Now, that shouldn’t be too much of a revelation. After all, I’ve been a guitarist for more than half my life now; a period in which my instrument has taken me gigging across the country, into studios and on stage with artists of near every kind imaginable—hell, we’ve even played Glastonbury together.
But in recent years, my six-string and I have become somewhat estranged. If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear just how neatly that decline in my guitar playing correlates to the increase in my struggles with depression and anxiety over the years, and nor should you.
It’s pretty well-established that one of the most visible symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation (or avolition, if you prefer the formal term), which can impact sufferers in a multitude of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as not having the energy to cook dinner or make the bed; at other times it can be a cause for immediate concern, its effects being so drastic as to make you feel you can’t even move (otherwise known as psychomotor retardation). Make no mistake, this is no synonym for mere idleness: that is an active choice not to do something, but a full episode of depressive avolition is more like finding all of your limbs suddenly deaf to your brain’s instructions.
Indeed, one of the key differences between the two is that whilst general laziness usually centres around a desire to avoid something tedious or unpleasant, depression (being ever the colossal dick) will more often than not target the things you actually enjoy doing.
And so it was for me and my guitar. Pre-breakdown, music was always one of my go-to escapes whenever I was feeling down or unwell; but when the Big D came along I just lost all enthusiasm for it, and even when I could bring myself to pick up an instrument I found all of sudden that playing them gave me none of the pleasure it used to.
And as the days between practices grew into weeks and months, in came the Big D’s cretinous companions—anxiety, self-doubt, inward negativity. Each time I tried to reconnect with music, my illness would be there to remind me what a deficient guitarist I was: “I don’t know how,” it would whisper in the back of my mind, “but you’ve got even worse since last time.” Before long, just the sight of my once-cherished Epiphone Dot was enough to make me feel like a fraud; what used to be a proud reminder of my achievements as a musician now just made me think of all the other, better guitarists who I believed deserved those opportunities more than me. I soon stopped performing live, then stopped writing and recording too, and before I knew it I had all but walked away from music for good.
Ironically, it’s exactly those feelings that have brought me back to my guitar now. Over the last few years I’ve made some huge strides in reasserting control over the Big D, but in all that time I’ve somehow never come to terms with my lost love of music. I guess if I’m being honest, spending so much time away had left me a little afraid of my guitar: if I didn’t think I was any good before, how bad would I be with four years of rust on my muscle memory?
But the difference between then and now is that, having finally seen the Big D for what it is, I know that that fear was just another one of its lies: I might not be the greatest guitarist in the world, but I’m certainly not as bad as I’d let my illness convince me all those years ago. And like any of the Big D’s previous falsehoods, once confronted it unravelled like the sham it really was—if you’ll forgive a little simile it was like finally managing to open a window in a stuffy room, but instead of a breeze coming in it was Meters riffs and Nile Rodgers’ chords, things I’d learnt years before and apparently never forgotten. Everything I thought I couldn’t do is coming back to me at last, and each spare moment I spend with my Epiphone feels like a mini triumph in itself, complete with a shot of “good on ya” dopamine to keep me coming back—it’s no wonder I haven’t been able to put the thing down for over a month now.
And sometimes, that’s what “getting better” is all about. It’s not always known or understood, but the road to overcoming a mental illness often lies in those little victories, those small pieces of land once lost and now recovered that make the end goal that much closer. It’s not always a case of taking big steps forward—sometimes it’s enough just to remember you can still play the guitar.