09 Jun

Get Up & Be It: How A Ted Leo Song Helped Me Survive

I’ve always been one for songs that get you right in the heart. You know the ones: They get stuck in your head and live there, not because the melody is catchy but because you caught in it, or in the lyrics, something that your subconscious has identified as truth.

There are many reasons why these songs matters, why they deserve to be heard, but there is one concrete example that I’d like to share because, quite frankly, it saved my life.

In the fall of 2004, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists released their fourth album, Shake The Sheets. I picked up the CD at Other Music, because CDs were still the medium of choice and Other Music was still a record store in New York City. I put it in my Discman for a period of extended listening, and sometime that season I found myself walking across town listening to the album on my way to check myself into the hospital.

A week-long cold had turned into two weeks, then three, and then one morning at work I coughed blood into the bathroom sink. “Can I at least go home and grab some things first?” I asked my doctor.

“Um, you need to go now.” And so my Discman and I went.

As fall of 2004 turned into the winter of 2005, I remained in the hospital. First I stared out the windows onto First Avenue while I waited for someone to figure out what why my lungs were eating holes through themselves. Then I stared out the window of my Bushwick apartment for three nights after they released me, thinking I had pneumonia. Then, for a month after that, there was nothing at all.

When I eventually emerged from a medically induced coma and into the post-death-scare reality that my family and friends had been living in my absence, I found that I had little to occupy myself with and a lot of information to unpack. While unconscious, I’d been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis. What that got me was a tube in my throat that helped me breathe but kept me from speech, and a serious case of muscle atrophy that made writing impossible.

At some point in all of this, someone — if I had to guess, probably my father — saw fit to put headphones on me and rest my Discman next to me on the bed. One of the first CDs he played for me was Ted Leo’s Shake The Sheets, the one that had been in my player when I’d checked all my belongings at the hospital door.

“Me & Mia” is the first song on Shake The Sheets, and over twelve years later this song still grabs me with the same intensity it did in that hospital bed.

It wrapped itself around me at a moment when I didn’t understand much about the life I was—barely—living.

I listened to it during a period when there was no leaving the house each morning, when there was no one around to see me pressing the “back” button repeatedly, when there was no one around and I was deeply, deeply lonely. It resonated with me for the all of the reasons good songs resonate with anyone: not through form but through feeling. I clung to it in an increasingly literal manner because at the time it was the only thing that made sense.

A few lines in particular were my life rafts:

“Fighting for the smallest goal to get a little self control”

“What’s eating you alive might help you to survive”

“Not doctors, nor your mom and dad, but me and Mia, Ann and Anna know how hard you try — don’t you see it in my eyes?”

That song was more honest with me than anyone around me at the time. My loved ones were trying to be sensitive, to be gentle, and to hide their fears that I wasn’t yet out of the woods.

“Me and Mia” cut through the bullshit and articulated for me a struggle that was really just beginning.

At the time of my illness, I’d been in the music industry for three years. I’d had health insurance for only six months, and had I gotten sick a year prior, I’d have lost my life to debt if not to disease. Still, health insurance only gets you so far: my days were peppered with conversations about rejected claims and bills from the ICU, and there would be a time months later when collection agencies would find joy in calling and screaming at me about what I owed them. “I am twenty-four years old, I just had to teach myself to walk again, I make thirty thousand dollars a year and live in New York City,” I explained.

The wolves continued to circle at my door nonetheless.

These awful experiences with debt collectors matter for a couple of reasons. One, because health insurance is not a given in creative communities and it is nothing less than a matter of life and death. And two, because while Ted Leo’s music was keeping me emotionally alive during the darkest time of my life, it was also helping me financially. While I was in the hospital, my co-workers helped organize a benefit show to help pay my medical bills. The headliner? None other than Ted Leo.

I heard the show was a good one. It was sold out, it got great press, and my parents got to take a picture with Ted. (In it, as in nearly every picture he has ever taken, my father is flipping the camera off.) To be honest, I lay in my hospital bed that night and cried because it was the first Ted Leo show I’d ever missed. I took it badly, and I took it badly that I was alone in a hospital bed while everyone I knew and loved was at the show. I put my headphones on and I listened to “Me & Mia” over and over, and I waited it out.

The hook in “Me & Mia” is a beautiful moment where Ted asks the listener, “Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it.”

I ran that line in my mind every day of rehab, as I went from sitting to standing to dragging my feet up stairs one at a time. I’ve done my best every day since, if not to get up and be something beautiful, at least to get up and be.

It’s hard to imagine what I’d have done without “Me & Mia”, and without Ted Leo, in general. I fought hard to get healthy, to pay off the bills that the benefit didn’t cover, and to figure out how to live my live without thinking every cough or sneeze is a pathway back to the hospital. I’ve been lucky in that regard.

But don’t tell me for a minute that music doesn’t save lives, because I have physical evidence to the contrary.

By Sarah Flynn, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Sarah Mulligan, distributed under the CC-BY-ND creative commons license.

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