Working through the Darkness: Depression and Performance

Sometimes performing is really difficult. We all have those nights where things don’t go quite the way we planned, equipment might glitch, or players might glitch and we turn in a performance that wasn’t up to our standards. Sometimes we’re sick or tired and feel physically challenged to get up there and do the deed, but we do it regardless, battle through it, as athletes would say, and do the best we can in the moment. However, for me the most difficult performances are the ones where I’m depressed, and by that I’m not discussing garden variety blues, what I’m referring to is chronic depression, the illness. Performing while I’m in the midst of another onset of the disease, mine is cyclical even when medicated, is extraordinarily difficult on many levels.

Depression sucks energy from my soul, creating both physical fatigue as well as spiritual fatigue and malaise. As a bass player one of my jobs is driving the music forward, and I’m good at it. I have to be on top of the rhythm, locked in with the drummer and providing the foundation for the music and stirring movement from the audience. This takes positive energy as much as it does skill, and when I’m in the midst of another round of depression energy is incredibly difficult to come by. In many ways when I’m depressed I feel like I’m moving through molasses. Everything slows down, and I spend most of the gig fighting that inner drag that threatens to undermine the entire purpose that a bass player has.

Depression also produces a sense of disconnectedness from your surroundings and the people you work with, let alone love. There’s a feeling of being out of step with everyone and everything. Response time slows down, attention span shortens to almost non-existent and communication becomes a chore. If you’re trying to sing back up this disconnectedness can sometimes result in struggling to physically remember the harmonies you’re supposed to hit, and sometimes you have to step back from the microphone because they’re just not there. Everything feels off and there’s a pervasive numbness that sets in. If you do manage to pull off a smoking hot set, chances are you won’t even notice between the inner numbness and disconnection.

It also creates a huge disparity between what I perceive and reality itself. When I’m depressed rule number one is that my inner critic cannot and should not be trusted. A decent performance will be perceived as a disaster, and an excellent one as just ok. I find myself basing my entire performance on one fraction of a tune that didn’t go as planned, and that one or two measures becomes the entire sum of the three hours of music. When I’m doing all right, then my take on the performance would be quite positive, but under the influence of my illness I simply can’t turn the perception around. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been depressed and despite that turned in an excellent performance. Afterwards I received compliments from audience members, including fellow musicians who wouldn’t give compliments unless they were earned, and the comments just roll off like rain from an umbrella. They register as someone saying something nice to me, and I smile and thank them, but the remarks don’t sink in and stay with me. My perception is that I was mediocre at best regardless of who tells me otherwise. There’s nothing like apologizing to your bandmates for what they thought was a good night for the group.

It’s also extraordinarily difficult to project a positive, fun-filled stage persona while suffering from a depressive episode. You have to constantly remind yourself to smile and overtly interact with the crowd despite feeling like you’re at a very close relative’s funeral. People are there to be entertained, and chances are they shelled out some money at the door just to get in. So the mask has to go on, and remain intact throughout the night, no matter what. Some folks will tell you that if you act happy, eventually you’ll be happy. Obviously they’ve never suffered from depression. Someone who suffers from depression might be smiling on the outside, and have donned the professional face of denial of the internal to get through what they’re supposed to do, but on the inside they’re dying.

Regardless of all of this, I’m thankful that I get to do what I love to do even when I feel like hiding from the world. I’m also thankful that despite when that few steps up onto the stage feels like an insurmountable mountain to climb, that I can still make those steps, and that honestly even on a bad night during my deeper periods of darkness I feel better while I’m playing than I do when I’m not. It’s always darker when I don’t have the opportunity to step out on stage and try to bring my internal world into a better balance. So I do it as often as I can, whenever I can, and where ever I can with as many people as I can. It is how I keep breathing.