This is a version of a letter to singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov who holds a special place in my life. I’m mailing a handwritten version of this to him, but many people have asked about this time in my life and I was never able to accurately describe my experience in the fall of 2017. I omitted many details and no one will ever really know what it was like because lucky you, you’re not in my body. However, it was an experience that shaped the way I see life, and so it deserves its own little spot in my portfolio and in my heart. If you can, turn on “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” while you’re reading. Maybe you’ll see why.
I thought about writing to you on my new stationery, but you seem like a lined paper type of guy. My name is Alexandra and I am a seventeen-year-old from Colorado Springs. I found myself at your concert in June at Stargazer’s Theatre. I went alone, seeing as though most “cool teens” would much rather drink in someone’s basement than go to an acoustic folk concert. I don’t think I am religious, but I find everything in the universe painfully connected, like this trap that I don’t want to escape. A woven pattern I find myself tangled in. The night I bought the ticket, I was feeling my typical nightly sadness and “Dandelion Wine” came on one of my playlists as I was writing. I looked up tour dates. There was one ticket left on Stubhub. I paid $140, fresh out of my paycheck, and I was there the next week.
I took my time showing up and yet ended up in the front row with two guys I had just met. They were a blessing in and of themselves, but that’s another story I hesitate to harp on. Who knows with people? Plus, I can’t write about them until I stop talking to them. I just know that I met someone who reminded me of my worth by literally just existing. So I’ll first thank you for that. Your music has brought many blessings into my life, no matter how small (he’s actually 6’4” so maybe small isn’t the right word. Thanks anyways).
The second you took the stage, I just started crying. Not the “fangirl” type awe or some kind of crush being materialized for the first time. You just were. You existed. I felt like life was melting at my fingertips.
I’m going to tell you my story now, so I hope you’re not too bored with that extensive introduction.
When I was fourteen, I was diagnosed with a severe case of Chronic Migraine Illness. When I say severe, I mean that I’ve lived in a constant state of physical pain for three and a half years now. I’ve been to countless therapies and have been on over twenty different medications. I’ve learned how to live my life with a constant aura, chronic nausea, and an inability to remember a life when I wasn’t in pain. I’ve lost friends and boyfriends constantly which conditioned me to believe that not only was I unable to accept love, I didn’t even deserve it.
Sophomore year of high school, I was put on a medication called Topamax. My doctors and my mother both seemed eerily hopeful about this particular medication, although, in retrospect, I think it was only desperation. After all, it couldn’t be as bad as the Beta Blockers that made me pass out after climbing a flight of stairs or the seizure medications that made me cry every time I tried to do a push up in gym class. It couldn’t be as bad as the blood pressure medications that made me pass out in the shower, the pristine porcelain bruising my hips. It just couldn’t be that bad.
I took it, and slowly, I started slipping. The sky seemed to fade. The trees were grey. I couldn’t pass a single math test or finish a page of my reading. The numbers would mix around. The words would taunt me like they were sticking their syllabic tongues out at me and tilt their fonts to make my head ache. I was so embarrassed about my school performance and my inability to coherently speak that I stopped talking altogether. I would cry in empty classrooms and pray to whatever the hell is running this show to save me. I was silently begging to be saved.
I used to decide to kill myself like it was the most matter-of-fact thought process in the world. It was the only solvable equation. If I could isolate X, then I could get rid of her. Everything in my life seemed to hurt me so much, and yet I couldn’t feel anything other than a dull throbbing that continually reminded me how horrible I felt.
I knew something was wrong when I stopped feeling music. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I heard the introduction to “Blackbird”. My scalp didn’t tingle when I heard Jeff Buckley. I didn’t feel my hips ache when Stevie Wonder came on my car CD. Something was wrong. And it was much worse than I thought it was.
I heard my parents argue about me every night, watching their relationship pull apart like fibers of lined paper as it disintegrates in water. I watched my father cry. I watched my mom beg doctors for answers. My life felt like such a burden that I was pulling people under and breaking their necks from the weight.
And then one night, I shuffled “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” and heard “Dandelion Wine” for the first time. I can’t remember why I chose to listen to you or why I gravitated towards that album specifically. I just know that I did. I think hearing that song was the closest thing to “God’s presence” I had ever experienced. This wave of relief and comfort bathed my body. I felt it. I felt my eyes water and my heart raise its ears like a puppy dog hearing “walk!”. I relentlessly listened to the entire album. After every therapy session where a random man in a chair would stare at me for forty-five minutes and wait for me to tell him that the glucose tablets he was feeding me were curing my migraines. After every CT scan that reminded me that my illness is quite literally “in my head”. After every day at school I managed to get through alive. It became the soundtrack to a very dark time in my life. It was the only thing that made me feel.
After noticing my grades plummeting and my mood tumbling down with it, I found myself back at my psychiatrist’s office. He told me that Topamax is also known as “Dopamax”. It slows down brain function and its number one side effect is “suicidal thoughts”. Cute, right? Let’s keep drugging already depressed girls in hopes of numbing them into a state of submission. I felt like I had been violated in a way I couldn’t describe other than being seized of my ability to feel. The most ‘human’ part about me, or about any of us, really. I remember dry heaving from crying so hard in my bedroom after I learned this, feeling betrayed by everyone who put me on it. How could they do that? Why did no one tell me it would slow my brain function down? Would I ever be the same? I’ve had my share of low points in life, perhaps a few too many for someone my age, but that one felt infinite like I’d never be able to trust anyone again or feel like life was anything other than a game of roulette.
Days after I began titrating off of my dose, I started singing “If I Go, I’m Goin’” in the grocery store with my mother. I just remember serenading shampoo bottles and turning to see her crying. She grabbed me and told me that she hadn’t heard me in months.
As the days went on, my voice came back to me. I could feel things. My pain was still there, but at least it was something. The sky was blue. The trees were green. I crushed my next math again. I was back.
I guess when I saw you on stage a few years later, a mere ten feet in front of me, I was struck by how far I’ve come. I wish I could tell you that I’m healthy now. I’m not, but I’m better. I am hopeful, and isn’t that what this whole “life” thing is all about? The lingering thought that maybe… just maybe…. tomorrow will bring a gift.
I felt my heart break when I heard “Dandelion Wine” live. I just started sobbing. That time, I could really feel it. I could touch the sound waves and bathe in the golden glint of your guitar. I was alive, and for the first time in what felt like an eternity, it felt good. It didn’t hurt. My heart was broken, but don’t worry: I’ve fixed her many times before.
Thank you for reminding me what life is really about beyond the haze that sometimes we clutter our lives with. Life is about the connection. We plug into things that make us feel a certain way. We speak to people who excite us. We connect because anyone who chooses to be alive inherently adopts at least an ounce of hope. Thank you for giving me an avenue of connection at a time when I needed it the most. I cherish you more than you’ll know.
I still cry when I hear your voice, but it’s the relieving kind of crying. One that continually cleanses my soul and reminds me why I choose to live. Rock on, guitar man.