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Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Consuming media when you’re depressed is a delicate business. Too much emotion, too much novelty, too much engagement can be overwhelming. You want familiarity, but you don’t want to spiral into rumination on your own past. You want reassurance, you want escape, you want meaning and meaninglessness. You want something that can square the circle of proximity and distance when your own thoughts feel all too unfamiliar, yet too close.

For me, it’s doo-wop, and/or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But writer Blair Thornburgh loves sea shanties, and she makes a compelling case for why they were so moving to her during her own depression.

In the shanties, there are gals: the gals o’ Dublin Town, the gals o’ Chile, New York gals, Spanish ladies, the girl in Portland Street, Maggie May, Lucy Long, Susiana Brown. There is food—salt beef, salt bread, oatcake, codfish—and (of course) there is drink: grog, rum, whiskey, lime juice, beer. There are ports in Quebec, Bonnie Scotland, South Australia, ‘Frisco Bay. There is longing, there is forward motion, there is purpose; a shore behind and a shore before.

But there is also endlessness, the futility of a horizon that spills wave over wave. A life adrift is the only life that can endure, one journey after another the only way to earn your keep. There is certainty without stability, there is solid ground only briefly under your feet. Then poor old Jack must understand / There’s ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks. We long for smooth sailing, for hope on the horizon, an even keel. And the summer I stopped taking Seroquel, my depression was a riptide. I could see the shimmering okayness of everything around me, all the way to the edge: I was employed, insured, well-fed, loved. And yet it was useless to me: I was either plunged into hopelessness, or dying slowly of thirst.