Gifted songwriters have an exceptional ability to craft lyrics that seemingly tap into the minds of listeners. Alt-country rocker, Jason Isbell, demonstrates this uncanny talent in his song, “Anxiety,” a brilliantly written anthem off his latest album, The Nashville Sound. Joined by his tremendous backing band, The 400 Unit (which includes his wife, Amanda Shires, on the fiddle and backing vocals), the tune details the daily struggles of a married father who should be basking in the fruits of his labor. And yet, anxiety constantly rears its ugly head as an unrelenting, invisible opponent hell-bent on making the narrator’s life uncomfortable at every turn. For the roughly 18% of American adults suffering from an anxiety disorder, the song is a reminder of how even the most mundane of tasks can feel like battling American Ninja Warrior’s Mount Midoriyama.
I am one of over 40 million anxious adults in the U.S., forced to navigate through one daily stumbling block after another, each with the sole purpose of sending us careening off the road to happiness. Isbell’s song could potentially be a catalyst for the much-needed discussion of an often misunderstood mental illness; a disease that has the ability to cause debilitating pain to those firmly in its crosshairs.
After an instrumental opening that presumably plays on one’s anxiety by quickly building in intensity only to come to an abrupt halt, Isbell opens with the song’s chorus:
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing
Why am I never where I am supposed to be?
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain
The narrator knows that the perception of many would be that he’s living the good life. He’s seemingly in agreement that he should be happy, acknowledging that the love of his life is currently asleep at this side. Yet, an overwhelming anxiety induces insomnia and the happiness that should fill his soul is fading away as quickly as the setting sun following a picture perfect summer day.
Although I’ve been battling anxiety for as long as I can remember, I feel as though it’s truly peaked after becoming a father. All we want as parents is for our children to live a fulfilling life, complete with contentment and unwavering self-confidence. As we continually see evil busting out from behind the shadows, as evidenced by the actions of insecure, bigoted malcontents in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, we realize that we can only do so much to guard our children from witnessing the very worst of human nature. Consequently, our anxiety builds until it takes away a much-awaited part of every parent’s day – sleep.
Watching the sunrise slash through the blinds
Dust in the room hovers over mine
Lying here in silence
Wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream
And oh, I’m a lucky man today
But so afraid that time will take it all from me
This verse is a quintessential example of a writer’s words “showing” rather than “telling.” Here, Isbell paints a vivid picture (and one that I can most certainly relate to) of the narrator’s wide-eyed view of the bedroom as his wife and daughter remain in a deep sleep, free from the anxiety-induced afflictions that are currently tormenting him. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled to sleep peacefully since the arrival of my children. It remains an issue, and I constantly find myself having to overcome the effects of poor sleep.
You got to give me a minute
Because I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak
I want to be strong and steady, always ready
Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak
Anyone battling an anxiety disorder will tell you that they want nothing more than to be free from the grip of this insidious illness. Sadly, only a third of those affected are currently receiving the treatment needed to improve their daily life. Is that due to the stigma attached to anxiety disorder? How many of you have been told by friends and loved ones that anxiety is nothing more than nonsensical fears that can be overcome by taking a deep breath and moving on? Perhaps it’s the state of our health care system, one that has consistently deprived millions of Americans with a most basic human right. Or perhaps it’s the lack of funding required to adequately bring mental health issues to the forefront where it belongs. Regardless of the cause, Isbell expertly details one’s true desire to be strong for their family only to see their confidence ripped right out from under them by this disease.
In today’s society, it’s impossible to write a blog on parenthood without discussing, at least at some point, the anxiety many of us have to face on a daily basis. Knowing that a failure to shield our children from the effects of our anxiety can lead to them becoming anxious individuals themselves only makes life all the more terrifying. Truth be told, anxiety (and all mental illnesses for that matter) must cease being considered taboo by mainstream America. The future of our children depends on it. Perhaps songs like the one discussed here this evening can help people empathize with those struggling with anxiety and begin the healing process for so many in need.
Until next time,
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s latest album, The Nashville Sound, featuring “Anxiety,” is available now through ITunes, Spotify, and, of course, your local record shop.