The power of music in overcoming depression, PTSD, and complications from hyperacusis

If I Could Only Breathe

New York City is freezing at the end of December. There are so many cars and trucks and trains, lurid and flamboyant, undulating into my senses and taking me over as I load-in to Rockwood Music Hall. I’m suicidal and half-way to Asperger’s meltdown, struggling against the large ball of ice somehow forming in me as I approach the stage manager to explain to him my setup.

I ended up playing one of the best shows of my entire life.

My life is directed by my mental health. I was diagnosed with PTSD, chronic depression, and an anxiety disorder about twelve years ago. Over the past couple years my mental health team and I have understood Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism often leading to social and professional difficulties.[1] This thinking prompted the discovery of an audio integration disorder called hyperacusis, which basically means I hear things way louder than most people.

I was unable to continue working after leaving a seemingly endless series of mental health jobs (I worked as a therapist, ironically), giving me the opportunity to focus on my music. It has allowed for a sense of meaning, and it’s something I can give to the world.

This is mostly how music affects my life: a sense of accomplishment and purpose. I can’t just pick up my guitar and play away my sorrow, it’s just not how it works for me. Writing songs about my mental health isn’t cathartic, it’s painful and I often have to move past the pain in order to sing them every night. When I pick up my guitar there is a reason for it, either to write, practice or play a show. Here’s an example: All of 2017 was consumed by suicidal thoughts and chronic depression, yet I had to make an album. In the midst of all the pain and turmoil, I (along with my faithful producers) was able to craft the most beautiful thing I have ever created. I was depressed the entire time and it was a chore to go to the studio, but I did the work, and it worked out.

My day to day life is consumed by learning to cope with my mental health and pushing forward with my music. I work harder now than I ever did as a therapist, but the work comes more naturally: I’m alone most of the time so difficult social situations don’t disrupt my day, and I can make my own routine. And then there are days when none of this happens at all, weeks at a time even. I can barely focus on eating or hygiene, let alone music or proper coping skills. When this happens while I’m on tour it has been a complete disaster. On these days, my life affects my music.

So, why would I ever choose to do something so admirably difficult? Because I have to. That’s where the line is for us lifers. We have to do it. It feels wrong when we’re not. My love for playing instruments, composing music, and sharing it with people is stronger than the barriers against it. I do the gig: I book my own tours because I’ve had a bad experience with booking agents who can’t handle me canceling a gig every once in a while, and they don’t understand why I can’t play five out of seven nights in a week. I promote my shows because no one else will if I don’t, and I can’t afford a manager. It’ll be great when I finally meet the people who want to work with a person like me, and I know they’re out there, but for now I’m ok with the gig, the job of it all.

This includes touring, which can really go either way with me. Often times I enjoy a segment of the tour and another segment will be polluted by meltdowns and depression. I’m getting up on a stage every night and playing to varying numbers of people, I can be paired with much louder bands on a bill, the music and clanging of glasses and crashing of beer bottles behind the bar, and talking to strangers after the show really creeps up on me, so I’m learning to cope with this stuff to make my tours more enjoyable.

Having fully embraced my mental condition, my wife and I began a journey last fall to learn more about coping and preventative actions to make life more gratifying. We discovered the hyperacusis, which causes a great deal of my problems, and I went through two weeks of intensive audio therapy to assist in relieving those symptoms. We did a Concert Window fundraiser to pay for expensive tools for coping such as noise canceling headphones and what I like to call “prescription earplugs”. These tools are helping, and I’m actually quite excited to hit the road in a few weeks. Having a set itinerary that shows my daily routine for each day on tour is also a huge skillset I’m trying to master.

Embracing who I am and not running from it has been the most important thing I’ve ever done. I believe being a musician and songwriter has helped me accomplish this. Being a musician is being true to myself. Of course, this authenticity has led to a deeper relationship and acceptance of myself. Right now, I am so grateful to release this album and share it with you all on tour.

I’m going back to New York twice this summer, and I know both visits may be difficult, but they will be beautiful and enriching, too.

~Russell James

[1] The DSM-V changed the diagnostic criteria for autism and declared it a “spectrum disorder”, doing away with classifications such as Asperger’s. Recent research has shown this isn’t a complete description as autism looks so dramatically different in each person’s life.

Listen to “That’s Enough” from Wave/Water to be released on 4/20:

Catch Russell James on tour:
4/7 Las Cruces, NM: High Desert Brewing
4/10 Los Angeles, CA: Silverlake Lounge
4/12 Hood River, OR: Double Mountain Brewing
4/13 Portland, OR: Artichoke Community
4/15 Port Townsend, WA: Cellar Door
4/16 Olympia, WA: The Living Stage @ RL Hotel
4/18 Anacortes, WA: The Brown Lantern
4/20 Seattle, WA: Tim’s Tavern
4/23 Salt Lake City, UT: The Living Stage @ RL Hotel
5/15 Harrisonburg, VA: The Golden Pony
5/17 Philadelphia, PA: Kung Fu Necktie
5/18 Lancaster, PA: TBA
5/19 New York, NY: Rockwood Music Hall
5/21 Washington, DC: Tryst
5/24 Goshen, IN: Goshen Brewing Co.
5/25 Chicago IL: Acoustic Café
5/26 St. Louis, MO: Evangeline’s Bistro and Music House

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Produced by: Jeff Gorra | twitter @JeffGorra |