Tuning Out Depression: R.E.M.


“Maybe we cannot escape from the destiny of the human, but we have a choice: to suffer our destiny or to enjoy our destiny.”     

      -Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

Two and a half years ago I was in a pretty bad state of mind. A couple nervous breakdowns forced me to finally come to grips with something I always kind of knew in the back of my head: I have depression. And I needed help. Big time. During my initial steps in my journey to kick depression in the arse, a coworker of mine recommended a book that was (and still is) instrumental in helping me reprogram my brain: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s a bit New Age-y at times but it is really insightful and has great practical advice on how to put everything in perspective and make life not seem so shitty.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Depression sucks. I wouldn’t wish being in the middle of a depressive episode upon my worst enemy. But the good thing is that depression is manageable. The first, and most important, step is acknowledging that you might have it (or a similar mental illness like bipolar disorder) and take steps to deal with it. Two and a half years ago I waited until I had a couple nervous breakdowns before I finally took the first step to get help. But at least I called SOS and went to the mental health clinic and family doctor before I became another statistic. There are far too many talented, intelligent, creative, kind, funny, successful people who commit suicide every day, and sooooo many of these people could have been saved if they just talked about their situation with someone. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned through my recovery process… Talking about depression is SO important.

Since rebounding from my mental rock bottom, I’ve been pretty open about my battle with family, friends, and on social media and I’m constantly blown away by how many people I personally know have depression. What I’ve also learned is that lots of people who appear to have their shit together simply hide it better than most. Hearing other people tell their stories has helped me immensely and I’ve had people tell me that sharing my story has helped them in their struggle, so I’ve decided to pump life into this blog project and use it as a tool to keep the discussion about depression going and help eliminate the stigma that still lingers.

Unfortunately, depression doesn’t have a single cure. I took antidepressants for a year (and will likely use them again at some point), and they were a HUGE help in balancing out my nerves and rebooting my brain, but drugs alone won’t get you back on track. Talking with a clinical psychologist at the mental health clinic was extremely beneficial for me, so I would recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) if you have the health plan or resources for it. For me, running and working out regularly have been essential, along with reading self help books along the lines of The Four Agreements. Arguably the biggest medicine for me has been music.

“Music will provide the light you cannot resist.”    

      -R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ” from Accelerate

Combine a killer soundtrack with a good run or workout and I instantly feel recharged and ready to take on the world. Exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety, releases endorphins, and can be meditative at times, but adding music to the equation makes it the ultimate therapy. There have been countless studies about the healing properties of music and I’m living proof. Luckily for me I’ve been a huge music geek ever since I was a wee lad watching MuchMusic in its early days when VJ’s JD Roberts and Christopher Ward literally burst onto the scene in 1984. Ever since then I’ve been a music junkie: reading music magazine after music magazine, writing/blogging about music, hosting karaoke, singing with bands, volunteering at music festivals, working in the radio industry, you name it. I used to look forward to New Music Tuesdays ( I still can’t get used to new albums being released on Fridays) because I could’t wait to see what new albums were out that day.

Since I’m incorporating the power of music into the discussion of depression I may as well start with my favourite band: R.E.M. The “little band that could” from Athens, GA always stood out for me on MuchMusic. Even though I was more into hair metal during the ‘80s I was always fascinated by R.E.M.’s quirky, low budget videos that the band weren’t even in. There was an element of mystery to me which always appealed to me. By the time I got to Grade 9 and purchased Out of Time I was hooked. I devoured their back catalogue almost instantly and was at the record store the day they had a new album out. After 31 years R.E.M. decided to amicably call it a day but their music remains as relevant and helpful to me as ever.

For me, R.E.M. were my “gateway” band. In interviews, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Bill Berry would sing the praises of the Ramones, Tom Waits, the Replacements, Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, and the New York Dolls. This gave me the urge to check out groundbreaking music that you just didn’t get a chance to hear in a small, prairie city like Regina, Saskatchewan. Their music ranged from folk to punk to hard rock to electronic to soul to surf rock to country… but yet it all sounded like R.E.M.

In the self help reading I do I tend to take away certain quotes and use them as mantras for constant positive mental reinforcement. While most of Michael Stipe’s lyrics in R.E.M.’s songs are abstract to say the least, his lyrics gradually became much more direct over time. As much as I love literature, poetry and prose, I’ll admit that the lyrics of a song tend to come secondary to melody for me in a song at first listen. For a song to grab me it has to be the right combination of melody, instrumentation, phrasing, tone of singer’s voice, and lyric. That being said, certain lyrics always tend to pop out, and that’s certainly the case with R.E.M. for me.

Arguably their trademark song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is not only a fun song that is nearly impossible to sing at karaoke, but that phrase is a perfect motto for life. It also relates to what I’ve learned from The Four Agreements. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can control how you react to the actions of others. If you’re having a shitty day and it seems like the world is going to end because of cranky coworkers, tight deadlines, a flat tire, unreasonable clients, etc, you can either stress about it… or you can understand that you can’t control anyone else but yourself. What you can control is how you react to your circumstances. Stipe revisits this apocalyptic theme in later songs like “Radio Song” (“The world is collapsing around our ears/I turned up the radio/I can’t hear it”) and “I’m Gonna DJ” (“Death is pretty final/I’m collecting vinyl/I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world”). It’s easier said than done, but choosing to focus on something positive and shrugging off the actions of others can make a shitty day feel much better. Retraining my brain to stress less about things I can’t control has been an immense help in addressing my depression and anxiety.

There have been many times where it feels like the world is collapsing around my ears and that it’s the end of the world as I know it, but music, and particularly the music of R.E.M., has helped me feel fine.


3 Replies to “Tuning Out Depression: R.E.M.”

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