We were doing 75 on I294 en route to O’Hare when “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” came on the radio. My knuckles were white for clutching the wood grain steering wheel out of disappointment for the person sitting next to me. I never wanted to feel that way, and it was difficult to stay mad at her for very long; that person was my mother. I was dropping her off at the airport so she could catch a flight for a sales meeting in Boston.
“Josh, remember when you and I would sing along to this song?”
“Yes.” I mumbled as I held back my tears.
“I’ve been able to relate to this song since my 20’s. I want you to know that I love you, but I’m sick. I can’t stop what I’m doing, and I don’t know where to begin to stop this…You are the only thing that keeps me going.”
“I love you too…but you’re not killing yourself slowly, you’re killing dad with stress, and you’re breaking my heart. I want you to get help.”
The help was too little too late. I buried my mother three weeks later. She went into cardiac arrest detoxing from prescription painkillers and heroin. She was 56. I was 18.
Dad and I knew about her problem. Hell, I found needles hidden under her mattress. I watched her go into detox and rehab when I was 16. If all this wasn’t tragic enough, my dad was diagnosed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year later.
Our lives completed a 180-degree turn. I went from privileged suburban brat to overworked breadwinner in what seemed to occur overnight. My mother was smart enough to leave a formidable life insurance policy to us, but a series of bad financial decisions, chemotherapy (we didn’t have insurance), and the collapsing housing market left us in financial ruin. I found myself working 60 hours a week at 20 years old while juggling a part-time class load at the local community college.
After multiple rounds of chemotherapy, my father lost his battle with cancer. I was 22 years old. One of the last conversations him and I had was centered on the power of music, and that without it he would not have lasted as long as he did. When my father was in his 20’s he struggled with a decade long heroin addiction. He saw life from the bottom, and knew what it was like to feel like there was no way out. He turned to music, as this was one of the only ways to fill the void that occupied his soul. My father was not a musician, but rather a connoisseur. He listed to everything from Mozart to Mötorhead,. Music kept him going through the worst times in his life. This was an aspect of his existence that he instilled in me: Music has the ability to lift you through the worst of times.
Though chemotherapy weakened his body, music strengthened his resolve. Whether it was re-living the glory days, or drawing inspiration from a song that really spoke to him, he taught me the importance of having music in your life. At thirteen, my parents bought me my first guitar. By the age of fifteen they were encouraging me to create music with my friends. At seventeen they watched me play my first show, it was then when I realized how powerful music was.
Experiencing a stressful environment at home paired with the growing pains of being a teenager, I often felt like I had no way out. This only amplified after my father passed away. The year of his passing was the worst of my life. Living in the house that we shared, surrounded by the loss of my family; I sunk into a depression darker than the worst I had ever felt before. I isolated myself from the emotion comfort of my friends and family. With my own feelings of darkness reaching insurmountable heights, I had considered taking my own life. It was at this point that I thought about the consequences of my probable actions.
It was about a week after that realization when I came across my guitar while cleaning out the basement. I tend to loaf around when I’m upset, so I had not played in quite some time. I took the cover off my amp, plugged in and flipped the on switch. Striking those first chords was so powerful that I spent the remainder of my evening strumming away in my basement. I felt the same way as I did when I was 17, hoping to forget about all the negative emotions I was feeling. It was at this point that music saved my life. Normally I would come home from work, make dinner and lay on the couch watching television and feeling sorry for myself until I was tired enough to go to sleep. Instead I threw myself into playing guitar. Those six strings articulated the feelings I dare not express. The strains of feeling isolated were temporarily removed when I had the guitar in my hands. It was now up to me to find a way to transform expression into motivation.
Fortunately, my life made several positive turns. I began seeing a therapist, changed my diet, and bought a gym membership. I allotted myself at least thirty minutes a day to lose myself in music, whether it be playing in my basement or listening to records. This began two years ago. Though my depression remains, I finally feel like I have better control over it. I’m almost 100 lbs. lighter than I was when my father passed away, I got out of my dad’s house, and I’m finishing my last year of university. Things will get better.
Music saved my life. It gave me the foundation to rebuild myself. Music made me want to live again. You are not alone in your struggle, and though it may seem like the darkest of days loom in the future, it is very well that they have passed.