News & Media

Music, Mood, Mental Illness

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

Music has always been known to have a visceral impact upon the body and mind. Even beyond it prompting people to dance, its upbeat melodies make folks happy, dulcet tones calm the anxious, and screaming validates the angry. For some reason, and I’ll dive into why I think this is even though I can’t know for sure, music affects me so deeply that I have no choice but to listen to a certain kind, and music can be lost and found very quickly depending on my life’s happenings. Let me explain.

Right now, the only music I can listen to is upbeat rap music (upbeat being necessary because of the advent of depressed rap music, a genre that really gets to me because of its similarity to my musical crutch). These types of songs are odes to the crooners themselves, self-congratulatory poetry that celebrates the body, mind, spirit, and all of their accomplishments. I can’t say I’m a fan of some of the language used in these songs but in order to appreciate the artistry, I have to put that aside, and when I do, the world of rap opens up for me.

I listen to all of the typical rappers, from J. Cole to Kendrick Lamar, from Kid Cudi to Drake and everyone in between, but I also (and this is apropos of nothing but a desire to share with you) was recently introduced by my best friend to a song called Like a Girl by Lizzo, which is such a banger that I can’t turn it off.

Ridiculous songs like Tiny Meat Gang’s parody song Walkman aso keep my head above water. But why and how exactly do they do that? I’ll start with the inverse.

I used to keep several “suicide playlists” on my phone, composed of songs that either discussed suicide or were so sad that they would induce suicidality. I felt as if I was injecting the music into my veins when I’d listen to it. I am so extra sensitive to external stimuli- my old psychiatrist once compared me to a burn victim- that music’s rhythm, lyrics, etc can completely guide my mood. So when I’d listen to “.” (my main “suicide playlist” of a time), a playlist that featured The Fray, The Slip, Daughter, Sleeping with Sirens, and later Dermot Kennedy and XXXTentacion, for example, would send me into a depressive spiral.

Here’s the scene; I’m lying naked on my bathroom floor. The shower’s been running for two hours. My playlist is on the third run-through; Be Still is playing, and all I can think about as I gouge out my skin is how no one, in my estimation, was there for me, and how alone I was, and how I wished more than anything that someone would say to me “be still, and know, that I’m, with you” but that not a soul would. Next, Medicine comes on, and I hear “you’ve got a beautiful brain but it’s disintegrating” and I can’t help but cry along as I imagine my own diseased brain and the helplessness of such intense anxiety, terror, pain, and sadness that doesn’t ever seem to lift.

Most poignantly, I’ve been listening to a song called Drown by Front Porch Step since freshman year. It’s meant different things to me at different times in my life, but it’s always been the highlight of every single suicide playlist I’ve ever made. If I listen to it, I will become suicidal. There is also a song that is in the soundtrack to a movie I’ve watched over and over when suicidal, called The Suicide Room. It was played on a grand piano when I was in the hospital, just sitting in a waiting room before lunch, and I burst into inconsolable tears.

Here’s the scene when I’m listening to rap music. I’m walking around my room, naked too but this time, I’m trying on all of my favorite outfits. The goal is to give away some clothing but the fun is in the fashion show that I’m running in front of my full length mirror. “My mind state feel like the crime in the summertime, higher than average” is being recited from my phone that’s tossed lazily onto my yellow bedspread. Sun’s streaming into the room as I twirl and pose, singing/rapping along at the parts that I know. It’s late spring, it’s early summer, my skin is tanned and smooth, and I just finished an hour of schoolwork.

The latter scenario has been my life for the last few months. I feel amazing, but in reality that kind of music listening is what keeps me above water. I sometimes ride in the car with others who have different music taste- my sister, for example and it’s hard to listen to more morose, introspective music. If I’m too introspective, I’m sad. I need to get out of my head.

There’s also the interesting phenomenon, to consider, of my shunning of music that has any kind of negative connotation. For example, the soundtracks of Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton make me need to throw up. If you read Katie’s most recent article, which I did and with much enjoyment, you’ll know that Dear Evan Hansen is a wonderful, thoughtful, meaningful musical and especially so for folks with mental illness. But it’s gone with the wind, to me, because it alludes to past trauma that to this day, makes me shake and sob and gives me nightmares almost every night. Hamilton runs along those same lines.

Finally, there are songs I’ve reclaimed. I danced at prom to a song called Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. I danced with a boy who ended up being a very predatory, bad person. I could very easily have let the song be taken from me, never be able to listen to it, become nauseous when I hear it. The song means too much to me to do that. I recently belted my heart out along with a karaoke machine “Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go, and we’ll walk in the sun.”

I feel, now, that my life is full of such promise and opportunity that I, too, am born to run…

(…as long as I keep blasting Lizzo ad nauseum!)
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