As one who is all too familiar with the realities and exhausting effects of depression, I find myself looking for ways to describe it in a more tangible way to myself and the people in my life. The difficulty is that, unlike other infirmities, you cannot see depression like you can see a flesh wound or a broken leg or even a terminal illness. As Parker Palmer (one who has experienced multiple personal bouts with depression) writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak, “I still find depression difficult to speak about because the experience is so unspeakable.”
While there are certain clinical guidelines that delineate classic signs of depression, an individual’s experience of depression and its oppressive weight is uniquely his or her own. Though depression comes in many forms (circumstantial, genetic, neurological, emotional, and/or spiritual) it is often birthed from a cocktail of factors that are unique to each person, making it even more difficult to generalize or communicate the experience in an effective way.
However, I found that music helped break through the numbness and give me a fresh language around depression. Music has the ability to ignite and evoke feelings deep within us. Last Fall, I saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit perform at the Ryman. Like many who experience a powerful musical performance, I was deeply moved, even in the midst of my depression. While I don’t know the precise inspiration and meaning behind all the lyrics, I know how I experienced and still do experience them. The following lines from the chorus of the song “Hope the High Road”, off The Nashville Sound album, have been particularly helpful for me:
I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
And likely mad as hell
This is basic (Southern) language; certainly not high prose or anything profound. However, the words are sung with such soulfulness and empathy that they resounded within me and made me feel less alone in the throes of my insomnia and the doldrums of my detached state. Even the last phrase, “And likely mad as hell,” describes an understanding of the depressed state where guesses have to be made as to what is really brewing underneath the surface for the person experiencing depression. Repressed anger, and for that matter, repressed feelings in general, can lead to depression; but that is another blog altogether.
Another song from the same album is less subtle and is aptly titled, “Anxiety.” Here are some of the lyrics:
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a g**d*** thing
Why am I never where I am supposed to be
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain
Anxiety and depression are often, though not always, bedfellows. They both tend to rob the afflicted from being in the present moment and from being grounded in the body. The line, “Why am I never where I am supposed to be,” will surely resonate with many who know the experience of being carried away in the typhoon of their negative thoughts.
In an interview with Garden and Gun, Isbell says the following regarding this song:
I’m not always the person speaking in the songs, keep that in mind. But there’s the kind of anxiety that gives you attacks, which I don’t have. And then there’s also the kind associated with neuroses, the constant summation and judgment of every situation you’re in and every reaction you have and analyzing yourself ad nauseam. I think that’s more my issue than anything else. I just worry too much.
Isbell’s songs have soul, not only due to great instrumental proficiency and vocals (I fear I am digressing into a pretentious Pitchfork review here) but also because the lyrics come from honest introspection and attest to the human condition of suffering in various forms. They have soul because they’re coming out of the soul.
As one of my graduate school professors used to say, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” I’m not saying that music is the cure for depression and anxiety, but it can help. It can help because good music often has the ability to awaken emotions that lie deep within which can bring about insight and a sense of connectedness.
Sometimes music helps to awaken the voice of the heart. Collaborating with a therapist can help clarify this voice and enable you to find the strength to embrace that voice. If you’re experiencing signs of depression and/or the palpable reverberations of anxiety, I’d be honored to explore it with you. And hopefully, as Isbell sings in “Hope the High Road,” we will wind up back “in a world you want to live in.”
Stephen Lockridge is a therapist at Sage Hill Counseling in Brentwood, TN. Prior to working as a therapist, Stephen spent nearly ten years in law enforcement and four years with the FBI. He works with individuals and couples and has a history of working with adolescents as well.