Let the Light In

This essay was originally posted on the sadly now-defunct Pittsburgh music blog Punksburgh on January 25, 2018. It was the first in their new “Beyond the Music” series which featured essays written by musicians on topics important to them.

Writing this was a pleasure and an extreme challenge. It was my first – and I still think my best – attempt at explaining how music saved me. It was the first time I offered tips and encouragement to others through my writing, and the response was heartening. It motivated me to move forward with this blog.

And the best part? Trevor used his wizardly photography skills to express in images what I tried to express in words. He got it just right.


Photo by Trevor Richards.

There’s a stigma surrounding mental illness. I know this: I am a social worker. I talk with people every day who are ashamed of themselves for having depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other condition deemed a mental illness. I tell people: I’m so glad you’re talking to me about this. You don’t need to be ashamed. I encourage them to share their experience with supportive people and to talk to professionals about their symptoms because it helps. It helps to open up about it. It helps to let the light shine on these dark things.

I believe this so much that I’m starting a blog that deals with the connection between musical matters and mind matters. The first topic I’m exploring is depression among musicians. Yet, if I’m being honest, I have had no intention of telling anyone about my experience with depression. In fact, my plan has been to hide behind statistics, facts, and others’ stories instead of talking about my depression and anxiety. There’s a stigma surrounding mental illness, and I’m ashamed.

In fact, when Lauren of Punksburgh asked me to write an essay – on any topic I liked – depression was not a topic that entered my mind (despite the fact that I’ve been thinking and writing about depression among musicians for months). I penned draft after draft about topics that interested me, for example: “The Feminine Basstique: On
the Many Merits of Female Bassists” and “The Bassist Myth: How Negative Beliefs about Bassists Hurt Us All.” Yet, the topics felt strangely impersonal and contrived. It was as if I was avoiding something.

I started reading through the surveys and interviews I’ve collected from close to 50 area musicians who struggle with depression. The majority of respondents explained that they experience shame due to their depression. They feel stigmatized and alone. However – beautifully – these same respondents expressed a strong desire to help others by sharing their experience. To them, sharing their experience of struggle and
survival was important because shining light on their dark things helps others to shine light on theirs. These things – shame, stigma, desolation – don’t fare well in the light.

I feel humbled. I may not be as brave as they are; yet, I feel inspired. I want to let the light in.

Photo by Trevor Richards.

How does one even begin talking about something as powerful as depression? My academic and professional knowledge of it is strong. I can talk to you about the symptoms and assess whether you’re suffering from it. I can give you advice on how to survive through it, how to cope as best you can. I could give a lecture if you want. My personal knowledge of it, though, has mostly been unspoken – hidden in experiences, energies, and emotions. That kind of stuff is always messy.

I’ll do my best to explain to you how my experience of depression and being a musician intersect. I’ll let a little light in.

I’ve always been a sensitive person. I feel things very deeply. I’ve also always been empathic, analytical, and prone to solemnity. This was true since infanthood: the story goes that my pediatrician said I looked very smart because I rarely smiled. My mother agreed, and added that I was an “old soul.” Thankfully, these qualities were balanced by a sense of wonder, playfulness, and creativity (otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have survived childhood).

My parents fostered resilience in me by raising me with love and support. Simultaneously, I was aware that my ancestry is fraught with mental illness – depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction to name a few. Child and spousal abuse made an appearance within the family tree, though, mercifully not affecting me directly. Yet,
the sins of my grandmother do not go unpunished. Trauma is an unwanted legacy.

One of the ways I learned to express myself early on was through music. My parents and older siblings loved music; they listened to music constantly. Records, tapes, CDs, radio, and MTV were always blaring. I learned that you could (read: should) express any emotion with music. Sadness, joy, anger, pain, boredom, and bliss could be endured or amplified when listening to the correct music.

So when at age 11 I experienced a crushing loss and its traumatic fallout, it was no surprise that I turned to music for expression and relief. It started with me writing poems and trying to turn them into songs by creating melodies for the words. I didn’t know how to play anything but trumpet, at the time, and (unfortunately maybe) I didn’t think to emote with it (I hadn’t been exposed to jazz at that point). A couple of years later, I became fascinated with The Smashing Pumpkins. Everything about their music spoke to me. The angst, the desolation, the rage, and the sadness – it was as if these songs were written for me. I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar. I wanted to learn these songs, play these songs, and – I don’t know – maybe join their band.

My first guitar was a gift from my parents – an acoustic Yamaha that felt exquisitely awkward on my lap and in my hands the first time I held it. It felt like magic. I taught myself some basics using an instructional book. Eventually I started taking lessons. At first, I was disappointed that the instructor wouldn’t teach me how to play rock songs. I wanted to shred and, in my mind, heavy power chords and scorching solos were the only way to do that. Instead, he forcibly introduced me to classical guitar playing. I felt quite cheated at first, but soon realized that I loved classical guitar music. It spoke to me much like drone and instrumental rock speaks to me now. It is all about emotion – arousing emotion and imagery through musical elements alone. There were many times during that period when I sat alone in my bedroom, sad and melancholy, playing somber pieces. It felt almost good.

I progressed slowly and somewhat surely in classical guitar. On my own, I started playing electric guitar – playing along with songs (SP and early Veruca Salt were my favorites), attempting to solo (but basically just playing scales), and figuring out my rock stance (you know, the important things). I wrote songs on guitar and sang them for my friends and family. They liked them, but they wondered why they sounded so sad. My mom would ask, “Why don’t you smile when you play?” It’s strange: I don’t know why I didn’t – I felt freest when I was playing, but it seemed like a very serious matter.

Age 16 was big for me. I started playing bass, and I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Being diagnosed with depression meant that there was now a professional explanation for a feeling of desperation that could not be controlled; and it meant I’d start taking medication. Playing bass meant everything.

Trevor Richards Photo Of Music and Mind
Photo by Trevor Richards.

Fast forward to today: I still love music (and my musical horizons have expanded), I still love playing bass (more than ever), I still have that diagnosis (though diagnoses mean little to me), and the struggle of depression has lessened (not ended). Over the past several years, I have grown as both a musician and a person. There are many things that I have learned to rely on to get me through – time and time again – when the hammer of depression strikes. I’ll share them here briefly in case they may be helpful to others.

  • Support. Get some. No matter how lonely you feel there is someone willing to listen to you and support you. If family and friends aren’t an option right now, then there are social workers, counselors, and hotline workers who truly care and want to help you (I know because I’m one of them). You can always reach out to them in place of (or as a supplement to) family and friends. There’s also a lot to be said for letting go of people who are not supportive – especially if they are uncaring or abusive.

  • Nature. Being with animals and outside among trees and open skies has always been necessary for my wellbeing. Try it! Pet a cat (lots of them), lean against a tree (beware of poison ivy), look into the sky (wear protective eyewear). Science proves that nature supports feelings of wellbeing, connection, and calm. Experiencing nature puts things in perspective and is incredibly grounding. There’s no negative feeling a good walk outside can’t subdue or that a purring cat can’t soften.

  • Escape. In my childhood and teen years, I took refuge in the mysticism of Catholicism. Now, I escape to other worlds through literature, film, art, and music (especially if it’s related to Middle-earth). Find a way to escape when you need to that makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt you or anybody else. Don’t escape for too long, though. You’re needed here.

  • Therapy. I owe so much to good therapy (including getting off medication). It will feel weird at first, but once you get into it, it’s pretty rad. You have to find the right therapist for you (you might have to shop around), the right modality for you (I respond better to existential modalities instead of cognitive-based ones, but it’s different for everyone), and the right type of treatment for you (EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, was literally a life-changer for me; look into it especially if you’ve experienced trauma). I went weekly for several years, and now I go on an as-needed basis. Whether you need medication or not, I believe that therapy is essential.

  • Movement. Walking, dancing, yoga, or whatever…just do what works for you. Even if you only can manage to get up off the couch and walk in place for two minutes, it’s better than not doing it. Move around. It’s hard when you’re depressed because you feel like a worthless slug stuck to the couch, but if you can make yourself do it you feel better. It gets all kinds of feel-good chemicals flowing.

  • Gratitude. I’ve kept a Gratitude Journal for about five years now. It’s amazing. Having an “attitude of gratitude” is a real thing. Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative in order to protect ourselves better (thanks, Brain). If you focus on the good, you grow the amount of good you notice.

And, of course, music. Playing music is something that consistently and completely challenges me – and that’s good. Many of the best things in life are those that challenge you to be the best you can be while providing positive experiences. Music is a vital way in which I express myself – emotionally and musically through bass lines that I write and physically through performance. Music has increased my confidence – in my musical abilities, but also in me as a person. Music has increased my social circle – I’ve met true friends and kind acquaintances. Music is how my husband Trevor and I met, and music is one of our shared passions! Music has healed me. It’s healed me in the ways I mentioned above, and – who knows? – maybe there’s even some type of harmonic healing happening as I stand in front of my bass amp feeling the low resonant sound waves soaking into my body. I wouldn’t doubt it.

Dealing with depression is hard – it’s isolating, it’s a struggle, and it’s a journey. Depression will probably always be something I have to deal with, and if that’s the case, that’s OK I guess. I’ve found a lot of ways to mitigate the negative effects, including a focus on music – including knowing that I’m not alone. Let’s help ourselves and each other by letting the light in.

Join me and other musicians as we shed light on other matters of the mind at ofmusicandmind.com. You’ll find resources and community there, but if you need help right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Friendly reminder: Of Music and Mind content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the assistance of qualified providers (such as some of those found on the Resources page) with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions.