Mental Health and Music

I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to do for mental health awareness month for, well, the whole month. Mental health is a pretty important subject to me (we’ll get into it), so I wanted to take care. Then Trevor Strnad passed, and that through me through a bit of a loop, (National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255) and I thought maybe I’d do something about The Black Dahlia Murder, because Trevor is a very influential songwriter, even to me as a mostly folk musician. However, a lot of people have written a lot of better articles than I would about them, and about his influence. I started to realize the main thing I have to offer is my perspective, my journey (excuse the cliche). The main thing I have to offer is to talk about how my mental health has affected my music. So here we go.

I’m going to tackle this a bit scattershot, so we’re starting with today. There’s a stereotype about creatives and their difficulty with mental illness, The 27 club and Kurt Cobain being a pretty common example of that. You can go on reddit and see someone ask if most writers drink when they write. To be honest, I think a lot of people give themselves and high achieving creatives a pass with their unwillingness to tackle their own mental health issues. Overall, I don’t think mental un-wellness is a prerequisite for creative ability, and have personally felt like my mental health issues, namely depression and anxiety, have had mixed affect on my ability to create. There are certainly times when the pain and experiences of coping with mental illness have prompted me to write. “A Great Pretender” is probably one of my best written songs, and it is written about the idea of faking happiness in a society, as well poor coping and self destruction. I frequently use the feelings of sadness and dread and channel them to create more compelling art, I mean The Existential Dread band name is essentially an homage to this nihilistic pessimism. My anxiety has driven me to expect more perfection out of my musical performances and mixes, and has elevated my work as a producer. My depression has also sapped me of all energy, and stopped me from recording and practicing for days. It’s driven me to obsess over a video game for a week straight because of the addictiveness of the utter escapism. My anxiety has made me have panic attacks when I can’t do the perfect drumline for a song. It makes my heart flutter every time I make a mistake, and usually drives me to make a bunch more. Hell, my mental illness basically stopped me from creating for three years.

For reasons that will become obvious the timelines for the following are all pretty fuzzy. To start I’ve struggled with depression in some form or another since around 16. I remember going to somebody and talking about how much the world sucked and made me sad. My senior year, I developed a weird tick in my neck where my neck twitched to the side. My guess is this came on due to stress from school, sports, and working (so, anxiety most likely?). In college again I struggled with depression and remember seeing someone during the summer on campus.

When I graduated, it all got a lot worse. I went into teaching, and my first job out of college was a charter school in Benton Harbor. For those unfamiliar, Benton Harbor has struggled financially for quite a while. Its majority black and poor, across the river from the majority white and more well off St. Joseph. The schools are bad there. The public school was almost shut down a few years ago. It was not a good place for a new and young teacher, and I did not have the necessary background and experience to win the respect of the students. My principal was not a good man. He frequently expected more of us than he did of himself, and often encouraged us to do labor for the classroom that was not our job, or paid. He cheated on state tests and altered test scores. He couldn’t spell for fucking shit. He scared the hell out of me. Inevitably, this environment worsened my depression. I began to feel completely hopeless. I missed days of class. My students began to notice, and to be honest, I was happy to have them pitying me instead of yelling in my face. I did not know how to escape. Teaching is what I decided I was going to do with my life and I had failed at it immediately. To be honest I didn’t see any other way out than a permanent one.

I began to think increasingly about taking my own life. It is all I thought about. I could not get out of bed in the morning, and one night I got drunk and sat in the bathtub with a razor-blade. I called the suicide hotline (800-273-8255) and got talked down.I told my then girlfriend, and one way or another ended in a doctors office where I told the doctor what happened, and got strapped to a gurney and shipped by ambulance to a psych ward, where I stayed for two days. To be honest, I don’t want to go into great detail. I didn’t like being there against my will, and all I found in there was that it could be way fucking worse. Schizophrenia is terrifying, Mania is terrifying. Also that food was really fucking bland. What I learned is that I was happy there were people who loved me on the outside, and I was happy I could at least function on a day to day basis, and there wasn’t a voice in my head I could actually hear telling me to kill myself every day. That didn’t mean I was happy. I remember listening to “This Year” by The Mountain Goats in the car with my mom after. It’s still one of the most important songs to me.

I left that place with a too large dose of prozac and for the next few years, I felt numb. I don’t want to blame this entirely on the medication. I was still deeply depressed. I was no longer suicidal, but I fundamentally lacked direction and purpose. I worked in a factory for my first job back. It wasn’t ideal. I was always tired. I’m sure I played music, but I don’t remember it, and I don’t really remember writing at all. In college, music was so important to me. You’d always find me on the sidewalk somewhere on Grand Valley State University with my case open, playing my acoustic guitar in the sun, mostly playing songs I wrote. I played at a farmers market one year, I went to open mics frequently, and played for meal tickets at the cafe. I wrote songs for my students when I was cooperative-teaching. Suddenly, it just wasn’t really there anymore. Not for a long time. I don’t remember what brought me back either, at some point when I was living with my good friend David I just had enough songs and decided to record, and “Bleeding Gums and White Lights’ ‘ came out in late August 2019. At some point I dropped my Prozac cold turkey. It was a bad idea ultimately because the side effects kept me out of making music for a good couple of weeks but since then I’ve  basically recorded basically nonstop since. I want to make sure I’m not demonizing medication either. I was on zoloft for quite a while and it never affected my creativity (although I am off it now). I think it’s more important you find the right balance, and that’s different for everyone.

Ultimately I think music has had a pretty massive positive impact on my mental health. A lot of people don’t seem to understand how important habitual creativity is. Like any skill, creativity improves with practice. I think music, and doing it as a habit, has become one of my ultimate coping mechanisms for my mental health issues. It provides me with a sense of purpose on a day to day and practical basis, and gives me an outlet to express my emotional pain. Quite frankly I’m not sure what I wanted to accomplish here. I think it gave me an excuse to be open about something that I’ve held very close to my chest for a long time. Hopefully some of my perspective can make music or mental illness make more sense, I don’t think I have a point I want to prove other than, music probably saved me.