It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of my country music. In fact it’s such a poorly kept secret that this weekend comedian Mark Watson (who evidently had been Twitter-stalking me just before he came on stage!) remarked on stage after establishing I was in the audience ‘bloody hell, you’re really into your country music!’
I really am into my country music, and there are 2 reasons for that. The first is the brilliant musicians you get in the genre. As a child I really wanted to learn guitar and had regular lessons. Even now my Fender semi-acoustic is one of my most prized possessions, with me regularly sitting with it working out the chord patterns to some of my favourite songs (although the strong musical gene that my brothers appear to have been blessed with certainly doesn’t extend to me)! One of the things that draws me to country music is being able to pick out and hear the phenomenal musical talent that comes through on so many tracks. The genre has so many great guitarists and I love to listen to that.
The second reason I love country music is the way it tells stories. Not just fictional novels but real life stories. Things real people can relate to. Brad Paisley perhaps explains this best in his song This Is Country Music where he writes:
You’re not supposed to say the word “cancer”, in a song. And telling folks that Jesus is the answer, can rub ’em wrong. It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, Little towns, or mama, yeah that might be true. But this is country music and we do. This is real, this is your life in a song. Yeah this is country music
It’s this raw, emotional story telling that has drawn me to country music. There are so many moments in my life which I can name the song that went with that moment: those moments of happiness where I’ve had the same song on repeat for hours; those tough moments where a certain song has got me through; even those moments of despair where music has been my solace – with a song simply summarising my emotions and helping me know I’m not alone.
That’s the reason I find myself writing this blog in the depths of the night when once again I can’t sleep because of the pain I’m currently in as a result of ongoing medical problems. Because where I’ve tried to write a blog for weeks summarising a few thoughts, I’ve finally heard the song that has helped me to write what I’ve been trying to say, that expresses perfectly how I feel. This Sunday I’m heading to see British country act The Shires in Bournemouth. I’m a big fan and in preparation for their gig, as I do before any gig, I’ve currently been reacquainting myself with their back catalogue as it helps me cope better with being at a live music event with my cochlear implant when I’m familiar with what I’ll be listening to. As I’ve been listening there’s one song I’ve put on repeat multiple times, a song that I remember falling in love with when the album first came out, and that’s ‘Save Me’.
I should say at this point that I have no idea what the inspiration behind this song was for The Shires, but both when I first listened to it, and again over the last few days, I’ve found this song to be the perfect summary of how depression affects me.
This time last year I wrote a long blog about my depression. It took all the strength I had to admit to some of the struggles I’ve had, and if you’d like to know more about that you can read more here. But that isn’t why I wrote this, and I don’t want that to be what you take away from this post, because I didn’t write this blog about me specifically – I’m writing in the hopes that this blog might bring clarity to someone in the way that songs bring clarity to me.
Since I wrote my blog a year ago a lot has changed in my life. I guess the headline is that over the past few months I’ve experienced some major health problems that have stolen ambitions and left me feeling an emotional wreck. But that’s not the whole story – I have to remind myself of that. The flip side is that before those problems plagued me I got a massive personal best in the wheelchair race at last years Yorkshire Marathon with a 2nd place finish, alongside two 1st place finishes in 10k races in the months prior to that. (If you’re interested the songs that have soundtracked those moments were Brad Paisley’s ‘Today’ which reminds me to hold on to those positives from last year, and his older song ‘One of those Lives’ which just gives everything a sense of perspective…)
As things have gone uphill and downhill more times than a rollercoaster I’ve found myself struggling with my mental health. I’ve found myself in the depths of depression again and again and unable to explain why. I’ve had people ask why I don’t snap out of it, people ask when I’m going to get over it. And sometimes I wonder why too…this is something I have to adjust to right – something that I just need to get used to? I’ve known about these latest health problems for nearly 3 months now and I know things aren’t going to improve any time soon, so why do I let them affect me? Why is it that sometimes I just don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings, I don’t want to talk to people, I can’t explain my mood? Like I say, sometimes I question and blame myself, and those are the days when my depression really has a hold over me.
In The Shires song Save Me they sing:
Here he goes again, Keeping me up all night, He knows every weakness, Just where to stick the knife, I’m fighting, I’m bleeding but yeah I’m still breathing, Oh it hurts like hell, Oh God I need somebody please, To save me from myself
What has this got to do with anything? Over the last few weeks there has been an increased amount of press about mental health, with the BBC hosting a series of special TV shows, many of which are worth looking out for over the next few days. Reading many of these articles helped me to understand that the symptoms I continue to feel are not just my own – they are real struggles that many other people experience too. And here’s the killer…sometimes there’s no logical reason for it. See, people can try to rationalise depression or mental health issues. They can try to explain it away, and tell you why you shouldn’t feel that way (it’s been too long, it’s nothing really, you just need to get on with it).
But that’s not how mental illness works. For starters, it’s just that – an illness. It shouldn’t just be ignored or trivialised. I find that those lyrics in Save Me perhaps sum up how depression is for many people. Because the thing about depression is that you’re fighting your own worst enemy. Your mind and body understand exactly what makes you struggle, what makes you feel worse, what is going to make your day more difficult. Every weakness is under attack, and it really is a constant fight. There are days when that fight gets too much. Where all you can do is give in for the day, accept you’re still breathing, and not seek more accomplishment than that in the day.
I share this in the hopes that if you know someone with mental health issues this will help you interact with them. See too many times people tell me how I should be dealing with it. Why I’m getting it wrong. Why I shouldn’t be upset that my ambitions once again have fallen by the wayside. And I’m sure sometimes, some of those people think they’re helping. But in many cases these messages seek to reinforce feelings of helplessness or inadequacy that already exist. It is, like those lyrics suggest, sticking the knife in exactly the right place, at exactly the wrong time.
And so, on so many occasions, people with the best of intentions cause harm when they don’t mean it. So often people think they’re being helpful by encouraging you to get on with things when it can only make you feel worse. What then is the answer? Later on in ‘Save Me’ it says
But you, You love me for who I am, All the darkness, the doubt and the fear disappears, When you take my hand, You know my heart, and nobody else can save me from myself
I honestly believe if there was more of this attitude in the world then people like me, even if they didn’t ‘conquer’ their depression, anxiety or other illness, would find it a lot easier to live with, or to manage on a daily basis. Too often I think other people think they need to find a ‘cure’, to suggest a way of helping, or simply to encourage someone to snap out of it. The reality is that not all illness can be cured. Not all illness gets better in time. Many people like myself living with chronic disabilities, and many far worse off than me, are living proof of this. Sometimes what people really need is someone who will walk beside them on the journey, who will take their hand when things get tough, and who will accept them as they are.
The reality is that many people like myself who have mental health illnesses are already speaking to people who are there to help. Many people are ready to ask for help if they need it. And often what they really need is to know there are people around who won’t judge them when they’re having a bad day. People who won’t try to explain it away (‘another bad appointment?’) when there may actually be no real trigger. People who won’t expect you to cheer up and get out of that mood (‘how can you be like that when you’re going on holiday tomorrow?’). People like that, the people who will just walk alongside you in silence on a bad day, but will still walk with you, are the people you come to trust. The people who you know you can talk to when you do need to. The people you feel comfortable around in those darkest moments. Why? Because they don’t make you question yourself. They don’t make you think you’re doing it wrong. In essence, they really do save you from yourself.
On a personal note this isn’t meant to criticise, or hurt, or upset anyone who’s ever tried to help me in any way. As I’ve mentioned in this post many people often try to help. In fact I firmly believe that the majority of people want to help those with mental illnesses and truly aren’t sure how to. My hope is that this post might prove a useful starting point for many people who have friends and family struggling with similar illnesses to understand things and relate. It’s not always easy for people with such illnesses to explain their thoughts – I know it’s something I’ve tried many times myself, and it’s only through re-listening to Save Me that I finally realised exactly what I wanted to say! I guess selfishly I do also hope my own friends and family will read this too and that it will help them to understand too, why a year after talking about this I seem no better off. Why I still struggle to come to terms with the endless barrage of problems I face. And why it’s really not helpful when you tell me to cheer up!
Crucially, I hope that this may be a help to you if you’re struggling with similar illness yourself. I know that both last year when I first felt able to talk about my own depression, and again recently, one of the most comforting things was knowing that I wasn’t alone. Reading other people’s stories proves so valuable to me. So often they provide no answers, no magic wands, but they do remind me that I’m not the only one that feels like this. They make me realise that that feeling of desperation, loneliness or isolation isn’t just something that is made up – that it’s a real illness that others struggle with too. Doctors can tell you this but personally I’ve found hearing it from other people can make a real difference. Can make you feel OK on a bad day. Can counteract some of those moments where you’ve been told to ‘get a grip’ or ‘get on with it’. Perhaps you may even find yourself sharing this with your own friends and family to help them understand how you’re feeling. If it helps you put into words what I’ve struggled to explain for so long then please go ahead.
And finally, I’d like to share a few more songs that are regularly playing on my iPhone right now. They might mean nothing to you, songs are a personal thing. But if it helps you to discover a song that helps you then great. Before that list I guess I’d give a special mention to my ‘power song’ right now. The song that I relate to more than any other, and which is getting overplayed by me. A song that reminds me that whatever I’m going through it helps make me who I am.
Bailey Bryan performed at C2C this year and I got to watch her twice, as well as briefly meet her. I wish I’d known then how much her music would carry me through this spell so I could have told her. The song that keeps me going right now is Scars
They say when you’re broken, the light gets in, Hoping that’s where the healing begins…I’m broken, but I’m healing, I am who I am. We wouldn’t be who we are, Without our scars.
What other music is keeping me going right now? I think I’d highlight:
The rest of Bailey Bryan’s EP
Music is Healing by Florida Georgia Line
Rae Lynn’s album Wildhorse
Little Big Town’s album The Breaker
American Young’s album AY
I really do believe music is powerful – its helped me to write this when I couldn’t have otherwise, and I know many, many others who could share similar stories. If you’ve got songs which have helped carry you through key moments why not share them with your friends, or even on this blog, or on Facebook or Twitter?
And if this blog has helped you in any way please do feel free to share it. I really hope that in some small way it helps people like me who are struggling, and that it helps their friends and family.
An extra little note to Ben Earle, Crissie Rhodes, Brad Paisley and Bailey Bryan, on the off chance they ever read this
I realise I’ve used your song lyrics on here without any permission, and without any knowledge of how you intended the songs to be understood. The way I’ve interpreted them has shaped my life, which I believe is the power of music, but I apologise if I’ve misheard, or mistyped any lyrics, misinterpreted them, or misused them. I hope however that I’ve used your lyrics in a way you’d be really happy with.