Movember kicks off in a few days, and since I’ve been a long time supporter and participant of the cause I thought it would be good to kick off the month with a few pieces about men’s health. With a core goal to destigmatise discussions around prostate and testicular cancer, and to open up discussions about mental health, it’s clear that Movember’s focus on men’s health is important and valuable. It’s certainly a month of the year that I look forward to.
I recently had a chat with Simon Blackburn on his podcast, Take My Tone, about Jess Cornelius’ song No Difference, and in that episode I talked about how important that song has been for my mental health. It got me thinking about other songs that I’ve heard this year that have helped me out, so with that in mind, I’ve decided to start my Movember with a look at five songs that have helped me with my mental health throughout 2019.
Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself – Alex Lahey
Alex Lahey is no stranger to writing about mental health (I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself is as emotionally charged as it is infectiously poppy), so to hear the quietly joyous Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself come along and make everything feel ok is beyond welcome (doing so with the power of a saxophone, may I add). I’ve started the list with this song mostly because it feels like a song that knows the power that music can have to help those in need. There’s a vibe that Lahey is reaching out to the listener to say, hey, I know you’re listening to this in your bedroom at 1am because you’re overthinking the world again, but hey, it might not be my place to speak, but don’t be so hard on yourself.
The mere recognition of how hard life can be for people living with mental illness is cemented right in the opening stanza:
You sound tired on the phone
It’s fair enough, it’s been a while since you’ve been home
You say the smile on your face is gone beyond the realms of pretend
It’s clear to me, you’ve reached your limit once again
And sometimes that mere recognition that life is hard to deal with is enough. Often people who don’t live with mental illness try and help those who do by ‘fixing’ them. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more, they’re all permanent illnesses. You can’t magically ‘fix’ anxiety. You can’t smile away depression (Lahey recognises this perfectly with the smile line). Sometimes just being there for someone and saying, hey, yeah, life sucks, but don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re trying and you’re getting through the day the best you can. Whether that person is your family, your friends, your partner, or heck, even a song, sometimes that’s enough to help the day go by a little bit easier.
Everybody Here Hates You – Courtney Barnett
I feel stupid, I feel useless, I feel insane
I feel toothless, man you’re ruthless, oh yeah
I go to Loving Hut, I get my hair cut, I feel the same
I feel putrid, I’m getting used to it these days
You say “It’s only in your head
They’re probably thinking the same thing”
Courtney Barnett somehow manages to distill a million emotions perfectly into just a few sentences. She has said that the song is about “about some sort of social anxiety that then morphs into paranoia and a level of sadness and depression”, and given that Barnett has been vocal about her own anxiety, it’s clear this is a song that comes from a lived in perspective. That alone makes it all the more powerful and important.
As someone who lives with social anxiety, the title alone is what rings through your head every time you near a massive crowd. You can’t help but hear it yelling at you, making any and every interaction feel like it’s the end of the world. Anxiety is, like all mental illnesses, an invisible illness. Those who don’t live with it have little understanding of how crippling and devastating anxiety can be, but the best way that I can explain my own anxiety is to say that it’s like running a mental marathon with no end in sight. The worst thing is that that marathon starts before you’ve even arrived at the event, and if you’ve known about the event for weeks in advance, then you’ve likely catastrophised every possible scenario that most certainly won’t happen every second of the day leading up to it.
Part of what makes Everybody Here Hates You such a brilliant song is how it addresses the people who think that they’re helping, but really, they’re doing the opposite. The dismissive line about how ‘it’s only in your head, they’re probably thinking the same thing’ is something that, on the surface, sounds helpful, but really, it’s quite a harmful thing to say. Instead, Barnett gives listeners the tools to help those in need by repeating continually:
We’re gonna tell everyone it’s okay
We’re gonna tell everyone it’s okay
We’re gonna tell everyone, tell everyone
Tell everyone, everyone it’s okay
No Difference – Jess Cornelius
The value of music to help with mental health is undeniable. It can center us, it can calm us, it can make sense of the scrambled words that float around in our heads. For me, Jess Cornelius’ No Difference has been that song in 2019. It opens with a guitar and Jess’ soothing voice, creating a slow ebb and flow that embodies the mountain sized obstacle that getting out of the bed in the morning can be, then it gradually escalates in a way that reflects the scrambled nature of your brain. The guiding voice through all of this is Cornelius’ easy listening voice, soothing and comforting, letting us know in her own way that it’s going to be ok.
The core motif in No Difference is a mantra that initially sounds as reductive as the one Courtney Barnett sings about: If it makes no difference / you might as well be happy about it. But, just like Barnett and Lahey, Cornelius sings from a point of understanding and empathy. She’s not singing to someone to make them feel better, instead she’s singing to herself, and by virtue of how easy this track is to sing along with, you are singing it to yourself as well.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to this song on repeat. For me, No Difference has become a song that centers me, that helps break down those late night panic attacks. The lead up to the loudest part is a peaceful journey, reflecting the calm between heightened anxiety, working like a mantra that embraces the still and peaceful moments. There’s a reminder that hey, yeah, these anxiety attacks suck, but in a years time you’ll forget why you were anxious about that, so let’s just get through this together and we can try be happy together. This feels like an open dialogue between your body and your mind, so often at war against one another, but coming together to make a truce.
Which is why that louder stanza hits home so much. The repetitive mantra helps, but it’s the way that Jess Cornelius breaks through the cacophony by reminding you that in your darkest moments, you need to remember to ‘go easy’. It’s a reminder how hard it is to see straight and to have clarity in those moments of despair, which unfortunately are never far away, as heard with the impending amplification at the songs end. For me, this alone is why No Difference has become one of the most important utensils in my mental health toolbox.
Go easy when you’re lying in your bed
cos the thoughts you’re having then
are not the logical or clearest ones of all
Go easy cos it’s harder in the night and
it’s harder when you’re tired
Cos you can’t see it’s just a feeling and it’s separate from the real thing