I want to commemorate Jason Molina, who after years of struggling with alcoholism and illness died last week (March 16th, 2013) from what was described as “organ failure owing to alcohol consumption”. He was 39.
As a singer-songwriter he was unique and hard to classify because he did not fit into stereotypes: was his music a kind of folk? blues? country? rock? Whatever it was, and sometimes it was a mix of all of them, his songs were always personal. Listening to him was like listening to a friend.
He left us no less than 18 albums: his Songs: Ohia series, his Magnolia Electric Co ones, and three under his own name.
I am sure he will not be forgotten. The best way to commemorate him now, I suppose, is to take a moment to listen to him.
From his 2006 album Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go:
ALONE WITH THE OWL
alone with the owls howling pain, pain, pain
alone with the owls howling pain
alone with the owls howling pain, pain, pain
you don’t have to live this way
while I lived was I a stray black dog
while I lived was I a stray black dog
while I lived was I anything at all
did I have to live this way
I stood beside the ocean not a single wave
beside the ocean not a single wave
beside the ocean not a single wave
not a single thing left to say
with the owl howling pain, pain, pain
with the ocean howling the same
my life howling the same
did I have to live this way
Click the green “Play” button – if it’s missing, install Flash.
For a full StayOnTop playlist, go to the Music page.
This post will not cheer you up. I’m sorry for that. But I felt I had to write it today.
26 years ago, March 4th 1986, Richard Manuel hung himself in his Florida hotel room. He was 42. As a pianist, singer and drummer, he contributed several great songs to the repertoire of Bob Dylan’s group The Band. This date is a fitting occasion to commemorate him. And to reflect briefly on the role of shame.
Manuel’s suicide was probably not the result of a sudden impulse. It appears to have been premeditated. The day before, he had thanked a fellow member of The Band for “twenty-five years of incredible music”. His death had to do with three factors that sadly are not uncommon when it comes to suicidal depression: alcoholism, disillusion, and loss.
Having grown up as a very shy boy, Manuel had started early in his life to use liquor as a means to overcome his shyness and social ineptitude. He soon became a chronic, addicted drinker and remained so for the rest of his life. During his years with The Band, he frequently was very drunk.
I suppose I don’t need to remind you that shyness usually is a form of fear that has to do with shame, rooted in a lack of confidence and self-respect. More about that in a minute.
At the time of his death, Manuel was disillusioned. Disappointed in himself. The Band, although still touring, had lost much of its former creativity and vigor. They had become a shadow of their former selves, just routinely cashing in on their old successes. And they knew it. Apart from that, Manuel was also facing loss. Two months before, his manager – who was so close to him as to be a kind of father figure – had suddenly died. Likely, this added to a mood of depression and desperation.
I’m not going to rehash Manuel’s musical legacy here; there are many music websites that offer a retrospective in much better and more complete ways than I would be able to do. Just Google him, and you’ll find lots of information and samples of his work. For a webpage example, see here.
UPDATE: it looks like the audio and video samples have been removed from the site I mentioned. So for a simple list of many Youtube music videos featuring Manuel, try this link.
Because this is a depression blog, there is one thing I want to highlight here. In my view, Richard Manuel’s death was a striking illustration of the often fatal relation between shyness and shame on the one hand, and suicidal depression on the other hand.
Although he seems to have premeditated killing himself, trying at least to say goodbye to one of his friends, he never discussed his intention directly with anyone. Certainly not with his wife, who was accompanying him on the band’s tour. She told afterwards how they had fallen asleep that night in each other’s arms; when she got up the next morning, she found him hanging.
Of course I don’t know what exactly was in his mind. But I do know, and I strongly suspect this also happened here, that shame can be a strong factor in keeping one’s suicidal intentions secret. In theory, we all know that being depressed is not something to be ashamed for. In reality, it still happens very often that people just do not dare to discuss the true scope and seriousness of their depression with anyone – not even the person closest to them. It is depression itself that generates and fuels such shame. For depression can not only lead to self-isolation: it also implies self-deprecation, and often self-stigmatization too.
As a result, you can feel ashamed for your own depressed and suicidal thoughts: you just don’t dare to be really open about your desperate feelings. Instead, you hide them. Even from your loved ones. Maybe especially from your loved ones, because you feel ashamed for being so depressed while knowing they love you.
All this shame has two consequences. In the first place, you bypass any opportunity to get some understanding, help and support from those people who might be best suited to actually help you. Secondly, this will add to your feelings of loneliness and isolation and thus, it will make your depression even worse than it already was.
After a suicide, family and friends often ask: “But why didn’t he talk about it with us?” In two suicide cases where I was left with that question myself, maybe a simple one-word answer would have done. Shame.
Should you want to draw a lesson here, please do.
I would have liked to say that if Richard Manuel had dared to talk more openly with others about his feelings, he might have been still alive as an old man today. But in his case, I suppose we cannot even say such a thing. Probably, he would have succumbed anyway to cirrhosis or some other consequence of his alcoholism. I still wonder if he kept drinking so much to forget his shame, or if he felt even more shame because he kept drinking. Both, I guess.
One of the songs he wrote together with Bob Dylan is Tears of Rage. Manuel composed the music, Dylan wrote the lyrics. Including the lines
Come to me now,
You know we’re so low,
And life is brief.
• tip: When you are seriously depressed, using alcohol can be really dangerous: even if you’re not an alcoholist. This has more to do with direct mood effects than with long-term addiction.
For more about this, see my post Genie in a Bottle.
You probably didn’t miss the news that last Saturday, singer Whitney Houston was found dead in her Los Angeles hotel suite. Autopsy results will take several weeks, but as the first details trickle in, it seems ever more likely that Xanax, a medication in the benzodiazepine class, may have played a role in her death.
I’ve written already a lot about medication lately. Actually I had intended to return to other, more varied topics and experiences now: for this is supposed to be a depression blog in a wider sense, not a one-sided medication blog. But what appears to have happened here, is just too important to pass by.
According to several news sources such as this page at FoxNews, Whitney Houston may have died in her bathtub as a consequence (either directly or indirectly, by drowning) of using Xanax in combination with alcohol. This is a dangerous combination that among other things can cause extreme drowsiness. Her family confirmed she was using it; bottles were found in her room.
Benzodiazepines such as Xanax are often used in cases of depression too, because they have a calming effect, reducing panic, anxiety, sleeping problems etcetera. In the past I’ve been using the same kind of medication myself for a while. On prescription by my psychiatrist I had Lorazepam, a similar one in this same benzodiazepine class. For myself, I soon found out that the numbing effects caused me more trouble than relief. After about a year, I decided to never touch the stuff again. But I do know there are also people who got more positive results with this kind of medication.
Every psychiatrist, when prescribing something like this, will expressly and emphatically warn you for the very well-known risks of combining these benzodiazepines with alcohol. Still, that risk is your risk and avoiding it is of course also your responsibility. Even more so when you are unwise enough to start using these pills without adequate medical supervision. Some people take them without a really urgent need, or even just for a pleasant effect.
In the US, such overuse and misuse of benzodiazepines is a big problem. Due to their widespread availability, they are “recreationally” the most frequently used pharmaceuticals. A 2006 large-scale nationwide government study by SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) found that 28% of all drug-related visits to hospital emergency and urgent care facilities involved the improper use of pharmaceuticals, and an additional 10% involved the use of pharmaceuticals with alcohol. Among these many urgent cases, between 2004-2006 those involving benzodiazepines had increased with 36%.
I can only repeat what I’ve said here several times before. Medication – any kind of medication in the context of depression – should be taken only as a means of last resort, when there are no therapeutic alternatives left. And it should never be taken without proper authorization and supervision by a medical professional.
As for the combination with alcohol, I must admit that in everyday reality, while I was still using antidepressants, I sometimes allowed myself a glass of beer – one a day. But there, I drew the line. Even that one glass did not always work out very well in that situation. Maybe this is one of the accidental reasons why I happen to be still around today.
This unexpected death leaves many of us with a feeling of sadness and loss. Even more so because this is a tragedy that might well have been prevented. I suppose the best tribute to Whitney Houston now is her own great voice.
• tip: Psychoactive medication can be risky in so many ways – you don’t need a bathtub to get into the danger zone. You should always ask yourself: what is more dangerous to me, my depression or the antidepressants I’m tempted to use? Use those pills only when there is no therapeutic alternative left. As for combining this kind of medication with alcohol, draw your own conclusion.
• update: For a very detailed discussion of the possible role of Xanax in this case, see this Huffington Post article by the well-known “anti-pill” psychiatrist Peter Breggin: Xanax Facts and Whitney Houston.
You know the old Arabic Genie in a Bottle story: a fisherman finds a washed-up bottle on the beach, opens it, and out pops a huge cloud-like genie (a djinn). The genie tells the fisherman that it’s so angry after having been locked up in the bottle for two thousand years, it will now kill the fisherman in revenge.
The fisherman, pretending he cannot believe that such a big genie came out of such a small bottle, tricks it into demonstrating that it really fits inside. As soon as the genie is back in the bottle, the fisherman quickly seals the bottle again and throws it away.
In my story today, the genie’s name is Alcohol. But this is not about alcoholism: the story of addictive and excessive drinking is a different thing altogether. Luckily, that is not my own kind of problem. And I really have nothing against social drinking, or sometimes a nightcap. If you need to know, for the first purpose I prefer Dutch beer or a white, dry Chardonnay (red wine gives me headaches) and for the nightcap, get me a real Scotch whiskey please (though unfortunately, the best Malt varieties are a little too expensive for me).
What I want to talk about here, is just the emotional effect of a drink – an effect that often is little more than a nuisance, or not even that, but that can become a danger when you are in a depressed state.
Of course I know that the effects of alcohol can vary greatly for different people: so perhaps this particular story (based on my own experiences) does not apply or appeal to you.
Many of us will at times have taken a drink just to cheer up a little. And sometimes, this will work. I think this works primarily not because alcohol cheers us up anyway, but more because it can sideline unpleasant thoughts. At moments when our thinking is something like a negative treadmill, the effect of a drink can pull such thinking out of the treadmill and send our thoughts happily wandering in other, random directions. Sometimes this is just what we need – but of course there is always a catch.
For our emotions are another matter. They are a deeper layer underneath our thoughts, and the effect of alcohol on emotions appears to be different.
My impression is that alcohol will not change, but rather intensify any emotions and feelings that happened to be already present. Like when you are angry and take a few drinks, chances are you will begin to feel even more angry and start quarreling with everyone. Or when you feel sad, after some drinks you will feel even more sad and begin sentimentally crying. Or when you feel merry, now you will start to giggle and laugh about everything. And so on: imagine any possible type of emotion and then imagine the effect of a few drinks. Your feelings get both more intense, and easier to act out.
This intensifying of emotions can (as I already said) sometimes be a nuisance, or just hilarious. But at a time when you are deeply depressed, this same effect can be outright dangerous: for it can intensify your depression too. And once it does, it can send you spiraling further and further downwards. If in that situation you keep trying to cheer up yourself a little by taking yet another glass, you may end up at the bottom of your depression. Overwhelmed and knocked out not by the drinks themselves, but by your own intensified feelings of sheer desperation, hopelessness and indifference.
Perhaps you can recognize a little bit of that mood in the famous 1876 Degas painting L’Absinthe* I want to show you below. It pictures a woman and a man in a café who have just shared a bottle of absinthe (a strong French liquor). The man may have had too much, but at least he’s defiantly looking at something. But note the expression of the woman. She’s not looking at anything anymore: it appears like the drinks have locked her in a hopeless, indifferent depression pit. Staring into the void, she doesn’t even seem interested in taking her last drink anymore.
Edgar Degas (better known for his happy, elegant paintings of dancing girls) made a stir with this painting. To his Victorian contemporaries, it projected such a desolate we-don’t-care-a-shit-anymore alcoholic sordidness that they found it brutally shocking. Prominent art experts condemned it as disgusting, even immoral. One critic in furious indignation called the woman “a whore”, and the painting “a lesson”. It was barred from expositions, and only thirty years later people began to recognize it as a work of art.
I am no art expert, but in my opinion Degas was brilliant here in picturing a case of alcohol-induced depression mood. I also think the empty seat at the left is a nice touch: like that’s where he was sitting and drinking himself, before he got up and pulled out his iPhone. In 1876…
Right. My summary now. When you are depressed and start taking a few drinks, the genie that will pop out of the bottle may likely be your own depression. Amplified.
Oh, did you notice how I pulled off this entire post without using the word “drunk”? That was intentional: for drunkenness was not what this was about.
• tip: At all times when you feel very depressed, stay away from alcohol. At such moments, a drink is more likely to push you down than to cheer you up. And if you use antidepressants, remember that medication can double the effect of a drink.
* footnote. Many people have been fascinated by this painting, and we seem to know almost everything about it. The pair at the table are Ellen Andrée (an actress) and Marcellin Desboutin (a minor painter). The exact location is known, too: Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, at the Place Pigalle in Paris.
Under different names, this same café existed until 2004 – so as a tourist in Paris, theoretically I may have sat right there myself. Actually I did, of course: I mean not in the same place, but in that same mood.
Author: Henk van Setten
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Today In History:
May 22, 1859 –
Birth date of Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish physician and writer who in his popular stories (from 1887 to 1927) created the best known detective ever: the sharply observing and deducing Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle profiled Sherlock Holmes as an obvious bipolar character, with both manic-active and depressed-lethargic episodes. In the stories, Holmes keeps trying to overcome his periodic depressions by playing the violin (sometimes), smoking (frequently) and using cocaine (as a real addict).
Portrayed in this way, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes probably was the first popular fiction character suffering from frequent depressions.