How a Panic Attack Reminded Me of the Power of Music


Like pretty much everyone else in this strange world we’ve built for ourselves, I’ve had my ups and downs over the years with depression. The last couple of years have been bad — the breakup of an eight-year relationship, recurrent insomnia, general existential angst — and although medication has helped, every day is an adventure in its own amusing way. And yesterday afternoon, sitting right here at this desk, I had a good old bona fide panic attack. I’ve never really had them until this year — I drank too much coffee, maybe, or the fact that I’ve been sleeping badly caught up with me, or whatever else. Who even knows. Anyone who’s experienced depression will know that this shit can sneak up on you for no reason at all. And when it does, all you can do is ride it out.

You can try to use words to explain what it feels like — the way your chest seems to fold inward on itself, the way your arms draw up into the black continuum where your heart used to be, the way your muscles clench and your hands twitch, the tightness at the back of your skull, the way your heart seems to beat so hard you can feel it pounding against the inside of your ribcage. It’s not fear, exactly. It’s… disquiet is probably the word I’d use, although that word sounds more benign than the experience itself. Disquiet with fangs.

But really if I had to describe what it felt like, I’d say go and listen to Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy,” or Bardo Pond’s “Kali,” or Brian Eno’s “Flint March.” Y’see what I mean? That mixture of jagged edges and profound melancholy? That’s what it feels like. Right there in your head. For you, maybe it’d feel different. (At least one band has tried to evoke the actual sound of a panic attack with their music.) But that’s how it feels for me. That’s it, right there.

Music’s power to evoke emotion is what makes it, in my opinion, our most powerful and enduring art form. It’s why, for all that I consider myself a writer, I’ve always been drawn to music, why I’ve ended up writing so much about it — because it does a better job of explaining the experience of human emotion than words ever can. The way that the slowly eroding tape loop of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops evokes our mortality. The way that Elliott Smith’s small, mournful voice speaks of the small, quiet sadness that depression brings on gray, empty mornings. And, shit, even the silly way that the memorable intro to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In the Heart” can make you instinctively want to dance.

Because the other thing about music is that it doesn’t just evoke emotion; it catalyzes it. I’ve listened to a lot of ambient music over the last couple of years — a good deal of the more recent stuff was cataloged here, and you can add to the it the likes of Eno’s Music for Airports, Zelienople’s Give It Up, and Panoptique Electrical’s Let the Darkness at You. It’s music to smooth jagged edges, to wreathe frayed nerves in warmth and care.

I did an interview last year with Jakub Alexander, who works under the name Heathered Pearls and made one of my favorite records of 2012 in the beautifully immersive ambient suite Loyal. I was particularly struck by one thing he said about the fact that the album was essentially utilitarian: “I started writing what now has become Loyal as a [means for] calming for my personal anxieties. I really wanted to write stuff that people could be calm to.”

It was Loyal that I listened to today at my desk, letting it loop on repeat, doing my best to breathe deeply, letting my mind unknot itself from the strange shape into which it had twisted itself. The album’s characterized by loops that blur into long washes of sound, music that does exactly what Alexander designed it to do: “Utopia for me is the ocean shore in the middle of the night, [so] that was the biggest influence on the album’s atmosphere.” If you sit and let the music wash over your mind, it works. The panic eases. Your chest unclenches. The black hole seems to disappear.

I have a friend who also suffers from depression, and she’s recently taken up meditation. We discussed its effect recently, and she marveled at the way that a half hour of meditation has a tangible effect on your mental state — if not necessarily better, you feel calmer afterwards, more centered, more able to maintain perspective on your life and its challenges. The simple act of sitting and contemplating your thoughts and your consciousness makes you somewhat better able to deal with its vagaries.

The brain is a fragile, immensely complicated mass of chemical nuances, and it’s no surprise to me, at least, that music might have a similar effect. There’s been plenty of research done into the way music affects the mental state of those who listen to it, but as with most things related to the brain, it’s an inexact science, a matter of trying to isolate the effect of a single variable on an astonishingly complicated system that comprises some 86 billion neurons, innumerable synapses and a bewilderingly subtle series of chemical interactions. No one really knows how and why music affects human emotion, although there are plenty of interesting theories.

But the point is that it does, and that’s something to be deeply grateful for. We’ve know this for millennia, of course — it’s why music’s proven such an enduring feature of pretty much every culture around the world, why it was the vehicle for our most important stories before widespread literacy, why it’s been a feature of social gatherings from the frozen wastes of the Arctic circle to the tropics and back again.

I love painting and photography. I love reading. I love writing. I enjoy a good film, and I think TV has brought us some of the most memorable and enduring narratives of recent years. I derive a huge amount of comfort from watching sports, curiously enough — the soothing rhythms of test cricket, the tactical maneuvering of soccer, the aesthetic beauty and individual skill of basketball. It’s all art, the expression of what it means to be a human and how we relate ourselves to the world.

But for me it’s music and it probably always will be. I write about it because I love it. For years I struggled with the idea of being a music critic, because it seemed incredibly lame to discuss someone else’s art instead of making your own. But, while I do plan to publish the Great Australian Novel at some point, I’ve come to like writing about music, because it gives me the opportunity to discuss the work of artists I admire and find worthwhile.

And if I ever get overly po-faced or serious about it, then forgive me — but it’s important. It’s our greatest art form and our greatest gift to one another. It tells us about how it feels to be human. It tells us who we are, and is the source of both comfort and insight. And shit, it might just save us every so often, too.