Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘music’

The Song as Self-Care

Almost six years ago, I wrote a blog post about music and its power to heal, or at least alleviate, depression. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m currently in the middle of what may turn into a major depressive episode. Again, I return to thoughts of music.

I once gave my therapist a CD of the music I liked best. I had been telling her how I had been stereotyped and even ostracized for the kind of music I like best and was embarrassed to share it with others. (Okay, it was country music, or at least the style now known as Americana – not pop country.) She played snippets from several songs while I watched her not cringe at them.

It’s the music that moves me. I’ve heard a theory that the music we love and respond to when we’re in our late teens and early 20s is what we imprint on. No matter how much or what styles of music we listen to later in life, those are the tunes and songs that will move us, no matter how old we get. These were mine. Later in life I started listening to acoustic blues, light jazz, filk, and 70s oldies, but country/Americana is still what lives in me.

Right now, one of the things I’ve been feeling is emotionally constipated. And maybe it’s time to try allowing music to alleviate that logjam.

Whenever I’m really depressed, I forget how much power music holds. When I’m on an even keel, I semi-regularly throw myself “music parties.” I hole up in my study with my computer and let iTunes blast. I even sing along, though I’m a terrible singer. Sometimes my husband joins me for a while and we have guessing games. (Who’s that singing backup? Emmylou Harris. Who wrote this? No, Shel Silverstein, not Kinky Friedman.) Sometimes I look up music that resonates with Dan and download it for him.

But mostly, it is a solitary pursuit. I wrap myself up in the music and let it soothe me. Or I rock out to the music and let it energize me. Or I let the music reach inside me and pull out feelings I didn’t even know were in there. Sometimes I use the shuffle function and let it surprise me. Other times I thread a path through the songs, letting my brain tell me what to play next. (It’s one of the things I can rely on my brain for.)

Call it a way to provide myself some self-care without spending any money. Although massages and pedicures and lunches out with friends are often touted as good self-care methods, I can’t do any of those things when I’m depressed. For me, they just add extra stress – showering, getting dressed, going out among people. I love massages, but I love them when I’m feeling good, only just a bit tense. I love lunches out, but they can’t raise me out of depression. I like them better when even chicken and dumplings feels celebratory.

But at my music parties, I don’t have to deal with any of that. I can stay in my pajamas and slippers. I don’t even have to comb my hair. I can exhibit all the common habits that go with depression and not have to use spoons trying to alleviate them.

So, tonight, I believe, it’s music party time. I’ll shut off my phone. I’ll close the blinds in case I want to chair-dance and don’t want nosy neighbors to have a view. I’ll invite my husband if he wants to be there, and not worry if he doesn’t. (What I call a “party” can easily be a party of one, and most often is.) I’ll unplug my headphones from the computer so the music can fill the room, as well as my head and my heart.

And maybe next week, I’ll have something to tell my therapist about – whether it helped or not.

Do Distractions Help?

Well, not when you’re driving, certainly. But when you have bipolar disorder, sometimes they do.

Of course, bipolar disorder is a distraction from life itself. And that’s not good. But every once in a while, it’s worthwhile to give bipolar a taste of its own medicine. Now, I’m not saying that distractions are good when you’re trying to meditate or in a therapy session. But sometimes, when you’re locked in your own head, you need something outside of you to unlock it.

Personally, I need distractions a lot. And, given the popularity of coloring books and fidget spinners, so do a lot of other people. Fortunately, I have found many ways to be distracted. Some of my favorites are music, bad jokes, cooking shows, sleep, and cats.

These don’t always work when I’m in the depths of depression, though I try them even then. But when I’m hypomanic, buzzing around without a landing site, they can help.

Music gives me both a chance to focus and a place to dissipate my energy. There are plenty of songs that express my feelings of depression, but also a number that encourage me to let out the feelings of flying, of soaring, of digging life – Little Richard’s version of “Get Rhythm,” for example, or the songs that have punctuated my life with my husband.

Again, bad – or even good – jokes are no help to me when I’m depressed. But when I’m obsessing about some anticipated (perhaps never to materialize) crisis, they can pull me back from the edge. (Once I called up a silly friend and said I needed a distraction. He said, “Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!,” a joke I didn’t get until later, when someone explained it to me.)

Cooking shows keep me grounded in a way. So does actual cooking. I’ve found that when I’m tense and about to lose it, making a cup of tea or heating a pan of soup grounds me, even if I have no desire for tea or soup. Making it for someone else is even more grounding. Cooking shows, even if I have no intention of ever trying the recipes, have a similar grounding effect. Unlike movies or dramatic shows, I know that nothing terrible will happen, unless you count a chef cutting her finger.

Sleep may be hard to do when my brain is whirling, but if I can accomplish it, my brain gets a reprieve and perhaps even a respite with a hot-n-juicy dream (though not nearly often enough). I love the feel of cotton or flannel nightshirts or pajamas. I love the quiet and the dark. I love the giving up of the stresses of the day and surrendering to temporary oblivion.

Even sleep in the middle of the day soothes me. If I’ve been unable to sleep the night before, a mega-nap the next day can reboot my brain and replenish my spoons. It may seem like an escape (and in some ways it is), but sometimes escape is what I need.

And as for cats, they help me in so many ways. I find watching them wash themselves hypnotic and comforting. I find snuggling with them in bed soothing. I find their antics infinitely distracting. I find caring for them takes me out of myself and requires that I focus on another being.

If I’m able to focus (which is not always the case), I find reading a suitable distraction as well. I have a few “comfort books,” old favorites that I can return to with an assurance that nothing too alarming will happen. I can lose myself and my anxieties in the struggles and triumphs of others. I can find distraction in tales of things I will never experience, like mountain climbing or space flight.

I have tried some of the tried-and-true distractions as well. I have several coloring books and a plethora of colored pencils. I have sudoko and mahjong programs and word puzzles on my computer. I have my writing, which, while not always soothing, does refocus my concentration and provide an outlet for any troubling feelings I may be experiencing.

Being bipolar, I find that my brain is both my enemy and my friend. It sustains me and betrays me. And it provides me ways to escape from its less sustaining moments. After all, if I didn’t have distractions, I would be locked within my brain with no relief from the tricks it plays on me. I’m glad that there are ways that I can escape, at least for a little while.

Music Charms the Troubled Mind

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.

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