed as I had been. I did fewer pirouettes and my extension (flexibility) needed some work. A month later, I received a rejection letter, and blamed all of these factors. I was devastated, but my ballet instructor encouraged me to train harder for the next year’s audition.
The next year, at 15 years old, I made some progress, but I was still struggling with growing spurts. Some of my ballet friends hadn’t even gone through theirs, another was past hers. I remember knowing that I had not made enough progress to succeed, and I didn’t.
After my second rejection, I suggested to my parents that I would audition to a well-known ballet academy in Philadelphia. They flat out rejected the idea. In fact, they told me that even if I had been accepted into the School of American Ballet, they wouldn’t have let me go. In addition, they started pressuring me to cut down on the ballet, and apply myself more in school. I became deeply resentful, and for the first time in my life I developed severe anxiety and fell into a depression. I was grieving the loss of my dream, and shocked by the lack of activity in my life.
When I first developed anxiety, I thought I was going to die. Literally! I had racing heart, phantom pains in my chest and arm, and shortness of breath. At the time, I didn’t even know what anxiety was about, so thought I was having heart problems. I kept it a secret until the fear grew too much. I told my mother about it, so she sent me to my general practitioner. He examined me and simply stated I had anxiety and my heart was perfectly healthy. It was then at 15/16 years old that my first psychotropic medication was prescribed. It was Buspar (buspirone). I took it for maybe a week or two when the anxiety eased, but the depression remained.
I dropped out of ballet suddenly because of the depression, and when I quit, I quit everything about it. It was too devastating to have reminders of my lost dream. I stopped listening to classical music. I fell away from my ballet friends, or rather I was out of their sight and mind. I became isolated. The kids at school were not welcoming me with open arms, in fact some were even bullying me more than ever.
I’m not sure of the length, but I believe my depression lasted at least a few months. I started skipping school without telling my parents. Sixteen school days went by before the school contacted my parents. Can you believe that? When they did, they threatened that I would flunk the grade unless I didn’t miss another day. My parents were furious at me, rather than concerned. They had planned a trip to Florida to visit my brother who was in the navy, but the trip had to be delayed because of me. So I forced myself back to school with my head down almost the entire time. I recall sitting in the library as much as I could, hiding. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Agitation was added to the depression, along with racing thoughts. I kind of knew something was wrong with me mentally, so I sought an answer. Leafing through books on mental health, the only illness that seemed to fit was schizophrenia. I’m not sure why I diagnosed myself with that. Perhaps the racing thoughts seemed like voices? About 16 years later, I would later learn that I did have a mental illness, but a different one.
I gradually became utterly distraught, hardly able to live outside my head. Each day, I felt tortured by what was going on in my mind. On one particular day, I was on the verge of tears, but desperately held them back. Again, my mind was racing at 100 mph, and the thoughts were macabre and included voices yelling nasty things at me. The school bell rang, so it was time to go to my next class. I somehow managed to get up, but walked only a few steps down the hall until I fell to the ground, unconscious. The psychological pain and torture was just too much. When I came to, it seemed like hundreds of students were looking down at me as I was sprawled out on the floor. My first reaction was to cry out and scream hysterically. What I yelled I would rather not write here, but it was very sad and pathetic. Luckily a teacher finally ordered the students to go to class. He helped me up, and led me to the nurse’s office. My mother was called to pick me up. This event would terrorize me for years to come. Even today, I still feel slightly unwell recounting it.
I returned to school the next day. I had to, but the utter embarrassment and shame I cannot describe. I remained depressed with what I later learned were bipolar disorder mixed features, and it was clear to all of my teachers that I was terribly ill. I remember two former bullies coming up to me trying to be nice for a change, but I didn’t like having people feeling sorry for me. I rejected their outreach.
The guidance counselor at my school suggested I be sent to a child therapist. My parents had no choice. I remember going there and barely saying a thing. Then the therapist invited my parents into the office, and instead of expressing concern for me, my father used the time as an opportunity to criticize me and talk about his own woes. Later I told my mom that I didn’t want to go anymore, for obvious reasons. I lied and said I was fine.
Back at school, the guidance counselor suggested I participate in music classes as an extracurricular activity, in lieu of ballet. I’ll admit that it did interest me a bit, but I remained moderately depressed. When I checked in with the guidance counselor, I remember him scolding me for seeming to have a “bad attitude” and not taking his other suggestions. What in the heck did he know about depression? Or me. I started to despise the man. I asked for another counselor, as a result. They complied. That turned out to be a very advantageous decision.
This story is continued in Childhood interrupted (Part 2 of 2).