The Music or the Misery


By Sam Slaughter


Two-thirds of people with depression don’t seek out the help or treatment. Two-thirds. Across the country—the world, even—that is thousands of people every day ignoring the pains in their bodies, the dark clouds that wrap around their brains like possessed Snuggies. They ignore the feelings of drowning, forever sinking and sinking without any means of moving up, of getting to the surface, of breathing air that does not hurt and does not make them question every thought that travels from synapse to synapse.

Thousands. Tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands.

Last week was National Suicide Prevention Week (NSPW), with National Suicide Prevention Day being Sept. 10. The statistic above comes out of the nonprofit group To Write Love On Her Arms’ (TWLOHA) campaign for NSPW this year, “You Cannot Be Replaced.”

For those that follow the punk/pop-punk/hardcore/etc music scenes, TWLOHA is probably a very familiar organization. Musicians, writers and artists all proudly wear their gear in an effort to bring awareness to populations about depression, anxiety, suicide and, more importantly, the fact that this is not a disease to be ignored or forgotten about. It is not something that people make up just because they don’t like this or that. Instead, it is something that can be treated. It may never fully go away, but it can be at least treated, worked over like and beaten down like a punching bag to a boxer. It can be conquered with the right type of help. Sometimes, that help is a prescription or therapy or a friendly ear. Sometimes it is all three.  For me, and this was something it has taken me over a decade to realize, it is all three.

At thirteen, growing up in the suburbs of Jersey, I, like most white kids from stable homes with yards and trees and food and clothes, got first into rock music, then what I would find out would be called pop-punk. I remember getting ready for school in eighth grade and two music videos came on that would change what I listened to and how often I listened to music in general.

SR-71’s “Right Now” and Good Charlotte’s “Little Things” came on MTV’s morning music video show and, as I put on my gray pants, white collared shirt and maroon vest (the fashion sense of a Catholic school is impeccable) I was hooked. Hooked on the chords, hooked on the lyrics though I had yet to experience anything remotely close to what they were singing about. I hunted down more. I spent weeknights and weekends sitting in front of a five-disc CD changer my aunt gave me when she got a new one and just listened to music. I lay on my threadbare carpet and hummed along, sang along, air guitared along. Everything, for hours.

Entering high school (an all-boys prep school), I was introduced to even more. New Found Glory. RX Bandits. The Get Up Kids. Dashboard Confessional. I was introduced to music that carries the abominable tag emo. Simultaneously, I was learning to adjust to a 45-minute public transit commute each way to a school where I knew no one going in, where it was, at times, kill or be killed and where, because of the commute and the commutes of my classmates, I rarely saw friends outside of school. I felt down and confused and unhappy, though at the time I wasn’t in tune with myself enough to realize what the feelings were. I just kept playing video games, listening to music, and (a new addition) going to concerts.

Regardless of any of those things, people knew I listened to this music and that I was quiet. They knew that I mostly read and kept to myself on the train ride home. This made me emo. Emo, like the adjective emotional—and God forbid an adolescent male show emotion in front of other males who also don’t know what the hell is going on in their own heads and bodies—could be contained in a corporeal form, like it could be actualized into something other than a complex blend of influences that are never static.

I was told, then, that when I didn’t smile or laugh that it was the way I was supposed to act, because I was emo. I was supposed to sit in the corner and write dark poetry. I was supposed to write sad songs and wail. This consistent “you should be this attitude,” delivered in doses more consistent than getting a PB&J for lunch or taking a vitamin, sets like concrete on the mind after a while. I was supposed to be unhappy and moody because I listened to (sometimes) unhappy music. To borrow from a Fallout Boy B-side, the music came before the misery. This feeling, at least to teenage me, overtook all rational thought that would’ve pointed to the fact that something was wrong. I didn’t (couldn’t) talk to my parents about it. They seemed so normal, so put together. I learned later that my father had been on antidepressants for years, but at that time, everything seemed fine.

This continued until college. Being called emo had stopped, but it was too late for that to actually matter. In college, I attempted to ameliorate the problem with alcohol. Surprise, surprise, this made it worse. I ended up sitting in corners a lot, wondering why the hell I couldn’t be happy. Why I felt like pieces of me were flaking off in the wind and blowing away before I could catch and reattach them.

Finally, the summer between my junior and senior years, the girl I was seeing (for a month at that point) broke up with me while she was working at a summer camp on a mountain somewhere in South Carolina while I was in Jersey. I learned she had already met a guy there and that this was it. She was tired of me always moping, never sounding excited. She couldn’t take it as many people before her couldn’t take it.

Something inside clicked on, or off, whichever. That call, I guess, was the tipping point. I scheduled an appointment with my doctor and said I never felt happy. I took the tests. I explained myself. I was given medicine and the name of a psychologist. I went for the summer, after which my insurance stopped covering the sessions. Back at school, I threw myself back into cases of beer and bottles of cheap vodka, forever diving to the bottom, trying to find that magic cure.

This continued on and off for four more years with extreme low points that made me realize more was wrong than I let on to others or even myself, but I washed it away with ethanol. It wasn’t until this year, at 25, that I got fed up with myself. It was back on medicine, back into therapy, and most importantly starting to limiting what I drank (and how often) so that the medicine actually worked (a novel concept).

This story, my story is just one of thousands. It took me over a decade to find the strength to say not only “I need help” but actually seek it out. It shouldn’t be like that. Being able to admit that one needs help should happen as soon as it starts. At thirteen, I shouldn’t have had to just believe the social pressures that I was supposed to act like that. That being unhappy was my position in life. Thankfully, groups like TWLOHA and many others are doing work to change this.

You cannot be replaced. Every day I see phrases like this and many others grace my Tumblr. I see people posting these notes as a means of reaching out to complete strangers and it makes me feel good. I repost those notes often because I also see the teenagers dressed in black listening to the equivalent of what I was listening to posting about hopelessness and despair, about not being wanted and wanting to end it all. Some of this, sure, has to be taken with a grain of salt, but that grain shouldn’t be too big. They tug at me because I know those thoughts and feelings and the wish but not the will to do something about them for better or worse.

Face to face, it is even tougher. Seeing someone who day after day doesn’t smile or laugh or take enjoyment in things, however little enjoyment it may be, kills. It kills my loved ones (I know because they’ve told me, often) and it kills me when I see it happening elsewhere. Sometimes I’m too wrapped up in myself to reach out, but I try, as everyone should. It is as simple as going out for coffee or a beer or grabbing a bite to eat or even just saying, “I’m here for you” or “You know, you’re wanted.”

All of these things, even if they don’t seem like much, will probably mean more than will show. The person’s facial muscles may not even twitch. There may be a nod of the head and a sullen “yeah” and that’s it (I’m guilty of this often). But do it anyway. Say, “Thanks for being here.” Give a hug or a high five.

There will be times, too, where simple actions just won’t be able to help. In those times, acknowledge you can’t be the one to help, but remind the person that there is help and hope available. Professionals are always ready—whether on campus or on free hotlines—to counsel.

Depression, anxiety, suicide and every other mental condition should not be ignored, just as cancer is not ignored. Awareness should not just happen for one week a year, either. It will take a joint and group effort, but in time I believe that while these conditions may never be completely eradicated, they can be lessened, contained. And when they are, all we’ll be left with is the music. Beautiful, beautiful music.