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Musician Charlie Van Stee bravely shares his story of hitting rock bottom—and how he came back up for air

Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR
Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR

by Staff

September 23, 2015

"I feel like you don't like me." The seven most poisonous words I've ever said to another person.

It says "I'm a victim," "I know exactly what you are thinking," and "please confirm my unlikability" in one lousy sentence.

I've said these words to myself and out loud so many times it's become my Memory Foam seat on the stationary exercise bike they call in the mental illness game "obsessive cognitive distortions." As in, I feel something, so it's true. It's also a desperate cry to convince people that without constant input and validation, my art will die. Hold up! I'm a self-aware artist and musician with a clear vision and unmovable attitude toward my life and work, right? Nope, I'm miserable.

I was recently hospitalized along with this exercise bike attached to my back for suicidal tendencies. I couldn't drive through the Lowry Hill tunnel without thinking about how I could get away with jumping off the walking bridge to Loring Park. How many times would I have to carelessly J-walk across Cedar before I got hit by the 22 bus and ruined someone else's life? What a burden that would be. Even my suicidal thoughts were a burden to others. Songwriting became an escape at times but who cares about the songs I write? All anyone cares about is Doomtree and Prince. They aren't artists. They don't feel depression like me and Nick Drake. Of course I was wrong. Wrong and risky.

I arrived at Abbott Northwestern scared to my core. Four days of mandatory meals, dollar store shampoo and maroon scrubs. I couldn't even have my headphones in case I got any bright ideas about hanging myself. Strip searched, numbered and put into a room well used by so many before me, I lay down in my bed facing the wall, closed my eyes and rubbed my toes together like a Boy Scout starting a fire. My bunkmate was an older man (we'll call him Steve) who sat in a chair at the end of my bed continuously asking if I was awake for the next 45 minutes of required "self reflection" time. I was certainly self reflecting and I didn't answer him. This was rock bottom and I wasn't sure I had the stomach for it.

I finally made my way out to the common area, and after the "new guy" smell and gawking wore off people began invited me to sit with them. I found out that most everyone in this holding cell were like me, unsure. We talked about music, movies, books and our struggles as casually as naming our favorite breakfast cereal. Every once in a while, someone would hear their name chimed over the loudspeaker to grab the phone only to get scolded by a family member about the strain they've put on their lives. How grandmas were devastated and that their bed at home would no longer be available. So many last chances at life had been used up. We all had to do it. It was part of the fallout.

Yet we all had patience for each other. We were the sick ones locked arm in arm. We were also the circle you saw after you hung up that phone in frustration. A circle filled with smiling faces waiting to pick up where we left off in Apples to Apples without hesitation.

After the four days were up I had to head back home. Ironically more vulnerable than I'd been before I was admitted. Where was my circle of faces now?

I lived through the first night and without shame, explained to my daughter about daddy's sickness. Time to enter into phase two, I thought, as I tried to fall asleep. This must be how war veterans feel when they come home.

I saddled up to outpatient group therapy. With my hands folded in my lap and my head down, I said my name and my mood for the day. Over and over again for 15 days straight. I heard about other people's battles with confidence and learned the necessary skill of positive self talk. This is how it was laid out:

A-TALK: I'm a failure and my family has known it for years.

B-TALK: My family is more understanding than I give them credit for. I just need to be honest with them and celebrate the small victories.

A-TALK: Tonight I'm going to a show and I'm going to isolate in a corner because I can't stop saying dumb things because I'm a fraud.

B-TALK: This hospital room is filled with people who have the same thoughts that I do. They must exist out in the wild too. REMEMBER CHARLIE, YOU CAN'T PREDICT THE FUTURE.

As I began sharing nuggets of my experience through social media, there has been an incredible outpouring of support from the music community. People have been brave enough to admit that they fight these things too and sadly, some of those people still feel alone. In order to shed that dreaded exercise bike, I began taking baths to calm myself. My medications balanced out and I released a solo album on MY terms because I simply liked the songs. I passionately labor over felt portraits of people I respect and have learned the value of expressing myself in the moment without apologizing.

I know I'll forever be reminding myself of how to navigate the world, even if it feels at times like daunting homework. My family and friends are here for me and I can tell them without shame when I need a break. I know I literally can't live without the skills I've gained. I also know that that's alright. It's worth it. I'm worth it. I've never been more confident and less concerned about how people perceive me or my art because I know I do it for me. So keep sharing your vulnerabilities with the art community because it's the definition of expression and expression is art.

—Charlie Van Stee

For more on Charlie's music and personal journey, listen to Episode 1 of Andrea Swensson's new podcast The O.K. Show.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.