Using Music to Transcend Difficulty

On the sounds holding us together

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If you see a human grinning from ear to ear and notice they have earbuds in or headphones on, chances are they’re listening to something great.

Until I found out a new track from one of my favorite Quebec bands had just dropped, I was dragging my carcass through the day going from one appointment to the next, running on empty.

After spending the best part of 24 hours in transit between Europe and the US via Canada and collapsing the day after, I had been up all night writing and trying to make up for lost time.

I was away from America for three months and the journey back wasn’t without apprehension. So I dealt with it by playing the very same music that had seen me through difficult times recently.

Some runners have power songs, I have entire albums that prop me up and keep me going when depression is ready to pounce again.

During the five years I was completely incapacitated by major depressive disorder, I stopped listening to music.

With hindsight, it is unclear why. All I remember is I couldn’t bear it.

I suspect I subconsciously steered clear of anything that might remind me I used to have a life before illness struck. I tried my best to avoid music but it still found me on occasions. Back then, my neighbor in Seattle was fond of whistling Suzanne by Leonard Cohen on a regular basis, and I sobbed every time I heard him.

Silence was the safest option lest all the feels should submerge me and lead me to make an irreversible decision. Being alive was such a burden for so long I wasn’t sanguine about my ability to maintain the status quo. At the same time, I remained curious about what might happen if I hung on just that little bit longer.

For five years, I clung to life in silence.

It was easy enough to do as I had not only lost my writing voice but my illness had become such a source of resentment in my household that I sometimes wasn’t spoken to for days on end.

Although music and language are now intrinsic parts of how I manage my mental health, seeking solace in sound wouldn’t have occurred to me back then.

And yet, I have a background in radio.

My first job was with the world’s largest broadcaster, in radio. In Portugal, I was based at the local public media radio station; even though I worked online, I also went out a lot, to gigs, to clubs, to countless events.

When depression happens, my life shrinks and shrivels as everything that makes me me falls by the wayside. I go from living a multilingual, peripatetic life full of people to living in just the one place, in just the one language, with just the one person. When my writing voice finally returns in the summer of 2018, I begin to put the pieces of my life back together, word by word.

Those words bring connection and conversation, both of which eventually give me the impetus to pick up Portuguese again, a language I had fallen into seven years prior. In turn, it is Portuguese that leads me back to music as I sign up for a free trial for some digital music service.

This is how I spend an entire November day crying my eyes out, listening to some Portuguese artists I was once fond of, willing myself to push through the discomfort. Once again, I’m curious about what might be on the other side of an emotional release that looks like it will never end.

But end it does: I run out of tears at the same time as I run out of paper tissues.

The digital music service and I make it official with a paid subscription; I surrender my ears to its almighty algorithm.

As I do, my life opens up in unexpected ways. Even though I don’t always have the time to skim through mixes and suggestions, rare is the week without at least one musical epiphany.

All afternoon today, Lisbon was in my living room in the Pacific Northwest as I played a new album by a band I only came across yesterday. Already, I’ve added it to my audio arsenal of darkness-repelling tracks and made a note to send it to a friend with enquiring ears who often shares music with me.

Music isn’t just the glue that prevents you from falling apart, it’s also the soundtrack of friendship and human warmth.

As I continue to manage depression without outside help I still can’t afford and navigate the complex reality of my stepmom’s Stage IV cancer alongside my family in Europe, music is vital. As vital as Portuguese, and combining the two is a foolproof recipe that never fails to restore a modicum of hope into a challenging, chaotic, and impossible reality.

Several times a day, I turn to music for comfort, I turn to music for strength, I turn to music for focus. At the tickle of a touch screen, I can tap into the calm my environment lacks, the joy that is too often in short supply, the energy exhaustion keeps taking away from me.

Like the language helping me come back to life, music has an invigorating effect on my broken, malfunctioning brain and helps it override the chronic illness within so I can conjure up the mental wherewithal to do my best even under duress.

And because it is a full body experience that starts between the ears but spreads down to your toes, music can transform you into the human equivalent of a dancing flower.

If you’ve ever seen anyone skipping down the road with a huge smile on their face or swaying gently as they wait for the lights to change before crossing the street — or if you’re often that person — you already know:

Music is magic.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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