Because We’re Not Dead Yet
Trying to Get Better 'Cause I Haven't Been My Best

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip with a bunch of friends to Nashville. We saw some great music, hit some delightful local landmarks, and generally had a tremendous time. I wrote a column about the trip, and you probably thought I’d told you all about it.

Here’s what I didn’t tell you. Sometime on Saturday night, the first night we were there, I got inexplicably sad. The voice in my head – the one that’s always there, the one I’m often successful at drowning out – took a few missed conversational cues and began telling me that no one really wanted me around, and that it would be better for everyone if I just stayed quiet. So I did. The conversation mostly continued around me, and I got silent and still.

By Sunday morning, the feeling had blossomed into full-blown depression. I was sure my traveling companions didn’t want me there. I had attempted to spend the night alone in my car, but two of my friends tracked me down and refused to let me do this. They’d seen this before from me, you understand. It doesn’t happen often – only a few times a year, and usually sparked by some emotional distress – but they were rightly concerned that I’d started digging my way into a tunnel of despair, and they weren’t going to let me be alone while I did it.

Yes, I know this should have contradicted my thoughts – if they didn’t want me around, they’d have let me go off by myself. But depression, even the intermittent kind that envelops me on occasion, isn’t logical. Talking my way out of it is difficult and painful work. I know that on Sunday I clearly annoyed and exasperated my friends, as they watched me silently mope about, trying to be happy and failing completely. It took me hours (and a good nap) to wind my way out of it. You can trust me when I tell you that this depression is a lot better than it used to be. When I was younger I could be desperately sad for days on end, not trusting any social interaction, certain that people were happier without me there.

This voice in my head has been with me most of my life. There’s a real danger in listening to it – it’s only a few short steps from “no one wants you around” to “the world would be better off without you in it.” I’ve only tunneled that deep a couple times, but it was intensely difficult to get out. Most of the time, the voice manifests as a low self-image, or a self-deprecating manner. (I’m pretty bad with compliments.) It’s there all the time, like a dull buzzing. Here’s the thing, though: most days, I’m fine. I’m generally able to be happy, I’m energetic, I throw myself into my work and my friendships. Most days are good days.

I expect the only reason I haven’t been diagnosed with chronic depression is that I haven’t seen a doctor about it. I don’t know what keeps me from therapy, honestly. Whatever my resistance has been, it’s crumbling. I’ve been trying to figure this out myself, to quiet the voice down completely, and I haven’t been able to. I take solace in a couple of things: talking to friends who go through the same thing (this is invaluable), and music. Music has been my life jacket for as long as I can remember, and if I am sometimes obsessive in my pursuit of it, it’s because I’m clawing my way back into the light, and this is one of the ways I know how to do it.

Much like I am drawn to people with similar mental health experiences – I have a support group who helps each other when we’re down, because we know what it’s like – I’m drawn to the music made by those people. Elliott Smith has helped me wallow for more than 15 years. The Cure’s Disintegration remains a favorite, and probably saved my life in high school. (If there’s a finer poster child for manic depression than Robert Smith, I haven’t found one.) I love hearing people struggle and work things out in song – Taylor Muse’s battles with his faith and his own self-worth on Quiet Company’s last few albums, or Ari Picker’s thoughtful and deeply felt examination of life after his mother’s suicide on Lost in the Trees’ monumental A Church That Fits Our Needs. It’s good for me. It reminds me that everyone struggles with something, and the fight is worth it.

Lately, I’ve been immersed in two new records that came along just when I needed them. (That’s usually the way it happens. Brian Wilson’s SMiLE showed up after the worst few months of my life, for instance.) Truth be told, I was always going to buy Titus Andronicus’ The Most Lamentable Tragedy just for its ambition and scope. It’s a 90-minute rock opera from a band known for taking a traditional punk template and building skyscrapers on it. Patrick Stickles is a frontman with a particular sense of abandon – his lyrics are as raw and unvarnished as his voice, and that voice often sounds unhinged, clinging to sanity by the barest of threads. Most importantly, this 90-minute rock opera is all about Stickles’ manic depression, diving deep into his psyche and capturing some eerily accurate snapshots of how I’ve sometimes felt.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is, like the band’s name, a direct Shakespeare reference, so naturally the album is divided up into five acts. The first two are mirror images of each other, the first depression and the second mania. The Titus template is generally simple songs with amps on eleven and Stickles on emotional overload, and that’s what you get here. This album is also full of references to prior Titus works, and in some ways it’s the Rosetta Stone that explains the band’s entire catalog. “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” hearkens back to its three predecessors while offering a window into the depressed mind: “Some days start with an earthquake, the bed shakes until it breaks and I hate to be awake, most days start with a dull ache, enough weight to crush my face, and I hate to be awake, both ways are about the same…” Stickles spends most of Act I wallowing, hoping to be left alone. It ends with a song called “I Lost My Mind,” which is self-explanatory, and a quick finale called “Look Alive,” the hook line of which is “I look alive but inside I’m dead.”

Act II begins in the exact opposite way, with a brief intro called “Lookalike” introducing Stickles’ manic doppelganger and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “I Lost My Mind,” just to drive the symmetry home. From there it’s ginned-up positivity. In “Mr. E. Mann” Stickles concludes that “looking on the bright side’s all right,” and on “Dimed Out” he gives in to his own excess. (“Dimed out” is a musical term for cranking everything up to 10, which this song does.) He ends that song by acquiescing to his manic twin’s proposal to let everything buried come to the surface: “Whatever’s inside let it climb out, that was his plan and it’s mine now…”

And it does. Act III is about letting the darkness within take over, Act IV about love and loss (including a great cover of the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes”), and Act V about the aftermath. And while I found that I couldn’t relate to the horrid fantasies of songs like “Fatal Flaw” and the incredible “(S)he Said/(S)he Said,” Act V hit home with me. Near the end of the lovely piano ballad “No Future Part V: In Endless Dreaming,” Stickles appears to choose death as a way out: “You’re at peace when you sleep, why not an endless dream, you’re at peace when you sleep, enter the endless dream…” Suicide songs have always left me with chills and an empty pit-of-the-stomach feeling, and I didn’t expect this one. “I heard about a way out, and all you really do is open your mouth…”

I could almost kiss Stickles for the way he chose to end The Most Lamentable Tragedy, however. “Stable Boy,” a title that can be taken a number of ways, is a clear Daniel Johnston pastiche. It was recorded on cassette, just Stickles and a pump organ, as a tribute to Johnston, an artist who also suffered from manic depression, and its conclusion moved through me like a warm wave: “I am your brother, you won’t let me sleep forever, and you are my sister, I won’t let you sleep forever, no never, no sleeping forever…” Listening, I’m overcome with thoughts of my own support group, my own brothers and sisters who won’t let me sleep forever. It’s beautiful and I’m grateful.

And while the earned grace of Act V of The Most Lamentable Tragedy is powerful, it does require me to go through the wallow to get there, and sometimes I just can’t. Which is why I’m also grateful for Frank Turner, England’s patron saint of hard-won positivity. That’s never been more true than on his latest album, winningly called Positive Songs for Negative People. (That, folks, is the album title of the year.) It’s the opposite of Titus’ elaborate work – 12 simple songs in 40 minutes, recorded as close to live as possible, and skipping directly to the therapeutic reassurance that only appears at the very end of Stickles’ epic. There’s something to be said for the direct approach, and often, it’s exactly what I need.

Turner is a brash, Billy Bragg-esque anthem writer, and he’s at his most stridently uplifting here. “Get Better” is a mission statement that speaks right to me: “So try and get better and don’t ever accept less, take a plain black marker and write this on your chest, draw a line underneath all this unhappiness, come on now let’s fix this mess, we can get better because we’re not dead yet.” “The Next Storm” is a rollicking metaphor for depression, Turner declaring, “I don’t want to spend the whole of my life indoors laying low and waiting on the next storm.” That’s what it feels like – you wait for it to pass, and then you worry about when it will rise up again. And like Turner, I don’t want to live like that.

Most of Positive Songs finds Turner broken and battered, but standing up, pausing only to offer kind words and support to others (“Glorious You”). “Love Forty Down” takes the tired sports metaphor and breathes life into it, Turner asking the crowd to pray for him “to turn this one around.” “Out of Breath” lives up to its title – it’s a breakneck sprint about living life to the fullest. “Demons” pivots on this line: “At this truth we have arrived, goddamn it’s great to be alive.” And “Silent Key” is quite a thing, using the final minutes of Christa McAuliffe’s life as a springboard for a “hang on to every second of life” message. Every time Turner sings “we’re alive, we’re alive, we’re alive,” I can’t help but sing along.

The heart of Positive Songs comes at the end, with the sparse live recording of “Song for Josh.” Dedicated to Josh Burdette, manager of Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 club (where the song was recorded), who took his own life in 2013, “Song for Josh” is full of guilt and pain, and again makes me think of my own support group: “I too have stood up on that ledge, and I know you’d have pulled me back from the edge, and I let you down in your darkness, I wasn’t there…” The finality of “Song for Josh” puts the entire album into perspective. Life is about getting better, and you can’t get better if you’re dead.

There’s nothing I want more than to get better. I have a lot to live for, a lot of things I’m proud of. This is my 750th column, for example, which means I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years, and I’ve met some amazing people through this endeavor. Among many other things, it keeps me going, keeps me moving. I’m not there yet. But there’s still hope. There’s still help. Life is so beautiful, so precious, so worth it.

No sleeping forever.

We can get better.

Because we’re not dead yet.

See you in line Tuesday morning.