Opening up: Artist Sow Ay's Struggle with Depression
Depression doesn't always have an end date. Sow Ay is an artist who regularly channels his experiences with depression and anxiety into wonderfully expressive comics for the world to see. This is the raw story of his struggle, republished with permission.
Written by Sow Ay
I received many private messages from people asking for help because they didn’t know how to talk about their mental health issues to their friends or families. I’m not good at giving advice but from my experience, hearing other people’s stories gives a lot of courage, makes me feel understood and less alone. I’m so glad to help people with a simple story or drawings. I apparently saved lives! I’m so proud of that, I can’t quite believe it.
I thought I could share my full story with you like I did with some. That’s incredibly scary to share. I’m so scared to imagine my friends or old coworkers reading this but I guess helping more people is more important.
I’ve never really known what was wrong with me so I drew a character that had the same issues. He was not happy with his life, felt lonely all the time, had no self-esteem (like -967272074%), loved music way more than he loved himself, and often bit his nails until his fingers were bleeding. You know this character if you’re following me.
At the time, I was refused by every art school. Some even told me my drawings were useless. I was 18 and felt like I failed my life so drawing was not enough to make me feel better. I was not enough. Not enough to be accepted in art school. Not enough for anything.
I think music woke me up. I remember being alone, listening to music with my headphones, in a large space, with people and students walking around. I was drawing my character. He was depressed and I heard, “Best, you’ve gotta be the best” in my ears. (That’s “Butterflies and Hurricanes” by Muse, and I cried a lot when I heard it live 2 years after that.) That was 6-7 years ago.
I texted a friend about all those things in my head. She followed everything from the first doubts to the day I could finally put a name on it and she will probably read this and I’m glad she exists. (She’ll probably cry while reading this line and I’m not even sorry.) For me, depression was for weak people at this time. It was only in their head. And I simply couldn’t understand how a human being could think about ending their life. (Damn, this is really getting serious and even more scary for me to speak. Hm, to write..)
Drawing wasn’t enough, my head was still messed up and I was having more and more insomnia. (I think my other friends knew I had sleeping disorders but only knew that at the time.) My solution was to keep my mind busy by working and over-working on personal projects. And texting my friend all the time, even on dark nights. I had some really depressive nights that just ended with me thinking, “What’s the point of living?” I understood how someone could think about suicide. I felt like I was ALWAYS lacking motivation.
The insomnia was getting worse, and the anxiety was also strong but I didn’t know what that was so I only talked about the insomnia or the physical anxiety symptoms to my doctor. I always wait until I can no longer go on to finally dare going to the doctor. “But you’re so young, you’re not even 20.” In my head that was, “Oh my god, I am that fucked up!!?? I’m so weak. I suck. I hate myself.”
I had some sleeping pills (that didn’t really work) and I kept working and creating stuff all the time. I wanted to get better so I could make a living off of my work. Until I burnt out. It’s “funny” because I knew I was getting off limits. I kept working and working because I stupidly thought that would make my mind quieter. I was tired all the time, I couldn’t sleep, had no motivation and didn’t know why I was doing all of this. It felt pointless.
I started a new band with my friends (another project again!) because I thought music could save me (and it did, that’s the best thing I’ve done in this mental battle). I needed something to keep me sane. Besides that, I still did everything to stay busy. Day at work, evening on personal projects or making my stuff ready for the weekends I spent at art shows or conventions.
I suddenly realized I could no longer go on when I had a huge panic attack during a concert in 2016. (The Last Shadow Puppets. It was amazing, by the way.) At the time, I didn’t know what a panic attack was. I just felt like I was dying for a few minutes, or at least thought I was gonna pass out. I spent the following days hugely depressed, panicked, and had no motivation at all. Like, worse than anything I’ve ever felt before. Like music was no longer safe for me. Music had always helped. Knowing I had a show coming always made me happy. But this show destroyed everything. I had 4 other shows in the following months. But I just couldn’t.
I again ended up thinking, “What’s the point? Why go on living?” like during many depressive episodes. But this time it was really stronger. And it really wasn’t a good time for this. (Like, can there be a good time for this?) Getting back to work after that panic attack simply felt IMPOSSIBLE. Going to my friend’s birthday the day after seemed impossible. It was invisible and had to remain invisible. I was incredibly scared to have another panic attack or to suddenly fall apart in front of my friends and they couldn’t see that I’m broken.
It was so strong that I texted my friend (the one I always text). I needed her to know. Then I told my mom I maybe had depression. I always need my friend’s support for this. I always need to feel reassured about everything I do. Like, before publishing this I had to ask her.
Then came the birthday. It was just a drink in a bar but I was so “sick” (I still thought it was just me that was not enough and not that I was sick) that I texted the 2 organizers to explain to them the madness that was going on and that I might not find the strength to come.
Like every time, I showed up. For my friends. To not disappoint them. I felt so off, I can’t tell what happened. I just stayed for the drink and left before the evening because that was already too much.
The following day, I explained everything to all the friends that were there. (I again needed to be supported by my friend.) Because imagining what they could think of me, all those stories I was making in my head were killing me.
At the moment I pressed enter, I instantly wanted to disappear. Like, “OMG, I DID IT. They’ll read it and hate me. I suck. I want to die. I hate myself. Will they answer?”
And they were super understanding! What a damn relief! WOAH! After that, I felt better about publishing my drawings online, because I was no longer scared for them to find it.
I stopped working on all my personal projects and spent all my time out of work in bed, thinking I couldn’t get back to work the following day or on Monday. I spent the beautiful summer weekends watching the sky out the window from my bed. I was so messed up.
With time, I talked about it with more friends, like my bandmates. To explain to them that I was freaking out before a concert or a rehearsal. I even dared refusing to play a gig because of the panic. Saying no was like, the hardest thing ever.
Not everyone was cool about that. I kept hearing, “It’s in your head” and that’s far from being over.
Since that concert, I had some other huge panic attacks. Those panic attacks made me scared to get out. It was stronger than my usual generalized and social anxiety. I usually ended up at the doctor trying to explain this and had many blood tests. As these were really physical symptoms, we didn’t immediately think it was a mental illness. I was paranoid. Like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna die. Maybe it's cancer.”
The worst attack I had was during one of my art show openings. I spent half of the evening throwing up, had huge vertigo, couldn’t see clearly and even had huge tinnitus. It felt like I was out of reality. People were here but far away. I couldn’t hear or see them clearly. I really thought I was gonna pass out and people couldn’t see me like that. I ended up texting my friend from the toilets. I had to leave earlier and I hated myself so much. My projects and artworks were betraying and abandoning me, like music was after TLSP’s concert.
This time, I accepted the work leave my doctor was telling me to take for months. It’s been 6 months. I still have huge depressive episodes. I took a Netflix account. I kept drawing when I had thoughts I needed to get out of my head. Some folks apparently liked it and I ended up on the Huffington Post, The Independent, Stylist mag and many others in over 7-8 languages. Many people told me their stories. I always answered. I apparently saved lives. Saved Christmas’ lonely night for someone. How can I help people when I cannot even help myself?
Today, I was too tired to leave my bed. That happens. But my biggest fear these days is to get better. I’ve never really known how it feels and I’m so scared of it. What if I relapse? I don’t want to no longer feel like myself, don’t want to lose my creativity. Getting back to work simply feels impossible. I just can’t. And I still hate myself so much.
(Music is randomly playing and the same music that woke me up starts at this moment. Is that a sign??)