GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — The lights and stage of the theatre are a lure for Madelyn Musser. The freshman at Grandville High School finds an escape in acting — a moment to leave reality and become someone else, telling their story from start to finish.
Her own personal story follows much like a drama on stage. It opens dimly lit in the halls of Grandville Middle School. Musser is the unassuming star, crippled by anxiety and depression, the seventh grader is struggling to find herself.
“I was always feeling sick. I got bad grades. I didn’t do my homework. I couldn’t pay attention,” Musser said of her seventh-grade experience.
Musser says for her, there was nothing worse than middle school. She began taking care of herself less and less, not caring what she wore or the makeup on her face. Her friendships slowly diminished. She lashed out at family and friends for no apparent reason.
“It’s like there is a wall and you can’t get past it. All your friends and family are on the other side and there is always that wall,” Musser said. “You want to go out to the mall, go out and do something, enjoy life. There is always that wall that is in your brain that will not let you enjoy anything.”
The darkest it became for Musser was thoughts of suicide. Joy in her life had been sucked out. At the peak of her issues, she missed 60 days of school. Letters were sent home from the school, her health was becoming a problem.
“There is so much pressure of being good enough,” Madelyn said. “I didn’t even think of myself as a person. I was extremely ill in the mind.”
Musser was suffering from crippling anxiety mixed with depression. It made her a shell of the big, bright personality those around her had come to expect.
“It’s like a fighting of back and forth. You care about everything with anxiety, but when you have depression you care about nothing,” Madelyn said. “It’s these emotions, all this craziness, it’s hard making decisions.”
Musser is not alone. She is among the nearly one in four teenagers who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
For Roxanne McCarron, the guidance counselor at Grandville Middle School, this is a rising trend she is seeing.
“The changes that I’ve seen in kids’ mental health in the 22 years I’ve been doing it, I see we talk about the anxiety and depression so much more now than they did back when I started,” McCarron said.
In Musser’s drama, McCarron is the protagonist. She started their relationship with a granola bar and a hug.
“She, I would say, is one of my proud moments of the growth that I’ve done with her. But she’s easy,” McCarron recalls of their relationship. “She’s easy because she’s open and receptive to the help, and she has a supportive mother.”
McCarron says the two worked sometimes daily, finding the root of her struggles. She says Musser’s mom was open to finding her daughter expert help outside of school.
“When a child is struggling with mental health issues and I can’t get buy-in from the family or the child isn’t receptive, those are my most challenging ones,” McCarron said.
She says for skeptics who may brush off a child’s mental illness as an adolescent mood swing: It’s real.
“Sometimes it’s chemical. It’s a chemical imbalance of the chemicals in their brain and there’s nothing a child can do with strategy that’s going to fight brain chemistry,” McCarron said. “It’s genetic, so you have to look at your own family history. It can be environmental. I’ve seen patterns in kids where one child is depressed and they have four friends and within a couple of weeks, I see almost like how a cold spread, depression can spread.”
The lights on the stage have brightened on Musser’s life. She sought help, worked her way through intensive therapy, experimented with drug relief from her doctors until she found the appropriate one and found friends around her she could relate to.
She calls herself “one tough cookie,” perhaps the name of her drama, as it reaches the second act. And a spoiler alert, it’s scripted for a happy ending.
Musser wants to become a nurse, she wants to help those who struggle like she did on a daily basis.
“There’s not even a wall. There’s no wall. I can go have fun with my friends, I can go laugh and it’s amazing. I feel great now,” Musser said.
But as McCarron warns, not all these scripts end like Musser’s.
“They don’t get over it. It’s not worth the loss. I’ve lost a couple of students over my 22 years and it changes you. It changes a family,” McCarron said. “I always say to parents, I will love it when you call me after they’ve been evaluated and you say, ‘yeah, I don’t think it’s a big deal.’”
“I would rather have that conversation because depression does lead to suicide. I don’t want to have any more of those in my career. It’s hard. It takes a long time to step out of the darkness when you’ve lost someone like that and you’re never the same.”