What's It Like to Be in a Band When You're Living with Bipolar Disorder?
"When you’re manic," explains Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus, "it can be dangerous to have a lot of people respond to it positively."
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Lots of music about misery is, well, it’s miserable. Most of the songs that soundtracked my years of teenage angst were explicitly sad in a very specific way; the melodies were melancholic, the lyrics were introspective and imbued with a sense of fruitless longing.
The epitome of this kind of music for me was The Smiths. They presented a sometimes beautiful but nearly always disheartening image of depression as something passive, mournful and tragically inescapable. I found comfort in them, but only up to a point—my own experiences with bipolar disorder meant that I could only relate so much to songs about sadness. “How Soon Is Now?” might have been the perfect song to walk home to after I’d spent the night relegated to the sidelines of a party I hadn’t really been welcome at, but it didn’t do much for me when I was feeling what I would later understand to be mania. That was different; mania was something that made me feel bigger and bolder, more expansive in a way that unsettled me and that I didn’t really understand. As I got older, and my manic episodes got more destructive, I struggled to find music that really expressed this deep frustration, the vibrant, vibrating despair that you feel when you live with bi- rather than uni-polar depression. Then I discovered Titus Andronicus.
In 2015, the band released The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 90-minute, 29-track rock opera that tells the story of lead singer Patrick Stickles’s experiences with mental health problems. The narrative weaves together ideas about art and identity and living with bipolar disorder, and, as a result, pretty much encapsulates what it’s like to live with the illness. The songs about depression capture the dull, impotent rage of being bored and paralysed by your own low mood, and the songs about mania are a fired up retelling of all of the arrogance, hubris and revelation involved in a delusional state. Which is to say that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is not a miserable record at all. It’s a blistering, angry, and often funny punk rock album that just happens to be about mental illness.
Take, for example, a shot of the track “No Future IV,” which contains lyrics like “cowering in the glowering gloom / Ex-human left entombed, never to be exhumed.” Then chase it with “Dimed Out,” which has a smug retort of “My challengers are talentless imbeciles / When my chalice is full I am invincible.” It’s in these opposing semantics which are peppered throughout The Most Lamentable Tragedy that Titus Andronicus capture what it can feel like when your brain swings between the two corners of the emotional spectrum.
By its nature, bipolar disorder is dualistic, with periods of stability punctured by excessive highs and crushing lows. Highs can be transcendentally ecstatic. There’s the carousel of drugs, alcohol and sex that are so glitteringly (and largely inaccurately) depicted in cinematic renderings of ‘madness’, but there’s also an overwhelming sense of all-consuming confidence and boundless self-worth. When mania takes hold, you’re more productive; ideas constantly materialize—and, obviously, they’re always fucking brilliant. You spend money like it doesn’t matter. You’re cavalier with your own emotions and everybody else’s too. In some ways, it’s an exercise in egotism that feels like it always pays off.
Depression, on the other hand, is an anechoic chamber of nothingness that somehow manages to be silent and deafening at the same time. You feel nothing; you barely move, even. Your whole being oozes something unseemly, unwholesome; not self-consciousness as such, but something odder and intangible that fences you off away from the rest of the world. You don’t move for days; you do nothing but sleep and resolutely fail to get in the shower. In mania you see nothing but mad, brilliant, glimmering opportunity; in depression you are blind to everything except your own despair. It’s this sense of dualism that’s apparent throughout The Most Lamentable Tragedy and exercised to impressive strength. In fact, the album itself was a by-product of these moods.
In 2011, four years before the release of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Titus Andronicus’ frontman Patrick Stickles went through a series of experiences that he says illuminated him to “the truth” about his condition. A severe manic episode was followed by a “long, debilitating depression” and it was during this depressive episode that he decided to write about his experiences.
“Even though I had kind of misplaced my will to create, it was during this depressed state that I said to myself… y’know, even though this is painful, I’m coming to this sort of full understanding of myself,” Stickles tells me. “Should the will to create ever return, this experience is surely going to be the thing I’m going to have to be discussing.”
When Stickles started to feel “a little better, more motivated,” he started writing the record. “That was when the whole notion came of doing this rock opera album, as an attempt to sort of explain myself,” he says. “I knew my actions had probably seemed very strange to the outside observer—and to myself too, to a certain degree. So they were the themes I wanted to explore and encapsulate as best I could.”
Within these themes, Stickles illustrates the two sides of bipolar: the mania, and the depression. He describes the manifestation of the mania within his condition as being fairly textbook, saying he becomes “boisterous, loud, arrogant and full of energy.”
“I get enraptured with all sorts of new ideas and kind of more into running around all day and doing everything under the sun... following capricious whims, that sort of thing,” he tells me. “I’ll stay up all night, occasionally I’ll be more inclined to abuse drugs. Yelling, carrying on, delusions of grandeur; these are my manic episodes. When you’re in that space, things just seem to make a lot more sense internally, when they make a lot less sense to the outside world.”
Then, he hits a wall. “Suddenly, I’m drained of enthusiasm and motivation and can become quite depressed and lethargic, and I just kind of lose all of my enthusiasm and my energy and my will to maybe follow up on all of the crazy ideas I had.”
The dualistic sense of bipolar isn’t just obvious in the way Stickles talks about his moods; it’s also present in the way his public and private personas as an artist interact and intersect. In The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the tragic hero of the story meets his more ebullient dopplegänger (“He don't act like me but we look alike”). They appear the same, but they’re distinctly different. Stickles describes the real life process as leading “somewhat of a double life.”
Mania, of course, can be incredibly exhilarating. Delusions of grandeur, while often destructive, can also be so much fun. When I’m manic, I feel as if I exude magnetism and sex appeal, that I’m being funny and interesting and just so goddamn charismatic. It seems like Stickles feels the same way—only, unlike me, he is in a band and has fans who not only believe those things, but can also inadvertently reinforce them.
“That’s actually a big issue,” he tells me. “When you’re manic and kind of full of yourself, I guess it can be dangerous to have a lot of people respond to it positively, and it creates this kind of dissonance because at these times you’re sort of empowered to put on a great show or make some kind of crazy and creative thing.”
“People in the audience—whether that’s at a concert, or the audience for a record—they can respond positively to that, while the people you deal with in your personal life have a very different attitude to it. It can be very frustrating or even scary for them, while at the same time you're doing what would appear to be a good job on the artistic side of it.”
That said, where something can be perceived as a negative there’s also a positive, and Stickles believes that mania has “definitely enabled” him to achieve a lot of things as an artist. “It’s where I get my big ideas, and it’s when I have the energy to follow through on them and the confidence to believe in what I’m doing—all of those things have allowed me to be an artist,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to do those things when I’m depressed.”
A career in music brings with it a unique set of challenges. Going on tour, for example. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road can be incredibly difficult. In late 2015, dubstep artist Benga tweeted about his own struggles with bipolar disorder; “excessive touring” and drugs had brought on dangerous mania. It was only after being sectioned and receiving medication that he realised how much his intense, debauched schedule had affected his mental health. A 2014 survey by the charity Help Musicians also found that over 60 percent of musicians had experienced mental health problems, many of which had been either exacerbated or perpetuated by life on the road. Other factors cited included performance anxiety, poor nutrition, anti-social hours and separation from family and friends; all pretty inescapable facets of tour life. So what’s Stickles’s advice for artists heading out on the road?
Being deprived of sleep is a ubiquitous part of both touring and mental illness, and he stresses that “making an effort to get enough sleep” is one of the best ways to mitigate some of these factors. That’s not always easy to maintain, and he says that the band have been late to a few soundchecks as a result, but it’s also a worthy trade-off. Yet in some ways, being on tour can also be a positive. “At times when I’ve had to be on the road when I was depressed, I’d find that the routine of very regimented schedule that you adhere to when you’re on tour is very helpful for me to stay motivated,” he says. If he was at home, Stickles believes he’d find it much harder to discipline himself, and might find himself sleeping all day.
Being on tour with mental illness is a situation that’s quite specific to musicians. Practically, organizations like Help Musicians UK support artists experiencing mental health problems by offering “practical, positive support” to musicians of all genres; giving advice, funding and social contact to musicians who reach out. But Stickles also believes that record companies need to provide supportive platforms for artists. “Our record company (Merge) have given me this platform to discuss it, they’re happy to distribute our work, so they’re doing a little something to foster a dialogue.”
Photo by Matthew Greeley
Fostering this dialogue around mental health in music is important, and Stickles is determined to speak about it. Even outside of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, mental illness has been an implicit and explicit theme throughout Titus’ work. 2010’s The Monitor, a breathless, ambitious album, uses the American Civil War as a narrative device to explore feelings of depression, despair and destruction, and more recent songs like 2012’s “My Eating Disorder” explore other aspects of mental ill-health (“An amorphous monster makes his home inside my house”).
It’s this sense of openness that seems to provide two things for Patrick. On the one hand he’s helping other people. Then there’s a kind of confessional self-expression that he finds cathartic. “I’m very fortunate; I have a platform such as my music to discuss these sorts of things, and express myself in terms of these various struggles. I know that a lot of people don’t have such an opportunity,” he says.
“A lot of people wish that they had the ability to talk about these things and get support, because of course it’s highly stigmatised, and most of the world wants these issues to just get swept under the rug. So people have to be silent through a lot of these struggles, which I think is really detrimental. I’m very blessed that I can let these things out in the open that would otherwise become very toxic and damaging if held inside for too long.”
Through sharing his experiences around mental health and setting it to music, Stickles has offered up a voice that can speak to other people. Without that voice, I wouldn’t have found Titus Andronicus, a band who capture the feelings surrounding bipolar that I couldn’t easily find in other pieces of music. Practical advice has a vital role to play in mental health, and the fact that there’s a rapidly expanding cultural dialogue happening around this kind of thing is obviously brilliant too. But sometimes all you really need is someone to just hear you. To listen to The Most Lamentable Tragedy is an exercise in validation for me; it’s like a friend gently punching me in the arm and saying “I feel ya, buddy”. It's also helped me assert to myself that having bipolar isn’t necessarily a curse, that my narrative wasn’t just some doomed misery memoir-esque tragedy. I could actually create my own narrative—one that lets me be fun and loud and full of energy, not just in spite of my mental illness, but also because of it too.
“The artist just has to be their own original validator," explains Stickles. "If it’s important to you to talk about it, then chances are there is someone out there who feels the way you do. None of us want to be purely defined by our diseases, but we have to talk about it, it has to be done. These things can't stay in the shadows forever.”
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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. And if you would like to know more about the work of Help Musicians UK, you can visit them here.