People | Mental Health

How Shanties and Songs of the Sea Helped Me Weather the Storm of Depression

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks.

who actually goes to sea shanty festivals?  Well, me: a landlubbing millennial woman who does not know how to sail and hates the taste of fish. The tickets had been in hand for months, but my abrupt discontinuation of Seroquel hadn’t been planned. After a blood test revealed my blood sugar had finally crept to pre-diabetic levels, my doctor advised me to taper off my nightly dose, splitting the peach-colored pills into halves and quarters until I was free and clear. I figured I’d make it—really, I barely thought about it.

I Through it all, I felt spacey, not fully corporeal, viciously nauseous. I couldn’t get my bearings. I posted the requisite mugging, thumbs-up photos for social media and immediately wanted to lie down. It was, honestly, like being seasick.

damn Rise Up Singing

image via New York Public Library Digital Collections

Shanties from the Seven Seas, Shanties were songs of utility, evolving from the wild, yelping “sing-outs” of working men on the decks to melodies and refrains, polished and honed for heaving or hauling—never frivolous, but indispensable. “A good song was worth ten men on a rope,” as the sailors’ saying goes.

A Book of Shanties,

image via New York Public Library Digital Collections

Then poor old Jack must understand / Theres ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

Shanties from the Seven Seas,

could not

Assassin’s Creed: Black Sails real

image via New York Public Library Digital Collections


Eventually, I found a new doctor, I got new drugs, I fell in love. I started taking, hilariously, fish oil (a helpful source of mood-regulating fatty acids, said my psychiatrist, for those who can’t choke down a single salmon filet). But the music of the sea didn’t leave me. It was imprinted inside me, a throughline both to the hollowness I felt for those months and to the hollow heart of the songs themselves, of the men who had sung them.