Story and Photo by Lisa Anderson
Some of the most talented people deal with mental health problems (e.g. Robin Williams). If you are involved in the arts, it is never shocking to hear that the person who composed music, acted in a play, wrote a book, and played multiple instruments also has a mental illness. Leah Oxendine is no different. “I play nine different instruments. I’m a little bit scatterbrained and all over the place, but that’s me!”
She also draws, paints, writes, composes music, and sings. “A lot of times when I am trying to communicate something, especially about mental health stuff, I feel like one medium is not enough. You need more than that, because to get the full picture–which no one can ever get unless they are in it themselves–you have to use all the mediums you can, just to give a small idea of what is going on up here.” She gestures at her head. “Of course, everyone is different in that, but for me, that’s how I see it.”
In 2018, Leah published an illustrative book of poetry speaking directly to mental health titled When My Soul Bleeds Words. “The book was my big step out to show people this is real for me. The environment that I grew up in was not the best environment for mental health. I was in my mid-teens when I started noticing I had some stuff going on that didn’t feel normal. At the time, unfortunately, people in my life just kind of pushed it off. They would say things like, ‘You’ll get through it. It’s a phase. It’s part of growing up. Don’t worry about it. You’re just moody. Maybe you need to just go to bed and get some sleep.’ They would diminish it. So, I didn’t think anything of it, but what I noticed was that I would have these terrible bouts of depression. I would have days where I just wanted to be in bed all day. I was not motivated to do anything.”
As Leah grew older, she had the tendency for self-loathing and self-hatred, which ultimately turned to thoughts of suicide. “It was really scary, and I’m so glad that I didn’t [end it all], but at the time, I was very, very close. The only thing keeping me from doing it was thinking about all the people that still needed me for some reason.
“My goal with the book was to shed light on things we experience but don’t want to talk about, because we’ve been shamed into thinking it’s taboo. The fact that we ignore it does not help. I just wanted to say, ‘It’s okay that you’re going through this. It’s okay that you’re feeling these things because you’re human.’ We’re all human. We have a lot of things in common, and we have to acknowledge and accept that about ourselves and not be so condemning of these things that are just a part of humanity.”
Leah began to see a pattern as she matured into adulthood. In one hand, she would have times where she felt invincible. She calls it the “god complex.” It is when she is the most productive—writing books, composing music, etc. On the other hand, she would have crippling depression and anxiety. “I’m actually seeking help for it, now, because I realized I let it go on too long without seeking [that] help. I diminished it for so long. I was in denial. Now, I’m in a place of full acceptance of who I am.”
If you don’t struggle with mental health, it can be difficult to understand the thought process and the reasons why a person may do something. Leah believes the most important things you can do to support others is to be willing to listen, be understanding, and have an open mind. “The thing I think people have to remember is that anyone who’s on the spectrum for any type of mental illness, on any level, you can’t look at them and think, ‘How would I act?’ You must think about them in a whole different way. The way that our brains work is very different when you do have a mental illness. You have to be willing to be understanding. You need to be a little more patient, sometimes.”