Kathryn Wood on Music as a Catharsis for Coping
I’ve been battling with my soul, slowly losing my mind
But the air and land’s distance separate, so I give in.
Higher, higher on this flight the war ends, & I resign
I’m allowed to be broken ‘til we go in for landing.
“Big Steel Wings,” 2017. Album: “In the Ashes.”
Singing and songwriting are how Kathryn Rose Wood processes emotion. Kathryn says growing up as the second born of 10 children in a military family meant she was expected to get back up when she fell and not cry about it. Putting pen to paper gave Kathryn room to crack open her heart while compartmentalizing her musical world from reality. She could explore her emotions in songwriting but still be perceived by others as strong in her day-to-day life. The lines between those realms quickly disappeared when Kathryn’s brother died of suicide. The very next day, she wrote a song for him, “Lullaby to Preston.” She’d been sitting on the melody and chords, not sure what to do with them, and tucking them away for another day. The lyrics came to her in the shock and despair Kathryn felt at losing her younger brother. “I wrote what I wish I could have said to him, how I thought he felt, and what I was experiencing at hearing the news.” Then she didn’t play another note for six months.
Music tugged too sharply at Kathryn’s emotions when she didn’t want to feel, but they welled inside of her, pushing to get out. In trying to escape her pain, she strayed from the one way she knew how to express her feelings. “I didn’t want to feel anything, so I stopped playing music.” Kathryn quit her band, resentful that gig contracts limited the time she could spend with family before and after Preston’s funeral. Before her brother’s death, Kathryn and her fiancé were planning a wedding. Afterward, her relationship dissolved, taking her to deeper depths of despair. Though she was at her lowest point, that moment was also the tipping point where she said, “No, I’m not going to succumb to this.”
Joining a group that paired artists to write songs, Kathryn was matched with a quiet, observant poet who she says has a therapist’s soul. They wrote “Big Steel Wings,” the second song in her album “In the Ashes.” She also partnered with a music therapist whose older brother died of suicide one month after Preston. Together, they were able to process some of their grief. Writing with these two women was cathartic and allowed Kathryn to return to her craft. “I was finding connection with the few people who understood what I was going through. It gave me a safe space to express my confusion, hurt, and anger.” Kathryn says singing is what she does when she doesn’t have the words to speak. “It’s like that line from the 1999 Wilco song ‘She’s a Jar’: ‘when I forget how to talk, I sing.’ Songwriting is what brought the words back to me. My whole life, the only place I felt safe expressing emotions was through music.” That’s changed since losing Preston. Kathryn’s now more open with how she feels in life as well as in articles she pens for NAMI, Elephant Journal, and other publications.
Kathryn says music saved her life, allowing her to process and cope with pain. She wants to ensure that it’s an entry point for others in New Orleans and nationwide who may not yet have the words to express their despair. She says many people aren’t taught to define the range of emotions they may feel. “Music is a space of connection and allows us to identify how we feel. It’s something most people enjoy and opens the door to conversations about difficult topics like suicide.” That’s why Kathryn developed the annual Music for Mental Health concert. She says some advocacy groups do walks and trivia nights, but they are often silos because no one knows about them unless they’re already involved with those organizations or know someone in mental health. Additionally, she says some people may be turned off by these groups because they’re like Preston—or how she once was—and don’t want to show up somewhere and admit that they’re not feeling their best. “Acknowledging we don’t feel whole is saying we are flawed, and we think something’s wrong with that.” Kathryn says there’s more inclusion and accessibility in music because a person can be an observer and still gain from the experience.
The concerts, which are now piloting in high schools around the city, are an opportunity to have a conversation and also shift the perception that someone who struggles with mental illness and suicidal ideation is not one of us. “Society acts like we are less than: that we can’t have functional relationships or careers. We know that’s not true, and breaking the stigma around these misconceptions is essential. Music is a place for that message to be shared where we can speak about suicide prevention and the feelings many of us navigate every day.”
Photo credit: Icon Photography
Want to read more about Kathryn Wood? Check out her thoughts on Loss and Breaking the Cultural Construct of Toughness.
Stephanie Hepburn, J.D., is the Chief Content Officer at RI International and editor in chief of Hope Inc. Stories and #CrisisTalk. She’s a journalist and the author of three books on human rights. Stephanie believes that storytelling is a critical tool to help break stigma and discrimination, fostering parity and a pathway to hope.