• Hilary Kelley

a superb madness of the will to live

Listen here.


When I was a kid, maybe 13 or 14, my grandmother gave my brother and I a VHS copy of the movie Shine, a biopic about musician David Helfgott. Though she was a sensitive, thoughtful and artistic person, I’d bet money that she just thought it was a feel-good flick about a pianist.


I remember watching the movie in my room by myself and feeling just slightly scandalized at the dark depictions of his childhood abuse, subsequent “quirkiness” as he grew as an artist (including a scene where he walks down the stairs of his apartment building to get his mail and it’s revealed that he was Porky-Pigging it the entire time), and later breakdowns and being institutionalized after performing Rachmaninoff’s maddeningly complex 3rd Concerto. It was the first time I understood how we like to romanticize the connection between mental illness and creativity. Also, I now love Rachmaninoff.


In my early 20’s, I wrote songs enough to fill albums, and then performed them with a band around town for years. It poured out of me: angst and sadness and confusion, much of which, of course, was just the natural bone-breaking of becoming an adult. I continued to write music until my late 20’s, when I discovered painting. I also got really into Larry McMurtry and his melancholy cowboys.


As I approached 30 I started to recognize that maybe something wasn't right. I'd have days where I could tuck right in to a new painting, or I'd sit and stare at nothing for hours. Maybe I liked the angst, and thought it made me a better artist, convinced myself that the two go hand-in-hand and that this was the deal with the devil. The fire that had always driven me to create was beginning to smolder in ways that felt bitter, and I couldn't satisfy it, no matter how many sacrifices I brought to the altar.


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I am not unique in my trauma. Everyone is the sum of a number of chain reactions. I don't regret what made me, though getting to the root of it, the why, will devil me for much longer than the experience ever was.


It's in that why that I get caught up. Why is perpetual; it's an elevator that sinks floor to floor, making stops for answers along the way. It's a box inside a box inside a box. Why is a fractal, a spiral I slip down on my worst days. And so trauma, with all its echoes and reverberations, spins out from the center, widening and overtaking the life I tried to make. I dealt with it in ruinous ways. I liked the sink and the indulgence and the warmth of gratification. I dabbled in cruelty, took comfort in being consumed by the fires I was setting. I burned for years. And, like most uncontrollable rages, eventually burned out.


I did the things you should do: talk it out, go to therapy, take care of yourself, go outside, good hard looks, read more, get off the internet, lift yourself up, cut away toxic nouns. I took daily inventory of the things for which I'm happy, it was okay for a minute. But it was becoming more and more difficult to create, when the small movement of creation was spiraling out into every way that I'd failed myself and others, my family, the human race, any effort was too small and valueless. The one small voice I had left in my head begged me to do the thing I hadn't tried yet. I called my GP.


"Congrats, you're clinically depressed," he said, and I felt like I'd won the trophy. The years of wondering if I was actually lazy and jaded, doing the wrong things, or if I just didn't get HoW tO hUmAN were suddenly validated. We talked about what to do next.

The thought of going on medication was scary but also exciting, and I had grand plans for all of the things I would definitely accomplish with my new brain. I imagined attacking my to-do lists with renewed vigor, focus and presence. Better, smarter, more grown up and a better daughter, etc.


"a superb madness of the will to live" watercolor, gouache, fluid acrylic on paper

The reality is that it takes a long time for the brain to adjust to new chemicals, and that's even after you get past the initial high of the placebo effect. My first round of medication erased my anxiety, quieted my mind, and left me feeling like I was floating in a bowl of green jello. I'm not sure why it's green. When Maya passed away, it allowed me to feel all of the grief I needed without the inevitable shame-and-guilt spiraling that would have occurred otherwise. But I knew the lack of focus and urgency would never do for running a business that depends entirely on my ability to get things done. I don't miss the constant anxiety, but I do miss the urgency.


The "Brain Book" journal I use to document how my moods and thinking are changing on medication. Brains are rad.

I'm grateful to have a doctor who's not only willing to listen to my concerns but is ready to throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks. We are trying another medication that presumably will help with the focus, and I find the process fascinating. Ask me about my brain in six weeks.


We're getting to a place where it's easier for people to talk about their mental illness, and becoming less surprised to learn that people we love and admire might suffer from anxiety or depression. Vulnerability is the new hot thing, and I'm here for it.

Despite all the burning, things grew where I'd cleared the way. If you make yourself raw, there's only two reasonable consequences: grow callous or become soft. I choose softness.


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