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Observations: Soothing the saddened beast

Published on: June 17, 2015


This old but new-to-me guitar is not a showpiece, it’s a player. But while I work to save it, I have a feeling it will be saving me as well. Mitch Traphagen photos.

This old but new-to-me guitar is not a showpiece, it’s a player. But while I work to save it, I have a feeling it will be saving me as well. Mitch Traphagen photos.

I’ve been down this road before and I know it does not end at a good place. It’s such a bad place, in fact, that for the past nine years I’ve had to work to avoid it. There are times where I could see it in my mind’s eye — a dark swirling void on the horizon — and was able to step away, to stay away.

The past year hasn’t been a good one. I lost my Mom and then had a heart “procedure” (also known as surgery). After a few days of recovery, I flew up to Minnesota for the funeral of a good friend’s father.

The past month has in many ways been worse. Too much loss, too many flights. Too tired from it all. Being tired is, in many ways, the key. That opens the on-ramp to the road that leads to bad things, commonly known as clinical depression. And suddenly everything looks darker; the future appears bleak. It is hot as hell outside, the light during the day takes on a humidity-filled grayness, and that somehow manages to fill my soul with a damp grayness.

And then suddenly I realized that my foot was caught in the dark swirling void that I’ve spent nine years recognizing and avoiding.

In a comfortable townhouse in suburban Minneapolis, a group of us sat down to plan out my friend’s then-upcoming end-of-life ceremony. With my friend’s mom were two members of my old rock band — the three of us making up the surviving members since the death of Jon a few weeks earlier. It has been at least 30 years since we’d last performed together. My friend’s Mom asked if we could play a few songs at his ceremony. I shook my head with an absolute no, when both Dave, the drummer, and Mark, the other guitarist, immediately said, “Yes!”

I had lost touch with music for nearly a quarter of a century. And then in 2011, Jon decided to change that. He sent up bits and pieces of equipment and supplied an endless stream of encouragement via texts and emails.

And then I stopped playing again. I had four guitars; all sat collecting dust, unused.

During the times I was in Minnesota to visit my Mom a year or two ago, Jon would drive down and we’d jam to some of our old songs silently through headphones in our motel rooms.

The act of making music helped tremendously. Perhaps it was the focus required to do so that took my mind off of my momentary struggles; perhaps it was that I was using parts of my brain that were as unused and dusty as my guitars had been. I noticed immediately that it helped.

But then I stopped playing yet again. Life and deadlines and the sheer act of trying to come up with new stories (and fixing computers and a million other miscellaneous tasks) every week simply got in the way. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself.

But suddenly, with Dave and Mark having signed us up, I’d be forced to play again. I went to a Guitar Center in Minneapolis and picked up a relatively cheap 12-string electric that looked a bit like a bass guitar that Jon used to play. We all met in Jon’s Mom’s basement the night before the ceremony and tried to come up with a few songs that we could remember after 30 years. It wasn’t pretty.

But the next day, during the ceremony, we somehow pulled it off. I honestly don’t know if it sounded good — I’d expect not — but we made music. A bass guitar identical to Jon’s sat center-stage with microphone on a stand, unused but in his memory. My heart was filled looking over at the familiar sight of my friends rocking along with me. There was something magical about it.

A week after arriving back home in Apollo Beach, things started to sink in. Since I was no longer running from here to there or hopping on flights, time and stillness worked together to reveal to me that I was on that road leading to bad things.

With Michelle’s encouragement, we drove down to a guitar store and bought another guitar, an inexpensive six-string acoustic. The next day I found yet another cheap, used guitar, this one in need of some serious love and attention — but in its day it certainly wasn’t a cheap guitar. It’s a model the rock band The Eagles would use in concert. The last thing I truly needed was yet another guitar but somehow I knew I needed this one.

Although its glory days seemed to be long past, it still had potential. Perhaps that guitar could bring me back from the brink as I try to bring it back to the condition it deserves.

I’ve long been an electric guitar guy, but now with two new-to-me acoustic guitars, my more-than-half-century-old brain is learning new things. You can really whale on an acoustic to get the sound you want — or you can strum gently to make a subtle point. But regardless of strumming or picking the strings, I could feel changes taking place. With the guitar in my hands, I could look around in my mind and see that I was no longer on the bad road; at least, while I was playing it, and sometimes even when not as I tried to construct song intros and solos in my head.

Music Avenue is located just off State Road 674 near Home Depot (and, conveniently) Elite Donut. In addition to instruments and musical accessories, it also offers lessons.

Music Avenue is located just off State Road 674 near Home Depot (and, conveniently) Elite Donut. In addition to instruments and musical accessories, it also offers lessons.

There is evidence to back the idea that playing an instrument can be a highly effective anti-depressant. Music is a salve for the soul, even tortured souls, self-inflicted or not. There are numerous studies dating years and indicating that playing a musical instrument truly does function as an anti-depressant for some people.

For me, the limit of anti-depressant drugs are that they only help to reach a place where you can fix the problems that took you down the bad road to depression in the first place. They don’t — and this is important — actually solve those problems. That is entirely up to you to do — there are no magic drugs or magic words that can do it for you. You and you alone have to find your own way. And prescription drugs can help you to gain the strength to do that.

But for me, this time, there is the guitar. There is a microphone and a rack of equipment that thanks to my now-gone-from-sight friend Jon may now be saving my life, or at least the way of life that I should be living.

For a time, perhaps only 15 minutes or perhaps two hours, while playing, my mind is free and flying to the music that I’m making. There is no swirling black void in sight.

If you even suspect you are suffering from clinical depression, I cannot urge you strongly enough to talk to your doctor. There is help. There is no stigma. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Trust me on this — you deserve happiness. Back in 2006, I needed prescription anti-depressants to help me to reach the point where I could address my own problems.

But this time, it seems the anti-depressants that work for me are made of wood and have strings. And right here in South Hillsborough there is Music Avenue next to the Home Depot (where they also give lessons on a variety of instruments), and there are four Guitar Center stores and two Sam Ash stores in the metro area. Music really can soothe the saddened beast.  And for that, no prescription is required.