May is Mental Health Month. Mental Health America’s theme for 2016 is “Life with a Mental Illness.” My posts this month will cover personal experiences and opinions dealing with my own mental illness issues, which may be triggering to the reader. I am also simply a person in recovery- not a medical professional and my writing should not be taken instead of or in lieu of the advice of a health expert and/or professional. Feel free to join in on the conversation by posting in the comments below or sharing with the tag #mentalillnessfeelslike. Stop the stigma, start the conversation.
Before I start in on this topic, let us openly acknowledge that I regularly indulge in the “crazy girl” trope. It brings a new meaning to the phrase “guilty pleasure.” Despite my own experiences with mental illness and having to deal with some seriously vindictive ex-girlfriends, I’ve seen just about every Lifetime movie where- surprise!- the beautiful, mysterious stranger turns out to be “crazy” and usually knife-wielding by the final fifteen minutes. And yet, our society’s common misuse of the term “crazy” or mental illnesses as descriptors is not only inaccurate but damaging to the conversation surrounding mental health. Just because I’m an advocate doesn’t mean that I am pure of heart and (in this case) taste pertaining to made-for-TV movies. But that doesn’t make this media phenomenon any less poisonous or pervasive; hopefully by calling myself out, I’ll stop feeding into our culture’s dual horror and fascination with mental illness.
And then there are the many instances (usually songs using addiction as a metaphor for love… WHYWHYWHY) that I roll my eyes and rant to anyone within a five foot radius. Don’t get me started on the after-school specials that reduce the entirety of the addiction cycle to a half hour resolution and use recovery as a hurried happy ending. Unfortunately, no matter the intentions of creators, sometimes people who haven’t lived with mental illness (whether personally or with another person) just do not understand. This same conundrum- whether it’s media perpetuating misconceptions about either recovery, addiction, mental illness, or a fun cocktail of all three- has put a damper on several media experiences for me and whatever audience members hear my sighs. It’s almost the same feeling as watching a show or movie based on a dearly-beloved book series that departs from the original plot. Except, you know, it was your life or the life of your loved one.
To be fair, as I’ve said before, mental illness and recovery are incredibly subjective and in addition to being a bit hypocritical, I can be a little quick to snap into judgement mode. Despite trying to remain cognizant of and correct this instinct, media that sensationalizes and/or glamorizes mental illness issues is not only problematic but toxic on a societal level. I’m a firm believer that our media landscape both represents and perpetuates the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations of present society. It’s not only a measurement of where we stand on certain issues as a collective whole but an undeniable influence. So yes, it is important to me- although now I try to keep my objections to a low grumble until the episode is over.
That being said, there have been some fantastic representations of mental illness, recovery, addiction, and sobriety in recent media that have resonated with me. And again again, as mental health is such a complexly individualistic issue, others in recovery may not identify with the same things I do in the below songs. Still, there is something so powerful in knowing our seemingly unnameable fears and feelings are in fact something shared with another person. And it can be manifested in some form, whether that’s visual, auditory, abstract, or concretely specific.
The following list isn’t entirely made up of my favorite songs of all time (although quite a few qualify); the playlist isn’t even ordered in any particular logical ranking. Rather, these are the pieces of media that I identified with on a gut level and/or that I feel represents the mental health issue at hand on an accurate level.
My Mental Health Month playlist
- A Better Son/Daughter – Rilo Kiley: I love that this song discusses actual life with a mental illness, not just the hospitals or falling in love or any of the other dramatic highs and lows. It’s realistic without being bleak, encouraging without patronizing, hopeful without being saccharine. And it doesn’t hurt that Jenny Lewis (the lead singer) is my idol. If you want to know what life for me is like with bipolar, then give this a listen.
You’ll be better, you’ll be smarter
And more grown up and a better daughter
Or son and a real good friend
You’ll be awake and you’ll be alert
You’ll be positive though it hurts
- No Lies, Just Love – Bright Eyes: My first depressive episode culminated in a several weeks of suicidal ideation when I was 16 and this song eerily mirrored my circumstances at the time. However, there is also a wonderfully realistic and touching resolution that I have also come to identify with throughout my recovery (even going so far as to result in a tattoo.) Even if Conor Oberst’s vocals aren’t normally your style, this song is truly beautiful.
(Trigger warning: suicidal ideation, depression)
So I’d like to make some changes
Before you arrive
So when your new eyes meet mine
They won’t see no lies
- Arsonist’s Lullaby – Hozier: This song always manages to induce shivers in me. It obviously tells the story of an arsonist but it portrays the stark, consuming loneliness of an addiction better than any movie I’ve ever seen. When dealing with my own mental illness issues, often the hardest part was realizing that it’s up to me- not my friends, significant other, or family- to recover and that isn’t going to change with time or circumstance. Sometimes, this can be empowering and sometimes, it’s just isolating.
All you have is your fire
And the place you need to reach
- Rehab – Amy Winehouse: If you know me, then you know how I feel about queen Amy. This song gained popularity right after I left my first rehab AMA and my memory of hearing it for the first time is oddly vivid for such a hazy, strange summer. Ms. Winehouse manages to portray the swaggering bravado of denial that many of us displayed when approached by concerned loved ones. Her breaking point in the third verse is so simple yet equally as heartbreaking to the listener. Rest in peace, sweet girl.
I don’t ever want to drink again
I just, oh, I just need a friend
- Ride – Lana Del Rey: Lana is actually one of the artists I immediately associated with the word “problematic” in relation to mental health media. Love her music, both Born to Die and Paradise are definitively go-to albums for me. But… well, if you’re unfamiliar, her music tends to romanticize a shit ton of things (mainly ridiculously unhealthy relationship patterns) that I don’t exactly strive for in my recovering life. This song, however, epitomizes the beginning of recovery to me. It’s terrifying, confusing, and often during that time, I just wanted to say fuck it and peace out. Except everything I wanted to escape was in my own head. Eventually, you either ride away or learn to ride out the waves with hopes of a smoother future. A+ on this one, LDR.
I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy
- Medicine – Daughter: I’m going to copy a comment from Songmeanings because it explains this track just as I wanted to but couldn’t quite vocalize the words: “This song is clearly using the term “Medicine” as any unhealthy way of coping with an issue. Be it physical, emotional, or mental. This song is to remind you that whether or not how destroyed you are that it is just medicine. The real pain of the issue usually does much less damage then what we do to ourselves to escape the problem. Reminding us we’re human beings with a solid heart, brain, and potential. That the dreams we make are attainable with a clear head, that underneath all the problems we’ve had pressed on us by others and ourselves there is still a beautiful soul just waiting for a little recognition.”
Pick it up, pick it all up.
And start again.
You could go home.
Escape it all.
It’s just irrelevant.
It’s just medicine.
- Full Circle – Half Moon Run: Although I have not been in a romantic relationship with an addict or alcoholic since I’ve been in recovery, I’ve had several experiences with how powerless one can feel watching a loved one caught in the grips of self-destruction. And it’s especially frustrating when this is a continuous pattern and many resolutions and resources have been used but every attempt thus far has resulted in the same old, same old. That’s exactly what this song describes. These lyrics clearly reference drug addiction but I think it can broadly apply to the long-term timeline of loving someone with a mental illness.
(Trigger warning: drug paraphernalia, drug use)
Is that the best that I can do?
As I watch as your head turns full circle
- Colors – Halsey: This song illustrates how addiction affects others outside of the addict, how pervasive it can be in any kind of relationship. It can not only color your perspective on a person but your entire world while you’re with them, it can change you as a person. When thinking about what I’ve put people through in both active addiction and recovery, I feel like I got off easy. Loved ones rarely get the recognition they deserve in these situations. Halsey perfectly captures the confusion and uncertainty of loving someone who actively does not love him or herself.
Everything is grey
His hair, his smoke, his dreams
And now he’s so devoid of color
He don’t know what it means
- Starting Over – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Ben Bridwell): From an artistic standpoint, I actually like Macklemore’s first song about addiction (“Otherside“) more. However, this song is more important to me because it talks about picking up the pieces in recovery after a relapse. A relapse in long-term sobriety, no less. On rough mornings several years into my recovery, I listened to this song to dissuade any sad-sack, poetic notions I had of finding solace in substances again. Not only that but Macklemore’s humble honesty (and subtle 12-step meeting references) encouraged me to be open about my own sobriety.
If I can be an example of getting sober
Then I can be an example of starting over
- Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk – Rufus Wainwright: If any song on this list accurately described what day-to-day sobriety is like for me, it’s this one. Funnily enough, this was one of my favorite songs long before I even thought of using drugs or seriously recognized my mental illness. I remember hearing once that quitting a habit works if you replace it with another. Although sober and in recovery, I’m still someone who is prone to excess and obsessive, compulsive patterns. But today, I can say with a lot of gratitude that I now have the choice to invest that energy into more positive outlets and behaviors, if I so choose.
I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish,
a little bit Tower of Pisa, whenever I see ya
So please be kind if I’m a mess
Cigarettes and chocolate milk
Bonus podcast: The Hospital Always Wins: If you’ve been in any kind of institution (especially a long-term one), you’ll probably know of that certain brand of powerlessness that is unforgettable and poignant. This 53 minute podcast by State of the Re:Union chronicles a decade’s worth of work from a journalist’s relationship with a patient. My favorite aspect of this piece is that the subject is eloquent, talented, and charming but also imperfect, problematic, and very much in midst of the process. It also gives the listener a rare window into the actualities and bureaucracy of modern day institutions.
(Trigger warning: discussion/descriptions of violence)
My original draft of this post was also going to include movies and TV shows because I feel that that is where mental illness is most often misrepresented in media. But I am one of those people who relentlessly harps on being aware of spoilers- OKAY, you try having the Red Wedding and The Force Awakens spoiled for you, then tell me your level of bitterness on a scale of 10 to over 9,000- so that may happen in the future. Feel free to list any mental health media that you identify with in the comments below- but please make sure to tag any potential spoilers and/or trigger warnings. Also, if you have anything you’d like to see in a future video or post, just let me know. I love hearing from y’all!
Thank you all so much for your support and responses for my posts during Mental Health Month! It has been not just cathartic but the best way possible to celebrate my own mental health and the people who have helped/presently help me on the daily. Let’s keep this conversation going into the next month and the next.
Be kind. Live authentically. Practice gratitude. Hustle daily. Work hard. Stay humble.
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