How Lights’ first album colored my journey with mental illness--and helped me heal
In the spring of 2011, fifteen-year-old me was a sophomore in high school. I was depressed, and had been since middle school. I had one close friend. My peers and I competed within a hierarchy of class ranks, and smart phones, and annotated novels in our English classes.
The internet offered some escape. It was an unmemorable, not-special day on YouTube. Until it wasn’t.
Subscribed to British musician Ed Morris, who in late March, under the username “MrMusicman284” posted his latest cover--of Canadian singer-songwriter Lights’ “River”--I clicked.
“Absolutely love it,” Morris began, gushing. “She did an acoustic performance on Billboard[‘s channel], and I’ve just been watching it for, like, days now.”
Without even giving the music stylings of Ed Morris a chance, I clicked off, and searched for said performance.
I remember it being the best song I had heard in a long time. From there I found the original, in all its pulsing, electropop glory. And then I unearthed more--her complete first album, The Listening.
When it arrived in the mail from Amazon, I had just arrived home from school. I immediately put it on.
The first notes of “Saviour” trickled into my ears: The night is deafening when the silence is listening...
Now the proud owner of Lights’ downcast debut disguised as 13 bubbly, brilliant bops, in physical form all the way from Canada--I grinned. I can’t say I remember many individual smiles, but I remember this one.
Five months later, I realized how timely Lights’ entrance into my life was. Especially that very first song.
On the edge of my junior year, I was diagnosed with anxiety. I had always been a nervous, socially-hesitant kid, but I wasn’t prepared for panic attacks, nor their entwinement with my pre-existing depression. They proved so jarring, were so consistent, and felt so permanent, that suicide returned to my mind as a viable solution.
My family had delayed our summer vacation that year, slated for a week or so after my diagnosis. My packing included a new addition this time: a translucent orange bottle with some 15 chalky capsules. No refills. Any moment could trigger my anxiety; I had to pick my battles wisely.
The car ride to the beach was no exception. Besides stops to eat, I was trapped for at least four hours on bustling highways. With iPod Touch in tow, I blared music in my earbuds and tried to sleep. It was lullaby-esque “River (Acoustic)” that diffused the tightness in my chest and my shallow breathing.
For every bout of anxiety thereafter, I turned to that song. For nearly every morning drive until I finished high school--perhaps to combat it proactively--I would play The Listening for the hundredth time before I’d reach for the radio.
And there were 12 other songs on the album, of course:
“Face Up” captures isolation and discouragement.
“Second Go” paints insecurity and compartmentalized emotions.
“Pretend” and its reprise reflect on growing pains, and the innocence of childhood.
“Drive My Soul” presents an identity crisis--her “Landslide,” if you will.
“The Last Thing on Your Mind” talks of support, accountability, and validation.
And “Lions!” and the title track have some of the most poignant imagery I’ve heard in pop music, or all of music for that matter.
A few years ago, I found my misplaced amber bottle. Its label bore an expired date, with a few capsules remaining. My anxiety (and depression) has since waned significantly, but the medicinal remnants served as a tangible symbol for my self-empowerment. As a therapist once told me, even when I didn’t believe it: “You are in charge of the way you feel.”
During my freshman year in college, however, it was hard to remember that mantra (or even recall the cathartic power of Lights’ music, despite her poster adorning the wall beside my bunk.) My depression resurfaced for the first of many additional times throughout my undergraduate years, and my anxiety remained crouched right behind it, ready--unlike I ever was for it. My university’s Health & Counseling Center, shrouded in a wooded part of campus, offered 12 free sessions a year.
“And sometimes,” an evaluator assured me with a wink, “we lose count.”
A few months in to the fall semester, I starting seeing a staff psychologist named C*. I didn’t know what to expect from state-school therapy, but to my pleasant surprise, we meshed well. Somehow, during one of our earliest meetings, music was brought up. Then Lights, and her striking diction on The Listening, my favorite album. C turned around right there, mid-conversation, to Google song lyrics. She loved them.
The next time I met with C, no sooner had I taken a seat in my usual chair, than she spun around to her desk once again--this time, to my disbelief, with her own copy of The Listening CD in hand. I was touched; from a small gesture, C made her investment in me clear outright. In that moment it all came full circle, in the likeness of a trusty chorus:
Take me river, carry me far
Lead me river, like a mother;
Take me over to some other unknown
Put me in the undertow
To C, Ed Morris, and to Lights herself--I owe you one.
About the Author
Stephanie Smith, 23, lives in Charlotte, NC and graduated from UNC Asheville in 2017 with a B.A. in Mass Communication. Previously, she's contributed news and features to Highlight Magazine and Charlotte's Nü Sound. Stephanie remains a huge fan of Lights and has seen her live twice.