“And I don't know how the fuck I'm supposed / To look into my parents' eyes when I'm scared to die” —Mac Miller, “Ascension”
The power of choice and impulse are rarely lost on me. In August 2018, I wrote a piece on Mac Miller and Swimming, and the allure of sinking to the ugly depths of the psyche. In October, in a fit of something sinister and desolate, I spilled out a cocktail of pills on my kitchen table and looked upon them in silence. Like so many times before, I brought myself to a finalistic precipice. I faced the line between my life and the potential of my suicide, but unlike the many trials of 2015, I just did not want to do it. I wanted to live, and I did not want to live like this anymore. I put each pill back in the bottle, one by one in a ritualistic fashion to really understand what it was I felt I was about to do, tightened the cap, shut the lights, and went to bed.
I resolved to live and the next morning I started the search for a psychiatrist. For real, this time. A month removed from the pill incident, I filled two prescriptions. One for a mood stabilizer, and one for an antidepressant. A month removed from that, I began to feel like myself for the first time in however long drives home the point that I’ve spent too long not living in the truest sense. As people found out I was on medication, they each asked me how the pills made me feel. To which I would tell them, I feel like I am saving my own life. I am.
Apart from a sense of heroism and freedom, the first few weeks on medication brought on a wave of fear. I was very much so a sunken and dangerous person. Following my first appointment, I spun GO:OD AM on the drive home—it’s been the go-to coping album—and found myself stuck on the final third of the record. Specifically, “Ascension.” Mac’s “Ascension,” in part, details the fear of being wholly capable of taking your own life at the hand of your impulses. I, too, did not know how to tell the people I love that in truth I was scared of myself—terrified that I was going to take my own life before natural causes and my faraway dream of becoming a batty old Jewish woman take me instead.
The thin scarlet ribbon between life and death is not untread territory for Mac Miller. Across his prolific discography, he rapped about a refracted mortality in earnest since 2012’s Macadelic (“The Question,” “1 Threw 8”). Of course, Watching Movies with the Sound Off is an album unto itself in this department, as is Faces, which is home to “Funeral,” among many, many other haunting moments (“Cause I smoke dust, overdose on the sofa, dead”). GO:OD AM and even The Divine Feminine contend with passing away, with Divine casing death and pain as a study of Mac’s artistic pressures on “Planet God Damn.” In that same breath, all of these albums shine a light on life (“Life is so precious” on “I Am Who Am”), but, remarkably and finally, on Swimming, Mac Miller lives. He resolves to live, and so do I.
Album opener “Come Back to Earth” captures the dichotomy of pining to live and die in the same breath. “Oh, the things I'd do / To spend a little time in hell,” Mac sings in what I imagine to be an apt description of what it looks like when I do something as dramatic as almost kill myself on a quiet Saturday. Or, what it looks like to chase a feeling—any such feeling will do. When Mac subsequently begs for a way out of his head, we can take that as the moment the original pills go back into the bottle, and the flurry of phone calls to doctors' offices begin. Mac Miller makes a choice, at that moment, to live. It doesn’t feel so good to drown no more.
When you start medication, they tell you that it’s no “magic pill” and while you’ll feel better, you shouldn’t be surprised if things crop up, as things tend to do. And that’s okay. It’s taken me ages, but I understand now that this is a part of me I would not wish away; I just have to adjust how I treat and take care of myself. Mental health is not a skill like riding a bike, and as a perfectionist, this makes me crazy, but as Mac said on “Perfecto,” “It ain't perfect but I don't mind / Because it's worth it.” That is, an imperfect life is worth living, because all lives are asymptotically wonderful, as in they are always moving in the direction of better. Things will never be perfect, but every day presents the chance to get closer to perfection. There’s power in that.
“This is the shit that I'm dealing with, but I wish I forget / Used to be feelin' depressed, now that I'm living I'm a little obsessed” —Mac Miller, “Hurt Feelings”
That same power and pursuit of better evidences itself on “Hurt Feelings.” Flashes of “Hurt Feelings” detail the first weeks on medication, when the fog that’s come to feel natural clears and you come into the consciousness of just what real life can feel like. That first taste of life is cleansing and otherworldly. It is actually ethereal; the mead of poets. To know that there is a path to stand above your own suffering, a method to mat it down and keep it quiet, that is hard-fought and precious wisdom. In tandem, “Ladders” is a reminder to resolve to be kind to yourself because “We all we got.” As Mac explores on the refrain of the track, there’s no cause to wait to save ourselves. So we don’t wait, we act.
All of this culminates to “2009,” which may be Mac Miller’s most touching song to date. I could write a tome on the depth and emotional weight of “2009,” but for our purposes let me just say, the lines “A life ain't a life 'til you live it / I was diggin' me a hole / Big enough to bury my soul / Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own” truly drove me to take action on my behalf. It was only after taking medication that I became aware of how little of my life was spent living, and now I am blessed enough to have the opportunity to make up for all that lost time. For so long, I internalized and assumed that my manic and depressive episodes were par for my course and I was perpetually at the end of my rope. But I wasn’t, and I’m not. Even now, there are so many lifelines for me to tug at should I need them. Swimming is the soundtrack to a life worth living—I have one, I’m realizing—and that is the greatest lesson to take into 2019.
Of course, my newfound resolve and New Year’s resolution comes from the music, but also from the circumstances of Mac’s death. Speaking with his closest collaborators, and looking over the toxicology report, it is absolutely clear that Mac did not intend to die. His cocaine was cut with fentanyl. This was not what he wanted; he wanted to live. He wanted to tour. He was happy. Knowing that he wanted to live, in some cosmic sense, pushes the desire unto me. I want to live, too. I want to take care of myself because not everyone gets the chance to make that choice for themselves. Perhaps this is a facet of legacy, perhaps not, but either way, I am living and that is a beautiful thing.
It’s a new year. Life really is so precious. As Mac said on “Wings, ”I ain't feelin' broken no more.”