Sounding her way through OCD: a Berklee student’s journey to songwriting

By Brooke Dougherty

It’s been hours. Brielle Hassell’s right hand feels like it’s slowly turning to brass. She can’t pull her arm away from the doorknob despite how hard she wills it.

Her thoughts loop in an eternal cycle. Her brain tells her to open the door. But every time she tries, she feels like she’s doing it wrong. She must start from the beginning.

The world moves on around her, but Brielle stands frozen. She’s aware of her surroundings but trapped inside her mind. 

Brielle was only 11 years old during this catatonic episode when her obsessive-compulsive disorder reached a peak. She began exhibiting symptoms two years prior. 

Nobody saw it coming. She had always been a sweet and carefree child.

Even now, at 24, OCD is a part of Brielle’s daily life as a student at Berklee College of Music. Her journey to pursue songwriting has been riddled with setbacks.

But she has never shied away from a challenge.

The diagnosis

Mental health wasn’t heavily discussed in the mid-2000s and Brielle’s parents weren’t equipped to understand the severity of her symptoms. 

Brielle wasn’t properly diagnosed with OCD until she was 12.

“Most people believe [OCD] is essentially just being a little too perfectionistic or being a neat freak,” Brielle says. 

The reality is debilitating. OCD dictates the food she eats and regulates the length of her daily tasks. 

“As hard as it was not having anyone know about what I was dealing with, I almost find it worse for so many people to think they know what OCD is and not take it seriously,” she says.

To avoid being treated differently, Brielle’s fought to hide her diagnosis from prying eyes. 

But sometimes she wishes people understood its severity.

From a glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell that her OCD constantly affects her. 

She stands tall at 5’9 with baby-blue eyes. Her golden hair matches her favorite color, sunny yellow. Like many students, she loves black coffee. She perpetually strums her ukulele with ease. 

She’ll talk to you about being an avid Taylor Swift fan. Swift’s songwriting skill has always been a major source of inspiration to her. 

As she’s grown older, Brielle has learned to mitigate the severity of her episodes by creating mental hacks. She’s found that singing and writing music about her experiences make her diagnosis easier to digest. It came naturally to her, almost like breathing.

“My grandma says I was humming to melodies when I was still an infant,” she says. 

Brielle is aware that she lost literal years of her life that she’ll never get back.

To this day, she can’t quite relay what happened that time when she was in that peak unresponsive state. She knew people would talk about her. Some would even laugh. But she wasn’t able to form the words to explain herself back then. 

But she’s found the words and works to make each day a better one. The thing that’s always kept her going is music. It has become a much-needed avenue to express herself.

Betting on Berklee

“I think I want to audition for Berklee,” Brielle offhandedly mentioned to her mom, Karen, in the kitchen.

It was the spring of 2019. Music was on the backburner during her time at Wake Technical Community College. She attended classes during the day and looked for local open mic opportunities at night. Crafting her thoughts into lyrics gave her a sense of purpose. 

Brielle had considered transferring to music school for a while, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up.

“Are you sure you’re ready for that?” 

Karen was worried, a sentiment that most of the family shared.

With Boston being 700 miles away, Brielle wouldn’t have any friends or family nearby. The city is prone to freezing temperatures and snowstorms. The academic workload would be arduous. What if Brielle had a paralyzing episode and her family wasn’t there to help? 

Brielle admits their concerns had merit and that they meant well. Berklee is expensive and her musical abilities were self-taught. 

She had achieved a 4.0 during her community college career. But Berklee, thought of as the Harvard of music schools, was a whole different ballgame.

Self-doubt flooded Brielle’s mind. 

But what if it was her one chance to prove her commitment to pursuing music professionally?

With or without her family’s support, she knew she had to try. 

Brielle began preparing for her audition months in advance, working harder than she ever had before.

“I asked my mom if she would come with me to the audition,” Brielle says. “But I wasn’t sure if she would be available or see the importance of the event.”

Brielle’s determination was palpable as the audition date drew near. 

“I certainly didn’t want to set my daughter up for failure. But, I also didn’t want her to not chase her biggest dream out of fear and then have a lifetime of regret or wonder for not pursuing it,” Karen says.  

So, in November, Karen set aside her apprehensions and sat next to her daughter on a flight to Boston. 

The everyday fight 

Getting accepted into Berklee was only the beginning for Brielle.

While other students finish their work and meet up with friends, Brielle studies in the library until dusk. Her afternoons are spent practicing piano in the music room. She’s worked with the college’s Accessibility Resources to establish accommodations.

Nobody sees the late hours and vulnerable emails sent to her professors. She hopes they’ll understand that she is trying her best. 

Some days are better than others. 

Her grades have improved since her first semester, a testament to all her hard, patient work behind the scenes.

Breaking down doors 

Brielle often wonders what her life would have been like without OCD.

But she’s thankful that music has given her life a purpose. 

“It’s challenging up here, but the best things are. I’m constantly learning and growing,” Brielle says. “My goal is to graduate from here with a Bachelor [of Music] in songwriting. From there, I hope to become an established songwriter in the music industry.”

“It took a while for everyone to see my vision, but everyone’s been much more supportive and excited for me since seeing how well I’ve done.”

The odds may be stacked against her, but you won’t catch her wasting a single second. She does it all for the little girl frozen behind that door.

Now, when Brielle comes across doors she can’t open, she kicks them down.