Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Once I knew a man whose wife was going to leave him. I knew he was in a lot of pain and despair about it, though he also turned into a huge asshole before everything was said and done. He was also suicidal for a time.

One day when I was trying to talk him through a bad patch, I asked whether he might turn to music to help him. “What?” he said. “Do you think I should listen to country music and cry in a beer?”

I wasn’t suggesting that at all. I just knew that he was a singer and songwriter of talented amateur status and was known for this in various circles. I honestly thought that music might help.

On the other hand, I always forget, when I am on the downswing, how much music can do for me. It soothes and heals, but it also lets me tap into the emotions that I have been suppressing.

Do I have the inexplicable blues that are part and parcel of my condition? There’s a song for that. Am I feeling unrequited love? Unrequited lust? There’s a song for those too. Is the world spinning too fast for me? Do I need to know that everything will be all right? Or do I just need to know that someone, somewhere and somewhen, has also felt this way? I can turn to music.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
– Oliver Saks, Musicophilia

Saks also says, “The power of music, whether joyous or cathartic, must steal on one unawares, come spontaneously as a blessing or a grace.” There he and I part company.

Music can certainly steal on us unawares, whack us upside the head with a memory, a feeling, a piercing stab of emotional intensity, all the stronger for being unexpected.

But we can also choose to bring music into our lives when nothing else seems to touch us. We can tap into those memories and feelings – good or bad – and let the music wash over us as we listen and feel.

According to scientific experiments with fMRI, music uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity. The neural connections fire all over the place – more so if one is playing an instrument, but even when just listening. The memory centers, artistic areas, language centers, emotional areas – even the motor complexes – are stimulated.

My problem is remembering all that music can do for me. When my emotions are dulled, flattened by the steamroller of depression, I sometimes forget that I can be any other way. The music I love is always there for me. I can bathe in it, wallow in it, be uplifted by it, float on it, join in with it, feel it emotionally and viscerally and intellectually all at once or one at a time. It can express the things that I just can’t.

When you’re depressed is a time for writing bad poetry. Or you can let good poets and songwriters take you with them as they explore the human condition in ways you’re not capable of. I think that’s why they do it – create their art. The really good ones anyway.

There’s also something to be said for music as distraction. A song from years ago – even a frivolous one – can take you away from your troubles, even if only for a moment. This is not the time for exploring new musical avenues. Remembering that things once were good can feed your sadness, your depression, but it can also give you perspective. If you took joy in this music once, there will come a time when you will again. And maybe that time is now.

Perhaps the most amazing power of music is to provoke catharsis. Certain songs leave me sobbing like a baby. They don’t even have to be sad songs, though many of them are. “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers is about as life-affirming as you can get, but it can still turns me into a weeping puddle. ( His song “Lies” has nothing to do with my situation personally, but its evocative power touches me nonetheless. ( And almost no one I know can make it through Kathy Mar’s “Velveteen.” (

Afterwards, I feel drained and, if not exactly better, less emotionally constipated, I guess you’d say. Clearing away a bit of blockage can be cleansing. If music can do that – and it can – then I don’t care if its country with a beer, jazz with a glass of wine, or hip hop with an energy drink. Even easy listening with a glass of milk, if that’s your thing.

So thank God and Apple for iTunes. And here’s hoping that my Swiss cheese of a memory will give me a nudge in the right direction when I need it next time.

Comments on: "Music Charms the Troubled Mind" (1)

  1. I actually bought Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia right after a really bad manic episode this past summer. I’ve read other books by him in the past, also had to read a few for college courses. The book has been tremendously comforting to me. I didn’t listen to music really at all while depressed, then suddenly I was on ebay buying a dozen or so albums per week. I sort of jumped out of bed one night and decided I needed to hear something with piano in it. Eventually I just bought an electric piano, too, as well as a bunch of music to listen to and sheet music. For a couple weeks, I was only sleeping ~2 hours or less per night, and I was actually listening to music about 20 hours per day. (I work from home.) It was excessive enough to almost disturb me.


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