Two faces have I – Bruce Springsteen and depression

I’ve been meaning to write something for a while now. Well, if a while means two weeks. I have had a busy summer both at work and in my personal life, and haven’t found the inspiration nor motivation needed for a blog post. So much has happened and also too little in the way of change. I couldn’t find the words or context for how I have been feeling. And then the lightning bolt struck me as I walked home from the railway station just an hour ago. I was listening to my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, ‘Tunnel of Love’, and ideas began to take shape.

It is perhaps a sad fact that ‘Tunnel Of Love’ should be my favourite Bruce album. At 25 (almost 26, yikes) I have lived barely a third of my life (hopefully). An album so full of adult problems surely shouldn’t speak so deeply to me in these young, formative years. But it does and I won’t deny it. I have suffered for many years from depression and a perpetual inclination to mental breakdown. This album speaks to the half of my brain that betrays me to these inclinations. It has been at many times my only confidante and my only way of articulating those thoughts I myself can’t make sense of nor make sense to others. Maybe I should have directed my loved ones to this album sooner and we could have saved ourselves a lot of bother. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

‘Tunnel Of Love’, coincidentally, was released in 1987, less than two weeks after I was born. I’d like to think Bruce knew that some day in the future a young white female from northern England would need this record more than any other. It’s a bit of a stretch but I like that thought. Bruce himself was going through a time of personal upheaval. His marriage to his first wife was deteriorating, and it has been suggested that his relationship with his bandmate (and his future wife and mother of his children) had already begun. Hm, so how does a twentysomething English girl find solace in an album about a broken marriage?

I never believed this idea that you necessarily had to experience something fully to appreciate the impact it has on your life. Truth be told however, I don’t think depression’s tortuous effects can ever be comprehended unless you suffer yourself. Music, on the other hand, gives us the ability to relate and express our own emotions and experiences through the artistic abilities of someone else. Who better then than Bruce, the greatest storyteller and lyricist of the last 40 years? Yes, I am biased. For me, this collection of 12 songs has been a comfort in times of great distress and loneliness. Songs about loss, bitterness, self-loathing, the pain of relationships, in all their forms, ending – these things have no restrictions. We will all experience one or more of these situations at some point in our lives. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been through the breakdown of a marriage myself. Loss touches everyone.

Bruce opens the album with the catchy ‘Ain’t Got You’, in which he lists all the amazing things he now has, including “diamonds and gold” and “houses across the country”. Alas, the one thing he does not have is his love. When I first heard this song, I thought it kind of comedic. It has an upbeat bluesy melody and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a happy song. But really it’s about all the happiness and love that material wealth simply cannot buy. Sure, I’ve never been rich. I do okay. But for the longest time I focused my time too much on what I didn’t have rather than what I did. I have wanted the boyfriend, the well-paid job, the skinny body, the looks of Angelina Jolie. What I wasn’t appreciating was the incredible people and experiences I already had in my life, from my loving family and friends, to my decent job, and the roof over my head. I live in London, for fuck’s sake. This was my dream. It is my dream. But depression will do that to you. Nothing is ever enough. You’re always looking over your shoulder with a sense of inadequacy. She doesn’t like me as much as her. He won’t think I’m attractive. Why am I the way I am? Why am I fat? Why why why? It’s an endless list. This song made me start to look inward.

Inward is not a pretty sight, but I doubt it is for most people. We are a selfish, arrogant species capable of both extraordinary kindness and unbelievable cruelty. I have dished out both of these myself. I have also been on the receiving end. I have pushed myself to the limits of self-flagellation for my actions and words and I have reaped what I sewed. If you keep pushing something away, eventually it’ll just get up and leave. Who can blame it? But at times when I have felt my weakest and seen no end in sight to my own torment, ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ has lifted me from those doldrums. It might be a song about an average Joe asking for a chance with the object of his affections, but for me it speaks of second chances and the bravery of those willing to reach out. After all, for so many of us, “the road is dark”. Just having one other person there to walk it with you can make a world of difference.

The flip side of this of course is the crippling loneliness and self-hatred one can feel during the times when no one is walking that dark road with you. Both of these have been at the centre of my depression. I remember the first time I heard ‘Two Faces’. It was in 2008, just as I was familiarising myself with Bruce’s back catalogue. I was going through a rough time at university, but this song spoke volumes to me. It helped me make sense of my own mind and the Jekyll and Hyde sides that I have wrestled with. For in my heart and mind, there is always the potential for both happiness and despair. It’s a fine balance I have still not managed to attain, but hearing Bruce speak of his own “two faces” gave me comfort. You, Cat, are not alone. We all have two sides. This song is still difficult for me to listen to. It is too close to the bone. Promising you’d make your friend or partner or relative “happy every day” and then you “made her cry” – yes, I can relate. You can never really promise these things. I wake up some days “sunny and wild”, but before too long my own “dark clouds come rolling by” and I want to pull the duvet over my head. You never feel quite whole, and I think this was Bruce’s point all along. These two faces create an incomplete duality. Perhaps only the love of another – or several others – can help breach the gap.

But what can we do when we lose people in our lives, people we love, because of our own behaviour? I have often listened to ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and questioned my own disguise. We all put on a brave face, but I let this get to the point of no longer knowing who I really was. And I forgot who a lot of my friends were too, friends with their own stories, their own burdens, and their own needs. Needs I should have helped them with. It’s part of the responsibility of being a friend and I will admit I have let many of mine down. Bruce sings of “struggling to do everything right” and things “falling apart, when out go the lights”. These words help me come to terms with my own failings. The truth is, we can make all the commitments and promises we like, something which Bruce touches on in both ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘One Step Up’. But I, like many others, have often succumbed to the pull of my own demons and flaws.

‘One Step Up’ is, in my opinion, the saddest song on the whole album. There is a futility throughout the song that seeps in the moment that sad soft drum beat and acoustic guitar begin. From the stuttering car, to the silenced bird, and the lonely figure of a desperate man on a bar stool – all is despair, failure and melancholy. I have weeks, sometimes months, of good times until something happens – a word, a misunderstood look – and it crumbles. Inevitably, I’m “caught moving / one step up and two steps back”. Never in any other song has a lyric spoken so clearly to me and my own life experiences. Bruce sings of “another fight in our dirty little war” and the challenges that come with deep loving relationships and friendships where no one person will concede blame or compromise. Yes, I can relate. These themes continue throughout ‘When You’re Alone’, ‘Cautious Man’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’.

So, are there any happy songs? Not really. The three most upbeat songs on the entire album could fool you into thinking they deal with happy times, but don’t make that mistake. ‘Spare Parts’ is one of my favourite songs on the whole album. It’s a real foot stomping rocker, and I resent Bruce for not playing it live more often. The story it tells is of a pregnant woman who has been abandoned by her lowlife boyfriend. She has her baby, the boyfriend swears he “wasn’t ever going back” and she considers her life as one big mistake.  Happy?  Not so much.  Similarly, ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a great song, but darkness lurks over its seemingly-jovial description of a couple enjoying an amusement park ride. We smile and enjoy the ride, but really all we’re left with at the end is the lies we tell each other and “all that stuff we’re so scared of”. That, I suppose, is the risk we take with any relationship.

And as for ‘Walk Like A Man’, it’s a song about a fragile father-son relationship that has finally grown to a place where both parties feel a sense of peace and tolerance. Bruce himself had a strained relationship with his own dad. I can’t relate on a father-son note, but I did have a tempestuous relationship with my mother, especially during my mid to late teens when my depression was first manifesting. If I couldn’t explain my anger and pain to myself, how could I ever explain it to her? Thankfully we have passed that point. And yet my pain will always remain her pain, whether I’m 18, 25, or 50. During all my slip ups and progressions, she has been a rock for me, even when I was giving her shit every day. For that I will be forever grateful. It’s the kind of debt you can never truly repay.

I suppose this is where the post ends and I’m glad to end it on one of the more optimistic songs on the album. I’ve gone through all the songs on this masterful record, touching on some more than others purely because I relate to some more than others. Currently I’m at somewhat of a setback in my own personal life and this album has given me both comfort and perspective. I have had the most amazing support network throughout my battle with depression and continue to do so. This record is not a substitute for that, but merely an additional crutch. Many people have stayed a part of my life even when they probably felt they shouldn’t, and many I have pushed away, but I don’t blame or resent the latter. It’s never easy being close to someone like me, but I live in hope that they will find peace with me and perhaps even understanding. As Bruce says, “I didn’t think there’d be so many steps I’d have to learn on my own”, but that itself is part of growing, changing and healing. Spare parts and broken hearts – they keep the world turning.

Catherine

2nd September 2013

6:30pm

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19/365 – ‘Our Day Will Come’, Amy Winehouse (2011) – 365 Days of Music

An ex bought me this CD.  Well, I say “ex”.  We’d actually only dated for a couple of months but it felt like it was going somewhere, until it wasn’t.  I ended it with him a few weeks after he gave me Amy Winehouse’s posthumous ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ album as a Christmas present.  I guess our day was never coming.  I saw him again last year just after he’d completed the London Marathon.  He seemed happy & I hope that’s still true nearly a year on.

4/365 – ‘U.N.I.’, Ed Sheeran (2011) – 365 Days of Music

There’s very little I can say about this song and what it means to me.  The person who comes to mind when I hear this song could possibly see this (but probably won’t).  Needless to say, listening to this song is not easy for me and it’s one I usually skip.  It’s about young love, lost love, decisions you regret but couldn’t have changed anyway, the lies we tell ourselves about the people we have to let go, and ultimately moving on and being happy for them.

Of love and loss

I have to write this and I have needed to write it for a long time now. Mum is on holiday at the moment and I’m missing her voice, her presence (even though I live in London now), so I thought there was no better time than the present to write this. I’m doing this for me, for her, and also because sometimes I feel very isolated with my depression – I think the story of my Dad, if people knew, would make others understand a little better how things in your early years have repercussions far beyond the immediate.

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I was eight years old when the heart and soul of my family was ripped right out. My path in life altered in an instant. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. When you’re eight, you don’t imagine the future in the same way you do when you’re a bit older. You think about school, about play, about toys, about your mates, about tea. There were many things I didn’t know back then that I know now. For a start, my dad wasn’t the only heart or soul in my family. When he passed, I thought him irreplaceable. Yet over time, many people have filled that gap in small, big, medium sized chunks. This is a blog post about one of them. 

I can’t quite believe it’s been sixteen years since he was taken. I say “taken”, as if someone slipped into our home out of sight and just led him away. It didn’t quite happen like that. It was one moment; his heart just gave out. He was there in the morning, and gone come the afternoon. In a matter of hours, my life was divided: pre-Dad and post-Dad. I sit here writing this and if I’m quiet and still, I can hear the thud of my own heartbeat; a beat which is half his. Most people take it for granted that that little muscle will just keep pumping away until they’re seventy, eighty years old… for most of us, seventy and eighty are ‘good innings’. Dad got to forty-six. People talk of eighteen as young. To me, forty-six is young. For all my moaning about turning twenty-five next month, I am really just as much an infant as I was the day I was born. 

I’m not sure if we did something wrong in a past life. I believe in God – and people tell me God works in mysterious ways. At times this can be a comfort. At other times, I want to bludgeon these people to death with their own Bibles. I don’t know why he had to die – if he did have to die. Much less, I don’t know why it had to be our family. Why any family really? At forty-six, you should be looking forward to the future. Seeing your two kids grow up. Working hard, knowing you’re over the halfway point to a glorious retirement. We always think there is more to come, but for my Dad there wasn’t. 

To many of you, March 5th is just any other day. For my family, not so much. I imagine my Mum screaming in white hospital corridors. I can see her body sinking down the wall. I can see her crying on my elderly neighbour in the dining room as I open the door. I can see my Aunt pull me away and sit me on the stairs. I can still hear myself ask her where my Dad is, because I’d seen him come home from work that morning, complaining he didn’t feel well. I can see my brother throw his bedclothes across the room. I can see my Aunt standing at the bedroom door to stop us bolting out to God-knows-where. I can still feel the silence and the stillness as my whole world stopped turning. 

We buried him the following Wednesday, March 13th. I remember kissing his cold forehead on that Wednesday morning and crying my eyes out in the funeral home. I knew in my little girl’s heart that this was the last time I’d see my Daddy. Even in death, I’d got used to visiting his body every night. It was comforting to me, to be able to see him and talk to him, even though I know his soul and his essence had already gone. My brother never did see him properly in the funeral home – I wonder if he regrets it. My memories of that day are as happy as they are sad. Happy because there were times of laughter that day and it felt like hearing laughter for the first time. Sad because nothing would – could – ever be the same. Mum, my brother and me faced a very uncertain future, one without the one man who we could rely on for safety and security. The provider, the protector, our adored and beloved David. And now I’m crying. I did almost five paragraphs before a tear fell, which I consider good going. It’s still so raw – if you consider forty-six young, then sixteen years is nothing at all. 

I don’t think I’ve ever said goodbye to my Dad. I feel I should have done by now. Then again, I don’t believe we ever truly say goodbye. He is half of me, and as long as I am alive, part of him lives. But I am seeking closure; I am now in my mid-20s and the inability to make sense of what happened sixteen years ago is still holding me back. I find it hard to trust men. I find it hard to maintain friendships without an element of paranoia and fear of loss. Jealousy inevitably creeps in as I cling to those I love. It’s not easy, but I am taking direction from my best friend, my Mum. If there can be a hero in this sad story, it is her. 

My Mum is tough as old boots. She lost her own father in October, 1995. Dad died the following March. Her mother-in-law died of a broken heart just 2 years later, and mum’s mum passed a year after that. She has also recently lost her niece and god-daughter, also my cousin (2004). Her eldest brother lost his battle with cancer in September 2010. She has suffered from Crohn’s disease, an incurable bowel disorder, for the most part of her life. She has had depression. She has had blood pressure problems. She defeated pneumonia just last year. Mum is not a quitter; she does not give up; every challenge she has faced in her life she has met with great strength and heart. She raised two kids through the single toughest time of her life. Mum could’ve hit rock bottom and stayed there. But for me, for my brother, for herself – she bounced back. 

And that’s why this blog post isn’t really about me or my Dad. It’s therapy for me, but really it’s a open letter to Mum. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this at all. At fourteen, I was a total cow, which had as much to do with my Dad’s absence as it did with hormones. I resented her in many ways; resented her for pushing me to do well at school, resented her for trying to help me (I didn’t need no help, thanks!), resented her for being so stunningly pretty (my own insecurity), resented her advice on clothes and make up, resented her for not being my Dad. I have said terrible things to her. Screamed in her face. Trashed my room. Thrown things at the wall. Ran out the house, leaving her to wonder if I was coming back. I regret it all, and I have said sorry multiple times. The guilt will stick with me for the rest of my life I suspect. But that was an angrier time, and thankfully those times are history, thanks in no small part to Mum herself. She never gave up on me either.

Most parents would have kicked me to the kerb, but she only held me closer and loved me harder. She was no softy – she gave tough love and told me the home truths, and she still does to this day. The greatest thing she ever did other than never give up on me was to help me confront the feelings I had towards my Dad and his death. She recognises that my grief has been holding me back for many years. But not just grief – anger too. Anger not towards her anymore, but anger towards my Dad for leaving me and my family. Anger for not fighting harder in that hospital. Anger for not being here when we were all falling apart. Anger for not being present at some of the most important moments of my life. Anger that he won’t be there when I get married and have children. And I am confronting it now as I type these words.

Mum – you may never read this. I have decided to publish this to my friends, but you’re not on the internet and you probably never will be, knowing the technophobe you are. Maybe I will let you read it, I don’t know. Right now you’re sunning yourself in Italy and I hope you have a glass of wine in your hand and are enjoying every moment of your very-deserved holiday. This is my mum’s first holiday abroad since 2009. After the ups and downs of the last 3 years, no one is owed a holiday more than her.

 I’ll finish this here with this final message to Mum. I have not been an easy daughter to raise, but never doubt for one second that you haven’t done a stellar job with your kids. You did the best you could do with the shit hand you were dealt. I promise to you that I will always make you proud – I will overcome my demons (2 weeks, no cigarettes!). I will appreciate every good thing, big or small, that happens in my life. I will give thanks every day that you are in my life and that I had the most loving, caring family any girl could ask for. I will give thanks that I had my Dad even just for eight years – it was worth every moment. And I want you to know that more than anything, I am proud of you. Most people would not get through what you have got through. The word “hero” is used too frequently these days. People like my Mum never get any recognition – they have no statues in their honour, they haven’t fought wars in distant countries, they haven’t won gold medals. But Mum, you are my hero. And I will continue to make you proud of me, starting right here in London, right now. I’ll fail and falter sometimes, like I already have in this past year, but I know you will always have my back, and I’ll always have yours. I love you.

 

Catherine

Saturday 1st September, 2012