Jerod McBrayer’s Stinging Truth

Musician writes 12-Step program concept album

Posted Feb 09, 2016

Jerod McBrayer’s band, Worth Taking, has a new album, “Hangman,” with an interesting concept: Each song reflects a different “step” in 12-step recovery programs.

 Jered Scott
Source: Credit: Jered Scott

This theme is a perfect fit for McBrayer and Worth Taking’s pop-punk style of music because it blends the “darkness” of his personal experience with mental illness and his friends’ experiences with addiction with the “light” of recovery and hope.

And while pop-punk is often dismissed as “sellout” music that doesn’t address meaningful themes, McBrayer doesn’t see it that way. For him, that genre is an opportunity for him to explore an important theme in his work and life: Sometimes, the best way of delivering stinging truth is with a sweet sound.

Early on in his life, McBrayer struggled with depression. The World Health Organization has labeled depression an important public health concern. Depression is not only common, but also chronic, with depressed people often suffering multiple episodes throughout a lifetime. And depression is debilitating, with significant loss of functioning, particularly in work productivity.

McBrayer described how he had a family history of depression, as well as very stressful events that triggered depressive episodes and thoughts of suicide. “I was in an awful relationship and was so stressed to the point that I was having hallucinations,” he told me. “And when that ended, all the friends went one way, and it wasn’t my way.”

McBrayer was also having health problems that exacerbated his mood. There is a long history of research showing that depression and physical health problems can co-occur and exacerbate one another. In extreme cases, having co-morbid physical health issues and depression can represent risk for suicide.

“I was staying up for two or three days at a time, which was fueled by depression. I was also having a lot of health concerns at the time — gastrointestinal issues that at the time put me in the hospital for a while and the stress of that and then going to school and trying to graduate,” he said. “I went to a school that didn’t have the kind of policies in place to deal with that kind of thing. At the same time, I was having migraines that would put me out for days at a time. And so it was death by a thousand cuts for a period of years, and they all made each other worse.”

“I was not happy to be alive. I was suicidal.”

For McBrayer, music soon became a refuge. This was a wise choice, as we now know that music is healing. In fact, research demonstrates that music therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain

He cites pop-punk bands like Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182 and Green Day as influences. He explained his attraction to this genre: “I think because there’s something in that version of punk rock, which most people would call a sellout punk rock, has a perfect balance of things.”

According to McBrayer, there is a blending of the “punk aesthetic; the idea that you challenge the norm, you rethink everything, you question everything, you don’t believe everything that you hear” with “the other aesthetic that comes along that, they’re making music that’s palatable. You can sing along and it’s catchy and pretty — not just relatable or predictable.”  And, he added, “Myself being someone who works on the other side of the glass, too, in studios, I master music as well, I appreciate a well-produced record.”

“For lack of a better term, it’s synergy.”

But it is perhaps more than that. For McBrayer, having a pleasant sounding song is useful in helping people be more accepting of uncomfortable truths “because it’s palatable; I think that’s something that the truth inherently is not.”

“And I think that the music allows for that, and you can push the limits of that. The truth stings and the truth hurts. So if you can wrap the truth in something that is catchy, and you can sing along to it, it’s in your head and by the third, fourth or fifth time you listen to what you’re singing along to, you say, ‘OK, this is actually a real message.’ And by the sixth or seventh time you listen to it, actually it’s kind of helpful.”

He likens this approach to that of a good comedian who is able to wrap humor around a complaint or an issue and deliver commentary in a way that promotes dialogue. “We’ll almost change our minds on something because we’ll think, ‘That’s funny. I get what he’s saying.’”

In fact, research demonstrates that humor can help us cope with difficult reality. In one study, “horrifying” images were presented to participants. Those participants who heard a joke after the image showed improved positive and reduced negative emotion.

For McBrayer, the concept of recovery from addiction for his album came partly from seeing people in his life suffer. “We’re in the music industry, so there are a lot of folks that take it too far. We had a friend of ours pass away, Tony Sly, he was in a band called No Use for a Name.”  And McBrayer explained how these issues can develop for musicians. “When you’re on the road, a lot of it is hurry up and wait.  You get somewhere, you sound-check and then you have to play six hours later. So, what do you do?” 

“Do you find a Barnes & Noble or do you drink or shoot up?”

Unfortunately, even though these addictive behaviors may start when someone is young, they can carry over into later life.

“A lot of these lifestyles start when you’re young, and you’re a young band. You don’t have a lot of interviews, and you don’t have a lot of stuff going on, and you’re on the road with your friends and figuring it out,” he said. “And then as you get older, and you grow as a band and as a musician and you become more professional, you don’t have as much time to kill, but you have the habits of someone who has time to kill. So it kind of just keeps on with the lifestyle you’ve created for yourself.”

But while McBrayer has not struggled with full-blown addiction, he understands from his depression how one’s behavior can feel out of control. He thinks that the harmful stigma facing people with mental illness, such as depression and addiction, is similar. “Substance dependence faces similar stigmas to depression and, not surprisingly, gets only a small portion of the attention it needs. If the world around you blames you for your disease, it's that much easier for you to follow suit. That mindset will always make the road to recovery that much more difficult,” he said.

Part of McBrayer’s motivation for the new album was to empathize with those who have struggled with addiction. Interestingly, his goal was to understand the positives of addiction — why people choose to use. This approach is actually consistent with the concept of motivational interviewing, which helps people identify reasons for engaging in addictive behavior and has been shown to be an effective treatment.

“I’ve personally never done heroin. But the best way to understand it is to think heroin is the best thing ever. Many people don’t approach it that way. It’s so often approached as ‘What are the effects on a person and their life?’ There is a reason why someone is continually going back — because it’s the greatest thing ever, and they are seeking out that high, and no one focuses on that,” he said.

McBrayer researched addiction and found that despite critiques of 12-Step programs, many people found them useful. “Many of my friends have gone through the program, and I did extensive interviews with them when writing. You will stumble upon all the detractors, and I think that 12 Steps and whatever resource they’ve come up with aren’t mutually exclusive. I think the 12 Steps [approach] is valuable regardless, if you pair it with some other treatment, or if you just apply it to everyday life.”

And in many ways, working on the new album helped McBrayer clarify and accept his experience of his own darkness. Experiential avoidance is considered a key part of developing psychological distress. In fact, attempts to suppress thoughts or emotions such as anxiety and depression can have the paradoxical effects of making those negative emotions worse.

Accordingly, studies demonstrate that mindfulness therapy programs designed to help people be more accepting of negative moods have been effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety.

McBrayer sees exploring darkness as important for growth. “We have to understand where we went wrong in order to succeed,” he said. “The mistake is to ignore the failures, physical or mental. Embracing the ‘dark side’ will help prevent one from being consumed by it.”

He also sees this as the key to good art. “In an artistic sense, it’s also valuable to recognize the darkness as both a warning and a point to which someone can relate. This music is a reflection of my own approach to life. It recognizes the darkness as if to give it a name and, ultimately, remove its power. Embrace the darkness if only to have hope for better. The message, overall, is absolutely one of hope.”

He explained the choice of the term “Hangman” in this context. “The ‘hanged man’ is the 12th tarot card. The hanged man is the Judas character. I think Judas is almost painted as this broken character in every narrative that you see. And Judas gets no redemption in the court of public opinion. No one discusses what was going through his mind. You’re a traitor. That’s it. It’s binary. It’s the way we think of everything else.”

“There’s no ‘You can change.’ There’s no redemption.” 

But we can change, and from a certain perspective, be redeemed. “I’m certainly in a better place now than I was 10 years ago,” he said.

Moreover, it never hurts to bring in the wisdom of “Star Wars.”

“I love the idea of balance of ‘the Force,’ because it doesn’t mean that the Jedi take over all the Sith, and it doesn’t mean the Sith eradicate all the Jedi.  The balance of the Force is always going back to the Force.  It’s just maintaining the good and the evil. They mimic and mirror each other,” he said.

McBrayer also cites the wisdom of the movie Batman, where ironically, Batman and the Joker were instrumental in the other’s development. Batman was created after the Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, and the Joker character was created after Batman threw him into chemical waste. McBrayer explained, “Take the Batman/Joker relationship: ‘You Made Me.’”

“Everyone has their own Joker, and everyone has their own Batman.”

Listen to “Hangman” here.

Michael 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.