Buh-Bah, This Is the Sound of Sanity

A playlist to curb obsessive thoughts

Photo: chee gin tan/E+/Getty Images

I've got a hunger twisting my stomach into knots
That my tongue has tied off
My brain's repeating, “if you've got an impulse, let it out”
But they never make it past my mouth
— “The Sound of Settling,” Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie’s “The Sound of Settling” kicks off with a simple strumming guitar. It’s an alienating introduction that delivers the song’s first line before a driving drumline bowls in. As it sprawls out, “The Sound of Settling” polishes itself. Ever-developing production refines each layer of instrumentation before collapsing in on itself again, reverting back to exactly where it started. It's beautiful, intrinsic, complicated, and one of the first songs I ever found that could curb my obsessive thoughts.

It came to me from one of my sister’s Limewire downloads, buried deep in the MP3 player we shared. Back then, of course, we were living with a prehistoric interface that didn’t offer a way to choose your songs. I was around 11 or 12 years old and grappling with spells of bad mental health that were difficult to understand. They manifested as funny little thoughts, all at once, burning red-hot yet leaving me frozen with fear. At times these thoughts were odd, perhaps even funny, and at others they were crystalline, torturous images, replaying over and over again in my head.

As I’ve grown up, my ability to cope with these unwelcome thoughts has teetered between good and bad. This is one of the hardest things to accept about mental illness: Recovery isn’t a specific pin-dropped destination, but a process of building and coping while getting worse and getting better. Inadequate mental health provisions aggravate the situation even further. Recently, EU-funded research reported that Britain has one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds in Europe for young people struggling with serious mental health problems. It hits me right in the gut when I think of the nights these thoughts became so unbearable that I nearly ended it all, or think of friends who’ve felt the same or worse.

And I suppose that’s why I've clung to this tried and true method. Even after seeking professional help, I've always come back to managing my symptoms with music.

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Running in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence, damn the dark, damn the light
— “The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac's seminal classic, “The Chain,” is a favorite. Its beauty lies in juxtaposition: a purposeful sense of repetition tangled with unpredictable progression. It’s intricate enough to grip my attention for a moment, and often that’s enough to pull me out of the burning in my mind. Maybe there’s some poetic metaphor to be found in Stevie and Lindsey singing about an unbreakable chain; maybe the lyrics reflect the binding, repetitive rituals, and the obsessive thoughts I grapple with. Or maybe it's just that absolutely sick bassline.

Just another life to live
Just a word to say
Just another love to give
And a diamond day
— “Just Another Diamond Day,” Vashti Bunyan

I’ve assigned immense gratitude to so many songs simply because they were there at exactly the right time. Take the chime of Vashti Bunyan’s “Just Another Diamond Day,” and the stark simplicity of Damien Jurado’s “Throw Me Now Your Arms.” They both strike this perfect balance between being detailed enough to demand attention, yet calming enough to tolerate when everything becomes too much — a slow burn of relief when you think you're too far gone to fix.

Every day as the tides grow closer
It is all that's on my mind
— “Throw Me Now Your Arms,” Damien Jurado

Then there’s the escapism of a song with a narrative to occupy my heavy mind, like Christian Lee Hutson's “Northsiders.” It doesn’t matter that the story is melancholic; there's a comfort in that, a sort of catharsis in feeling something for someone else, that helps get you out of your own head.

But you said that we would always be
Branches on the same old tree
Reaching away from each other for eternity
And you know I can’t argue with that
Nothing’s going to change it now
— “Northsiders,” Christian Lee Hutson

When my thoughts become circular, the continuous and flowing nature of music is the only thing that can curb them. Songs don’t stick and stutter in my mind like obsessive thoughts. The sound’s momentum pushes me forward, preventing my brain from replaying those thoughts over and over again. In triumphant times, I’ve managed to completely redirect my mind from minor obsessions by playing a certain song. Even if I’m having a particularly bad day, music might not be able to stop everything but it always helps me cut down on time spent spiraling. I get by, moving ahead with my day-to-day life. And when I look back on the darkness I’ve experienced? That alone is more than enough.

Sure, it doesn’t always work. I’ve thrown my headphones across the room and burst into tears more times than I can count. But when therapy is expensive, or comes with a long waiting list, it’s hard not to see coping mechanisms like music as a true lifeline. Even when a simple song can’t pull me back from the edge, it can at least help quell a painful aftermath. Songs as unembellished as mewithoutYou's “Yellow Spider” have rocked me through the fallout after a bad spell. There's solace to be found in the comfort of repetition.

You made this world to look so nice
I wonder what the next one’s like?
Yellow spider
Yellow leaf
Confirms my deepest held belief
— “Yellow Spider,” mewithoutYou

Of course, music has long been known to influence our psychological well-being. My own experience popping on an upbeat song, or working to classical music, align with extensive research on music and mental health. We know that listening to music releases dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. Therapists frequently prescribe music to promote emotional health and combat stress. It’s always been a powerful tool, and there’s something absolutely brilliant about how powerful yet readily available it is, and always has been.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m in no way saying music is an alternative to seeking professional help for anxiety, depression, or obsessive thoughts. It’s a method of handling symptoms, not a cure or even a tangible stride towards recovery. But when the odds of being able to afford (or have the time to receive) help are stacked against us? I’ll support any of the healthy little coping mechanisms that give sufferers some power in hopeless situations. And there’s something striking in that — being stock-still and unliving, yet able to pull yourself back with something as simple as a book, a film, or a pair of headphones.

Music has saved me more times than I can count. I'm incredibly grateful for an art form that’s endured these spirals with me and instilled in me the patience to get better.

I can do anything
No one is stopping me
I can be anything
But I've got the weight of the planets
I've got the weight of the planets, I'm lost
— “Weight of the Planets,” Aldous Harding

a wee journalist, @kohlgrrl on Twitter / ko-fi.com/kohlgrrl

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