I picked up my first prescription for antidepressants earlier this month. Having been harangued for the last decade by a petulant internal monologue that has stubbornly refused to shut up, this measure felt long overdue. As I swallowed my first pill, unsure of what to expect and irrationally deflated that it had come to this, a Mac Miller lyric rang through my skull: “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head.”
It occurred to me, then, that I should write about this experience; that I should talk candidly about how Swimming, Mac’s final album, had helped me find my footing during a particularly dark period. After some careful consideration, however, I opted against it. At the time, I justified it to myself by crafting some bullshit excuse about not wanting to glamorize my mental health concerns, but truthfully, I was just too scared to make myself publicly vulnerable. How very fitting that my head got in my way of writing about my head’s indefatigable tendency to get in my way.
In the wake of Mac’s tragic passing this past Friday, I’ve spent much of my time trying to overcome this hurdle. In fact, I’m still overthinking as I write this, anxious that I’m insensitively making myself the main character of an article that should, by all rights, be a tribute to Mac. Yet, keeping in mind that Mac was an artist who helped millions of people by fearlessly plunging the depths of his neuroses, writing this also feels like an appropriate way to carry on his legacy.
Of course, Swimming was, in large part, an album about Mac’s attempts to come to terms with these neuroses; an acknowledgment that the journey towards mental stasis would remain uphill in perpetuity, but that, barring the heartbreaking fate that ultimately succumbed him, conceivably would be the only way forward. “I’d put some money on forever, but I don’t like to gamble on the weather,” he crooned on “Wings,” discussing a struggle to embrace longevity that most people never have to wrestle with.
To most well-adjusted people, the notion that this constitutes a predicament at all is difficult to fathom. Belonging to a group who instinctively make plans to attain long-term milestones, prematurely plot the trajectory of lifelong relationships, and carefully craft budgets to save for retirement, these people do not see “forever” as a gamble, but rather as a near-certain windfall, all but guaranteed to them by the mere existence of the present. Requiring no further incentive to remain alive than the simple circumstance that they already are, it is sometimes difficult for people with this disposition to appreciate what an overwhelming step it is for others with opposing outlooks to invest fully in their own existence.
You see, when you’re constantly beholden to your brain’s every whim, entire years can pass where each individual day feels like an eternity. As Mac confessed on “Self Care,” you run a near-constant risk of looking up one day and realizing that you’d been “thinking too much [and] got stuck in oblivion.” The decision to buy into life, then, is sadly not as straightforward as devising a long-term plan, but rather a symbolic resignation to decades more of this exhausting mental imprisonment, marked by debilitating insecurities, inexplicable anxiety, and unanswerable philosophical doubts.
Listening to Swimming for the first time in August, it’s hard to overstate how validating it was to hear Mac acknowledge the challenges involved in taking this leap. As someone who is currently staring down a similar transition myself, I gleaned immense comfort from learning that I’m not the only one who immediately hedges sentiments like “I have to stop living life with one foot out the door” with defensive caveats.
When Mac posed the question “Do you want it all, if it’s all mediocre?” on “Small Worlds,” for example, he gave voice to a concern I’ve been mulling over for quite some time now. If, in my case, investing in long-term stability means undertaking all the measures I can to optimize my return in society—taking medication, working a largely unfulfilling 9-to-5 job, and generally sacrificing short-term gratification in favor of long-term welfare at every conceivable turn—then what is the magical carrot at the end of the stick that makes this all worth it? Will a day eventually arrive where this ongoing struggle no longer feels oppressively daunting? Is there really enough enjoyment to be derived from art, relationships, travel, etc. to stand up to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis?
On some level, I know that harping on these questions is misguided because they are unable to produce satisfying answers by design, but it is nonetheless nice to be reassured that the impulse to do so isn’t irrational. While the conventional wisdom in society is that getting hung up on these sorts of impractical hypotheticals is some sort of attitudinal shortcoming—a lazy excuse not to “grab life by the horns” or something along those lines—Mac welcomed this criticism on the aforementioned song, flippantly rapping, “Yeah, I got a bad attitude, playing ‘til I’m out of moves.”
As someone who has been forced to have many strained conversations about the failings of my outlook myself, I can’t exaggerate how refreshing it was to hear Mac brazenly admit this. Granted, it’s undeniable that possessing a good attitude is an integral component of being a high-functioning individual, but it’s also true that the prevailing theory among psychologists is that those who typically enjoy this disposition also tend to possess a helpful capacity for delusion. There are only so many times you can politely explain to others that your perspective is logical before you just want to take Mac’s approach and shrug it off.
Sadly, this is one of those instances where there is nothing to be gained from being right. For as much time as I’ve spent arguing to legitimize my viewpoint, I’d much rather just be happy. If I was naturally inclined in any way to “derive joy from the little things,” or glean motivation from any of the other platitudes I’ve been reminded of over the years, it would undoubtedly go a long way towards helping me emerge from my destructive cycle.
Once again, it was Mac who offered the perfect lyrics to explain why I have such difficulty applying this piece of advice. On “Come Back to Earth,” he sings about how “sunshine don’t feel right when you‘re inside all day,” succinctly describing a tendency I’ve often felt to regard moments of happiness with suspicion. To claim I’m incapable of expressing joy altogether would be disingenuous, but from what I can tell, my brain simply isn’t wired to hold on to it for extended periods of time. While it takes no effort for me to relive a previous loss or harp on some past embarrassment, I seemingly possess no functional capacity to derive esteem from past accomplishments, tap into the warm feelings of fond memories, or even experience happiness in real-time without preemptively dreading its inevitable dissipation.
If any of this sounds dramatic, it’s because most attempts to describe the symptoms of depression inevitably are. For as natural as it is for me to try to neatly deconstruct my mental state into the individual drivers that shape it, the reality is that these drivers actually break down further into neurological processes that are far too abstract to put into words. When Mac raps on “Small Worlds” about “being so lonely [because] nobody know[s] him,” I imagine that this is the phenomenon he’s describing.
One of the most devastating truths about depression is that, no matter how many times we loudly trumpet the call to “destigmatize” it, affected parties are always going to suffer in isolation to a certain degree, because it is physically impossible to communicate to anyone else—even therapists and other people with depression—the uniquely visceral and specific way in which it affects you. This is not to undermine the value of having a good support system—because of course, this is invaluable—but just to acknowledge that there is always going to be a sizable disconnect that we have to navigate on our own.
Inconvenient as it may be, accepting this latter conclusion is a necessary milestone for those who’ve made the decision that they want to commit to life. In fact, the prevailing lesson of Swimming is to adjust your vocabulary in light of conclusions like this more broadly; to speak in terms of “reconciling yourself with” rather than “overcoming” these challenges. No one ever intends to do so, but when they speak of “beating” depression, they inadvertently imply that the demons you battle on a daily basis are a vanquishable foe and, thus, in a sense, illegitimate. Across Swimming’s 13 songs, Mac takes great pains to let us know that these challenges are valid, that you will undoubtedly struggle with them, and that in finding peace with this, it is possible to make the most of your life regardless.
Taking into account that Mac had finally found a way to embrace this journey, his death begins to feel impossibly even more gut-wrenching. When he raps on “2009” about coming to the realization that “you gotta jump in to swim,” for example, it’s undeniable that this lyric takes on an excruciating layer of additional poignancy. Once you start venturing down this path, however, it’s possible to let your appreciation of all of Mac’s lyrics be colored by the fate that befell him—the carefree spirit of his earliest output: naïve; his tortured second act: painfully prophetic; the aspirational realism of Swimming: tragically squandered.
In the moments when you feel tempted to think this way, remember that Mac was an artist who truly understood what it truly meant to “put some money on forever,” and that asterisking his legacy in light of one moment of miscalculation in a never-ending series of battles is to miss the point entirely.
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