Written in support of the Velocio 2019 Unity campaign to raise funds and awareness for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Photos by Jon Ragel.
Andi — my cousin — was born knowing how to make instruments come to life. Raised in a music and dance school founded by her mother in Pennsylvania, Andi excelled at playing string instruments from the time she could hold them.
By the time she was 25-years-old, Andi spent upwards of six hours a day perfecting the viola. Shy, but humorous and quick to laugh, her brown eyes often twinkled as if she was plotting a prank or bursting to share a secret. Andi heard music when none played. She didn’t just walk into a room, she danced; there was a rhythm to her every movement. You couldn’t help but smile around her.
Andi became an accomplished musician, a kind, caring and brilliant person with a doting boyfriend, close friends, and a loving family. She attended Rice then Julliard, received a Fulbright in Greece, played a concert with Yo-Yo Ma in Carnegie Hall, and recorded her own folk album aptly titled, “A Life of Colors.”
When Andi performed, time stopped. To witness her play was to see the unity of instrument and master.
When not playing, severe depression, stress, and anxiety weighed on her. She worried about her place in the music world and about making a living in it. She felt tormented by pressure to constantly outperform herself.
Emotional pain and turmoil ate away at her self-esteem, at her core, and began to rob her of the joy of playing. She told herself that she was a failure. Not just as a musician, but as a person. Andi desperately sought to heal, to “fix” herself. She confided in her mom and sought help from doctors.
The illness grew. Andi shaved off all of her thick auburn curls and cut herself off from playing. Instead of spending six hours a day practicing, she became withdrawn and locked herself away in her room writing.
Her mom advocated for Andi and kept her as close as possible. They went through therapist visits, a misdiagnosis, imposed psychiatric clinics, and multiple medications. What was missing was a collaborative, holistic response from the professional medical staff. So, mother and daughter developed therapeutic routines together of going to a local gym and taking long walks in nature.
Early in August 2014, Andi and her mom went to the gym as usual. Andi seemed upbeat and told her mom she was going to swim and then they could meet and walk together as they did every day.
Andi had visited a new psychiatrist the week prior. He diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder: an incurable mental illness that she’d have the rest of her life. Andi was drifting out into the open ocean. Instead of offering her a lifeline, he threw her a boulder.
Andi left the gym while her mom worked out. She walked to a nearby bridge above train tracks in Swarthmore and jumped. She was 30 years old.
I know Andi’s story because, in a way, it’s my own. I’ve had dark thoughts, fears, and anxieties. I’ve gone through pressure and stress that seemed like too much.
Her death by suicide woke me up to the mental health issues I have. They became more real. I had tried and failed to wish away depression. Wounds on our bodies often heal themselves with time, but the mind is more complicated.
Many people seem to have it all together, to laugh and smile externally when they are crumbling on the inside. Andi never confided in me about her struggles with depression, nor did I confide in her. We knew only of each other’s talents, and accomplishments.
When jobs, relationships, life feels disappointing or out of control, when I cannot understand people or situations, there’s cycling. Cycling makes sense to me as music did to Andi. It’s constant, dependable. It offers structure, solace, solitude, and also connections, a home, an identity, a family.
When I’m on the bike, I can hear Andi, still playing, still making instruments come to life.