By Matt Kersh
Over the last 3 and ½ years, my column here has featured nearly 40 different gifted men and women that spend their life (or at least much of it) dedicated to writing, creating, and playing music that means something. I thought this month, I’d share a little more about what music means in my life personally.
I was born and raised in Texas. From 7 years old, I grew up in the Hill Country, in Boerne to be exact. My father was (and is) an incredibly musical man. Gifted as a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and vocalist. Growing up at home with him necessarily made me deeply-rooted in music. Not just as a listener, but engaging in it from an early age. My dad taught me basic theory and chord families early on, both on the piano and guitar. I quickly began spending time in books on learning (chord) shapes, sharps and flats in various keys, and constructing a meaningful song in terms of melody, lyrics, and dynamics. What a wild thought that the internet didn’t even exist then.
From the beginning, music fascinated me because of what it made me feel. I remember listening often to the “American Graffiti” soundtrack around the age of 10. All 4 discs were chock-full of gems from the 1950’s and 60’s, written long before I was born. In particular, “Last Kiss” grabbed me (which was later known as/changed to the name “Runaway”) recorded by Del Shannon in 1961. If you don’t know the song, it’s about two young kids in love that share their last kiss on one of their first dates. They got into an awful car accident on account of a broken down vehicle in the road which led them to a horrible crash when the young man tried to keep from hitting the other car. Tragically, the young lady dies lying by the side of the road in that boy’s arms.
When you look at that song, especially as I do so now as an adult, there aren’t many relatable songs that are more heartbreaking than “Runaway.” Yet, even as a little boy, I absolutely loved that song. Though I didn’t fully grasp the gravity of the story, I knew it was sad. I knew a kiss was something special, and that sharing the “last” one with someone you loved had to be something that hurt more than I ever had yet.
That song told a story that was authentic and powerful. It wasn’t complicated musically, either in the instrumentation or melody. In fact, it’s quite a simple song. Great music doesn’t have to be elaborate, even though much of the greatest compositions in history are. This one, though, was straightforward and “true.” And when I listened to it, there was an innate sense of the beauty of having loved someone, even when you lost them.
When I began to write my own songs, without making any sort of a conscious decision, I naturally found myself penning tunes that would definitely not be categorized as “happy.” Even though I wouldn’t experience personal heartbreak until a number of years later, I knew that it was a part of life. It doesn’t have to be over someone “breaking your heart” whom you love in a romantic way. In fact, there are those (albeit few) that (miraculously) never experience that. Nevertheless, they inevitably will in some aspect of their life. It could be from losing a pet, losing a parent, sibling, or close friend. But, ultimately, one of the two people that share what I honestly believe is the gift of an eternal love, will be heartbroken on this side of heaven by the end of life on earth.
You may be saying to yourself, “Well, dadgum. If this isn’t the saddest thing I’ve read in a month of Sundays.” Well, that may be the case. The thing is, by and large, we don’t societally understand how to be sad; or at least how to be ok with it. In fact, many of us don’t really even know how to acknowledge it, much less talk about it. And if something is an unavoidable part of life, it seems that being able to acknowledge it, to not hold it in alone, and to seek to learn to be able to live with it is an important part of the human experience.
See, I don’t know how to be ok with being sad. And one of the hardest parts of my personal sadness is that (now, at least) I have virtually everything in my life that I long dreamed of having. I have my health, work that fulfills and challenges me, my sobriety (after many years of battling the disease of alcoholism) through God’s grace, and a wife that is really the perfect match for me and more than I thought I would ever have in a woman.
Even with all of those things, my mind can still (quite often) be a battlefield where I unwittingly find myself stepping on the metaphorical landmines of pain from my past. And there’s a past, to be sure. However, there are times where literally out of nowhere and for no particular reason, I am truly sad. Sometimes, I feel downright downhearted. That’s depression. And it’s something I’ve battled with for a long time. Both due to past traumas and chemical imbalances in my brain. And you know what? Neither of those are because I’m a bad person or have done this to myself. Though, something I often say, when dealing with both my battle with depression and recovery from alcoholism, “It’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility.”
I’m not responsible for it in the sense that I caused it. But I am responsible for it in the sense that it’s mine to acknowledge, accept, and work towards healing. The problem is, most of the time, even though I’ve gotten decent (sometimes) at the acknowledgement part of the equation, I’m mostly unwilling to accept it. I’m talking about core-level acceptance. In fact, much of the time when I deal with my mental health struggles, I’m berating myself. “Life is good, what do you have to be sad about?” Well, the past holds some demons I’ve faced that can still try to haunt me, but there’s also something within the way my neurotransmitters function that just makes me feel despondent sometimes.
Those bouts can sometimes be weeks or even months apart. And they can sometimes only be for a day or two, but there are others that drag on for weeks. This is where it’s key to distinguish between embracing and accepting. The former is a dangerous posture to assume when it comes to facing these struggles, though it’s where I often found myself for a number of years. Depression is a liar. The longer we face it, the more “familiar” it becomes. And things with which we are familiar often become things to which we cling. In this case, embracing one’s mental illness is a slippery slope.
On the other hand, is acceptance. And for whatever reason, this one seems to be much more difficult. When we embrace our pain, it can feel like at least we’re holding onto something we know. It’s the same reason people don’t leave jobs they hate or relationships that are abusive. The familiarity often keeps us stuck. And with the disease of depression, and yes, it’s a disease unequivocally proven by science to be so whether anyone likes it or not, it is literally fighting for its life. It’s fighting to “stay alive” and will do so by any means necessary. BUT, there is hope. While we may not be able to fully “kill” depression/our struggle with mental health issues, we can keep it from killing us.
How did we get here? You may be asking that in terms of your own difficult journey and struggles. Or maybe you’re just wondering how in the world this column you like to read about music took this turn. And I would say the answer to whether you’re the person struggling or the person struggling to understand how to help is that the answer is the same. I believe this is where we are because we must learn to accept and talk about our mental health issues. And we need to learn to be kind, gracious, and loving with ourselves as we struggle. And we all need to seek to offer those things to those around us that are deeply hurting.
Depression is a liar, but it’s also a killer. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 50,000 Americans take their own life annually. There are 1.2 MILLION suicide attempts (and increasing) in the U.S. each year. Many of those are cries of desperation because there remains a climate in our country that stigmatizes something which medicine shows to be a verifiable health condition outside of the control of the one who suffers with it. And how many more lives end simply from giving up any sense of caring for their health and well-being?
So, perhaps you’ve gone through something devastating like (or nearly like) that young man in “Last Kiss” we talked about earlier that repeatedly intrudes into your thoughts and haunts you. Or maybe you just find yourself feeling inexplicably empty here and there, or even regularly. There are also those of us that fit the bill of both these types, that deal with these two forms of depression, being symptoms caused by circumstances and by chemicals in the brain.
Regardless of the form, cause, or demonstration, the crucial element of acceptance is unchanged. Personal acceptance done by the one struggling for themself is paramount. Personal acceptance from the one seeking to learn how to love and understand someone close to them that is struggling is invaluable. My wife does this so well for me. Thank God. And she does so by saying (literally) things like, “I’m sorry, My Love.” “It’s ok, you just have these spells from time to time.” “It will get better.” “There’s no reason to feel guilty about feeling how you are.” “This pain doesn’t define you.” “I love you.”
My hope for you is that you find someone who can give you this kind of grace, unconditional acceptance, the complete absence of judgment, and just being. That someone may be a *therapist, or a pastor, or an old friend. For me, that friend is also often music. There are times I need to listen to music that lets me experience the difficult places within me. And there are times that I’ve learned to sense when doing so would not be good for me; those moments lead me to songs that can help move me to a different emotional plane.
At the end of the day, the key is finding what your prescription is for your own personal healing. In the same way, we all need to seek to discover authentic and tangible ways to express love and support to others in the midst of the storms that come.
Listen for the music. Regardless of the season we’re in, there’s a song inside each of us that can be the guiding light we need. It doesn’t matter if it’s “happy” or “sad;” music is a saving grace. It’s a faithful friend. And beyond the music, don’t give in to the temptation to go life’s road alone. There is always someone that will care and help me and you through absolutely whatever it is that life can bring. An old friend of mine used to say, “Nothing is ever too bad or too good for too long.” Push through the pain and soak up the sun. Your life matters, and take it from someone that came from hell and back more than once, even when things get hard, life can become beautiful again. Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
*In my well-researched opinion and extensive experience, the value (regular and/or ongoing) of therapy with a highly-trained mental health professional cannot be overstated.
You can follow Matt Kersh’s musical meanderings at: