This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.
The title of this post is a direct reference to a song entitled, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”. It was released by the alternative-rock band Primitive Radio Gods when I was twenty years old, at just about the height of my appreciation and love of popular music. I immediately latched onto the song. It has a haunting melody, a hypnotic rhythm section, seamless samples, and lyrics like this:
Am I alive or thoughts that drift away?
Does summer come for everyone?
Can humans do as prophets say?
And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake
But half asleep?
Heady stuff for a college student with deep thoughts and identity issues. A few years later, when my future wife and I started dating, she remembered this song, and she told me that it reminded her of me. (Funny thing is…a big part of why it reminded her of me was because she misheard some of the lyrics. The chorus consists of a sample from B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get”: I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met. She misheard this as: I’ve been downhearted baby; I resisted it. She told me that that misunderstanding was a big part of why she thought of me. That’s kind of touching, actually. But anyway…)
I bring this up is because there were always songs like this for me, songs that spoke deeply to my soul, songs that felt like they were written for my soul to sing, songs that stirred my soul to sing in tune whenever I heard them. “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla. “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel. “Learning to Fly” by Pink Floyd. “One” by U2. “Come Undone” by Duran Duran. “Somebody” by Depeche Mode. “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, and then by Johnny Cash. Roughly 15% of everything Barenaked Ladies ever recorded. Just to list a few. I bought the CDs with these songs. And I listened to them. Over and over and over and over. I collected these songs together, and made mix tapes for myself. Sometimes these mixes were called “Myke’s Mood Music.” Every year or two I would update this “MMM” with a few new songs I’d discovered. Slowly, over time, these mixes became a mirror to my soul, and I put my ear to that mirror over and over and over and over. In the car, singing along at the top of my lungs. While walking, alone in my own headphone-centered world. (I always carried extra batteries with me whenever I walked…I would not be caught without my music.)
And I distinctly remember listening to MMM while standing out on the porch of Bernheim House, the college-owned house I lived in for three years. I remember standing there, with my Walkman in my hand, the tape turning slowly as my brain waves synchronized with it. The words and music entering my ears, and finding a home in my soul. The echo chamber of my mind resounding with the same rhythm from outside. It felt good. It felt right. It felt numb. It felt miserable. It felt like me. I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.
I remember standing out there on the porch, Walkman in hand. My friends knew to just leave me alone. When I had that Walkman out, there was no talking to me. I wasn’t available.
I was running over the same old ground; what have I found? The same old fears.
I stood there scared; I stood there strange; I stood there wondering if anything in my life was ever gonna change.
I’d close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment was gone. All my dreams passed before my eyes, a curiosity.
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earthbound misfit, I.
The thing about depression is that it can sometimes be like a blanket. A blanket that covers you and keeps you warm and protected. It can be cozy in there. Sometimes it’s not just that you can’t pull your way out (which you can’t), but sometimes you just don’t want to. The melancholy is soothing. Calming. Hypnotic. Addictive.
So…where are my headphones anyway?