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What Beethoven Taught Me About Depression

I would like to start with an excerpt of a letter written by Ludwig van Beethoven to his brothers, some time after he had lost his hearing:

Oh, you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me? You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things… Though born with a fiery, active temperament… I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly I was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…. Therefore, forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you.

As a musician living with mental disorders, this speaks volumes to me. I know the phrase “nobody understands me” may be a bit dramatic, but when you boil it down, that’s the main topic of Beethoven’s letter. Something devastating happened to him, and he spiraled into depression. He seems to feel as if everyone expects him to be OK with the agony and move on. I can sense so much pain, so much chaos and so much depression floating around in his mind. Music was his whole life, and he lost his only means of experiencing it.

The mind of an artist is typically different from your average Joe. We are driven by passion. We are convicted by the things that trouble our souls. We have a voice that must be heard, or it will die. Beethoven had something to offer the world. His voice stands out among the many voices of his day. Even in our modern society, we have so much to thank him for. Although he was capable of composing and conducting without his hearing, it tore him down. I can only imagine how depressed he must have felt! Living in complete and utter silence, save for the music in his head. It must have been agonizing!

Although I (and perhaps many of you) don’t have hearing issues, I can empathize with Beethoven’s turmoil. I’ve been dealing with depression, social anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder for a couple of years now. I see what happy, carefree, social people look like. It seems like a rather simple formula. So why do get nervous at the thought of saying “hi” to a stranger in the elevator? Why do I go through my days in a daze (see what I did there?) even though I’m doing what I love? I’m a pianist. I am in love with music theory. I use it on a daily basis. Has it become such a routine that I can’t even appreciate it anymore? I have plenty of “down” mental states and a few neutral ones, but when was the last time I felt true happiness? Just like Beethoven, you might look at me on the street and assume I’m a grumpy party pooper (I also happen to suffer from RBF, which means “resting ‘B’ face,” in case you were wondering), but what lies behind that RBF? There’s a person who wants so badly to be social, loving and joyful. There’s no telling what’s behind the hundreds of faces you see daily.

For many of us, there’s a fine line between who we are and who we know we should be. Trying to become that person can be exhausting! Do we ever really become who we ought to be? Beethoven knew he should continue to pursue his passions, however difficult it may have been. However, he tells his brothers he feels hopeless. Later in the letter, Beethoven writes, “Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” Beethoven experienced the most tragic form of irony: the one thing that keeps him going is the one thing he can no longer enjoy. Although he could no longer listen to his art, he had so much passion in his soul that he couldn’t let a little thing like deafness keep him from being who he was supposed to be.

So here is the thought I would like to leave you with: if you’re feeling depressed, worn out or just plain done, I urge you to find something you’re passionate about, and follow it. My literature teacher in high school once said, “I believe every person on the planet has at least one good poem in them.” That being said, what’s your poem? Paint a portrait. Build furniture. Design video games. Join the cast of a play or musical. Dust off that old guitar and learn a few chords. Compose symphonies. Do interpretive dance. Write a story. Teach. If you feel like there’s nothing to live for, find something to live for! Be curious. Be creative. Ask questions. Most importantly, do what you love. Life can be hard when you live with a mental illness. This is coming from someone who feels drained and worn out almost every day. But no matter what happens in this head of mine, I know for a fact that life is good. I truly believe I have joy in my future. I believe that you do too. There is always a reason to live. If you look hard enough, you will find it.

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Thinkstock photo via GeorgiosArt

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