The Blue Pill: How Music Helped Me Cope With My Mental Health in 2015

Burleson_Rockaway

Rockaway Beach at sunset, summer 2015. (Photo: Ryan Burleson.)

One Wednesday last spring, I’d just begun presenting work by the music critic Carl Wilson in a grad course at NYU when my mind started swimming. I kept speaking, hoping to semi-coherently dissect Let’s Talk About Love, “Country Music’s Bro Problem,” and “I Knew About Jian Ghomeshi”[1] before my cognitive functions were completely diminished. And I succeeded, I think, but only by some auto-piloted grace that kept my mouth moving while a woozy monologue sputtered inside.

What the fuc…how is this…wha…oh, pills, right.

That morning, after too many years self-medicating mild anxiety and depression, I started taking a low dose of Sertraline, an SSRI most commonly packaged as Zoloft. Its tiny, auburn-hued bottle warned MAY CAUSE DIZZINESS, and now, while my voice robotically conveyed something about Miranda Lambert’s subtle feminism, there was nothing may about it. I was Lebowski dreaming and levitating and floating down a bowling lane. I was Kim Deal cooing where is

my.

mind

I wrapped up the presentation and drifted for the remainder of the six-hour course, flitting between dread and melancholy. Picturing future exchanges marred by medicated detachment, I felt fear. Sadness crept in when I wrestled with needing the daily regiment at all. But pride and gin and fleeting course corrections could no longer stem reality: I was overwhelmed, yanked beneath the waves by an undertow that had no intention of letting me up for air.

I’ve never been more grateful for music than last year.

The causes were myriad, ranging from a recent divorce to a very cliched case of New York Getting Me Down, but I’ll save any further exploration of my bottoming out for a cliche-rich future novel. Today, simply imagine me weeping uncontrollably a few days prior, unsure where my tears originated nor when they would stop. I needed help. One of my professors sensed this, too, asking, Do I need to alert someone? next to the following graf I’d written in a piece that was eventually published here:

“The last few weeks have pushed my mind to its brink, and Benoit Pioulard’s new ambient collection Sonnet has at times been the only thing standing between me and a tall cliff. Competing deadlines have rattled, existential duress has beckoned—in concert they can be paralyzing. Breathing routines, exercise, sleeping pills and early alarms only do so much good. A valve needs turning, the tension diffused, so I reach for Sonnet, a weightless tapestry of soft distortion loops that drift through my mind like a breeze.”

No doubt his inquiry was warranted.

Within a week, thankfully, my system adjusted and a quiet calm settled. I felt shame for needing a daily assist to endure reality, but the alternatives were no longer viable (if they ever were at all), and my hope was that Setraline would only be necessary until I finished grad school. Moreover, few people were aware of the new addition to my morning routine, so I figured the shame would eventually lose its sting.

That was hardly the case at first. Since puberty, my post-shower schedule went: brush teeth, apply deodorant, shave face, dry hair, dress, muss up hair. Now it was: brush teeth, pop tiny blue pill, feel like adulthood is Too Real, wonder what people would think if they knew about the pill, feel shame, apply deodorant, shave face (a little more attentively, thinking about mortality), dry hair (am I losing some?), dress, muss up hair (telling myself that I’ve still got an edge).

Perhaps I wasn’t through with self-delusion, but I was no longer paralyzed with anxiety, even as it hovered in the margins.

Last summer, after a tough but necessary romantic split, I even started seeing utility in suffering.

Breathing easier, I found I could write at a consistent clip again, a development that I won’t stop short of calling a miracle—writer’s block is no fucking joke. I could also, with the help of a great therapist and group meditation, contextualize and pin down my duress, to declaw and name and therefore make peace with it. I could see others again, and I could empathize with pain and anxiety in them. My own was still pronounced, and there were days it swallowed me, but it no longer dictated every thought and action.

Last summer, after a tough but necessary romantic split, I even started seeing utility in suffering, how it could be transformed into empathy and strength, not something to avoid. I whispered amen when Stephen Colbert told GQ’s Joel Lovell that he loves the thing that he wishes most had not happened. I became something of a mindfulness apologist (speaking of cliches) and finally, two years after making a surf record, I started surfing.

Also:

I may or may not have considered booking a week at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute after watching Don Draper see the light in the Mad Men finale. I may or may not have started an anonymous Instagram account to promote Buddhist messages about suffering and healing and transformation. I may or may not have been tattooed with the Angel Olsen lyric “What’s so wrong with the light?”

Thank God that song is the literal best.

Anyway, you get it: Some of my actions last summer were as earnest and predictable and overwrought for someone escaping the bottom as a prep school cheerleader turning to Berlin for a new identity. Which isn’t to say that either of us are misguided or pathetic, just that sometimes we hilariously overdo it when our past selves no longer feel inhabitable. Besides, overcorrections are often memorable pit stops on the way to more well-adjusted selves. Just ask most adults who were once child stars.

So: a paradigm shift, and a timely one by Haruki Murakami’s standards.

“Thirty-three—that’s how old I was then,” he wrote in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.”

I was standing on an A train platform in Brooklyn when I read and re-read these lines. Eventually I looked up and sort of laughed, feeling as if Murakami had written them just for me. It was like he was saying, No, no really, this year could’ve been your last. But you’re here and you’re moving and there is more out there than you allow yourself to consider. Keep going.

I recalled that the intangible, transcendent experience of music is not a foregone conclusion but a real live miracle.

Eventually my Buddhist zeal softened into simple gratitude, which, like Colbert experienced at 35, I began to understand as the prelude and corollary to peace. I began to see, not as an abstract concept but as truth, why pain and loss are necessary conduits for understanding, that tragedy originates in not learning from them.

I’m beginning to sound like a Hallmark card, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that most adult Westerners are clueless to how this works. We consume, we evade, we laugh, but we rarely learn. Hell, I’d be lying if I said I don’t willingly crawl back into darkness some days, an option that’s only available because of privilege.

Still, the shift from fatalism to gratitude saved my life, a fact that slayed me on a packed 2 train one day last summer as I fought back tears listening to Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott’s gorgeous rendition of Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No.3: Largo.” And this time I knew precisely where they originated: In awareness of my survival, in appreciation for music’s contribution to it.

I remembered that I’m literally lucky to hear sound, which made the privilege of listening to and writing about music take on fresh vitality. I recalled that the intangible, transcendent experience of music—it’s invisible (mostly)—is not a foregone conclusion but a real live miracle.

I also began to notice that mental health was a subtle or major theme in the music that most resonated with me in 2015. Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier, for instance, is both another remarkable collection by one of our most consistent bands and an affecting meditation on moving beyond “the pink fog of nostalgia.” On tracks like “Living My Life” and “Breaker” (a contender for my favorite song of the year, or perhaps the decade), Cox narrates his own paradigm shift after being hit by a car between albums and mourns the years he lost to fear. It was nice to see Cox seemingly happy on stage at Warsaw in Brooklyn last month.

Depression figured heavily into Sufjan Stevens’ raw and unflinching Carrie & Lowell, which I reviewed for this publication. Grieving the death of his estranged mother, Stevens excavates the past and struggles mightily to make peace with it. He gets drunk and considers suicide a number of times, once by slicing his wrists in a warm bath, “Holiday Inn after dark.” Elsewhere he pleads with Christ to shield him “from fossils that follow” his head: “There’s only a shadow of me,” he sighs. “In a manner of speaking I’m dead.” Stevens’ mother seemed to haunt the stage when I saw him perform at the Beacon Theatre in April, and while I can’t relate to that specific pain, his struggles with coping cut close to the bone.

I remembered that I’m literally lucky to hear sound, which made the privilege of listening to and writing about music take on fresh vitality.

By the end of Carrie & Lowell, thankfully, Stevens seems to have forged a minor peace with his mother’s memory—“friend, the fables delight me”—and, according to this interview at least, to have wrested back control of his self-destructive tendencies through his own evolution on suffering.

“In lieu of her death, I felt a desire to be with her,” he told Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal, “so I felt like abusing drugs and alcohol and fucking around a lot and becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her. But I quickly learned that you don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering, and that, in spite of the dysfunctional nature of your family, you are an individual in full possession of your life.”

Stevens’ meditations on depression and suicide were echoed last year in documentaries about Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith, as well as The End of the Tour, which sort of granted us access to an extended journalistic encounter with David Foster Wallace. A few weeks ago I led a (dizziness-free) discussion in another course on “This is Water,” the writer’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, and was reminded of the sad prescience of a cliche he willingly invoked to make a point about intention and empathy: “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.” His struggle was more real for me last year than any prior, especially in the spring, when it became necessary for me to take the tiny blue pill.

I don’t know how many times I listened to Beach House’s Depression Cherry in 2015, but it likely rivals me on Dookie at 12 or OK Computer at 17. “Beyond Love” and “Space Song,” in particular, weren’t so much nice-to-hears as they were critical to my health. Can a wistful guitar motif or languid vocal melody or opaque lyric serve that function? What about the sheer pairing of the words “beyond” and “love”? Yes, I answered repeatedly last year. I’m not sure how Beach House pulled this off, but the a capella portion of Depression closer “Days of Candy” felt like an adult onesie cloaking my occasionally trembling soul.

The same could be said of the final minute of Natalie Prass’ “Violently,” her voice oooohhhing upward atop glistening strings, keys and brass. Prass’ towering debut is a collection of breakup tunes that show far more than they tell about mental health, but it’s included here because last summer it so often said what I couldn’t.

Speaking of micro moments with outsized impact, the sound of Kendrick Lamar taking a hit off the bottle mid-verse in “u” has looped intermittently in my brain since last March, as has the line “God himself will say you fuckin’ failed.” Kendrick masterfully writes scenes, and here he’s written one of his most gripping. We aren’t simply in the room with our tipsy, depressed narrator—we’re in his head, wide-eyed to a brutal self-interrogation that sees him struggle to love himself through his flaws. Something like redemption, however, arrives nine songs later on “i”: “Sky could fall down, wind could cry now,” he begins. “Look at me motherfucker, I smile, and I love myself.”

I began to notice that mental health was a subtle or major theme in the music that most resonated with me in 2015.

Thanks to pummeling records by Loma Prieta and Defeater, 2015 was also a year in which I found renewed strength through hardcore. Between the ages of 17 – 21 my home was the house of Converge and Drowningman and Cave In, and last year I was reminded why: Sometimes the sound of chaos is the only tool capable of dislodging me from the murk. Loma Prieta’s noisy, fuzzed-out “Black Square” did that for me repeatedly last year.

Far lower on the volume gradient, ambient collections by newcomer Slow Meadow and Benoit Pioulard (as I wrote) were nourishing, as was new work from the composer Max Richter, who I had the fortune of seeing twice last year. I also went to church to see ambient legends Stars of the Lid, whose beatific loops are a fitting metaphor for liturgical prayer. That I experienced their set at St. Agnes with several hundred meditative neighbors was a soul-lift in its own right.

Likewise, the image of an eyes-closed audience during a winter set from Bing & Ruth at Littlefield is not one I wish to forget soon. The image reflects a specific moment, but it also reminds me how music serves as refuge. It is utterly tangible and yet not at all, drifting where it’s needed most. It thrums in our heads and in our dreams as easily as it pours from our speakers.

I’m being a bit precious, sure. But I’ve never been more grateful for music than last year, when it rang clearer and truer in the light of second and third and 1,500th chances to practice, as Bradford Cox sings, “living my life”—to resist fatalism, to be here now. The list of people who had that chance ripped from them unjustly last year would scroll for miles, and it would be an insult to their memories to live any other way.

Yet it’s never so easy, is it?

“It is unimaginably hard to do this,” wrote Foster Wallace, “to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out,” to remember “this is water” or that which “is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”

When I forget what water is, or breath or hearing or sight, I so often lose the plot. Thank God music is a beacon.

[1]Former Observer intern, native Torontonian, and fellow Magazine Writing graduate Stephanie Grella was on hand (thankfully) to help unpack this piece.