Josh: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR BEING HERE, NATHAN. I KNOW THAT THE TOPICS WE’RE DISCUSSING TODAY ARE SENSITIVE AND PERSONAL, BUT THAT THEY APPLY TO MANY INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF OUR COMMUNITY. FIRST, I’D LOVE TO GIVE OUR READERS CONTEXT. WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
Nathan: I am a nurse that works in drug rehab. We get people who are right off the street, who are convicted sex criminals, and people who have been in prison for more than 10 years. Our main job is to help them reintegrate into society, and to help them understand their addictions – from alcohol to cocaine to meth. I work with the mental health aspect, as mental health issues and substance abuse issues go hand in hand.
Josh: HELP ME UNDERSTAND YOUR ROLE WITH THE MENTAL HEALTH COMPONENT OF THE TREATMENT CENTER.
Nathan: I’m the main psychiatric nurse at the facility, and I’m the one making sure they’re getting adequate care – whether setting them up with psychiatrists, or doing lectures. I do weekly lectures to help them understand what mental illness looks like, what the symptoms are, how their medications work, and the link between mental illness and substance abuse.
Josh: CAN YOU TEACH ME SOMETHING FROM A RECENT LECTURE?
Nathan: Well, I like to go a bit more in-depth. So…
At this point, Nathan divides a paper towel into two pieces and separates them. He then puts two quarters between the pieces. He then proceeds to show how serotonin molecules move through a synapse in the brain. Irregularities in this process, he demonstrates, are one of the causes of depression.
Sometimes, whether due to genetics or otherwise, if we have low levels of serotonin, we have a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Higher levels of serotonin help balance out other neurotransmitters, which is why doctors typically start with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. SSRI’s, like Celexa or Lexapro, do this:
You have so many types of medications because there are, of course, different medications for different neurotransmitters, like dopamine or norepinephrine. There are combination medications, and figuring out what works for each person, unfortunately is a process of trial and error. And if the only thing that makes you feel better is using drugs, then of course you’re likely to use them.
For me, it’s saying “Hey, there is a life you can have that doesn’t include having this existential dread in your life every day, like depression, or a feeling of constant doom, like someone who has an anxiety disorder.” I’m not here to say “You should do this,” or “you should try this medication,” but I’d hate to have somebody vividly suffer in front of me when there’s something I know would help them. Medication is a hammer, though – you can build a house or bash someone’s head in… You’ve gotta be bold with the population I work with. I use The Matrix to explain vaccines.
Josh: YOU’RE SUCH AN EXCELLENT TEACHER! WELL PSYCH IS A PRETTY SPECIFIC, DELIBERATE FIELD OF NURSING. HOW DID YOU END UP THERE?
Nathan: I used to live with a meth dealer for about 4 years. I was so ignorant to so many things at the time – I was willfully ignorant – and it was my first relationship. He was suffering with alcoholism and meth. It’s easy to think of people as monsters and bad guys, but he didn’t know how to help himself. And then I realized there was something I could do.
Josh: BEFORE THE INTERVIEW, I KNOW WE HAD DISCUSSED THE CONTENT FOR TODAY, AND IT WAS VERY IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO SHARE YOUR PERSONAL CONNECTION TO MENTAL ILLNESS. I LAUD YOU FOR YOUR BRAVERY.
Nathan: I’m too familiar with it. I suffer with depression myself, as many in the LGBTQ community do. So I’m certainly not alone. Two years ago, I was hospitalized. I was sobbing, I was having issues with my family… I’d just happened to get out of a relationship that ended up with a restraining order, and I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. The people I opened up to in the chorus… even just being in that community was so life-affirming. There are some days you need to look for a reason to live, and knowing there are people who care about you…
Josh: WE PASS BY PEOPLE ON A DAILY BASIS, AND WE MAY NEVER KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING. YOUR STRUGGLES ARE ONGOING, AND I THINK THIS MIGHT SURPRISE SOME PEOPLE.
Nathan: Yes. People, I think, have this perception of me that everything in my life seems perfect, or that I have everything going for me. And that’s SO far off-base, it’s ridiculous. I’m struggling every day, all the time. I guess it’s a flashier side that they see. I get a little over-zealous when I perform.
Josh: THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE A TENOR 1. BUT YOU WERE ALSO FREDDIE MERCURY LAST YEAR, AND SANTA CLAUS! YOU’RE PHENOMENAL. AND YOU’RE LOVED.
At this point, the interview stopped for a few minutes.
Nathan: I don’t know where to go from here. I’m sorry I had an emotional breakdown on you.
Josh: THAT’S PROBABLY THE MOST HONEST ANSWER I’VE HEARD. AND YOU’D BE SURPRISED – IT HAPPENS IN ABOUT HALF OF MY INTERVIEWS. NATHAN, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY THAT’S HELPING YOU?
Nathan: Whenever I feel absolute shit, it’s music. I work so hard at music because if I don’t, I don’t… It’s a healthy coping mechanism. It’s nice to put all that negative energy into something that makes me happy. Look here – I’ve got a trumpet, two flutes, two ukuleles, a guitar, a keyboard. It looks like a junkyard.
Josh: YES, BUT A JUNKYARD THAT SOUNDS SO PRETTY. RIGHT NOW, NATHAN, I THINK YOU CAN HELP PEOPLE. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THOSE SUFFERING, INCLUDING OTHER “BRIGHT, SHINY” PEOPLE?
Nathan: There’s a difference between being nice and being authentic. Allow yourself to be seen. Recently, I put up a song about Trixie Matell, and someone in the chorus mentioned that they’d never heard me sing something sad – only happy, peppy songs. The happy, peppy stuff is 1% of me as an entire person.
You always have to make sure you put the oxygen mask on yourself first, even though there’s not a quick fix for depression. But it really does get better every day, even if I don’t believe it. It’s an objective truth.
Josh: WHY IS THAT?
Nathan: I learn. I meet more people. I’m learning to let people into my life more. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m looking forward to being old. I look at where I am now, as opposed to being on a farm in Nebraska in a town where people never leave. I thought I would marry a woman, have kids, and die repressed. But here I am, in my own studio apartment overlooking Loring Park. Whatever the future holds, I’m looking forward to it.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.