“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness….” – Maya Angelou
As someone who has lived with a spitefully cruel, and frequently debilitating, mental illness, there are times that the only heaven I can find is in music. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I can’t play an instrument or sing particularly well. I would love to be one of those people who can perch themselves by a grand piano and just play, or be someone who could sing so beautifully that I could soothe my own sorrows by painting a masterpiece with song. The reason for my regret is that music gives me hope, gives me strength and – for however fleeting a moment – it gives me a shot of soft sedation that hushes the roar of OCD for a little while. Which is why I am grateful to those who make it for the rest of us to enjoy. I am sure I am not alone when I say that music can dilute the loneliness of anxiety, can comfort you when you feel at your most alone and can be the arm of a friend when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone and frightened.
It doesn’t have to be a specific kind of music – it can be any kind of music – but if you can find truth in it, there is heaven there. Sometimes, I put music on to try and sound out my own brain, to drown out the OCD shit that is on continuous repeat in my head. When I’m walking down the street, I love to have music in my ears and sing my heart out. In the street, yeah. Just the music and me, not giving a shit. Sure, I probably look odd to the casual passer-by, but really, when I think of the things I have done in the name of OCD in full public view, well, I think singing to a song whilst walking along in the sunshine is probably the least attention grabbing of all of them.
Last month, I threw an entire handbag and its contents into the bin, because I had it in my head that it was contaminated. I tried to hide in the toilet cubicle until everyone had left but, after standing there for what seemed like forever and her mother, I decided I just couldn’t stand there any longer (public toilets are a terrifying nightmare at the best of times). I walked out of that cubicle, dumped my bag in the bin, scrubbed my hands, then got the hell out of there. Oh, then there was the shoes incident (or Shoegate) of a few weeks ago: in the midst of an OCD freakout (as I call them), I had thrown my shoes in the nearest public bin, and forced myself to cycle all the way home in just my socks. Which, by the way, is pretty painful as pedals are not made for those of us prone to throwing our shoes away. So yeah, in terms of embarrassing myself in public, I’ve done it all. So forgive me while I sing my heart out for five minutes.
I can be having a day of monumental OCD shit, but if I can just listen to a voice, a word, a lyric, and just feel ok for a little while, even if I know it won’t last, well that is a respite worth having. And you know, those few minutes where I am in the song, where I can hear nothing else, not even myself, only music, I don’t give a fuck about OCD. It can fuck off. Right off. And I feel a happiness that it can’t touch for those few moments. Its shadows are nowhere, because with music there is only sun. Everywhere.
And sure, the song will end, and that fleeting feeling of elation will go, but at least I had it, if just for a few minutes. I felt something that wasn’t fear, or dread, or shame, or guilt. I felt music. In my ears, in my throat, in my heart, in the goose-pimples on my skin. It’s the most wonderful high I know. When the blood in my body seems to get zapped by that music and my pulse seems to shift to keep time, when the roots of my hair seem to start swivelling and shuffling on my scalp, I swear they are moving to this music! Suddenly, I am smiling for no reason, other than music.
Sometimes, I will be abruptly ripped from this moment of peace, when I see something on the floor that brings me back to OCD (is that blood? Did I stand on it?), or when I happen to see anything that prompts a chain reaction of thoughts and dread. And then I am back to hating myself, and hating everything, hating the fact that my brain seems to hate me. But, that’s all the more reason to cherish the moments of escape. And feel grateful for those that dedicate their life to making music for us. To those who can sum up our greatest loves, our greatest fears, our greatest strengths, our sharpest falls, in just one little verse. To each of these I am so grateful.
And so, onto one of my favourites of all, Ms Janelle Monáe. I could write for pages about how much I love this woman, about how much I love her music and everything that she stands for. But there is one song that speaks to me as someone who struggles with a mental illness. Its lyrics bring tears to my eyes every time, tears of sadness, of shame and of helplessness. But they are also tears of joy, the joy of knowing that there is some kind of hope out there. For however brief the moment, the words bring with them a surge of optimism that the daily popping of the pill packet does not. When I listen to this song, I don’t look down, I look up. I don’t look at my reflection in the window, I look through the window, at everything that is beyond. I look to the infinite sky that leads to an infinite space, instead of looking shamefully at the floor, with its drains that lead to sewers. It is rare to find a song that literally seems to speak to your mind, whispering its message to you alone. As if it knows what you’re thinking, as if it’s sole purpose was to reassure you that things will get better, that you will be ok, and that you are worth so much more than the pain that suffocates you. And it is truly the sweetest breath of fresh air you will find on this earth. The hope.
I am fairly sure I will never get to thank Janelle Monáe in the flesh for this song. But if I did, I would hug her, and tell her that her voice and her song have reached out to me in some of my bleakest moments of reflection. When I am standing in the dark and cold shadows of my mind’s canyon, its words bounce gently down to me, giving me something to hold onto, to bring me back up, so that I can stand and face the sun at last.
The moment is quick, and gone too soon, but I am so thankful for every second of it. For those seconds of not being OCD, of being free.
“Victory” by Janelle Monáe
Today I feel so troubled deep inside
I wish the tears would roll back in my eyes
Will I rise?
Oh I’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes
If loving you means fighting till the end
Then I’ll fight harder baby just to win
And if tomorrow shall come to me
I’ll count your every kiss as a victory
Cause to be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
To be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
Surrounded by the schemes and senseless lies
And blaming others, feeling victimized
Oh tomorrow, one day they’ll know
To win you’ll have to lose all the things you know
Trying to light the fire deep inside
Father take all the fears and sorrow from my life
Cause when the rain falls
My seed will grow
I’ll be further to my dreams tomorrow
There’s a greater love
In the little things (oh the little things)
It’s the little things, all the little things
You’ll find a greater love in the little things
There’s a greater love, love, love..
You can listen to the song on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TrxrKyQMXc