Mental Media: A song by Martha Wainright

WARNING: The aim of this site is to tell our experiences with honesty. Therefore, some blog posts may trigger an adverse reaction. If a post is beginning to upset you, I advise that you please stop reading it immediately and talk to your support team. Themes of mental health & depression.

“And I’m young and I’m strong
But I feel old and tired
Over fired
And I’ve been poked and stoked
It’s all smoke, there’s no more fire”

This song by Martha Wainwright (apologetically titled full of expletives) is a song that I have listened to and thought about a lot in respect to my own life and mental health in general. At one point it had been hitting such a note with me that I would listen to it over and over again for hours, firstly because it is a brilliant song and secondly because I could imagine myself singing it.

The lyrics were so representative of an unpinnable feeling that I had been increasingly more conscious of. There was this deep, unsatisfied lull within me.

In the song Wainwright put into words something that can feel so individual, and brought her listeners into a collective with her own emotions.

The song itself is quite individualistic, it centers around the strength of her feelings of sadness and emptiness; however in doing so she let us all put in headphones or the CD in the car and share in her lack of fire, her tiredness. The image of ‘the mother of gloom’ with ‘her hands in your head’ remains the most evocative depiction of depression that I have come across in music, literature or film.

“I’m cracking up
And you have no idea
No idea how it feels to be on your own
In your own home
With the phone
And the mother of gloom
In your bedroom”

However it is not the representation of depression but four specific lines that I think make the song so relevant, to me personally, to the discourse surrounding mental health and to anyone who is struggling at any moment.

“I will not pretend
I will not put on a smile
I will not say I’m all right for you
For you, whoever you are”

I don’t know to what extent it was personal, cultural or just human of me, but in the years where I was actively dealing with constant mental health crises, I refused to tell anybody. It wasn’t as if I had no friends or wasn’t close with my family, I just had no desire and no ability to share what I was feeling. The taboo that was attached to mental illnesses definitely played a part, but a lot of it was also to do with fear of it, this feeling I had, becoming real and labelled. It was so much easier to smile. In fact my family often referred to me as ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, the irony of which was not lost on me.

Martha Wainwright’s refusal in the refrain of the song to ‘pretend’ and ‘put on a smile’ renders it so much more than a weepy song about sadness, it becomes about anger, indignation; it becomes an anthem. The protagonist in the title in Wainwright’s life is her father, but any listener can substitute in their own enemy, whether it is a person, a thing or concept. It is this universality that makes it useful and cathartic, whilst its intensity fills you with courage, with the very fire that Martha believes she lacks.

This song serves to remind us of the introspective power we have within ourselves to stand up to the stigma and structures that oppose our rawest emotions. To not pretend, to be brave and to fiercely seek the emotional clarity we deserve to feel empowered.

Written by Etta Levi Smythe

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