Diagnosed With Anxiety, I Turned To Death Cab For Cutie

Photo: Courtesy of Ilana Kaplan.
In a happy moment at The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
Being a teenager can be the loneliest and most "emo" phase of your life; the phase in between childhood and adulthood can seem like another dimension. Of course, a diagnosed mental illness, like the general anxiety disorder that has plagued me for years, goes beyond garden-variety teenage angst. But one of the best treatments I’ve found for my panic attacks is about as "teenage" as it gets: To this day, to calm myself down, I listen to Death Cab for Cutie. When I was seven years old, my best friend — my grandmother — died, and I began to deal with that grief by ritualizing and catastrophizing. I obsessively washed my hands (a typical OCD ritual) and avoided touching metal of any kind. I feared death, especially when I was going to sleep. By the age of eight, I had officially been diagnosed with OCD. It wasn’t until I was 11 years old, when a friend randomly lent me a book about a boy battling OCD who had lost his grandfather, that I began to feel less alone. After being immersed in this fictional world, thankfully, my OCD and its accompanying anxiety mostly faded. All of my fears seemed to dissipate; sleeping became easy, and my worries subsided — at least for a while.

A diagnosed mental illness, like the general anxiety disorder that has plagued me for years, goes beyond garden-variety teenage angst.

When I was 19 years old, my dad’s salary was significantly cut. When I learned that I might not be able to live at college because of this, my anxiety reappeared, in the form of panic attacks. I was spinning, ruminating rather than ritualizing, not sleeping, and without an appetite. After seeing a therapist and then a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. I was barely functioning; unable to eat more than a banana a day, I lost 15 pounds. I couldn’t go to the gym or even focus on my schoolwork. Instead, I sat in my room trying to find my sanity, and through that, I found how curative music could be. In high school, listening to Death Cab For Cutie got me through my breakups, but in college, it was something that helped me find my inner peace. As an anxious adolescent, I felt like Ben Gibbard's sadness was my sadness. His diaristic lyrics about depression, lost love, and displacement were like musical antidepressants to me (I was taking the medical kind, too). Although friends have always teased me for listening to "depressing" music all the time, it was melancholy songs like "A Lack of Color," “Transatlanticism," or "Title Track" that managed to put me at ease.
Photo: Courtesy of Ilana Kaplan.
Me with the musician Charlie XCX.
I started to feel better with the help of music, medication, and therapy. The following summer, I landed an internship at my favorite music magazine, SPIN. It wasn’t in the editorial department, but it was good enough for me. During college, I interned at two more culture-focused publications and then, at 20, started freelance writing about music.
In 2012, I got to interview Ben Gibbard himself. Although the interview was over the phone, I was more nervous than I had ever been — he was my favorite musician, and his songs had had such a big impact on my life. Our first conversation centered around music, not mental health. But this year, when I spoke with him again for the release of Death Cab For Cutie's eighth studio album, he talked openly about how he had struggled with drinking his feelings away and eventually found greater peace in long-distance running. I'm no long-distance runner, but Gibbard's path to fixing his flaws and mending the broken parts of his life wasn't too far off from mine; it involved hard work, focus, and stamina. I may not have sold out huge concert venues around the country or have 20 years' worth of music out there in the world, but I do understand what it's like to overcome a personal struggle and apply yourself to something healthy.

While friends back then (and to this day) teased me for listening to 'depressing' music all the time, it was melancholy songs like 'A Lack of Color,' 'Transatlanticism,' or 'Title Track' that seemed to put me at ease.

Today, I still seek comfort in Death Cab For Cutie. Even as I write this essay, I'm listening to Gibbard's sad and sweet "I Will Follow You Into The Dark." I’m not "cured," and I don't think I ever will be, and that's okay. I am, however, always healing, focusing, and remembering what gets me through the rough times. And to critics who chastise Death Cab's "emo" tracks, I say: Fuck, who doesn't have a song or a band that evokes some emotion for them? As cheesy as it sounds, Death Cab For Cutie followed me into (and out of) the dark; it still does.

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