Donny Goines, 34, is a hip-hop artist from New York, New York. This is his story.
The feeling of depression can only be described as a suffocating cloud of darkness and sorrow, one that comes and goes without warning. It hovers over me and follows me no matter where I go. I can’t seem to escape it. It pursues me relentlessly.
Drug abuse, violence and sadness were all part of my life growing up. Around the age of 7 or 8, my mother left my two younger brothers and me at my grandmother’s home in the Bronx. I cried the entire night. I wouldn’t see my mother again for a few years, but at the time I thought she just didn’t want us.
We all lived together, along with my older cousin who was mentally disabled, and my aunt on the floor above us, in an old, run-down building. The neighborhood was poverty-stricken; many of the residents, like us, survived on food stamps and welfare. I had a very hard time fitting in. My father was not a part of my life, and a few years later I found out he had been incarcerated for several years. I didn’t have any male influences during that time.
This is when I began to notice certain things about myself. I was highly intelligent. I scored off the charts in reading and writing when I was registered for school. I seemed to absorb information effortlessly. I began to realize how creative I was. Most kids I knew wanted action figures or dolls, but I yearned for typewriters and books. I started to understand I was different from most children.
Donny and childhood friends, Bronx, New York
I was also very introverted. I always stayed in my room, reading, writing or studying. The only drawback was I became fully aware of the world around me, and it made me sad. As the years passed, I began to notice this feeling more and more. I felt like an outcast. I immersed myself in the depression’s solitude.
When I was about 14, my mother reentered my life and moved us across town. The environment change caused me to change as well. I began cutting school and smoking weed, then having sex, drinking, smoking cigarettes, committing crimes, gambling. Unlike my friends, though, I was doing everything in extreme excess. Smoking and drinking numbed me from my thoughts. I didn’t feel sad anymore; in fact, I didn’t feel anything, really. This behavior continued into my adulthood. By age 20, many would say I was a full-blown alcoholic.
During all of this, I didn’t express to anyone that I was battling depression. At the time, I didn’t even understand what it was I was feeling. In a rare moment of clarity, I realized that if I didn’t do something drastic, I was going to drink myself into an early grave or be killed, so I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent off to boot camp.
The involuntary sobriety and structure really helped me regain control. I excelled academically and graduated from boot camp and speciality schools, but couldn’t seem to shake this feeling of sadness. It had followed me from New York, and slowly the same patterns began to emerge of isolation, excessive sleeping and insomnia, anger and depression.
I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me and, out of frustration, I started lashing out. I was drinking again. I told my superiors I couldn’t stay, but the military needs a good reason to release you. Eventually, I was causing so many problems, they said I had to clean up my act and stay or I had to go, but if that was the case, they had to make sure I was safe. I left, on the condition that I had to see a psychiatrist. After six months I was released with a personality disorder diagnosis. I think the diagnosis was just something they said to get me out of there, at that point.
When I returned to New York, I went right back to my old habits. If anything, my drinking, partying and excess sexual activity was even more destructive than in the past. I had a few jobs here and there but no true passion in life. Then, in 2005, I purchased a documentary about Jay-Z called “Fade to Black.” The film gave insight into his creative process, and I had an epiphany: I wanted to become a rapper! I quit my job and never looked back.
I met a great friend and mentor, Disco D. I began working for him as a personal assistant and studio manager. I was focused on my career, learning everything I could from him. Around the same time, I also met a wonderful woman. She became pregnant, and I wanted to do the right thing, so we got married. We decided together that she would go to Canada, where her father and stepmother lived, somewhere more stable.
I didn’t really see my wife too much. Late in September 2006, I received a call from her in the hospital. Our son was born seven weeks premature, and they didn’t know if he was going to make it. I got there as soon as I could, but the only flight I could afford didn’t leave for a few days, and when I got there it was too late. On his seventh day, my son passed. My wife was heartbroken beyond grief. I held back my tears to be strong for her, but inside I was devastated and in complete shock. I didn’t know what to do but keep working and remaining strong. I absorbed the loss, consoled my wife and eventually traveled back to New York. I wish I had been more supportive and even grieved myself. I didn’t understand how to really deal with it. My marriage disintegrated; I haven’t seen her in years.
A few months after my son’s death, Disco D committed suicide. I was crushed. It was also the first time I began to understand how strong the power of depression can be. It killed my friend. I went into what I can only call “emotional auto-pilot” — I worked, worked, worked at a feverish pace with little regard for my feelings or my health, and I was operating at a level that was almost robotic.
Life went on this way for a few years, and I began to become successful as an artist. I tried to ignore the depression as best I could. But in 2010, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I locked myself in my room for days at a time. I barely ate, and I would try to sleep as much as I could. I began to suffer from debilitating headaches. I didn’t know what to do, but a friend suggested I seek help.
I began seeing a psychiatrist and started a regimen of medication and therapy. My psychiatrist caught on to my depression right away and also explained anxiety to me. The medication and therapy combined was working, and for the first time in my life I thought, “I can beat this!” My sleep improved, I started to work out and become more productive, and I felt really good overall. My career was blossoming, and I felt optimistic.
After I shared everything about the process with a friend only to be hurt by him behind my back, I felt completely betrayed. The stigma of depression affected me, so I decided to go to Atlanta. This was a huge mistake in hindsight.
By this time I was on Zoloft, Ambien and Clonazepam and seeing my psychiatrist frequently, but I regressed and ran. One of the things I learned in therapy was that I was always trying to avoid my problems instead of finding ways to cope with them, and this is exactly what I did. I focused all of my energy on work, started my own company and self-medicated, trying to ignore the depression. When my depression or anxiety built, I would take more medication. If I was supposed to take two pills, for example, I might take three or four. I didn’t understand [the danger].
I began to suffer seizures as a side effect of all the medications, and I was hospitalized over a dozen times in 2012. My family had begun to worry for my well-being. I was back in that lonely place, struggling with paranoia and anger. I was losing control both personally and professionally, so I decided to go back to New York and seek help. Early in 2013, I had a very violent seizure, which left me in the hospital for about a week, where they finally discovered the medications were most likely what was causing the seizures.
Donny at Bronx Veteran’s Hospital, 2013
I decided then and there that I would never take any medication, and, with my psychiatrist, we devised a plan to remove all the medications from my system. At first, my psychiatrist was reluctant and apprehensive, but I explained to her that I’m a man of very strong will, so if I decide I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I’m not saying medication is not a smart option for some people. Truthfully, that medication might have saved my life. Had I been more responsible and more consistent with therapy and not gone through those dramatic issues with the side effects, I would probably still be taking medication. I just had a very bad experience, personally.
You can’t simply stop taking these drugs; I had to substitute those medications with others. It took about nine months. I gained about 80 pounds and was physically, spiritually and mentally broken. I had to remove myself from the spotlight and concentrate on my recovery. For the first time in my life, I faced depression head on, without drugs, work, sex or any other distractions.
Now, I’m still recovering slowly at a healthy pace. I’m working on developing coping mechanisms. I’m developing hobbies: I’m big into art right now. I walk a lot. I look at everything these days with more lightheartedness and try to be as positive as I can be. I’m working on a new album, restructuring my current company and also creating a new one. I’m losing the weight. I’m a vegan. I continue to go to therapy. I will continue to battle depression for as long as I live. I have a very long way to go, but I’m hopeful.
I think many of us suffer in silence. Depression can become so overwhelming. We kill ourselves slowly with drugs and alcohol, lash out at others or are afraid to speak to someone in fear of stigma and ridicule. I know many will judge me harshly or look differently at me, but I hope this may help someone out there who might be dealing with similar issues. You’re not alone. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. The thought of my depression helping others brings me happiness. Ironic, isn’t it?
As told to Sarah Klein. This email and interview have been edited for length and clarity.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.