Christina Perri’s first memory of suicidal ideation dates back to when she was just 8 years old — an experience that’s affected the singer-songwriter her entire life. Now, her battles with anxiety, depression and addiction have inspired her to write songs many in these communities consider anthems. At a difficult time in my struggle with an eating disorder, a good friend of mine played me “I Believe,” and it has since become one of my recovery anthems. To me, this song perfectly captures the meeting point of struggle, strength and the feeling of “maybe I actually will be OK.”
Perri, now 30, engaged, and expecting her first child, recently opened up in an interview with The Mighty about therapy, how her parents and fiance handle her mental illness and how, when all else fails, music helps her wade out of the darkness.
On starting therapy as a child:
Like many who struggled with their mental health as children, Perri grew up feeling generally “melancholic and peculiar” but didn’t understand she was struggling with depression and anxiety until she was older. She remembers being “in love with her family” as a child but also feeling a lot of sadness. She also later struggled with addiction.
Her mom recognized there was something amiss while they were picking out an elementary school teacher’s Christmas present. “I remember threatening to kill myself at a department store over something my mom wanted to buy,” Perri told The Mighty. “I wanted to throw myself down the escalators.”
Her mom put her in therapy soon after, and 22 years later, she still goes. “I love therapy. I’m a huge advocate for it,” she said, though admits she wasn’t open about going until she was 17.
On talking to her parents about mental illness:
Though her parents put her in therapy after she expressed suicidal thoughts, Perri said her mom didn’t truly understand her struggle until much later on, and her dad still has a hard time understanding:
My mom was like, “What’s wrong with you?” She didn’t know how to deal with me. My dad is from Italy, and he doesn’t understand American culture still… He’s just like, “Be better, snap out of it.” Both of my parents are so loving and sweet, but they just don’t connect to it.
She and her parents have attended Al-Anon, a support group for family and friends of those struggling with alcoholism. Perri said the language used in the group helped them all communicate about her mental health.
On medication and coping:
Perri took antidepressants between the ages of 10 and 14 but didn’t like how they made her feel. “It made me a little bit numb. I remember not writing and not liking that feeling,” she said. “But when I found writing and music, it made me feel better than any kind of medication I’d tried. It really made me feel better than anything ever. I was like, ‘OK, I can do life.’”
Still, even with this newfound coping mechanism, depression continued. “Life was just so much for me. I didn’t connect with my peers,” Perri recalled. “They were just not having the heaviness that I did, and I just didn’t have a word for it.”
On telling her fiance, Paul, about her mental illnesses:
I was so nervous for the moment Paul would find out I’m not “normal.” Paul doesn’t have depression, alcoholism or anxiety. I was always ashamed of my mental illnesses my whole life. I realize I’m lucky to be a songwriter… but at the same time it’s engrained in me to be ashamed. But Paul didn’t run. He was so curious and has been the best you could imagine for someone like me. Open and willing to do whatever I need. When I told him he was like, “I love you more.”
Perri said Paul doesn’t try to fix her — instead he acknowledges her struggles, suggests she does something when she’s isolating or sometimes just takes a walk around the block with her — all tools they’ve worked through together.
On recovery and a message to those struggling:
When I told Perri about my personal connection to “I Believe,” she thanked me and shared who inspired her:
I get it. If you need it in that moment, it’s so life-changing. Jason Mraz was that person for me… We all need places to put these things. For me, it’s songwriting. It’s recovery. It’s therapy. These are the things that help me get through my life, but I’m still that 8-year-old girl who walks around with that heaviness.
When asked about what she has to say to those who feel like the struggle against mental illness is too much, she said:
It’s temporary. It’s always temporary. That feeling of free falling is always temporary… Something will happen that will change my perception. It’s the practice of saying, “This is awful, but you will make it through. That’s what saves peoples’ lives.”