Benji Lee has been a drummer his entire life, but he can't hear what others admire about his playing. He only picks up on the mistakes, the faults that stick in his head. Because for just as long as Lee's been performing, he's battled severe depression and anxiety – and two years ago, it caused him to walk away from music altogether. But now Lee's ready to start over.
After 10 years away from the music scene he calls home, Lee returned to Charleston this spring after his Brooklyn apartment was condemned. Although he received his first drum set at the age of four and spent his school years in marching band, Lee says he didn't really learn how to play drums until he moved to Charleston at the age of 21.
"I was surrounded by people who lifted me up despite my shortcomings, forced me into situations where I would get my ass kicked musically," he says.
Lee came to Charleston as a way to get his life back on track after depression began to derail his day-to-day life while attending the University of South Carolina.
"It became harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. It became more daunting, a struggle to keep up," Lee says.
Once in Charleston, Lee was able to hold his depression at bay while he worked his way into the local music scene. It was during this time that he established a connection with fellow musician Michael Flynn of the band Slow Runner. That connection would prove lifesaving down the line.
Lee eventually left Charleston for Atlanta, and he felt like he was on his way to something big. He recorded with Winston Audio, but the tragic death of his roommate pushed him away from the South. He relocated to New York, but couldn't leave behind the constant feelings of doubt and self-hate that plagued him.
"I got married and I had a life, but it was always there, a downward spiral. And it got to the point where I just pushed everyone away," Lee says.
He was able to cut two records with Owen Beverly, another former Charlestonian, in the band French Camp, but it was during his time in New York that his struggle with depression took hold more than ever before.
"It came to a point a few years ago, I was at the end of my rope. I wasn't playing very much to begin with, and I just quit playing altogether," Lee says. "That's something I never thought I'd say or do. And that has a lot to do with having trouble looking in the mirror and not feeling like a disappointment. Not feeling like you don't deserve happiness or you've let everyone down. And I felt that. And I pretty much lost everything," he says.
Forcing away his wife, his friends, and his music, Lee didn't feel like he could ever live up to what was expected of him. Ignoring his depression and refusing treatment, he was drinking more and more as a way to cope. Lee had gone two years without even touching the drums when he finally reached bottom.
"I don't know why I picked drums up in the beginning," he says. "It's something that's always been with me, what I thought was my sole purpose for a very, very long time. And to get to your lowest point where you make a choice to give up your sole purpose in life is the definition of hitting bottom in my opinion."
After cutting himself off from everyone around him, it would be the words of a stranger, reminding him that he mattered, that pulled Lee from the edge. He began seeing a psychiatrist and pulling the pieces of his life back together, but then an unexpected setback gave Lee enough reason to return to Charleston.
"I came home to, in Brooklyn, a forced-to-vacate notice from the City of New York at the beginning of February due to six to seven fire code violations and the fact that it was never zoned for residences to begin with," he says. "So I had a three-week period to decide what I was going to do. Was I going to stay in New York? Am I going to move somewhere else? And I reached out to a bunch of different people, but I felt I needed to come back home because I remember this music scene being very special."
Lee immediately received offers for gigs around town, but he didn't feel he could be the man everyone remembered. It wasn't until Michael Flynn reached out that Lee finally decided it was time to return.
"Loading those drums into his house and setting those things up was terrifying. But that dude is nothing but love. Getting together with him and playing made me realize I think I still do at least have my own voice," Lee says. "That's the thing that gave me the ability to release all these feelings. That's what I did music for. It was because I needed to say something and I couldn't say it out loud. And to sit behind the drums with Michael Flynn and play those songs, I'm not gonna say that there weren't some tears."
Now Lee's ready for what he considers a comeback show — performing with Grace Joyner at the Charleston Music Hall Sept. 18. While he's ready to be back on the stage, Lee knows he's not done with depression. He just knows he's done with facing it on his own.
"If I can just say one thing to anyone, it's that you don't have to do it alone," Lee says. "I say I lost everything, but I almost lost me. I almost wasn't here. I had a complete stranger tell me that I mattered and I needed to hear that at that moment cause I didn't think I did. And it's a long journey back. I'm still not there, but I'm happy to at least be making strides to get back."