Art, Health, Music, Psychology, recent

Coming Together to Honor a Dead Rock Star—And Ward Off Our Own Demons

In May, 2018, Scott Hutchison, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit was found dead on the banks of Scotland’s Firth of Forth after having gone missing a day earlier. The final dispatches from his Twitter account indicated that this was not an accident or a case of misadventure. His suicide cut to the heart of the band’s fan community, a refuge for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and heartbreak. Scott’s songwriting delved deep into the dirty facts of living, but was also marked by a tender optimism housed within an envelope of pain. Scott’s disappearance and then death caused fans to ask: What does this mean? If he couldn’t save himself through his music, how can it help the rest of us?

In the months leading up to the news, I was in a bad place. Nothing in life felt right, and every day was a fight against hopelessness—to the point that even when good things happened, I would remain afraid or numb.

During a visit to Montreal, I walked from Mile End down to the old port, seeking to shed what I was feeling through physical exertion. It didn’t help. And looking out at the Saint Lawrence River, not for the first time in life, I began to think: “What if I just…?” The moment didn’t come to anything. I went for dinner and had drinks instead, and then walked back. But that night I dreamt I was planning and then attending my own funeral.

Shortly after I got back to Toronto, I heard the news about Scott Hutchison. It’s no exaggeration to say that it could have been me. We were about the same age, and shared similar artistic ambitions. It was hard to hear that someone who made beautiful music, and was successful at it, who said things that resonated as true for me and many others, had given up on living. If Scott lost that battle, what hope was there for the rest of us?

The tragic phenomenon of the copycat suicide is well known to mental-health professionals. But suicides of famous people also can spur a different reaction, as was the case with me. I immediately made an appointment with my doctor, and returned to drug therapy. I quit drinking (temporarily, as it turned out), and doubled down on doing the “right things,” like exercise and healthy eating. I’d recently lost access to a psychiatrist I’d been seeing semi-monthly for several years, but was able to get on another clinic’s referral list.

Did things improve? A bit. But much of the time, it feels like clinging onto a descending rope, trying to climb up while the rope itself keeps spooling downward. When certain familiar stresses assert themselves, I feel as though I might lose my grip completely. By the time my birthday rolled around last fall, I found myself again on a shoreline, this time it was northern Lake Huron, in tears, wondering what on earth it would take to keep the dark thoughts away.

It’s no secret that rates of depression and anxiety have increased enormously in recent years. We also are observing a high death toll from opioids, which many victims are using to numb emotional pain as much as physical symptoms. There appears to be something in the way we are living that may be fundamentally bad for us—not morally, but perhaps spiritually. In his 2018 book Lost Connections, Swiss-British writer Johann Hari theorized that though this crisis is multifaceted, much of it appears rooted in a loss of our sense of meaning and community. His previous book, focusing on the war on drugs, concluded that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but connection. In his new book, he extends that argument further to include depression. This absence of connection has been widely discussed since the appearance of Robert Putnam’s 2001 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But there is a new focus on this phenomenon as a matter of public health, not just sociology. Loneliness is literally killing people.

There is a political aspect to this phenomenon, too. As Jeffrey Quackenbush recently wrote in Quillette, social media barrages us with “a litany of agitation or exhilaration: Trump, Brexit, Populism, Impeachment, Social Media, Social Justice Warriors, #MeToo, Alt-Right, Troll Farms, the Death of Journalism, the Rise of Authoritarianism, Fake News, ISIS.” New forms of news consumption encourage each of us to inhabit virtual silos—which has the effect of downgrading the healthier connections that exist within everyday life while using the cheaper fix as an outlet. We end up consumed by the search for immediate gratification in a fake digital universe. The parallel with drug addiction is obvious. And quite like drug addiction, as we live less in our real lives, we move further into a void that fails to address our difficulties at any meaningful level.

In my case, however, digital culture wasn’t the true source of the problem. I’ve been afflicted by bouts of darkness for nearly as long as I can remember—going all the way back to grade school. Some periods were worse than others. But in recent years, the problem has felt more constant and intractable. Instead of having a bad month or three on different parts of the calendar, or a year here and there, these periods started to extend themselves until they touched. Times of relief became rare. In 2017, I was shocked by a cancer scare that required urgent surgery, which was very much in my mind when I felt those dark thoughts in Montreal. Sometimes, a brush with mortality inspires a person to live life to the fullest. But in my case, it had mostly the opposite effect. Given my uncertain career (I work in the arts), dwindling youth, stressed finances, and shrinking options, it was hard not to see the incident as just another sign that life is on the downswing.

I could speculate endlessly on why this is my lot in life. Bad choices and bad luck no doubt have much to do with it, along with experiences. But mental-health outcomes also have a strong genetic aspect. One of my parents has been severely afflicted—to an extent I didn’t quite realize until a disturbing phone call I got in the middle of the night about a decade ago. There were earlier incidents, too, when it was clear something was very off—though it was not openly discussed. I struggle with what I may have taken from this. It’s hard for me to be honest about how I feel at times, especially with those to whom I am closest. Some of this is because of a sense that I shouldn’t feel as I do, that I have no right to it, a feeling that is accompanied by a lot of guilt. But silence and guilt metastasize into additional fuel for a constant feeling of impending disaster. My family member has found a strategy that works, and is now in a good place from what I can tell. I hope to find a similarly successful strategy for myself.

One challenge is that many of the easiest coping strategies just make depression worse in the long run. It’s tempting to go online and read the latest Twitter arguments, the latest cultural-war controversy, the latest scandal. All of it allows one to temporarily externalize inner pain into outrage at someone else—which, in my worst moments, became more tempting to do as a balm for unarticulated frustration, anger and sadness. But when you wake up the next day, you still have the pain—plus all that outrage—buzzing about in your skull.

Earlier this year, I attended a memorial listening party in remembrance of Scott Hutchison on the one-year anniversary of his death. It was organized by a friend of mine and his partner here in Toronto. But thanks to an active Facebook group based around the band’s fans, it attracted visitors from as far away as Wisconsin and San Diego. Several fans even wandered in off the street when they saw the sign outside the venue. There were shot glasses that someone had printed in homage to the 2008 Frightened Rabbit classic Head Rolls Off, a song that offers musings about the need to “make tiny changes to earth,” and postcards featuring some of Scott’s art. Frightened Rabbit concert footage played on a big screen, followed by an endless playlist run through the bar’s soundboard.

I was nervous, and felt a bit out of place among this group of die-hards. Though I’ve been a fan of the band for years, the Facebook group was new to me. In the months since I’ve joined, though, I’ve been struck by how much time people spend in the group simply comforting each other—telling their stories and talking about what they can’t make sense of in their lives, and looking for ways to connect through doing it.

In the end, I didn’t eat enough, drank too much, and showed myself out a little later than perhaps was wise. But I also met a guy from the UK named Brian who told me about his struggles with social anxiety that emerged out of the death of an older sibling when he was a kid. It was a rare conversation to have with a stranger. In fact, Brian told me he almost never speaks to anyone about it. When he left, he hugged me hard. It seemed like some small bit of weight he was holding had lifted.

The next day, I woke up with the dread feeling in my chest again, and the thought that I didn’t want to be here anymore. I tried to do the stuff I’ve been learning in cognitive behavioral therapy, about placing those thoughts somewhere where they aren’t accepted as “truth.” Maybe I felt this way because I’d had too much to drink. But the unfortunate fact is that there are times when, in spite of the medication, therapy, new friends and minor career opportunities, I still often feel frozen, trapped, afraid and alone. Alcohol and depression often go together because the booze kills dread and drowns sadness, and allows for rare moments where you feel like you can live without the toxic noise in your mind. But of course, it comes with its own potential for life-ruining toxicity.

There’s no single thing that will save me. And even the mixture of partial solutions always feels like a work in progress. But the way that Frightened Rabbit fans have created a healthy community that allows them to connect and find comfort in their struggles (without competitively pursuing recognition of their victimhood) is unusual and valuable. It won’t become my magic bullet. Nothing will. But it will help.

We all need to grasp what’s available and good in life a little tighter, instead of retreating into internet opium and other addictions. Continuing to “make tiny changes,” and working to have faith that things can and will get better, is an approach that admittedly can feel hard and endless. The main consolation is that the only real alternative is much, much worse.

 

Neil Gray is an independent musician, producer and writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @sawthedust. His previous articles for Quillette include The Purity Spiral of Canada’s Music Industry and How The Campaign Against Cultural Appropriation Came Back to Haunt Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

Featured image: Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, performing at Bingley Music Live in 2010.

Comments

  1. Unrelentinng Narcissim- I listened to 20 minutes of it in the narrated form- Jesus Christ! how entitled are you, obviously not missing any meals? I am sorry, but Millenial Snowflakism IS NOT why I support Quillette. Get a clue. I am sorry, but Quillette on the topic of culture, or the arts, is just SO IRRELEVANT to the rest of the world. Stop with the naval gazing, already

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20 Comments

  1. Etiamsi omnes says

    If you’re already feeling a little shitty it’s not a good idea to go to Montreal. Or any place in Quebec, for that matter…

  2. Geary Johansen says

    With drinking, you have to remember to question your motives for drinking- are you going out to socialise, celebrate and enjoy yourself, or to blot out the pain and dull yourself. Have you given yourself at least two or three weeks between drinking episodes for recovery and general health. Remember, when you are drinking, you can make yourself enjoy it more and longer, by pacing yourself. Try starting with weaker alcohol. Always eat before drinking, hydrate before hand- and remember to drink water during your drinking- it’s a trick I learned when I was younger and on Mediterranean holidays- I was always better behaved and always had a better time. Remember, if you can learn to moderate, you can continue a part of your life that you obviously enjoy- otherwise you will lose to forever.

    Above all, make sure you are out with people who’s company you enjoy- otherwise it will only make you drink more quickly and lose it. Try to plan things in advance, enjoy yourself and have a strict policy of not talking about depressing subjects when you are out drinking. Empathy, sharing pain and talking things through are all worthwhile pursuits- but not while your drinking- from an emotional viewpoint, it does to you what ‘drink and dial’ does to others.

  3. “It’s no secret that rates of depression and anxiety have increased enormously in recent years.”
    Have they really? Or is it just diagnoses that have increased?

    But overall, bravo for this candid and enlightening article! Online pieces like this can be part of the solution, even as so much other online stuff can be part of the problem. I hope Neil Gray flourishes!

    • Larry Larkin says

      Almost certainly they have, as well as the usual over diagnosis of currently fashionable trends in illness, and a lot of it would be because of the increased usage of psychoactive drugs that affect not just mental states, but provoke and produce actual physiological changes in brain structure.

  4. Serenity says

    Neil,

    A month ago Quillette published “A MeToo Mob Tried to Destroy My Life as a Poet. This Is How I Survived” by Joseph Massey.

    “Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I rarely appeared in public unless alcohol was promised. I drank to protect myself from a constant state of anxiety, always verging on full-blown panic…

    At age 35, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. A year later, I joined a group called Ananda, which taught me how to meditate. I also learned how to breathe and break through symptoms of trauma. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t fear anxiety and panic. I didn’t fear fear. I wasn’t depressed anymore, and the anger that was lodged in my chest—those knots dissolved. (I still meditate every day.)”

    Meditation helps you to control your emotions, behaviour, better sleep, concentrate and so on. The app below was recommended to me by somebody I trust completely.

    https://www.headspace.com/

    • Under Pressure says

      Headspace app is filled with very practical and short lessons that tackle challenging mental health issues from a bunch of different angles. And then there’s the meditation, which has been proven to work over and over again. I’m currently on day 140 of an unbroken streak and my skill at recognising destructive thoughts and feelings and not whipping myself into a frenzy of worry/fear has gotten really strong. As the app says, it’s a skill that can be acquired with regular, short, practice. 20 minutes a day!

  5. jayaguru says

    Thoreau wrote something that resonated with me: “The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness.” I took this to mean that with this small seed of faith one can act and not fall into despair—it’s about having faith in oneself, one’s basic goodness and efforts towards the good, otherwise we give up and say “what’s the use.”

  6. islamaphooey says

    I guess I’m a lucky man. 67 and healthy. And pretty happy. Not depressed anyway. I’ve gotten into playing guitar and writing songs in the last 10 years, and maybe because it’s still a newish thing to me, it almost never fails to amaze me when I pick up a guitar and play it. I suspect you’ve probably played for quite a long time, so me suggesting that you go to an instrument when you feel really down is likely wasted advice. I was touched by your piece, and your honesty, and wish you well. Hang in there. Peace.

  7. codadmin says

    Why not jump off a cliff meteorically.

    Imagine you did it. Problems solved, but, there you are, still alive.

  8. Depression is a bitch. It can make a mockery of everything you’ve done and then tortures you with every damn mistake you’ve ever made on top of that.

    Nature is what helps me, being near flowing water and trees is very soothing. There’s something comforting about doing something that our distant non-homo sapiens ancestors have been doing for millennia, at least after they left swimming in the water as their only habitat eons ago. There’s a connection to life and our own origins in water.

    Thank you very much for telling this story, it was interesting and a bit inspiring, too.

  9. Sasha says

    Never underestimate the power of the brain both in depression and exhilaration! There are a number of people whose chemistry just bestows upon them the dreaded “black dog”.

    Never feel that it is all your fault ….listen to your body and what is telling you if you are drinking too much when the black dog comes calling. Your body will always send “stop” signals. Get used to them and learn from them.

    Retrain the brain over time to discard those depressive signals and medicate if needed. The brain responds to consistent respective action signals so keep saying no.

    You control your life…nobody else…the more you overcome the stronger and wiser you become.

  10. Depression Survivor says

    You sound a lot like me in the 1990s.

    You need to quit drinking man. Completely. It will be by far the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but 90% of your serious depression will probably lift within a few years. I say probably because obviously everyone’s depression is different – but for most people in your situation it’s mostly about the alcohol. I too have a massive genetic predisposition toward major depression, and a family history that includes suicide. Even with all that, it was still mostly about the booze.

    From there you can go wherever life takes you. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll be in a far better place in the second half of your life.

    • Richard says

      I second this notion in regards to the necessary abstinence from alcohol, and I don’t think this can be repeated enough.

      Living for nearly 10 years in Portland, Oregon, I find myself in a city drowning in alcohol. Apparently, it’s a “good thing” when grocery stores and college stadiums start serving alcoholic drinks. “Day drinking” is all too common. Free (and disgusting) alcoholic drinks show up at my workplace all the time (the most recent abomination: alcohol-infused water). Alcohol seeps into life in far too many ways, and I can’t help but notice.

      Luckily, I’m damn near a teetotaler and don’t get drunk, with an ability to easily limit my consumption (an average of maybe 5 drinks a week, almost entirely red wines). But my sober ways haven’t protected me from the destructive alcoholic behaviors of other people in my life… which has resulted in various traumas that I may be dealing with for a long time.

      I briefly rented a room in the house of a former family man, who seemed to be picking up the pieces of a broken life. He told me he was going to AA before I moved in – I said hey, I won’t be bringing alcohol into the house. Shortly after moving in, it was clear the drinking never stopped. It got VERY BAD over the span of a few months. I needed to get out of that situation ASAP. About a year later, after I had moved out, this man was dead. I can only assume it was suicide (he kept many firearms in the house).
      I excitedly entered a relationship with a woman who I slowly realized had a serious drinking problem. This on-again / off-again tumultuous relationship really did a number on me. I probably don’t have to elaborate on the emotional chaos of a toxic relationship, but I can honestly point to the dangerously high levels of alcohol that were consumed each week by my former partner (and oh yeah, I made the rookie mistake of trying to talk about this concern with her. Bad move!)
      In February of 2018, one of my best friends took his life by jumping off a bridge. He was a musician, a man beloved around town, and had celebrated a birthday mere days prior. Upon learning of the grim news, I was absolutely devastated – still am, in fact. He had problems, alcohol being one of them. He confided some things in me, and I really felt that he thought of me as a brother. I watched him struggle, and in an instant, he was suddenly gone.

      (Of course, all of these individuals had other problems in life, to which I was very sympathetic)

      On the flipside, I currently know at least FOUR good people who are enjoying sobriety. They are living their lives, alcohol-free, in a town that all but pours booze on your head everyday. Through them, I see that it is possible to fight back. And due to my own experiences with alcohol abuse seen in those around me, I will continuously advocate for sobriety. Mr. Gray, I wish you the best in your journeys, and hope that you soon find the success that you’re looking for.

  11. John D Stevenson says

    Hey brother,
    I hear you… I’m doing this ridiculous thing where I climb the highest point in every state in the US… have 10 left… come let’s climb brother!!
    jds

  12. Foyle says

    Damn, hadn’t heard. But as a long-time fan I really enjoy Frightened Rabbit’s lyrically rich music. Was telegraphed pretty heavily, 2008’s Floating in the Forth “think I’ll save suicide for another day” and a lot of other melancholy lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGsYK3xSkio

  13. Surface Reflection says

    I have a few advice’s or ideas to offer.

    The First and most important one is this: One of the Fundamental Faults of Humans is the “tendency to strongly focus on any negativity”, either a real one or one coming from our own thoughts and emotions, or from other people and events. This is a consequence of and a part of one of our most fundamental features that is crucial for survival.
    Every living being has it. Not just Humans.

    But because we have evolved to be the most complex living beings, with additional incredibly complex civilization, societies and cultures it is ten fold, hundred fold, million fold more complex and more complicated in our case.

    The problem with it is – we are not actively aware of this bend in our psyche and our emotions, which is what allows it to influence us in much worse ways then it would otherwise. Very similar to how not knowing about microbial life that causes diseases made it seem much worse then it was.
    Realize this and become actively aware of it.

    Second is the fact we are not just rational beings but primarily and most deeply – emotional beings. We dont just “feel feelings”, but we actually feel and understand reality through our emotions. We literally feel reality, ourselves, other people, everything we experience and understand and comprehend whatever we experience in that way too. And that is the primary, earliest way that strongly influences and shapes our thinking. This shouldn’t be especially weird for anyone suffering from depression but it is generally another thing we humans are not actively aware of.

    Third is the Fundamental fault of tendency to think in binary extremes. Same as above, it is the fact we are not actively aware of it that makes it worse and allows it to influence us more then it should.
    Because it works unchecked, free to do whatever it wants covered by our denial.

    There are few more of such Fundamental Faults we have and they all easily and readily combine and fuel each other. As you will easily notice once you make yourself actively aware of these few and their many different effects in different situations. But even getting these two will be enough to start with.

    And the last, although i could say much more, is that i would recommend listening to and taking advice from Jordan Peterson on how to handle such problems and psychological issues in life. It is his expertise and profession and he is very good at it. He talks about other things that are “controversial” and whatever but leave those aside. His ideas and explanations on “cleaning your room” and creating improvements in your life though a long series of small steps such as is the proverbial room cleaning is whats really valuable and worthy.
    Instead of trying to reach some kind of imaginary “super great condition” he advises making many, many small steps and attempts at improving smaller things in your life by starting at what you can reasonably achieve, such as cleaning your room, but then spreading that further slowly and methodically, from one small challenge you can just handle to the next slightly bigger one. The crucial thing being doing things you can handle but that give you just enough challenge to overcome, instead of trying for something too huge you are not ready for.

    Thus you create a long line of small achievements which become your foundations, a long list of many small successes, so maybe not succeeding at any one future step is not a complete loss and disaster, but just another step in the process of slow gradual but real improvements.

    The point being: living like that is meaningful.
    And maybe helping someone else with similar problems later on is also meaningful.
    Then you add to it. Step by little step, expand, improve, expand.

    The meaningful life is the greatest antidote to depression and despair, because they come from the sense of meaningless existence.

    And watch everything dr Iain McGilchrist says about how our brains work. – Mandatory.

  14. Ian says

    I appreciated thus article and hope there are more. To an outside observer, it sounds like a very tough time to be working in the creative industries. Apart from the usual economic insecurity, it seems like political correctness obliges people to adopt masks to a greater extent than in everyday life, and you have an upside down value system where conformity is rewarded. And many of the women seem neurotic and vindictive.

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