Climbing Up The Walls: How Radiohead Taught Me To Survive Depression | Gradient
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Climbing Up The Walls: How Radiohead taught me to survive depression

Before I was on Lexapro, I was on Radiohead. I still am. It may be weird for some to think of music as medication, but in my own struggles with depression and low-flying panic attacks, Radiohead proved as instrumental in sustaining my emotional stability as any other conventional treatment. Coming off the heels of A Moon Shaped Pool, it looks like they’ve prepared another prescription of just the right dosage to meet me and many others right where we’re at.

When I was around 14, the music I listened to came from two sources: my parents’ stereos and my piano teacher’s laptop. I was raised on a constant diet of Motown hits and Beatles tracks, Bruce Springsteen hopefulness and Supertramp optimism courtesy of my Mom and Dad. Still, as helpful and terrific as all those songs were, they couldn’t really help express what I was beginning to feel emotionally. I’d heard teenagers were hormonal and prone to mood swings, but when I let it fly to my few friends just how despairing I was feeling, they couldn’t relate and usually withdrew.

Enter my old piano teacher: a former goth. To him, I owe my continual penchant for darkwave, post-punk, and all those black eyeshadow bands. I had free reign to listen to whatever he had on his computer while my brother was getting his lesson, and these gloomy British bands all had their effect on me. Given my feelings of sadness and fear, they knew the territory better than I, and I appreciated them for it. Still, there was something kind of cartoony about Morrissey’s mopeyness, something slightly melodramatic about The Cure’s Disintegration that made me feel slightly disconnected.

I’d heard about Radiohead on the Internet so when I saw them in his iTunes library, I clicked play on “Airbag” right before my own lesson started. I couldn’t even pay attention to playing rudimentary scales after that. I remember hearing a story from Bruce Springsteen about how the first drumbeat on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” had kicked open a door in his brain and, to this day, I’d say that first one-string riff on OK Computer did the same for me.

I turned 15 right as “In Rainbows” came out, so the bulk of Radiohead’s catalog guided me through high school as I tried to parse every single depressive urge or anxious impulse running through me with their music and lyrics. I remember going to a therapist for a few sessions back then, but nothing really came of it. Until college, I tried to grow more emotionally secure through listening to Thom Yorke rather than talking to a trained professional.

The Bends perfectly soundtracked my interior decay I felt happening. All the “you can do this, but it will not help” verses on “Planet Telex” affixed to a chorus wherein “Everything is broken” is repeated put succinctly how I was starting to feel nearly every morning straight through the night. I was a bummer to be around, prone to total emotional collapses at parties. I’d sometimes go into a bathroom at friends’ houses and stay there despite texts from their flip-phone to mine asking if I was okay. All the while, I kept thinking about the chorus from “Just”: “You do it to yourself / You do / And that’s why it really hurts.”

“High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees”, and “Black Star” all made sense of my first few breakups. I knew even then that it was going to be hard to have a relationship of even a frivolous, all-about-fun high school sort if I’d become convinced they were basically futile. Most of my friends didn’t see the world as a “fake plastic earth,” and it was hard to have any sort of friendship when you go all Holden Caulfield and think everyone’s a phony, most of all yourself. As I wound up more and more isolated, the final refrain of the record rang truer than ever: “Immerse your soul in love.”

But The Bends was and is only square one (well, Pablo Honey technically, but I don’t think the band will be upset if I leave that one out). It was getting past denial and admitting all the problems I had in their worst possible iterations. It was the deconstruction I needed then and still need sometimes now. Building on that foundation is where the rest of their catalog came in.

OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac helped me push my focus outward. Each of them has songs vocalizing some sort of triumph, even if they aren’t wholly sincere or certain the emotional victory would last (“Lucky,” “Optimistic,” “You and Whose Army”), as well as songs of outward frustration (“Electioneering,” “Idioteque,” “I Might Be Wrong”). These records retained the total despair of The Bends in songs like “Let Down,” “No Surprises” and “How to Disappear Completely,” but educated me as to a more nuanced perspective on what I was feeling. Depression/anxiety could be alleviated, and I wasn’t the only problem with the world. “For a minute there, I lost myself” implies you can find yourself again, and I felt that beginning to happen.

As high school progressed, these sorts of realizations made me able to keep a cynical eye on the world while still being able to retain a “light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” perspective on other people, myself and the world at large. When it came to In Rainbows, I listened to it more because it was my favorite musically rather than trying to eke every sort of help I could get to stave off the worst feelings crouching at my door. I got better at hiding my emotions rather than hiding myself away to feel them wash over me. I got better at diverting some of my own angst onto the upsetting political climate of the late Bush/early Obama years a la Hail to the Thief. I got better at being a Radiohead fan without really seeming like one.

In 2011, I graduated high school, and The King of Limbs came out. All the provisional defense mechanisms I’d set up to keep my depression and anxiety at bay all crumbled as well. There’s something about leaving the first social environment you feel you really got the hang of that’ll really do a number on you. What’s more: The King of Limbs was nothing new, nothing earth-shattering, nothing that’d really help the way everything from The Bends to In Rainbows did. It was back to The Bends for me as I entered some of my most despairing moments in years.

I ended up getting help. I went to therapy for three years and started taking antidepressants. In all honesty, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I’ve heard coworkers and acquaintances knock SSRI’s and even talk therapy, but it really was, if you’ll excuse the pun, the last jigsaw falling into place.

So now, there’s a new Radiohead album, and it’s another masterpiece. It’s also the first Radiohead album to come out where I truly feel like my depression and anxiety are completely under control. But when I listened to it in its entirety for the first time, experienced its melancholy sadness and conveyance of heartbreak, I still cried. This time, less out of feeling they knew just how I felt but more out of gratitude for how helpful their music had been for me for so long. I may not need A Moon Shaped Pool as much as I needed their other albums, but someone else might. For that reason alone, I hope Radiohead is far from finished. Like so many other fans, the main words I can muster about their new album are simple: “Thank you.”

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