The Songs that Save Our Lives

On using music to endure the worst of our mental illness.

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courtesy of NewMusicalTheatre.com

A few weeks ago, I was catching up on my Instagram stories (I’m really bad about doing the Instagram stories, and checking them, but that’s a whole different adventure) and I came across the Kerrigan-Lowdermilk story that showed their new merch. And when I saw the “Holding On” shirt, my heart nearly stopped.

It may just be the most beautiful t-shirt I’ve ever seen. The reason for that? Well, it goes back a ways.

I first discovered Kait and Brian’s music the summer after I graduated from high school. This story may be mostly apocryphal, as I don’t trust my memory from back then, but I have a vague recollection of cramming into my best friend’s car, getting on Interstate 405 after a night at the beach, when “Freedom” (from what was known at the time as The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown and is now The Mad Ones) blasted through her speakers.

Those of you familiar with this song — and you all should be — will know that this moment is almost too perfect; a bunch of teens crammed into a car on a balmy SoCal summer night, windows down, spirits high, when the perfect road trip anthem comes on. I fell in love with the song as much as I fell in love with that moment. As we didn’t have Shazam at the time, I held on to a snippet of the lyrics, which I googled when I got home. And thus, my enduring love for all things Kerrigan-Lowdermilk began.

I was at the time in my life when I thought things would be taking off. I didn’t yet know that, just a couple months from that night, I would lose the first of my three friends in three years to cancer. I couldn’t foresee the depressive episode that would swallow most of my twenties (“the best years of your life!”) and cost me most of my friendships, including all of the friends in the car with me that night.

But I had the music, and the music saved me.

There were many nights — too many nights — in the years that followed when the only things that kept me going, the only thing that kept me connected to the earth beneath me, were these lyrics from the song “Holding On”:

The Earth keeps turning,
The light keeps shifting,
And I keep holding on.

I would listen to “Holding On” whenever possible. If I was somewhere that I could, I would sing along. And, on those bad nights, I would speak the words to myself.

It was a prayer at a time when I had begun to lose my faith. It was a promise when all of the promises in my life were unravelling. It was something to hold onto when there was nothing else. Even when it was a struggle, even when I kept failing, I had, at least, the music. I had my mantra.

It seems like such a silly; three lines, thirteen words, from a song that most of the world wouldn’t recognize. But those words kept me going through the bad times. They got me to both Kerrigan-Lowdermilk shows in Los Angeles in 2013, where I got to lose my heart in my favorite music and end the night by singing my mantra with a room full of beautiful strangers.

Almost ten years have passed since that summer night in the car. Ten difficult years when I wasn’t sure if I would make it. Now I’m edging out of my twenty-somethings and staring down the barrel of the tick…tick…BOOM! But that’s another show and another story.

Life is better now, even if it’s still not what I wanted. I still haven’t been to New York City, still haven’t planted myself in a Broadway theater, still haven’t made a career in this world that I love. It might sound silly or petty, but watching people who are a decade (or more) younger than you live out their dreams and take advantage of opportunities you never had but always wanted is painful. You feel like the world is ending. You feel like a failure.

But, as hard and hopeless as it has been, I keep holding on. That’s no small thing, and neither is this t-shirt, as silly as it may sound. I get to wear these words that have sustained me — my mantra, Kait’s lyrics — for the world to see. For anyone out there in case you, too, need them:

The Earth keeps turning,
The light keeps shifting,
And I keep holding on.

If you need these words, take them. They are there for you. If there are other words, other lyrics or poems or lines from plays or books, that keep you afloat, cling to them. Do not be afraid. Do not be ashamed.

Our culture largely likes to dismiss art, especially art that doesn’t serve as a means to bring the creators or performers a ton of money. But art is vital. Words are vital. Music is vital. They can keep you alive.

Cling to what you can. Cling to what you love. Keep holding on.

Originally published 10/17/18 on the NewMusicalTheatre Blog

Depression kills, and there is no shame in asking for help. For immediate assistance call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273-TALK or visit their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org. For more information on warning signs, risk factors, and other vital information, visit http://www.bethe1to.com/resources.

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