Low Notes

Me (center) with some of my band buddies during my freshman year at Georgia Southern, Fall 2003. The hoop earrings...the belted jeans...the crunchy hair...so very 2000s. I CANNOT EVEN WITH THIS. 

Everything I had known up until that summer was based on years of tried-and-true living: if you made the right choices, you lived a happy life. It was that simple. And it had always been that reliable. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t anymore.

I was just a month shy of turning 22, and I had graduated from Georgia Southern University that May with big dreams about the world that lay in front of me. I was hoping to move to Nashville and maybe try to get over my ridiculous stage fright. I loved to write and sing, and had spent all my college years hoping against hope that, one day, I would stop quaking with fear every time I stepped on stage alone. Choral performances and musical theater were no problem. I loved them. But solo acts? They weren’t for me, no matter how often I told myself that THIS would be the time I’d suddenly get it all together. 

During my freshman year, I auditioned to sing the national anthem at a basketball game, and while the audition went well, the actual performance was a total bust. I struggled to stay on pitch because I was shaking like a leaf and I purposefully dropped into a lower key so my voice wouldn’t crack when I hit the high F at the end. Later that night, a guy I knew from marching band christened me “Key Change Girl.” I was scarred. And nicknamed. Two things that don’t go away easily. 

I woke up the morning after my performance with a hollow pit in my stomach and a bright crimson flush on my cheeks that stuck around for days. My roommate told me the guy sitting next to her had cringed at one point (probably the moment when I earned my nickname), and the knowledge of that made me sick. I had completely and utterly failed at the one thing I wanted to do well, and I had to perform the song again two weeks later. I practiced with a vocal coach—one of my professors at the university—and even though I still felt like I was going to throw up, my second performance was fine. Decent, even. But for the rest of my college career and throughout every music class, I never expressed interest in singing without also apologizing for it, as though my public failure meant I had zero right to be there even though music was one of my biggest joys. 

I wasn’t classically trained like so many of my peers. Music wasn’t even my major; it was my minor (I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere). But I could at least hear a melody and match the pitch. I had also been reading music since I was 10-years old. I was an alto with a pretty middle voice, but my lack of range left me without many options for proving myself. Or so I thought. I would listen to the girls around me hitting notes I could only dream about and want to sink into the ground. In my mind, no one cared about the altos. It didn’t matter if we provided a melodic foundation on which the sopranos stood. There would never be an audience member who gasped at the sound of my low C sharp. Everyone came for the notes that shattered glass. My average voice was useful in an ensemble, and perhaps it would have been above average if I had stuck with training and worked with my skill level instead of against it, but for a girl who had grown up equating perfection with worth, anything less than impressive was essentially a waste. I kept forgetting how singing is as physical as any sport, and it requires practice to be good, even for those with natural talent.

I had hopes that I would miraculously get over my fears and finally use my voice. Funnily enough, I didn’t have any sort of plan mapped out for how I would get to Nashville. I was naive and still working with the mindset that a high GPA and a degree would find me a job easily enough. (Hey, college students, just so you know, that’s not how the world works. You’re welcome.) That’s what life had looked like for me up until that point. High school had been a breeze, except for those pesky math classes, and college had simply brought out a whole other level of striving in me. It was hard, but I loved it. Almost nothing thrilled me more than achievement and success, whether it was in class or in my everyday life, and so the prospect of moving to a city I had never even been to was exhilarating… despite the fact that I had made little effort to actually get there. 

The truth was that deep down I knew music wasn’t for me. I was simply trying to make myself fit, and the effort was like trying to turn cookie dough into a cookie without actually baking it: still somewhat enjoyable, sure, but not quite right. Anytime I would think about looking for a job, I would find something else to occupy my mind instead. There was always tomorrow, forever and ever tomorrow.

That summer, I lived without worry. I filled my days with babysitting my nieces, a job I felt I could have done forever, and driving to see my now-husband, Pierce. We had been dating for a little less than a year, although our story went much farther back than that, and things were pretty serious. He, along with almost all of our friends, was still at Georgia Southern for one more year, and the idea of everyone going back to school without me was not nearly as disconcerting in May as it would become in July. 

I was under the impression that life would continue to go as it had always gone, and that, no matter what, I would continue to be as good at it as I had always been.


It was a bright Tuesday morning, and I woke up early when my mom came into my room to kiss me and my little sister goodbye as she left for work. Kati is 11 years younger than me, so 10 years ago the difference in our age was stark: I was fresh out of college and she was about to start middle school. Being back at home had by then begun to feel less like a summer vacation and more like a prison sentence, and my little sister helped keep me sane even while I spent most of my afternoons driving her around and acting as her second mother. She and I were practically inseparable, both by proximity and by choice, and it wasn’t uncommon for Kati to fall asleep in my bed after a night spent watching movies or playing on my computer. I would wake up to the bright summer sun streaming through the windows, baking me in my bed before the clock even struck 9:00, and then I’d either head to my older sister’s house to watch my nieces or get dressed, make some breakfast, and read all morning while Kati did tweenager things. It was a peaceful, if not lazy, season. But on that morning, when I was still bleary-eyed from sleep, my brain was a hive of activity. I’d had a dream that bothered me, like dreams can do when they feel so real you aren’t sure what’s true and what’s not, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. 

Later, I took Kati to an afternoon summer camp she’d been attending and then went back to my mom’s house by myself. She lives in a beautiful home at the end of a cul-de-sac, nestled in the trees far back from the road. The whole house is full of windows and the front porch overlooks a creek that sounds like a sleep machine. It’s a beautiful place, and quite serene. On that Tuesday, though, the isolation made me feel anxious and being alone gave my mind nothing to do but chew on itself. 

I remember the moment it happened with such clarity that, a decade later, I still experience the sharp twist in my gut and the chill of my mind made manifest on my skin. If you’ve ever had an intrusive thought, the kind of thought that stuns you with its horror, then you might understand a little of what happened to me. Intrusive thoughts are common, and we all have them at some point in our lives. Maybe you’ve visited the Grand Canyon and stood at the precipice, marveling at its size and depth, and suddenly found yourself wondering what it would be like to step off the edge. Or maybe you’ve chatted with your friend in the kitchen, and without warning the knife in your hand becomes a weapon with which you imagine stabbing your loved one. These thoughts are disturbing, but normal. Our brains make connections on their own without our effort all the time because we are constantly receiving input and stimulation that gets stored away and pulled out at random moments. For most people an experience like that makes you shake your head in bewilderment and then go on about your day. 

Not me.

I know now that my thought didn’t actually mean anything, but at the age of 21 my understanding of OCD stopped at the knowledge that there were some people in the world who had to wash their hands 100 times a day. I knew nothing of triggers, or mindfulness, or the capacity for the brain to function independently of my choosing. I also didn’t even know I had OCD. All I knew was that I’d had a terrible, crippling thought—a thought I feared was based in reality because of my dream the night before—and it carried with it more meaning about my identity than any external evidence to the contrary. 

To put it plainly, I viewed my thought as evidence of something I had never noticed before. And it scared the hell out of me.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I spent the next twenty-four hours in a state of full-fledged terror. I was having what is clear to me now as my first panic attack. And because of the nature of this attack, the fact that my own thought was the catalyst, I assumed there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and, thus, I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone about it for days. But I’m a compulsive confessor (I mean, HELLO, I’m writing a blog post about this stuff) and eventually I have to talk about what I’m feeling or I’ll get so emotionally tangled up I can hardly focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. I told my mom about my dream and my intrusive thought, and as she is wont to do, she asked a few questions. She has advanced degrees in psychology and has worked with people with disabilities for twenty years, so she understands a little something about the mind. Her questions, which were similar to the ones I’d hear in my therapist’s office eight years later, were meant to help me see reason and calm me down. But my emotions were so acutely attuned to what was happening in my brain that reason and evidence were rendered useless. 

For the next six months, I trained myself in a very different kind of art than what I had learned in school. The art of compulsory behavior. I quickly learned how to manipulate any situation to fit my needs, and excelled in the composition of days so I could successfully avoid any environment that would trigger an episode. I knew that if I could avoid what made me so frightened of myself, then I wouldn’t have to face it at all. And if I didn’t have to face it, I would never have to wonder about my identity or my self-worth. It was exhausting beyond description. I had never been so miserable. I hadn’t even thought such misery was possible. 

Until that Tuesday morning in July, almost every painful experience in my life had come from an external source, from someone else’s poor judgment. I was the good girl, the girl who loved Jesus and made it her life’s mission to get everything right no matter the circumstance. And mental illness was nothing more than a lack of faith, a lack of effort, from people who didn’t understand that IF YOU JUST DO THIS everything will be fine.

In response to other people’s poor choices, I’d say things like: 

“Just put the bottle down.”

“Just keep your clothes on.”

“Just stop eating that.”

Good God, I was obnoxious. 

To top it all off, I was still unemployed and Nashville had long since become a joke I didn’t tell anymore. The thought of moving away from the people I knew and loved was crippling, and I finally gave up on the idea of ever making a career in music. Not because I finally admitted it wasn’t what I really wanted, but because I just lost my hope. If I’m being honest, I gave up on virtually everything except just trying to survive another day. 

I would sit on my purple love seat every night as the moon was rising and whisper tearful, urgent prayers to God to rescue me from this despair. I would confess my every thought to Him and beg for forgiveness because what I had always believed about God’s love was rooted in how well I played my part, just as my love of music had been dependent on how well I could actually perform it. I felt like I had lost them both at the same time, and it ripped me apart in ways that have tears streaming down my face as I write this. 

In the months that passed since I had flipped the tassel on my graduation cap and left Statesboro as a student for the last time, my life had become a caricature of itself. The one obviously good thing that happened, which I clung to as my only source of hope for the future, was that Pierce asked me to marry him on a spring break trip to the Florida Keys with our college friends. The week prior to the trip, I had spent a whole afternoon running through the list of intrusive thoughts I’d had since that morning in July (yes, I had kept track) and convincing myself that everything was okay, that thoughts weren’t facts no matter how painfully they bruised. I also read Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel and caught a glimpse of a God I had never truly known before, a God whose love remained unalterable in spite of my imperfections. It wasn’t a theology exactly unfamiliar to me. I had no doubts about God’s love; I simply had doubts about my ability to keep it. But The Ragamuffin Gospel sent a tiny glimmer of hope into my heart, and I left for the Florida Keys with slightly less baggage than I had been carrying for months. 

Perfection was the standard to which I had held myself for over two decades. As with music, anything less than that was a waste. And it seemed to me that I had wasted nearly a year of my life. 

We do this, don’t we? We freeze ourselves in a season of loneliness or despair or fear, and wake up one day to find out how much time has actually passed. Sometimes the desire for something better kicks us into a higher gear, but oftentimes we end up feeling more depressed about our inability to save ourselves and just sink lower than we were before. 

I am convinced that shame is Satan’s greatest tool. It’s not always obvious what he’s doing the way we have been led to believe it is. He shows up with horns during war and violence, but even those things often begin with what looks a lot like goodness: a goal to achieve, a country to save, an injustice to right. Satan masquerades as something beautiful, something worthy, and when we believe what he says to us and act on it, he shames us endlessly for our mistake.

I fell for the lie that my worth was a conditional thing, and now I was hurting because of it. Suddenly, I had no choice but to hope the opposite was true. And that’s really all I had: Hope. I didn’t feel in my heart what I had read in Scripture or even seen lived out in life. Like so many women of faith, I scoured through the Bible searching for passages that would alleviate my suffering, and ended up feeling more at a loss than before. So much of what I was hearing at that time was coming from my own mind, from my own emotions, and I held on fast to the belief that if I didn’t feel something then it couldn’t possibly be true.

Have you done that? Are you doing it now?

I promise you every princess movie that’s ever told you to follow your heart is wrong. Our hearts are deceitful beyond measure. And while our emotions are good and useful things, they are not truth. They are not accurate guides for every decision or how valuable we really are. They are notes on a scale, moving up and down and back again. Low notes are not indications of a terrible life any more than they’re an indication of a terrible composition. 

They are simply a part of the song we’re singing. 

Sing on.

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