Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Jon Troast and got to hear many a compelling story surrounding his latest EP release, G [Editor’s note: Yes, the letter “G.” Jon’s albums are working their way through the alphabet. No joke.] Our conversation involved the unexpected gifts of depression and the remarkable way songs can predict the unfolding of our lives. I invite you to investigate Jon’s new EP for yourself here.
Jon: The story of this EP starts with my youngest brother’s unexpected death in 2015. He struggled a lot with alcoholism, but drugs are what got him. He was adopted; I actually have four adopted siblings. We don’t know a lot of his history in that sense—maybe his biological father struggled in that way, too.
But generally, the Lord has spared me from much trial in my life. So when that happened, it hit me hard. There’s a lot of hurt there.
Then six months after that, I met my fiancee at Hutchmoot—
Drew: Where all good things begin.
Jon: Exactly. I had been on dates, but this was my first serious girlfriend. Things moved pretty quickly, but it was long distance, as well.
So it seemed very sudden in May 2016 when I fell into a major depression. We can talk about that, too. That’s where this album came from. I’ve tried to understand why exactly it happened, but some of that is futile. Something about my brother’s death, then falling in love six months later stirred up quite a lot for me.
Drew: Lots of emotional highs and lows.
Jon: Yes, so many dimensions were happening there. So after many futile attempts to figure it all out, I’m content not to get to the bottom of it. Sometimes you shouldn’t try to understand every factor in play.
Drew: It’s a funny thought that you can’t get to the bottom of it and shouldn’t even try. I’m the kind of person that always wants to get to the bottom of it, so for me, anytime I have to surrender my ability to understand what’s going on—it’s hard to admit I’m not the master of my destiny.
Jon: Sounds like we’re pretty similar in that.
Drew: Yeah, having to acknowledge that you can’t and shouldn’t go there must be its own challenge for you.
Jon: Of course. But at the same time, I really am thankful for the whole story. I just heard a sermon yesterday about affliction. The message was that tenderness is the real benefit of affliction. I’ve received a real sympathy for others who struggle with anxiety and depression now. Even in day-to-day interaction with people, if someone is rude to me, who knows what could be going on in their life?
Drew: You really never know.
...the Lord is more concerned about our faith than our comfort.Jon Troast
Jon: And you can’t know. From my own experience with depression, there’s no way to let people into your head. It was the darkest time I had ever known. Can there really be any point of reference for others who haven’t been there themselves?
Drew: So your brother died, then you fell in love, then you fell into a depression.
Jon: And the onset of that depression was almost a year to the day after my brother died.
Drew: And now you’re looking back and making sense of it, how God can bring tenderheartedness out of the whole story.
Jon: Yeah. Tenderness and faith, as well. One of the more succinct takeaways I got was the realization that the Lord is more concerned about our faith than our comfort. Not that he doesn’t want to bless us, but as James reminds us, we are called to endure pain and trials with joy. From an eternal kingdom perspective, this life is so short. Depression was horrible and I would never have asked for it, but it is possible even if difficult to welcome the work of it.
I was in a very unhealthy mindset at the time, too. In my frustration I dug deeper into scripture, but it terrified me. I was convinced that I was condemned and going to hell. Not that there isn’t some truth in my brokenness—sure, there is—but I went much too far with it. And that’s a symptom of depression, taking those things to the extreme. Every feeling seems permanent, like the entirety of reality. That was all I could see.
Drew: I’d love for you to explore that more; I’ve never fallen into prolonged depression, but I have felt depressed before, and I understand on a smaller scale the perspective of seeing only how things are tainted, broken, and wrong. And if you’re determined to, you can see that in everything. There’s something true in that perspective that needs to be honored. But to absolutize it and make it all there is—
Jon: To give it unfair prominence—I think in a way, it’s all the more evidence of the light shining ever brighter. Darkness is an absence of light, so there’s no way that it’s all there is. I mean that’s beautiful.
The Lord did some wonderful things in my faith through that, but honestly, medication is what helped me get back to the point where I could process things well. And I’m the kind of guy who just takes care of himself—exercising, eating vegetables—so I never want to take Tylenol. I’d always rather be healthy in general and avoid problems, which made the idea of taking medication hard for me.
But when you have no motivation for months at a time, something has to change. I felt as if I hadn’t slept for months. I know I slept, I had to have slept, but I was in such an apathetic state that I felt as if I hadn’t rested.
So once I was able to process and ask questions again about what I believe, I was able to hear and receive the word that there are truths that don’t change, regardless of how you feel. And depression is all about how you feel. How you feel is all there is. So that is a real antidote to the problem of depression. Once I was able to dig back into scripture, it was so important for me to see again how God keeps his promises, regardless of how I feel.
Drew: I can start to see where the songs came from out of that.
Jon: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”?
Drew: That’s what I was thinking, yeah! That was one of my favorites.
Jon: A big part of what I learned also has to do with usefulness. I’m the kind of person who likes to be doing things, being productive. Right before my depression, I had just bought a house, things were going well with my girlfriend, I was playing lots of shows, feeling good about myself.
And then for several months in a row, I felt like all I was doing was laying on the couch being useless, which really puts things in perspective. It reminds me that the very ability to put together a spreadsheet to book shows is a gift. That’s where “I’m Giving You Everything” came from. It’s so easy to think I can take credit for my life and career, but truly I have nothing to offer on my own. And out of my depression, I can see that the very ability to focus or do anything at all is a gift. It’s a hard but crucial lesson.
Drew: I can hear that on the EP. It feels corrective and instructive. The songs orient me as a listener to see from that perspective, so it’s cool for me to be able to hear where that comes from for you.
Jon: Thanks for putting a helpful frame around it. These songs just came out of the time in which I was writing them, but you just gave some clear outside insight.
Drew: So did you write the EP in hindsight, looking back, or during the time of your depression?
Jon: Well, I wrote “In My Savior’s Arms,” interestingly enough, a week before my brother died. At the time I wrote it, I didn’t know where it came from. My brother had been struggling, but I was pretty unaware of the extremity of it, and I wasn’t writing about him. And then a week later my brother died and that song became a comfort to me. So that song feels like a little drop of hope the Lord gave me in the nick of time.
Then the first verse of “Carry Me, Jesus”—“please take this weight off my shoulders / all I’m doing is weighing me down / I thought I was strong but those days are over / And I’ve got nothing left to offer you now”—I wrote that within the days leading up to my depression. It was crazy how unaware I was of what was coming when I wrote that verse. I thought, “oh this could be helpful for someone who is struggling with depression,” but I didn’t feel myself to be that person. Generally I’m pretty upbeat, optimistic, and even-keeled, by the grace of God.
Drew: So that’s two songs now that were very prescient when you wrote them, kind of like the calm before the storm.
Jon: It feels like a gift of the Lord—either I’m really in touch with my inner life because I unwittingly wrote these songs at just the right time, or I’m not in touch at all since I had no clue where they were coming from.
Drew: It sounds like songwriting for you occupies this space of deeper connection with yourself, whether you always know it consciously or not. And I know that’s not out of the ordinary; other people testify to that, too. Songs can do crazy things.
Jon: For months after I wrote that verse of “Carry Me, Jesus,” I couldn’t write anything in my depression. So I just had that verse, and I felt creatively paralyzed. But then I started on medication. I started on a minimal dose, and after a couple weeks I began to feel a little bit better. I was just thankful that I could enjoy anything at all. Music began to rise up from the ashes during that time.
But I did feel like I was teetering on the edge—I wrote “From the Rising of the Son” at that point, and while I was excited to be doing anything at all, I still didn’t feel like there was much purpose. I was still in that frame of mind where my feelings seemed permanent.
A lot of those songs came out of that time as I was slowly crawling out of my depression. But every once in a while as I steadily took more medication, I would dip back down into a deeper depression again. After getting through a couple cycles of that, I was able to get back to my normal self again. The moments of hope along the way yielded these songs.
In some ways, being able to belt out these refrains was like a battle cry. It was my way of defying what I was feeling in the moment and holding onto hope. Martin Luther was known to say, “Let’s sing a hymn and spite the devil.” And that’s truly what I felt like I was doing.