Mental Illness, Ira Glass, and Me: A Love Letter to Podcasts

There’s nothing more narcissistic than anxiety. I was sixteen, and I had been to a birthday party. I had felt anxious and silly all night, a spare part, like me and everyone there were sharing this silent joke that I probably shouldn’t be there but, like, okay. Lying in bed afterwards, I was listening to Radio 4 as I tried to sleep. (Radio 4: home to The Archers, the shipping forecast, plays that feature the sound of footsteps more heavily than you’d expect.) It had been my lullaby for years – the Book at Bedtime into the news into whatever feature they had at 11pm, not boring, just reliable, polite.

So – Radio 4, me in bed, facing the wall but antsy and panicking, the kind of panic that can grow big and then fall in on itself. There was a poetry programme on. The presenter read out an email or something from a listener. He wanted, the presenter said, a certain poem to be read. It would make his day if they would read out this poem.

It was a tiny thing, but it made me feel like I’d slipped off the tracks. It was the same way I sometimes felt when I watched the weather forecast: this doesn’t matter, because today I might make one of my friends angry and they’ll fall out with me. Today, someone might say just the right mean thing to make me cry in front of everyone, so who cares if it’ll brighten up in the afternoon? I didn’t have any feelings about poetry one way or the other, but in that moment it seemed like the most arbitrary, pointless thing. The voice of the presenter. The words of the listener. I imagined him sitting in his living room, very still so he could hear everything properly, waiting for his poem.

Five years later. Mornings find me going from website to website on my phone, the light licking through the sides of the blinds, my first class of the day so close, close enough I’ll rush my makeup and feel lousy the whole time. I need something to listen to as I get washed and dressed and ready. Something to think about. Music could do it sometimes – rap, hip hop, pop, anything with people who were proud of what they had achieved. (My achievements: brushing my teeth. Walking into the lecture theatre, even if I was a little late. Concentrating on the class instead of whether the people behind me were talking about me.) But the best thing to make mornings run efficiently is, obviously, a This American Life, delivered as soon as possible upon waking.

It’s crazy how quickly you can work all the way back in the TAL archive. I had my favourites – stories about childhood, small town life, anything where David Sedaris popped up – but a lot of mornings I’d be doing a lousy job of straightening my hair while listening to a big piece on topics I’d never found interesting before. If poetry – something I’ve ended up studying a lot for my degree, something I’ve grown to, actually, really like – had seemed world-turningly pointless a topic to be discussed on the radio, some of the descriptions of TAL features would have made my sixteen-year-old self stare all the way into the void. I kind of love that. I love when something that seems dry at first becomes saturated with meaning. The equal importance that the Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure gives to the stories creates space for all kinds of significance to bloom.

When I was at my worst, just before I started taking antidepressants, I’d lie in my room in my freezing-cold student house – a house where, several times, we saw a slug brazenly working its way across the living-room floor – my curtains closed, no light allowed in, at 4pm, which, when your brain isn’t working the way it should, is for some reason the worst time in the world. I could hear my housemates coming home from university, and I’d be so hungry but so in need of a shower, and my room was messy and if I stood up, I thought – stretched my feet in the little gap between my bed and the chest-of-drawers – I might die. I definitely would if I left the house to get some more food. Films were undigestable. New TV shows were too intimidating. The only things I could stomach were repeats of old stuff (watched from a totally horizontal position, cocooned in two sweaters, a duvet and a blanket) and, of course, podcasts. I would listen to Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig and Starlee Kine and all these other people who would tell stories about lives I wanted to live.

It wasn’t just This American Life, although their extensive backlog and the familiarity of their contributors made for a soothing experience. Reply All, Comedy Bang Bang, Planet Money, Serial (and its offshoots), NPR Politics, Last Podcast on the Left, and My Favorite Murder have all taken up hours and hours of my life.

Distraction isn’t a cure. You can’t make mental illness go away just by lying still enough that it thinks you’re dead and moves on. Medication eases things; counselling can unpick thought patterns you thought were stuck. But it’s not helpful to have to listen to the same internal soundtrack every day for months at a time, a dozen tired variations on a you’re worthless theme. If you can decrease the airtime of depression and anxiety and OCD even a little – gain some respite, replace it with twenty minutes of meaning and order – it can make a difference. It’s storytelling as a survival mechanism.

I’m about to graduate with a degree in English, and I think that maybe the most influential force on my understanding of writing were those hours when all I could do was listen to people telling me about themselves, about others, about problems and solutions. I don’t have a job lined up. I’m going to be in debt for the next forever. But I want to achieve those kinds of connections in the things that I work on. It’s the one thing that (maybe, probably, hopefully) will get me out of bed.

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