“I’ll watch and pray, ’cause everybody has to die someday.”
— from “Anchor” by BirdEatsBaby

Source: Photo credit: Matt Pulzer

Mishkin Fitzgerald has never been one to take a conventional path.

Fitzgerald is the lead singer and songwriter of the alternative “indie noir” band BirdEatsBaby. The band has an innovative and unique sound, which has been described as “punk rock meets classical meets cabaret,” “Scary stuff … But in a good way” and “outstandingly, brilliantly strange.” And the group’s new album, “Tanta Furia” (“Such Fury”) is being hailed as a “jewel” and “rivetingly beautiful.”

But perhaps even more innovative has been Fitzgerald’s management of a lifelong history of depression. In addition to conventional methods of treatment, such as psychotherapy and exercise, Fitzgerald has two primary coping methods to manage her mood — exploring her feelings through her music and a vegan lifestyle.

Fitzgerald, who describes having a family history of depression, characterizes her experience of depression in terms of mood swings. She told me, “My mood is constantly up and down. Depression has always been a constant thing in my life.”

Over time, Fitzgerald learned that music was something that she could use to manage her negative mood. But she did not start playing music with emotion management in mind. She was raised in a religious, conservative household, began singing and playing piano in church.

“My family’s really religious. Going to church is a really important thing. And having a faith,” she explained. “So I suppose I got into music first by singing hymns in the church. And then I ended up playing piano to the congregation, which is quite ironic considering that’s still what I do…but to a very different type of crowd.”

But Fitzgerald eventually discovered a different form of music – dark, heavy, progressive rock and metal music such as that of System of a Down, Muse, Placebo and Tool. “Just anything that had a dark, introverted edge to it that was quite heavy I also really liked,” she explained.

Soon, Fitzgerald knew that she wanted to play music for a career, which she says was not her parents’ first choice for her. “Just being in a band in general – let’s be honest – most parents are kind of like, ‘Well, is that a viable career? Is that good or are you just wasting your time?’” she explained.

“In some ways that made me more determined to do it.”

Fitzgerald soon found like-minded people in England’s thriving Brighton music scene. “The kind of people I hang out with are lots of other musicians who like lots of the same stuff,” she said. “I’m quite lucky to live in an alternative place. I live in Brighton, where everybody’s got weird hair and piercings. It’s the norm.

“You say you’re in a band and everybody’s like, ‘So what?’”

As time went on, Fitzgerald found that music was a useful outlet to manage her mood. She prefers music and other forms of expression instead of medication for depression, which she feels suppresses her emotions.

“I don’t take any drugs for it, because I like to feel how I’m supposed to feel. I don’t really want to numb it,” Fitzgerald explained. “I’ve always used songwriting as a way to channel my emotions and experiences … I pour all of that into the music and then it makes me feel normal again.

“I think that if I didn’t have an outlet through music, I’d find coping with depression a lot more difficult than I already do. If I can turn painful situations into songs, then it doesn’t feel pointless. Instead, I can celebrate it and, hopefully, connect to others out there who might be feeling the same.”

Research supports Fitzgerald’s experience that music may be effective adjunctive therapy for treating depression. For example, one study of 79 participants diagnosed with major depression were randomized into either “standard care,” which included the patient’s “regular” treatment, which could include therapy, medication or a combination, as compared to standard care plus music therapy, which included listening to or playing music.

At a three-month follow-up assessment, those receiving music therapy in addition to standard care had lower levels of depression and anxiety and improved overall general functioning.

Fitzgerald explains how she explores her feelings on the “Tanta Furia” album. She described how the song “Eulogy” was derived from a particularly bleak period in her life, with lyrics such as “I’ll drink from this bottle as it drains off of me, if my heart is the thunder, my tears are the sea,” and “Lord, it won’t matter much if you cast me out. I’ll just crawl away. It’s my prophecy.”

“‘Eulogy’ is definitely the bleakest song I’ve ever written. There’s something about the sparse, cold emptiness of the repetitive bass-line against drums, and very simple chord structure that gives you this feeling of hopelessness,” she explained. “It’s not a pleasant listen, but I’m so proud of writing it, as it’s purely about giving up on yourself and feeling like there’s no future – something I have felt throughout my life. And sometimes you get so used to feeling like that, it becomes comforting to just stay in that negative space.

“I was drinking a lot when I wrote [it]. It’s a sort of suicide note/final prayer and an angry letter to God, I suppose.

“I imagined it being the last song I ever wrote, because at the time, I certainly felt that way.”

But for Fitzgerald, playing music was only part of how she manages her depression. Fitzgerald is vegan and credits her plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle as also improving her physical and emotional well-being.

“I became vegetarian on my own when I was 13 or 14. I did a project on kosher food for school and started looking into how animals were slaughtered in the different faiths. I saw some horrible images on the internet and realized where meat comes from,” she explained. “And it was quite an easy decision for me to make. I was really shocked by it. I just couldn’t believe it actually existed. And how had I not seen it before? Putting two and two together — I was actually eating animals.”

Later in her life, when Fitzgerald got married, she and her husband began exploring issues of consuming animal products together. It was at that point that Fitzgerald decided to become fully vegan — not consuming or using any animal products.  

“I met my husband, and he became vegetarian, because we’d been looking into it together, and he was going into it for health issues. Then we started watching all of these documentaries and I started to feel like a hypocrite, really; I was not eating meat because I loved animals, but I was still drinking milk and eating eggs and didn’t realize where that came from,” Fitzgerald explained. “But as soon as I started understanding that and doing the research, again it was just another really easy decision. And we both did it together.”

Fitzgerald soon noticed significant health benefits. There is a long history of research demonstrating that plant-based diets improve health and well-being, including reducing obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

As Fitzgerald became vegan, and avoided processed foods, she began to notice improvements in her own health and well-being. “I haven’t had a cold in forever, which is amazing. I used to get colds every winter. I just don’t seem to get them anymore. And I feel healthier,” she explained. “And when I do get a bit sick, it doesn’t seem to last very long. I bounce back really quickly.”

More, Fitzgerald noticed a difference in an issue that has affected her throughout her life — depression. “The most amazing thing is that I think my mental health has gotten better since going vegan. I didn’t expect that at all. I just feel really happier. It’s really weird,” she said.

Fitzgerald thinks that there are many possible reasons for this effect. Her improved physical health contributed to a more positive mental state. “For starters, I felt healthier, which then pours into your mental health,” she said.

More, she felt morally better, which she thinks could influence her mood. “I felt like I was doing something good, and that I wasn’t causing any harm directly to something else … . When you realize what you are doing and then stop it, you say actually ‘I’m not causing harm to animals anymore,’ which is a really nice feeling,” Fitzgerald explained.

“It’s suddenly like a weight lifted off.”

In addition, Fitzgerald has found a community of other vegans with whom she has connected. “I’m part of all the vegan groups on Facebook. And that’s great, because it makes you feel like you’re part of a community,” she said. “I’m friends with loads of them on Facebook now, which means if I post something I don’t just get trolled. I’ve got this vegan army that comes in and saves the day, which is nice.”

Soon, Fitzgerald found that there were actually many vegans who were part of the punk-rock scene of which she was also a part.

“There are loads of vegans in the punk scene. If you start to think outside the box, and you are into that punk and metal and something alternative, you’re going against the flow already … then it comes naturally to challenge everything that you’re told. Therefore, challenging the fact that people eat meat is going to be something that you start to think about,” she explained.

Source: Photo credit: Scott Chalmers

But perhaps the biggest reason that Fitzgerald thinks that becoming vegan has affected her mood is that she now feels she has a cause about which she is passionate.

“I’ve become really passionate about veganism. I first started just doing it for myself,” she explained. “Me and my husband, we’re like, ‘We’ll just do it.’ We won’t be those annoying people who preach to others.

“And now we’re like, ‘We’re going to protests!’ We did them for UK PETA. We did one in London, which was a naked protest, where you get covered in blood — loads of people just lying on the ground and holding signs about the animals that are killed every year for fashion. One of the things that I quite like to do is, I have these stickers with information about animal slaughter and other horrible things.

“If I went to a supermarket and picked up an egg and it said, ‘Chicken Period’ on it, I wouldn’t want to eat it either.”

In many ways, Fitzgerald’s sensibilities about her music and her vegan activism are the same: She likes to push the envelope.

“If you look at any social-rights movement in history, it wasn’t by anyone gently saying, ‘Probably what we’re doing here is wrong,’” she said. “It was by people going, ‘You know what? Fuck this. I’m going to make a protest. And make it quite extreme.’ And suddenly people are talking about it and listening. Whether they agree or not, it doesn’t matter. You’ve made your point,” she said.

“So, yeah, I do think it’s really important. Sometimes, you have to get attention. You have to be extreme to get people to notice what you’re talking about and to spark a shock reaction. Because if you just kindly, gently say these sorts of things to people, they’re not going to listen.”

Fitzgerald has been able to combine her best instincts for making innovative music and her vegan activism in some of her music, including “Silence.”

“Sometimes, you write a song, and it comes out all at once. It’s very rare.  It only happened to me maybe three or four times in my life, when a song came out of my head because it just couldn’t stay in there. I was getting depressed learning about veganism and learning about what happens,” she said. “As liberating as it is, it’s also quite horribly depressing to learn about what’s going on and that you can’t do very much about it. So I was feeling quite bleak as I tend to.

“I wrote this song from the point of view of an animal in a cage and basically not having a voice,” she explained. “Which is why it’s called ‘Silence.’ It’s quite subtle — unless you knew it was about that, it’s tough to tell.”

The video for “Silence” includes a scene in which several feathers wave through the shot – something of an homage to now-vegan singer-songwriter Morrissey.

“We got some old pillows and stripped them and blew them all around the room. I kind of wanted it to be a symbol of the sheer amount of animals killed and forgotten about,” she said. “There are billions of them every year. So there’s all these feathers going around and then at the most intense part of the song we did a Morrissey.

“It was pretty cool.”

Fitzgerald is pleased to see that she’s influencing the people around her. “I was the only vegan in the band for quite some time. But now every single member of the band, and our manager, is also vegan. It’s a miracle!” she explained. “Now we can say to the venues ‘all vegan food’ and it makes sense. Most of the places in Europe are fine. They don’t even ask questions.”

And beyond not doing harm to animals, Fitzgerald is also giving many a loving home. “I’ve got three dogs, a rescue cat and five rescue chickens in the back garden. And we’re rapidly expanding. In fact, after I’m done with music — I don’t know when that will be — me and my husband are going to open up a sanctuary,” she said.

Many people are surprised that the animals get along so well. But as usual, Fitzgerald sees things differently. “I do get a lot of people saying, ‘Don’t the dogs kill the chickens?’ They’re surprised when they see that these animals leave each other alone and not hurt each other. I’ve even seen videos of sanctuaries where the cats are curled up with the chickens,” she said.

“And they all just get along fine.”

Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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