One of the recurring themes of my two written works, the novel Everything Can Change and my short story One Word, is how words, such as in a song, a speech, or a novel, can have a powerful impact on people. In fact, in both works, the protagonists, both in the midst of despair, suddenly feel hope after hearing words they didn’t know they needed to hear. I imagine that as I continue to write, this theme will appear again and again (hopefully without sounding like a broken record).
The reason for this repeated theme is that, in February 2012, I had my own experience with a song that had such a profound effect on me that I can’t seem to write enough about it.
This is the story of that experience.
At the time, I was suffering from clinical depression. Without going into too much detail, I was in a very bad place mentally and emotionally. I was being treated professionally and had incredible support from family, friends and work colleagues, but, nothing seemed to be working. I felt like an utter failure and had no hope that things would improve. It was the worse time in my life, worse than when I fought cancer during law school. In fact, if I had to do a rematch with either cancer or depression, I’d probably choose cancer. At least when I had cancer, I believed that I had a chance to beat it.
In the midst of the darkest part of my despondency, on a Saturday morning that February, I was in the midst of folding some laundry and watching TV. I had made a habit of doing both together on weekends because the activity seemed to soothe the harsh voices that usually swarmed my mind like angry hornets around a damaged nest.
I was watching the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother that I had recorded to my bedroom DVR. The episode, entitled “No Pressure,” dealt with Ted, the show’s lead, telling Robin, his roommate and the woman with whom he had off-and-on-again relationship throughout the show, that he was still in love with her. Near the end of the show, in a delayed response, Robin told Ted that she was not in love with him.
The story, while a good one for the show, was not what caught me however. It was a song that played at the end of the episode during a montage of clips following Robin’s realization that she needed to move out of the apartment she shared with Ted:
You may recognize the song as “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine, but prior to watching the episode, I had never heard it. Yet, in my first hearing, its words punctured me to my core.
I instantly recognized the referenced ghouls and demons as the obsessive voices in my head feeding on me. These foolish and blind voices constantly dwelt on the past and saw no hope for the future. It was the last part of the song though that really hit me. I heard the lead singer, Florence Welch, describe dragging around the proverbial dead, beaten horse, but I also heard her declare quite strongly (under Ted’s voiceover) that she was done beating the horse and that she was going to bury it.
With these words, I felt a shift inside me. I rewound the montage and watched it again. After that, I went to the family computer, and with tears in my eyes, bought the song and sat for awhile, listening to it over and over again.
Throughout the song, Florence Welch sings about the figurative devils in her mind and her struggles with them. However, she is constantly reminding herself that “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” With that message in her head, she affirms to take action, to suffer and to hope, and to shake those devils out.
None of these points were new to me. My doctors, family and friends told me that, while things were dark, I still had a great life and that I was being too hard on myself. I had even said the same things to myself, in an attempt to convince myself that “this too shall pass” and that “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” It wasn’t until I listened to the song over and over though that I actually started to feel those ideas.
I wasn’t suddenly cured. There wasn’t a sudden explosion within me that filled me with the belief that my life would be better. In fact, it would take months of arduous and painful sessions with a therapist before I possessed that belief. Instead, the process was like the dawn, which comes, not with the immediate appearance of the sun in the sky, but rather with a glimmer of light that breaks the darkness along the horizon.
On that Saturday when I first heard “Shake It Out,” I felt a glimmer of hope and I started to believe that my life could get better. As I wrote in Everything Can Change, when Jack Ritter had a similar experience, “that possibility made all the difference in the world.” It’s a moment that fundamentally changed me and led to my recovery.