This last week, one of the incredible bloggers I follow online (The Bloggess) let us all know she’s been struggling with depression. In fact, it’s something that she struggles with regularly and is really open about. What she’s learned, writing her blog that’s a great mix of socially inappropriate and bizarre humour along with some inspiring and very open writing on mental health struggles, is that being open helps people. She’s even built an online community full of people who are supportive…If you’re feeling down and want a laugh, go read. If you’re feeling down and need to reach out, go read and comment. I watched the comments save a life this last week.
And that’s probably why this particular topic (on my list of possible topics…cos I do keep a list…) jumped out at me as I pondered what to write for my blog this week. It’s this little mass of things all around music that isn’t happy. And it will answer a question I never answered before.
Really, there are two questions I’m answering here. Let’s start with the one I never answered. And because I feel like this is important, I’m going to break some of my own privacy rules. Hopefully, someday some way this helps somebody. Because if I can shine some light out, my life has been worth it 🙂
“Why don’t you listen to happy music?”
When I was less on top of my depression, because I’m one of the many who has some depression issues (I’m not going to elaborate here…some other time, maybe…), many well-intentioned people asked that question in some way or another.
“Isn’t the music you listen to making it worse?” was another way it was phrased.
I was always inclined toward the unhappy stuff…the sad, the angry, the heartbroken, the frustrated, the lost, the pining…And, surely, I ought to counteract that by listening to happy music, right?
Some of you are saying, “Right!” Maybe cos you never struggled with depression or maybe cos, for you, that actually worked.
But some of you are shaking your heads, backing away from that advice slowly…carefully…aware of the danger it holds.
You see, when I listened to happy music (I tried…I really did), it made things worse. Sometimes, it was just too jarring. Sometimes, it felt like it was pushing me toward mania. Sometimes, it just made me feel like I was the only pathetic loser who couldn’t be happy like everyone else. That happy music was just nasty razor claws slashing at my little heart and brain as it pushed me closer to the ugly feelings that were already attacking me. It was screaming, scrabbling ants in my brain or the mockery of every popular person at school who was making themselves feel better by putting me down.
In short, really, really not good. (Plus, honestly, music vs physiological factors causing depression doesn’t seem like a fight music can win…So a bit of a misguided bit of advice for a girl whose issues weren’t all in her mind, if you will.)
The one exception, which only worked out sometimes, was if I could dance to it. If I was in a place where I could put all that energy and scrabbling into the physical act of dancing. Even then, it wasn’t joyful, happy, depression-free dancing. It was frenetic and desperate. It was like trying to exorcise my demons. And since a girl can’t literally spend her whole life dancing…And since there’s little release in that sort of dancing (lucky if the release of the dancing balanced out the horrible feelings the music created)…Yeah, not a case for the happy music.
On the other hand, there was the music I was listening to…the sad, the angry, etc etc etc…
To be fair, yes, it did move me to tears or to violence (though, to my credit, I didn’t go out hitting other people or even putting holes in the walls of my room…but I did enjoy mosh pits and I kicked a lot of empty boxes into bits, among other things). But the actions that music pushed me toward actually did feel like a release. At the end of a desperate night sobbing, for instance, I did feel lighter for just a moment. A blessed, blessed moment. (Though, just because it’s one of my little pet peeves about when depression is misunderstood, the fact I was crying does not mean that depression is the same thing as just feeling sad. Very much not the case…)
There was more to it, though. And here’s where I transition…Finishing up answering the first question whilst answering part of the second question.
“If you believe in light…if you’re a positive person now…if you’re the sweetheart you seem to be…if you’re on top of your depression…why is your music not happy music?”
These days, I can listen to happy songs. I mean, I will probably go mad if it goes all silly and chipper for long bits of time…but I have days where the song stuck in my head is exultant…hopeful…happy.
But I’ve only written a couple of songs that are happy songs. The rest are sad, angry, heartbroken, frustrated, lost, pining…
And here’s my two-part answer. Part one is the second part of my answer to the first question.
When I listened (still listen) to the songs that aren’t happy, they help(ed) me. I knew that someone else had felt something like what I was feeling. That many of them felt it and survived it. That they could even turn it into something beautiful. I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t the only pathetic loser who couldn’t be happy like everyone else. There were others, which meant we…we weren’t pathetic losers. We were just one other kind of human experience. And we could survive it. Sure, some of those who made the songs I love(d) ended their lives. But most didn’t. Most kept surviving. And, oh, they made music. Music!
That music, even when it pushed me to tears or violent actions, made me feel better. It didn’t heal me, but it also helped pull me just enough back from the edge…To quote one of those songs:
“But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life”
-The Smiths, Rubber Ring
So, one reason I write that sort of song is in the sincere hope that someone (you or someone you love maybe) will find that one of my songs does for you what all those not-happy songs did for me. Cos you’re not alone. You’re not the only one. And, like me, you can find a way to make it through. And maybe, just maybe, there’s music or art in you. You won’t just make it through, but you’ll turn the horrible things you’re feeling into art. There are few greater things one can do…(And even if you can’t do that, you can allow yourself to learn compassion from what you’ve felt…to reach out to someone else, so that we create a chain of people who have helped keep each other from falling into the pit.)
The second part of my answer is a bit more selfish.
Yes, I now consider myself a positive and optimistic person. But that doesn’t mean my depression is gone. It doesn’t mean my sadness, anger, heartbreak, etc etc etc are gone. They aren’t; I doubt they will ever entirely go. I doubt, even if I didn’t have physiological things that tend me toward them, that life on this planet ever lets anyone be entirely free of those emotions.
But I learned, from the songs I love and from all those therapists who suggest art for therapy, that I can turn them into songs, and that helps. It’s like siphoning out some of my poison and turning it (I hope) into the antivenin. Even the belief that getting it out of me and putting it into the world is helpful is, in itself, helpful.
There are other reasons, but those are the important ones. Those are the ones that matter for this post.
What I always found strange was that the right sort of encouraging songs were okay. They weren’t happy and telling me I was broken…They were acknowledging that things were broken but it was worth it to keep fighting…That maybe, just maybe, I was warrior enough. Turns out, I was never allergic to hope, even when I trash-talked it. Maybe that’s why, without meaning to, I left little seeds of hope in most of my songs. May they grow up to big, beautiful trees in your soul. May they bear the fruit that feeds you and keeps you fighting through all the ugly things inside of you and outside of you. Let me put down roots in your heart…