Aurora teen overcomes severe depression
The first movement of Mozart's oboe concerto in C major lasts about seven minutes.
To 18-year-old Emily Fagan, the first oboist to win the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra's Young Artists Concerto Competition, the final note marked the beginning of a new phase of her life.
Emily, in a flowing purple evening dress, soaked in the standing ovation at the end of her performance March 20 at Elgin Community College's Blizzard Theatre.
It was a far cry from the deep depression she'd slogged through, the three suicide attempts, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She'd gotten through it all. And now, finally, the feeling that life was once again full of promise.
"It was by far the best night of my life," said Emily, who is about to graduate with a 4.2 GPA from West Aurora High School to study oboe performance and music education at Northwestern University. "I was really proud of myself. I felt like everything was really behind me."
Emily had always been an overachiever.
By the time she was a sophomore, the Aurora native was an honors student, a student ambassador, a member of the principal's advisory committee. She played oboe and English horn in four school bands and was in the school's choir and drama clubs, plus the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra.
She also took piano, oboe and voice lessons and played music at church on Sundays. In the summers, she played softball and immersed herself in theater.
Looking back, she realizes it was way too much.
"I have always had a Type-A personality, striving for perfection, trying to do everything," said Emily, a bright-eyed redhead with an easy smile. "I was addicted to perfection."
Her mother, Lila Fagan, agrees. "In retrospect, I realized that a lot of choices I should have said no to," she said. "She just did everything so well, and wanted to do everything."
In March 2009, Emily had a sudden breakdown while riding in the car with her mother.
"I just lost it," she said. "I started crying and couldn't stop. I was feeling like, 'I hate myself, I hate school, I hate everything.'"
That was the beginning of a yearlong, downward spiral during which Emily's parents racked up $30,000 in mental health bills. A therapist and a psychiatrist worked on the trial-and-error process of finding the right medication.
The normally energetic teen spent her days crying or sleeping, and had to be dragged to school, often wearing the same clothes she'd slept in.
She was hospitalized three times, and after Christmas 2009 spent a month in a residential treatment center. "I was in so much intense pain," Emily said. "Depression is a disease, just like anything that affects you physically."
Emily managed to remain in school, in great part thanks to her teachers and school support system, her mother said. She was allowed to take a number of her classes online.
After her third failed suicide attempt last April, Emily realized she'd hit rock bottom. "That's when I said, 'I need help, I need to stop this,'" she said.
The journey to a new normal for Emily meant being willing to scale back on activities and embrace the notion that mistakes are OK.
"Before, I would play and have one little flub and the whole day was ruined for me," she said. Not so, in her big performance, which she happily admits wasn't perfect. "Now I find so much enjoyment in music."
Her mother said the new Emily is a lot more joyful. "She feels comfortable with who she is," Lila said.
"My disease will always stick with me," Emily said. "It's not something that will just go away. But I have the tools to control it now, and most of all, I have the willpower."
Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra Music Director Randall Swiggum said Emily is beloved by her peers. "She is one of the leaders and most respected kids in the EYSO, and an unbelievable talent on oboe and English horn."
Emily speaks freely about her ordeal -- to her friends, many of whom seek her out when they are struggling.
Classmate Amanda Deligiannis says Emily has inspired her.
"She is so good at setting a goal, and finding ways to reach it," she said. "Not a lot of young people know how to do that."
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