(photo credit: bleu man)
An article in the Guardian put it best: “Often, what makes an artist great is the fact that they’re born with a skin too few.” Many artistic people are born with too little protective barrier between them and the world. Depression, whether in passing or ongoing, is a problem for many.
When I was around 23, I had just gotten out of a dark period of my life. I stopped playing music, not knowing where to go with it anymore. I gave up for a few years, as I worked at a call center for a legal company, earning and spending money, getting through the days one at a time.
When I started playing again in my apartment in the Inner Richmond of San Francisco, I literally played my guitar in the closet, so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear me. Sometimes I just played a little piece of a song I was writing over and over again, some three-chord progression coupled with a wistful lament.
As time went on, I got back to playing in much of my spare time, but I still didn’t play for many other people in person. I couldn’t stand sharing what I was writing about live, in front of someone who might judge me, or worse, talk over.
I kept thinking about sitting in the park with a group of ruffian friends when I was 15. I decided to break out my guitar. “I’m going to play a few songs,” I said. “She plays guitar?” they said. And when I played, they kept talking. It’s funny how a trivial event like this can become your excuse to not ever try. I did play for other people in the years up until I was 20, giving people demos and playing at house parties, coffee shops and in music classes at a college I attended. But at some point, I just gave up.
You can say I have a thin skin. Sometimes I think I’m just a bundle of raw nerves walking around.
Pretty soon, after starting to play in my closet, my husband came home from work and saw our neighbor sitting on the steps in the hallway, listening.
“I love your wife’s music,” he said. “What kind of music is she playing?” My husband was flummoxed. He hadn’t even known I wrote music. He knew my dad was a pianist, that I had dated some musician once. He knew I had a couple of guitars. We had been married for over a year, and I had simply excised one of the most important parts of who I was from my personality and failed to share it with him. Before the dark times, music had been my very modus operandi. Now it was something I did in the closet.
I still struggle with depression when it comes to music in the form of where am I going to go with it. The music industry is definitely changed, and something new is emerging, but I’m not sure where I fit in the scheme, or if I have to create something new myself.
I set up some studio time, for two weeks from now, and I’m going to record four songs I’ve been working on.
Mental Health counselor, Deborah Legge, PhD, said in Digital Music News, “Depression is not uncommon to those who are drawn to work in the arts, and then the lifestyle contributes to it.” When I think of all of the musicians who offed themselves because the lifestyle that came with the music (drugs, touring, sycophants, lack of money, too much money) was just too much, I get bummed too.
What I love is recording. I love to give my music to other people to listen to in their own quiet moments, on headphones or in the car. That’s where I listen to music. Alone.
I am also afraid of success. I don’t like putting myself out there, in person, in front of people, whether through my writing or through my music. I’m still getting used to this part. When I get up on stage these days, just me, no drugs, no barriers, I have these odd quirks that happen. Suddenly I can’t tune my guitar, though I’ve been doing it for 17 years. Then my leg starts twitching. My voice gets wonky. I mean, what the hell?
On the flip side, though, if there is anything that I feel like I am here to do with this life, music is one of those things. When I create music, I am in the moment. Everything else fades away and I feel like maybe I do have a purpose. It’s the semantics of getting my music out there that makes me balk. Collaborating with other musicians freaks me out, based on past experience.
In “Janis Joplin: Rise up Singing,” Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company said, “Janis was one of the most powerful people I have ever known, and yet she was completely insecure at the same time. She was the Queen of the Scene and the chambermaid, simultaneously.”
He goes on to describe how she constantly questioned whether she was good or not after performances, wondered always if people liked her, if he liked her, even. “From a person as talented as Janis was, such questions could be unnerving. Her talent was so obvious, but often she couldn’t see it herself.”
And then he says what I feel is the most important part, “People discount what they do best, because they think, ‘Well hey, this is easy, anybody can do this, so what’s so special?’ Janis made me realize that what we do best, all of us, is natural to us, and easy to take for granted. This is completely understandable, and yet it is important for each of us to appreciate our natural gifts, and take pride in them.”
That inspires me. I think I’m alright. I like what I’m doing. I subscribe to a happiness-is-where-you-are mentality, knowing full well that the mountain I am climbing now is probably no better than the mountain I will be climbing later. Something else, something better, never really comes. Everyone, everywhere, is just where they are.
Said Brad Warner in his book “Hardcore Zen: “Every single human being in the world thinks that ‘if only’ this or that one of our conditions could be met than we’d be happy. ‘If only I had a girlfriend/boyfriend/million bucks, then I’d be happy,’ … An old Chinese Zen master once said, ‘From birth to death, it’s just like this!’ Wherever you go in the world, it’s pretty much the same. Only the details are different … We always want to believe that somewhere there’s a perfect situation, if only we weren’t barred from it. But that’s not the reality.”
The reality is that we can always look back and say, “It was better then.” We can always look ahead and say, “It will be better when I’m more successful with my music/writing/relationships etc.” But in the end, what you do right now is probably the most important thing thing you’ll ever do, whether it’s cooking dinner or playing your guitar for your friends.
Whether depression comes with the turf or not, I’ll take it for what it is. It’s definitely not going to stop me from enjoying creating music and learning to share it more with others, even to the point of collaboration. It may just be part and parcel. With great blessings come greater responsibilities. Facing my giant bunny fears, one by one.