Bruce Springsteen on Surviving Depression and His Strategy for Living Through the Visitations of the Darkness

“If you can acknowledge it and you can relax with it a little bit, very often it shortens its duration.”

Bruce Springsteen on Surviving Depression and His Strategy for Living Through the Visitations of the Darkness

The noise begins with a low, hum-like sound that sticks to the hour’s underbelly like another dimension. Slowly, but surreptitiously the noise grows to a loud bass that eventually drowns out the music of life.

This can be for several days, months, or even entire seasons. Keats was often visited by it in his brief life. It left him without ideas, and with hands as heavy as lead. It rendered Lorraine Hansberry “cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired.” It drove Abraham Lincoln to the brink of suicide.

If you are lucky enough, if you have the right aids of science, social support, and chance, one day you look over the shoulder of time and, like the poet Jane Kenyon, gasp in grateful incomprehension: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” But until that moment comes, as William Styron so vividly observed in his classic bridge of empathy, “the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain.”

One of the greatest artists in our time, whose music made the world brighter for many generations and makes life easier is among us who have been drenched by the rain.

Bruce Springsteen cross-country driving in 1987. (Photograph by Born to Run.

His memoir Born to Run (public Library) Bruce Springsteen writes about his father’s “long, drawn-out depressions,” often so debilitating that he could not rise from bed for days, and about his own tumble toward the edge of the abyss quarried by his genetic inheritance and the darknesses of his childhood, and about what kept him from falling. “God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he’s no longer God,” John Lennon reflected in his most personal interview, but no outside “they” — no critic, no cry from the public — ever measures up to the inner chorus of anguish that most cruelly lowers an artist from the pedestal of their creative power and into the pit of depression.

Springsteen wrote:

My depressive state is spreading like oil across the lovely turquoise-green waters of my controlled and planned existence. The black sludge threatens to overtake every living thing of mine.

Even Springsteen’s favorite books reflect this lifelong undertone of black. His BBC Desert Island Discs broadcast is where Springsteen opens up about the depths of his depression and how he’s learned to cope with it. He thinks back:

I’ve developed some skills that help me in dealing with it, but still — it is a powerful, powerful thing that really comes up from things that still remain unexplainable to me.

Bruce Springsteen. (Photograph: BBC.)

He realizes that much of the problem is biochemistry and that biochemical intervention can be very helpful. Now he looks at the psychological skills that helped him to manage the storm. A Buddhist-like strategy for unresisted presence and the flow of experiences on their own terms.

It is as simple as naming it [helps]… What most people tend to want to do is, when they feel bad, the first thing you want to do is to name a reason why you feel that way: “I feel bad because…” and you’ll transfer that to someone else “…because Johnny said This to me,” or “this happened.” And, sometimes, that’s true. But a lot of times, you’re simply looking to name something that’s not particularly nameable and if you misname it, it just makes everything that much worse.

So my “skill” is sort of saying, “Okay, it’s not this, it’s not that — it’s just this. This is something that comes; it’s also something that goes — and maybe something I have to live with for a period of time.”

If you are able to acknowledge the feeling and allow yourself to relax a bit, it can often be reduced in duration.

Complement with Bloom — a touching animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being — and Tim Ferriss on how he survived his suicidal depression, then revisit Robert Burton’s centuries-old salve for melancholy and two centuries of beloved writers — including Keats, Whitman, Hansberry, Carson, and Thoreau — on the mightiest antidote to depression.

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