We often mistake visual arts and the written word to exclusively be for entertainment or the pursuit of knowledge. But there is another side to them, a way to gather knowledge indeed, but knowledge about ourselves. Because the wealth of these forms lie in what they stir up within us. I will always remember the TV series Degrassi as the first time I saw self-harm and understood what I was doing. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend accompanied the diagnosis of my own personality disorder. And Hamilton will forever mark my journey through grief, I will cherish it as the lifeline that kept me going when I lost him. Such shows, books and musicals become more than the words written in their script when they are written into our lives.
Considering that I’m a huge musical fan, I was pretty late to the Hamilton train. Not as late as everyone now watching it on Disney+ and declaring themselves a fan, but later than most musical geeks.
I had heard of Hamilton, who hadn’t? Every American TV show dropped at least one Hamilton joke between 2015 and 2018. But somehow the girl who listened compulsively to the soundtracks of Rent, Carrie, Legally Blonde, Heathers and more, didn’t give Hamilton a try. In the late summer of 2018, a colleague learned of my musical obsession and insisted I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. I made vague promises to, but didn’t think further of it.
Then my father passed away. It’s weird that even writing those words, and not saying them out loud, still chokes me up and brings tears to my eyes. It was unexpected, and it basically shattered my world. After a month of hospital visits, I dragged myself back to work too soon, and I drifted through my days lost, waiting for him. Everyone told me I was coping so well, but I was not coping, I was going through the motions of life, numbing myself whenever I could.
My coworker reminded me to listen to Hamilton. I don’t think he really knew what else to say to me right now. So I did. I downloaded the soundtrack off Spotify, and listened to it on my bike road home from the office.
Within a minute, I was hooked. I probably crashed almost a dozen times on that twenty five minute ride. As soon as I got home, I lay in bed and listened to the rest of the show. Then I googled everything I could find about it. The next day I couldn’t stop talking to my coworker about it. I loved the musical. It was the first time I had enthusiasm for something again. Over the next few weeks I would listen exclusively to that soundtrack, over and over. And while the rest of my world imploded, it lifted me enough to keep going. To get out of bed, to find the strength to go to the office, to not cry every single day.
I struggle with my relationship with “It’s Quiet Uptown”. I either listen to it on repeat or skip it for fear of feeling too much. I think that represents grief well, how it comes and goes. It isn’t linear, it’s a mad toddler doodle crossing pages and changing colours. It’s a violent red scribble on the wall, as well as a smudged blue dot. This song is my smudged blue dot.
Philip has passed away, leaving his parents Alexander and Eliza to deal with their grief. This song captures the loneliness in grief, even if you’re together in it.
“There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name”
I felt removed from everything and everyone. Words floated past me, I thanked people for their condolences, but I didn’t hear them, I didn’t feel them. People struggled to name what had happened. I looked at my friends, and I knew the main thing that they were thinking is how glad they are that it wasn’t them. I was glad too.
“There are moments that you’re in so deep, it feels easier to just swim down”
I had felt this before in my depression, and grief brought it sharply back. It is that feeling of lying in bed, and wondering why would you even get up? It’s sabotaging yourself, and finding it easier to continue hurting yourself and others rather than address what you did. I felt heavy, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, searching for the will to swim. I still search for the will. To swim up in a world without him feels impossible, and to keep swimming is harder yet.
“And it’s quiet uptown. I never liked the quiet before”
Silence became my enemy. I needed noise and distraction, I needed to feel something or to numb myself from feeling. But then quiet became easier, because I had changed and no one around me had. Yet I also hadn’t changed, I had become myself, or the myself I would be following such a loss. I realised that I was an introvert, pretending to be an extrovert. I realised that I would rather stay home than go out, that I prefer drinking wine over dinner to going to parties. I like reading and writing on my days off rather than being with others. It’s hard for the people in my life to understand, one day I was me, and the next day I was the me that no one can recognise. One event changed me, or rather one event shed the skins so that I could be me. I like the quiet now.
This song is generally incredible, and urges you to seize the day, to go for what you want in life. No one expected Alexander Hamilton to account for anything, and he became a founding father of America. Maybe you won’t build a constitution and defend it, but you will achieve something in your life, and you can achieve anything that you intend to.
Once the grief began to gently throb instead of sting with pain, I felt captured by this fear of time and purpose. I needed to make him proud, I needed to make everything my father put into me worth it. I had to take my shot in life, and quickly.
Apart from that, there is one line from this song that rang deep within me.
“I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”
Having struggled with depression for so long, and reaching the darkest hours, I feel a weird relationship with passing. I fear living a monotonous life more than I do dying. And having spent a month around doctors, being told my father would be okay, then saying I should prepare myself, then having my hope yanked again, death feels so close and yet so far.
Aside from a theme of grieving, the musical stood out to me for the song “Hurricane”. It details the hurricane that destroyed the majority of the island where Hamilton grew up, and how he found a way to keep going and leave it. It’s a song about pushing on, about fighting to survive. It’s a song of darkness, but also a song of light, of hope. Because he believes that he can still escape from his hurricane, that he can save himself.
The line, “I couldn’t seem to die” sticks with me. It feels like when you lose someone, and you question why you’re still here? When you feel so low and lost, but life continues day after day. And there’s a reason for that, you just need to discover it.
“I'll write my way out”
I have wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. My father contributed to this, fuelling a love for reading in me. He read Harry Potter books to me before bed, and bought me book after book to devour myself. I want to be a writer, and yet I pushed it aside, I said maybe, I said one day. But no longer. Because life is short, life is meaningless as you lose people, and so all I can do is the thing I want the most.
This is my favourite song in Hamilton. I think Leslie Odom Jr. is a phenomenal performer, and Lin's lyrics are breathtaking. Burr is comparing himself to Hamilton, the pressures he has that Hamilton does not, and how his ambition may appear differently but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think that is such an important realisation, as ambition can appear differently in all of us. Many don’t see the ambition I have for writing, despite my perseverance and hard work, as there is no further education attached or big salary to expect.
“Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway”
I couldn’t understand why my father had passed, when there were so many awful people that got to live. He was a good man, caring and loyal. He tried to take care of himself, he worked to be healthy. He was finally getting the chance to be happy again, and he was taken too soon. Why him? Why not that person or another? This infuriated me. I would look at older people and think why do you get to live? I still struggle seeing elderly males, and knowing my father will never reach that age.
Death takes. One day, hopefully not soon, it will take from me again. And I can’t do anything about that. It was a helplessness that consumed me. But as Burr says, all we can do is try to keep living anyways. Live for them. I reached a point, months after he was gone, when I realised that I am his legacy. I am what he has to show for his life. And so my life must make all his sacrifices worth it. I must keep living for him, not in spite of him.
“And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it”
When the sadness grows slightly more manageable, I am wracked with the search for a purpose to this unexplainable event. What is this reason that I'm alive? Not just now, but all those times before when I came too close to ending things. There needs to be a reason to my life. I know that reason, writing and sharing those words, but I need to bring this reason to reality.
While not everyone who had loved me died, just one for now, it still felt that way. I still felt so alone. My BPD is accompanied by a fear of abandonment, which only grew with this event. I had lost one person, a very important person, and I could not allow myself to lose anyone else.
“I am the one thing in life I can control”
I have always felt out of my own control. When I hurt myself, when I sabotage myself, when I feel so sad for no reason. I don't understand my own mind, and that is terrifying. And once more, my life had been snatched from my control. I couldn’t bring him back. All I could do was not accept the grief in the hopes that this would lead to possibility.
But listening to this song far too many times a day began to empower me. It taught me that I can only control myself. Not my heightened emotions, not my maladaptive thoughts, but I can control what I do with those. I can control what I choose to bring into the world day after day. I can control how I take the things that are given to me. I can control how I honour my father.
If you’re not bawling by this final song of the musical, then you’re truly made of stone. The finale to Hamilton, it focuses on the agency of Eliza, his wife, following his death. It’s already a sad song due to the death of the main character moments before, and this was heightened for me by the emotions it stirred up.
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Will they tell your story?”
We have no control over who lives and who dies. That is a truth that we all know, but don’t actually know until death has visited your proximity. We all know that people can die, an entire YOLO culture has been constructed around it. But we don’t know it until it’s too late. And from then onwards, death rests on your shoulder, waiting patiently, whispering in your ear. I am terrified, I am aware that any day could be my last. People like to say that I’m so young, I have time to become a writer, time to do all the things that I want to do. There is no time. We have no control over how much time we will have.
And will they tell my story? Have I written a story worth telling about? Because that is all that you can do. We have no control over living, but we can decide who will tell our story and what they will say. Hamilton focuses on the idea of a legacy, what we’re leaving behind for the generations to come. “Planting flowers in a garden that you’ll never get to see”, I want to leave behind the flowers of a clean Earth and various novels to be enjoyed for years to come. This song helped me sit down and realise that, and gain the perspective to focus on today, not the last day.
“You could have done so much more if you only had time”
My father passed too soon, and he had so many years of his life left to be lived. He was building a new home, starting a new chapter, relishing in new love. Nothing will change the pain of that. I can become fixated on “what if?”, or I can ask myself “what now?”. Now I must tell his story as well as my own. I must do everything I can, as that strengthens his legacy placed in me.
Grief is overwhelming. We are not equipped to handle it, humans are not built to withstand it easily as we’re such social creatures. It feels like the end, and it feels like what you want it to be the end. My grief felt like a block of ice freezing me from the inside out. It felt like loneliness, and my similarly aged friends had no experience or guidance to offer me.
But Hamilton was the light at the end of my grief. I never would have guessed that I would find a story about America’s founding fathers so relatable. I have never even been to the U.S. But Alexander Hamilton experienced a life dotted with loss, an ambition so strong that it consumed him sometimes. Eliza Hamilton told the story of someone she respected, someone she loved.
My grief still plagues me daily, and maybe it forever will. But it no longer paralyses me, it fuels me. And I thank Hamilton, and Lin Manuel Miranda, for giving me the fuel to escape the darkness, and the strength I needed to keep on living.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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