For a long time, I often wondered if anyone ever truly understood the loneliness of a mental health disorder. Not loneliness in the physical sense, necessarily, but rather a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. I remember hearing people flippantly discuss their “anxiety” and “OCD” like they were pieces of inconvenient luggage being carried from time to time instead of a shadow they could never escape and becoming angry at the idea that I could never easily discard or drop off these issues. From my earliest days of battling Obsessive Compulsive behavior as a young adult through my college years awkwardly hiding my therapy from friends to this very moment, I have felt, in some small way, isolated from the most peaceful corners of the mind.
At the conclusion of my freshman year of college, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, yet my behaviors weren’t manifested in any traditional notion of what people often align with OCD. I wasn’t obsessively cleaning my house or straightening up my things, nor was I particularly fascinated with counting. My battle took place in a smaller corner of the OCD population commonly labeled “Pure-O,” in which most of my obsessions and compulsions were done mentally as opposed to physically through outward actions. I discovered my mind essentially functioned like a gatekeeper, forever trying to cleanse itself of whatever I considered imperfect, and it led me to chase self-worth and moral validation in all the wrong places. That perpetual, self-destructive chase was rarely ever fruitful or long-lasting. Yet, the more I asked for help, the harder it became for me to articulate what was wrong, and eventually, I felt even more alone.
We tend to think of depression and anxiety, and picture sadness and frantic behavior, without ever considering that, in their worst moments, people who suffer from mental health issues often feel like drowning in quicksand while everyone they know is standing around and watching; only they don’t see the quicksand.
To help me better understand my own behaviors, I looked for a variety of outlets. My friends and family tried, but it often felt like I was speaking a different language. I looked for movies and television to guide me, but only films like As Good As It Gets, a movie about a man with OCD who finds a cure by falling in love, ever came my way. I fell in love several times, but my OCD only got worse.
I remember the first time I came across Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside album and being shocked at the morbidity of its title. Up to that point, I gravitated toward Earl's music because of his lyricism, his wittiness, and for delivering some of the most creatively genius lyrics I had ever heard from someone his age. A line like, “Feelin as hard as Vince Carter’s knee cartilage is,” was reason enough to press play on Earl’s music; to escape my worst, anxiety-filled days with punchlines and similes that could distract myself from, well, myself.
Since I was never conditioned to believe that something like it could exist, I avoided listening to I Don't Like Shit for months. Not only is it the best piece of music Earl Sweatshirt has ever created, but it’s an honest, excruciatingly painful, and angry album. It’s a project that finds Earl as tortured by his own mental state, and as self-aware of his mental prison, as any rapper has been able to articulate in quite some time.
The contents of the album function like different parts of a therapy session, with each track switching between the bottled up emotions of a barely adult man coming to grips with how far removed he feels from the rest of the world. On “Huey,” that isolation comes in the form of lyrics full of fleeting happiness juxtaposed over buoyant organs. On “Faucet” and “Grief,” Earl’s separation from the world is, in part, due to addiction issues and unchecked depression, while the rest of his isolation is the result of his circumstances within rap. As the chaos of Earl’s mental state pours onto the page with little to no control, lyrics like, “Focused on my chatter, ain’t as frantic as my thoughts / Lately I’ve been panicking a lot / Feelin' like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop,” are sandwiched between lamentation of “circus n****s” and “making waves.”
Yet, it wasn't just the distorted paranoia of “Off Top” or the laid-back slickness of “AM//PM” that drew me into the album. In just ten songs, Earl isn’t aiming for a cure to his pain, or anyone else’s for that matter, but instead, he finds brief peace of mind in the purgatory somewhere between rock bottom and just getting by.
That purgatory, for any of us who deal with a mental health disorder, is often the place we call home. Much like I Don’t Like Shit, neither its origins nor its purpose are quite clear, with the allure of peace of mind from our afflictions feeling like a mirage we can’t help but chase at every turn. Earl’s album never settles on one emotion because Earl himself never feels comfortable with how he feels at any given point. He travels between shame, anger, self-deprecating jokes, and mental anguish so fluidly that I would imagine someone who couldn’t relate to Earl’s sadness would feel like they showed up at the worst party they weren’t invited to.
What I remember the most about my first full listen to the album was its complete lack of resolution. Instead, it was a project of jumbled thoughts; sporadic ideas ranging from brilliant to disgusting, yet all real and as human as ever. “Wool,” the album’s last track, is disorienting at first in its purpose considering the harshness of Earl’s lyrics and the concept of the song, yet it fits the mold of the album’s derailed train of thoughts. I related to the record because Earl sequenced the project in a way that resembled my own train of thoughts—constantly changing in direction, and never staying with one idea long enough to find any sort of finality to my problems. In short, I Don’t Like Shit carries all the same obsessive-compulsive traits as a listener like myself, and that type of realization was comforting in only a way someone like Earl could possibly understand.
Through all of it, though, it was never Earl’s lyrics, creativity, or wittiness that I needed, even if they were what I initially wanted. What I needed was to know that someone else out there had been to those same corners of their mind that I had been to and, even more, they had learned how to embrace it even if the journey would be just as painful. Even as a writer, lyrics like, “And I gotta jot it quick cause I can’t focus so well,” provide moments of clarity that, even if fleeting and short-lived, are worth every second. Those were the words that I truly needed to hear.
Earl’s album taught me—and hopefully taught him—that sometimes, you don’t need someone to save you from your darkest afflictions. You just need to know that someone else is there in the darkness with you and that they understand.