What good news do you bring?

Warning: this post is very long, rather serious, and takes a break from my ongoing series on Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. I will get back to that forthwith. But today, though, I want to write about something else, namely mental illness.


A talk by Peter Railton has been making the philosophy social-media rounds lately. The talk (“Innocent Abroad: Rupture, Liberation, and Solidarity”) deals with a familiar theme, the relationship of social engagement and the life of the mind, and develops it through a series of autobiographical vignettes. Some of these take place against the background of large public events — Sputnik, the civil rights movement, the Columbia student strike — and some of them belong to the more private domain of student advising, collegial conversation, and committee service. The common thread that runs through them all is the sense that, when we meet a moment of moral challenge, we cannot evade the responsibility to choose our response. Railton writes of following the news and seeing civil rights protestors being beaten and set upon by dogs, and also of the “existential inner voice” that asks, “OK, are you going to let this be the world? Then that’s who you are.”

So towards the end Railton takes an unpredictable turn and considers his lifelong depression, pondering how, in keeping quiet about it, he has often failed to heed that existential inner voice. Railton’s talk is itself an existential act of self-revealing; it is not only a talk about moral response but an instance of it.

Don’t forget, also, that this was a talk. I wasn’t there, and neither were you, probably, so we’re both experiencing this talk as a text. It’s something we found on the internet and are encountering in the abstract time of reading, which is to say, as a position taken, a fait accompli in the world of ideas, a place on the chessboard. But as a talk, this would have taken place in the concrete time of those individuals present in that room, at that time. It would have been an act unfolding in time, like the experience of waiting in a hallway at Columbia University in 1968, watching a cop coming for you with his baton raised, and thinking oooohhh shit! run? stand with my friends? decide now! Keep in mind, this was a meeting of the American Philosophical Association; care to imagine delivering a talk like this to the American Musicological Society? At that moment, standing there and coming out about his depression to his academic colleagues, Railton was actually risking something. This was, as I like to say, a Thing That Happened.

And as I often say, in Things That Happen the stakes are raised. Shit gets real. The who-cares feeling that so often pervades academic conversations goes away, because you aren’t just entertaining ideas anymore, and those ideas are no longer weightless: they refer to you, they bear on your life, and they matter. Little wonder that some people were crying openly during Railton’s speech.

Railton explains his moral obligation to speak openly and truly about his mental illness by way of an analogy with gay civil rights:

The stunning reversal of age-old attitudes toward gay marriage came about, not simply because the heterosexual population became “educated” about homosexuality so that they no longer “thought” it a stain on one’s character. It came about, I believe, through experience-based moral learning of the kind Dewey continually emphasized. Enough gay individuals courageously took things into their own hands and came out publicly. Within two decades the rest of the population had learned from this bold experiment that among their friends, neighbors, co- workers, children, parents, teachers, students, and favorite movie stars were many gay individuals. Were these people to be denied the rights of life and love the rest of us enjoy? How could we continue to view them as outsiders to the “proper” way of living while remaining faithful to the love, friendship, respect, and care we felt for them? Today, nearly a majority of Republicans favor gay marriage.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Well, it wasn’t enough. Because this very formulation suggests that there is still something to be ashamed of, that being gay should be a private matter. And of course, anyone is entitled to keep their sexual orientation as private as they like. But gay individuals and groups insisted that privacy should be a choice, not a social demand or policy or presumption. Being gay must have an equal place in the public world—it must be made visible, uncomfortable as this has been for so many people, so that heterosexuals could see their gay brothers and sisters for what they are, not for what their incomprehension and apprehensions had made of them.

Dan Savage has said the same thing again and again: coming out of the closet is not only something you do for yourself, it’s something you do for gay people generally. It’s much easier to hate an abstraction like “the gay agenda” than to hate the nice couple that lives next door and puts up such a great Halloween display for the neighborhood kids each year.

Railton, again:

So there’s nothing for it. Those whose have dwelt in the depths of depression need to come out as well. Some already have, but far too few adult men (big surprise!), and especially far too few of the adult men who somehow have come to bear the stamp of respectability and recognition, and thus are visible to hundreds of students and colleagues.

Hey, I resemble that remark.


Many times in recent years I have wanted to use Dial M to post this Achewood cartoon and write something about how that cartoon cat, Roast Beef Kazenzakis, expresses pretty much exactly how I feel. What I wish I could tell you. How I wish I had a shirt like that.


I never did post it. Well, I guess I just did.

To keep silent about mental illness is to enable it. Or, more precisely, it is to enable whatever complex of social attitudes and policy norms prevented me from getting treatment until a couple of years ago and prevents our students from getting help that might save their lives. As the old ACT UP slogan had it, silence = death.


I have thought about this many times, about my own depression and my fear of telling anyone but my friends and family, and every time I have been a poltroon and kept my thoughts to myself.* Because, you know, we’re all on the same page anyway, right? So why say anything publicly? It’s what you do in your private life that matters, right? Wouldn’t it be, you know, kind of unprofessional for me to go telling people about my private life? (As if I have not been doing that in this blog for almost 10 years.) Wouldn’t I be leaving myself vulnerable to professional discrimination? (As if I were not already a tenured professor at a major research university.)

Sometimes I have taught Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament in the undergraduate music history II class and gotten to the bit where he writes

[although I was] born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others . . .

and thought, I can relate. And so can at least half of the academics reading this.** Depression is like those handcuffs that tighten on your wrists the more you struggle: you find yourself unable to function socially, so you become isolated from your fellow human beings, and then, because you can’t say anything about why you can’t function socially, you become even more isolated, and thus even more depressed, etc. And you can’t reach out to people and tell them what you’re feeling because you can’t reveal a weakness in the one area where you’re supposed to be strongest, which, for an academic, is the mind. And given that I’m writing a lot about magic and mysticism these days — which from a rationalist point of view is crazy anyway — I really don’t want to wear that jacket. But none of us do. To admit to mental illness would be to admit that the intellect is not sovereign, that the foundation of one’s own power is build on sand, that one is vulnerable in ways that feel especially shameful.


In case you’re wondering, I’m OK right now. I’m getting proper treatment, which in my case means both therapy and medication.*** It took me years to work up the nerve to try medication. I always thought, there’s no shame in taking medication . . . if you’re someone other than me. Contrary to a popular myth that until recently I believed, meds are not an easy way out: they don’t make you happy (at best, they can make you healthy enough to start working towards being happy) and they have side effects, which can be nasty. But even so, I’m in a place now where I’m looking forward to a sabbatical to write my new book, teaching is a joy to me, I am serving as interim Director of Graduate Studies this semester and actually kind of enjoying it . . .  I’m OK. If you’re depressed, untreated, and reading this, understand that you can be OK too. And that right now it’s OK to not be OK. Depression is a goddam illness: are you going to feel bad about having a broken leg or diabetes or something?

My symptoms are pretty typical. I’m going to tell you about them, on the off chance that you see some similarity to your own condition and might thereby feel a bit less alone. Hearing other people’s stories has helped me; I hope this helps you. (Keep in mind, though, we’re all different: your mileage may vary.) Anyway, for me, having major depressive disorder means that every few years I have an episode where, for a period of weeks or months, my body feels like a bag of broken glass, I move like I’m underwater, I can’t sleep (or I sleep way too much), I don’t give a shit about anything, I cry at everything or nothing (kind of problematic when you’re teaching a class), I can’t remember anything, I can’t think straight (also problematic when you’re teaching a class), decisions seem impossible, I have horrifying and tormenting dreams or sometimes outright panic attacks in my sleep . . . . and above all, I feel empty, hopeless, and self-hating. The old pattern was, this would continue for while and then something would happen — I would get in a new relationship, or move somewhere, or get into something like meditation and decide I had found The Answer. Oh my god was I an insufferable meditation-is-the-answer-to-everything asshole a few years ago.****


Fuck this shit.

And then I might be OK for a while. But sure as God made little green apples, it would all happen again. As I’ve been getting older, the episodes have been getting longer, closer together, and tougher to deal with. At a certain point, I had to get real about what was happening to me.

A couple of years ago I got tenure and published a book I had been working on for 10 years, and this predictably triggered another episode. (This is hardly unusual.) I didn’t know it at the time, though, and even when depression had me firmly in hand I was still slow to acknowledge it. Only when my wife insisted that I take an online quiz did I see how far things had come. That was a positive turn—at this point I knew where I was and could start making changes. As alcoholics in recovery know very well, admitting you have a problem is the first step, the one step that makes all the other ones possible, and I had to face up to the fact that I have been depressed on and off since I was a teenager. This was not easy. I had a lot invested in not being mentally ill, just as a lot of people will have a lot invested in you not being mentally ill.

The thing about depression is, it takes on protective coloration, it blends in. When I look back through my life at times when I’ve been depressed, there had always been something going on in my life that offered itself as an explanation for it. Like, I don’t have depression, I just had a bad breakup. Or I hate the place I’m living and everything will be better when I move. Or I’m stressed out because I’m a grad student. What was different in 2013 was that I couldn’t really blame it on anything. Things were going great: I had gotten tenure at a major research university, I had published a book, I had a loving family in a nice house in a great town. I couldn’t say what I had always said before—“I’m not depressed, my life just sucks.” My life clearly did not suck, and so I was forced to face something I had avoided noticing for more than three decades.

An early episode: I was 17 and it was the year after my parents split up. I moved to Toronto and spent my last year of high school uprooted from my whole life up to that point. I was at first happy and excited to be free from the endless anxiety of my parents’ destructive marriage, but after a while a pervasive apathy set in. I was supposed to be getting ready for college piano auditions but my playing sucked and I didn’t care. I skipped school, faffed about ineffectually on the piano, started eating and sleeping too much, and felt lonely and bored most of the time. But I could say, I’m not depressed, it’s just that I moved to a new city in my last year of high school. Or for that matter, I’m not depressed, I’m just in high school.

I somehow pulled it together enough to get into the IU school of music, and going to college snapped me out of it—I lost weight, made new friends, got a girlfriend, started spending all my time playing music, and generally thrived. A couple of years later the apathy, anxiety, sadness, and scattered focus returned. But this time I had gotten way too deep into a doomed relationship, and I could blame it all on an unhappy love affair. And then I got another girlfriend. Problem solved!

I’ll skip some other stuff and get to graduate school, which is unsurprisingly a particularly fertile ground for depression. I’d been in classes for three years, I had married the woman I love, and I wanted to get on with my life and be a grown-ass man. I wanted to embark on a course of life that would provide for us. Being a graduate student didn’t feel like it could do that, and in any event my advisor was leaving and I didn’t want to follow him across the country because I felt burned out on studying and teaching. I was uncontrollably anxious about how I could ever find a job with a Ph.D. I could not shake the feeling that real life was happening somewhere else and I was being left behind. I felt a wild yearning for escape and briefly decided that moving to Winnipeg, of all things, would solve all my problems. After the customary period of anxiety, apathy, smothered rage and bitterness and sadness, etc. (I’m talking about a months-long period that assumed a generally dark tone, rather than the usual day-to-day striation of light and dark, which I think of as “normal”) I dropped out of graduate school for a couple of years, felt better, and then, after my Dad died (with predictable emotional consequences), dropped back in again. Problem solved! Quitting graduate school was my solution to one episode and going back to graduate school was my solution for the next one.

From 2005 to 2007, I lived in Austin, Texas (actually, in a totally anomic and anonymous suburb of Austin—I can’t even remember what it was called) and had my first tenure-track job. Again, I felt apathy, chronic anhedonia, feelings of being trapped, feelings of worthlessness and pointlessness. Again, I got fat and had sleep problems. Again, it was hard to see it as depression: at the time, it just felt like we were stuck in a depressing place. But it’s hard to say what is cause and what is effect. Was I depressed because I hated Texas, or did I hate Texas because I was depressed? At the time I would have said the former; now I’m not sure. Maybe both? To be sure, I started feeling a lot better when I got a new job at Indiana. But there’s a problem with the causality: you change your life circumstances and feel better, so you think that you’re doing better because your old life circumstances were shitty. But I think there is another, equally plausible explanation: you feel that there is nothing to look forward to in your life, so a big change—any change—feels liberating, because it represents some kind of movement. A revolution. You are motivated by the feeling of revolution, not by the revolutionary cause. But you think that you are motivated by the cause, which (in this case) was the cause of getting the hell out of Texas and back to Bloomington, where I had been happy long before.


And on and on it goes. I’m leaving out a ton of stuff, and even so I’m worried about making this whole post about me and how much I suffer and all that. That’s not my point. My point is to say, this is my story, and if it’s anything like your story, then you just learned something very important:


This is what Paul Gilmartin says at the end of each episode of his podcast,  The Mental Illness Happy Hour. If you can relate to any of the stuff I have written here, I strongly suggest you listen to it. There are more than 200 episodes full of riveting, heartbreaking, heartlifting interviews with people both famous and obscure, all of them coming out of an amazing diversity of experience and suffering from an astonishing variety of symptoms. And you will learn (1) that each story is unique, and we must all stretch our imaginations and moral understanding a little to encompass the endless and perplexing manifestations of what it is to be human. And (2), that each story is also not so terribly different, that we all have some fairly large things in common, and that we can all learn from one another. We are not alone.

This is the longest blog post I have ever written, and I’ve written some long damn blog posts over the years. It’s almost over. But first I want to tell you a story that Peter Burkholder told me.

Peter might have been the first truly out gay man I ever met. As someone who hung out with artists and musicians, I had known plenty of gay people even before coming to college, but in Peter I encountered someone who lived out an absolute integrity between his private and public lives. I had never met anyone like that before I first showed up in his office one morning, a disheveled 19-year-old kid who had just slept through his first music history exam. This was the 1980s: this was a time when being out would cost you something.

Anyway, when I told Peter about my depression some time ago, I mentioned that it actually felt pretty good to be telling people. It was kind of a relief, and I wondered aloud if it wasn’t a bit like the relief you’d feel coming out. He responded by telling me about a time in 1979 or 1980, only a decade after Stonewall and still the early years of gay civil rights, when he was having a lot of conversations with people in his life about who he is. He was working with a Quaker group, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, and was dealing with a certain amount of resistance from people in his Quaker Meeting. One person in particular didn’t see why Peter had to tell the Meeting he was gay, or why FLGC wanted official recognition from the Meeting. Why can’t you just be gay and not involve us? What good does telling us do? And so he asked Peter, “what good news do you bring?” The “you” here being both Peter himself and FLGC, and the “good news” being both relative and absolute, your own personal good news and the Good News, as in the Gospels.

It is entirely typical of Peter that at this point he told me how happy he was to be asked that question. It gave him a chance to say, the good news is that I am like you: all of us are closeted in some way. He said, “We all have something we think we have to hide from other people because they won’t accept us if we tell them, but the truth usually is that they will still accept us and may feel even closer to us because we are no longer hiding.”

This might mean that you can leave your closet and both you and everyone else will be better for it. But then again, it might not: perhaps you are suffering from mental illness and have to keep quiet about it because you can’t trust the people around you to be cool or supportive. We’re all doing what we can, and sometimes just going to MacDonald’s is a ringing act of heroism. But my point is, the good news here is our shared condition, and the possibilities of compassion and healing that grow from that. Even more, though, the good news is that you bear good news, too. So I ask you: what good news do you bring?


*In our house we disfavor calling a weak, cowardly person a “pussy.” My son and I prefer to use a piece of archaic invective, “poltroon.” A cuss word has to have a satisfying mouthfeel, and calling someone a “fuckin’ poltroon” works in a way that Dan Savage’s suggested alternative, “scrotum,” does not.

**Make no mistake, academics and intellectuals are particularly prone to depression and anxiety, and this has been noticed at least as far back as Marsilio Ficino, who blames the influence of Saturn. (A friend of mine calls us “children of Saturn,” which I rather like.) I suspect that academics get mental illness the same way athletes get training injuries, because we are exercising a part of our body way more than it is equipped to handle. Or maybe (and this would be most typical of depression) there is no one simple cause, but a host of causes. And maybe it doesn’t matter, really. All I know is, when I started opening up about my depression to friends in the biz, I was astonished at how many said, oh yeah, well, me too.

***This can be a challenge in the U.S., even for those, like me, who are lucky enough to have health care. I don’t want to minimize how hard getting even basic care can be. It’s a national disgrace.

****Don’t get me wrong, meditation is great. So is exercise, good hydration, proper nutrition, good sleep, doing things you enjoy, hanging out with friends, listening to music, etc. But in my experience, neither meditation nor any other one thing can “cure” depression all by itself. That would suggest a simple causality: depression is caused by X, so to relieve it you need to do Y. But depression is classically overdetermined: it always has more causes than you need. Healing, too, does not progress in a straight line, and what makes you feel better will often occur by accident. So my only advice is, do things (exercise, meditation, etc.) that will make you more accident-prone.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to What good news do you bring?

  1. Mike O'Brien says:

    I don’t think depression is ever really fixed , at least not for me . A very readable and clearly focused look at what depression can be and do to a persons equilibrium .

  2. dellantonio says:

    Phil, marvelous writing and deep truth as always. I just reposted this on Facebook (I don’t think you’re on there these days?) with some thoughts of my own, ending with a link to this essay by Nick Walker. If you haven’t read it, I think it’s worth a glance: http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/throw-away-the-masters-tools-liberating-ourselves-from-the-pathology-paradigm/ — I’ll email you privately the comments I made in forwarding your post on FB since I don’t want to hijack here.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you! Thoughtful, and therapeutic.

  4. Dear Phil,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I’m the co-chair of the AMS Study Group on Music and Disability, and this is exactly the kind of awareness and attention we like to foster in our group. Personally, I have been out as an academic with anxiety and other invisible illnesses since 2009, and it greatly encouraged me to see you speak so candidly on these issues.

    I also maintain the disability studies group blog at http://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/ , and I wonder if you might be interested in re-posting this blog entry there. My e-mail is s.e.bassler at merton dot oxon dot org — do drop me a line if you are interested!

    Best, Samantha.

  5. philphord says:

    Hi Samantha,

    Yes, by all means, feel free to repost. Glad you liked it.

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