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There is one question that is often seen as a turning point in terms of a mental health diagnosis and it is: "Have you found little pleasure or interest in doing things you have enjoyed before?"
This is the way that depression works: appointments with doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists stack up, and in each instance you're asked to fill in a form—as though your unquantifiable illness could be quantified and solves like a maths problem. Questions like the one above are used as a barometer to mark your possible improvement from or descent into depression.
Sometimes I want to laugh when answering that part on the form. To reduce your transformation into a completely different person—who can look at, say, their record collection, their guitar, or their marginal success as a musician with absolutely no feeling at all, as though those defining moments and intrinsic parts of your personality never existed in the first place—to one mark out of five on a questionnaire feels like a joke.
The two biggest parts of my life—the ones that I am aware of and obsessed with on a day to day basis—have always been music and my mental health. My particular illnesses—manic depression and anxiety—have a cyclical nature about them. As with most mental illnesses, the causes of manic depression (more commonly known as bipolar disorder) are not entirely understood by doctors, so I am always monitoring my moods to see when and what triggers any spiral into mania, depression, or anxiety. The way I have experienced music has effortlessly fallen into place alongside these cycles.
It is no surprise really that music, with its myriad genres, audiences, contexts, and possibilities, slots so wonderfully into the multitudinous spider’s web of incomprehensibility that is mental health. In a study conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, it was found that, combined with standard care for depression and anxiety (such as cognitive behavioural therapy and medication), participants of the study who received music therapy showed "greater improvement" in symptoms of depression than those who received standard care only.
The journey to my eventual diagnosis was fraught with a lack of understanding (it is thought that bipolar can be linked to genetics as well as triggered through external factors such as intense periods of stress or even physical illness) and deteriorating resources for mental health treatment in the NHS. However, when I was finally diagnosed after years of confusion and frustration, all my symptoms suddenly made sense. The differences in my moods from one month or week to the next were wild. I could go from periods of suicidal ideation, self harm, and crushingly low moods that often rendered me physically unable to complete day-to-day tasks, to periods of overwhelming productivity and creativity, functioning on little to no sleep and feeling invincible and justified in any action, no matter how destructive. Sometimes, it even felt as though I was not able to control any of my actions, but instead I was just an actor obeying the script of a movie I had no part in writing—which is a process known as disassociation.
The effect of this illness on my experience with music was confusing. On the one hand, to be enjoying playing, writing, and listening to the point of euphoria could actually signal the beginning of a manic episode—not a day of extreme happiness, but a complex pattern of reckless and self-destructive behavior, spurred on by the occasional God-delusion. On the flip side, to go days without listening to music, or to feel nothing at all toward the whole matter, probably meant a depressive episode was on the horizon.
My love for music was rooted in both ends, and because of this, I have never been able to see music without seeing my mental illnesses alongside of it. And just like the sad sap who can’t hear Bright Eyes one more time because it just makes them think about their high school sweetheart and how they really fucked that whole thing, certain songs and bands have remained so deeply entrenched with certain times in the history of my illness that they have morphed into entirely new entities. The most notable example of this for me is Grouper, the solo project of the Portland, Oregon musician Liz Harris.
I "found" Grouper at a time where my illness was possibly at its worst. I was not receiving the right treatment, and had been misdiagnosed, which resulted in being placed on medication that was actually worsening my symptoms. During this period, I consumed music relentlessly, while also playing gigs blind drunk every week and feeling like the best bassist known to man (despite having only played for a couple of months). Mania.
This was when I discovered Grouper. I was startled by their quiet innovation, but being so distracted by my illness, it merely joined the ranks of every other act I adored and played over and over again. This point in my illness was chaotic. Everything was overwhelmingly convoluted—I was deep in the throes of an eating disorder; at one moment isolating myself from my friends and family and partner, and then switching suddenly to dangerous periods of manic self-destruction that would take the form of excessive drinking (something that is so easy to do when you’re in a band) and regrettable sexual encounters (sadly, as is the case for many "vulnerable," "unstable" women, some of which were non-consensual). I felt like I had no control over myself or anything around me. It was a nauseating blur, day after day.
Then everything stopped.
After my first suicide attempt I went back to living at my parents’ house, mostly in the bath—the best depression happens in the bath, in my experience. My post-failing to die morbidity meant that the bath—where the suicide attempt took place—was the only place I felt "comfortable" (read: still; alone). I would perch my laptop on a chair, and, keeping one hand dry, I would replay the Grouper song "Heavy Water" from her album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill until the rest of me reached bath-water saturation point.
The lyrics resonated with my newly reached stasis. “This feeling doesn’t go away / I feel it moving through me”—that lyric, for me, became the pinnacle of that age-old sentiment: same. In the bath I would often daydream about suicide—not in the urgent beginnings of an attempt, but as a distant and pleasant possibility. “In dreams I’m moving through heavy water… I’d rather be sleeping,” Liz Harris languidly sang. Same. Same. But in this deadly inertia there was also hope. Since becoming obsessed with Grouper, I realized she exemplified what I call ‘happy-sad’: recognising the deep lows while creating space for a return to a high. In the chorus, between that heavy water, she continues, “Love is enormous / It’s lifting me up.” There was still hope.
I was not obsessed with the song in the manic ways I had experienced before, rather, I found that it was the only song I was capable of listening to anymore. Everything pre-Grouper meant too much for me to even conceive. It meant the life I had before, the baggage that came with an unsuccessful attempt at dying. Happy songs were not sad, they were just nothing. Everything was nothing. “Heavy Water” was something; in fact, it was the only thing.
I didn’t listen to it to make myself feel better. Initially, that did not seem like a realistic possibility. But as some months in the bath went past and I began to receive the right treatment and medication, the song began to take on new meaning.
For the first time—bar writing lyrics and melodies for my first, short-lived band—I decided to write music entirely on my own. Part of Grouper’s appeal was the apparent simplicity of her songs. I had a rudimentary understanding of barre chords and an old, unwieldy acoustic guitar that belonged to my sister at my disposal. It didn’t matter to me that I could barely play, because all I’d listened to for the past two months was a song that was so beautiful and seemingly simple that I felt like I could do it too. This, combined with the fact that Liz Harris was a woman writing, creating, recording completely on her own, filled me with confidence that I, at the time an 18-year-old girl, could make things that could stand on their own. My previous musical experience was playing music that was written by men, and growing up around boys who said things like, “I don’t really like bands with girl singers.”
As I came out of the cavernous depression, I began to enjoy and have interest in things that I did when I was less depressed. To be able to write was a breakthrough, not just creatively, but also for my sanity and wellbeing. I discovered the cathartic possibilities that come with writing lyrics.
The change meant so many things. It marked what felt like—as cheesy as it sounds—a new beginning in my life. I was suddenly in love with music again, and I started playing more shows and developing as a musician. Grouper was no longer the only thing, and for once I had found a positive trigger in my life.
Listening to “Heavy Water,” as I still often do, does not feel like the memory of a break-up. It doesn’t even feel like the memory of a suicide attempt. There are still so many songs I can’t listen to for one reason or another; so many that instantly spark happiness or anxiety or just plain sadness. But “Heavy Water” survived, somehow, as I did. It had an indescribable transformative power that has made me regard it with a kind of respect and quiet satisfaction.
When I relapse, as I often do, I feel myself slipping away from music. Playing shows is something that strikes me with insurmountable anxiety, and writing comes and goes with moods. Music remains my barometer, my crutch, and my teacher as I deal with the challenges that come with my mental illnesses. Its power—both positive and negative—is something I feel that most of us couldn’t live without.
You can follow Alanna McArdle on Twitter.
This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health'. You can read more from this series right here. If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.