How Music Both Enhanced and Hurt My College Experience

Independence and Rock N Roll.


If you happen to be struggling right now, I want you to know that there are brighter days ahead and that you are loved and valued. Even though I still struggle, I am living with purpose and drive and you can too.

My name is Mary Dillard, and there are two things you should know about me to understand this story. I love music and I have cerebral palsy. These two facts have a few important implications. First, my condition means that I am confined to a wheelchair, and thus have faced many unique challenges. This, combined with the fact that I suffer from depression and anxiety, has indeed made for some pain and hardship in my life. Second, music has always been a profound escape for me. For as long as I can remember, whenever I faced difficulty, music was always there when no one else was. Everything from Tupac to Mozart strengthened my resolve in times of struggle and social isolation. It is important to understand that music is, in my case, very therapeutic. It is the emotional filter through which I process and crystalize all my emotions. It also, to my detriment, can make it easier to avoid taking ownership of my depression and anxiety. That being said, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it served the same purpose during the most transformative period in my life thus far: college.

For most students, college life is their first real taste of independence, and the same was true for me. I first tasted that independence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fast forward to August, 2016. I’m twelve hours away from my native Georgia, in Champaign, a week before classes start. I’m settling into, and loving, my newfound independence. The first night on my own, I paced full speed up and down the hallways bursting with excitement. I must have listened to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” 50 times that night. I had a clear vision of what I wanted and was sure of success. Oh, how things quickly things changed.

By the time classes started, the gilded novelty of it all had worn off. Assignments began to pile up, malaise began to set in and cracks were beginning to show. I was not prepared to handle school on top of a full staff of personal assistants hired to help me with physical tasks. What made it worse was having to do it all so far away from home. I was on my own for the first time, overwhelmed and utterly terrified in my new social environment. In hindsight, I realize my fear and anxiety overrode my ability to cultivate healthy relationships with some of my peers. Instead of doing homework in my free time, I spent it all pacing with my headphones on, but not with excitement or joy. Instead, I was using it to alleviate pain and escape. Some important music for me from that time included Explosions In The Sky’s The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place, Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demovand The Sun’s Tirade as well as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. My Friday night pregame playlist included hits like “No Problem” by Chance the Rapper and “Bounce Back” by Big Sean. I definitely had some fun nights. I even screamed along to “The Anthem” by Good Charlotte with some friends at the local watering hole.

Before I close, I want to tell you all about one of my favorite places in Champaign, one that genuinely illustrates the critical role that music plays in my life: the local record store. As strange as it sounds, this place was my safe haven. The owner knew me by name and helped me start my vinyl collection. At my lowest points, I would skip class to go there, hang out and just talk about all things music. I felt free, confident and happy. I’m not condoning skipping class; it just goes to show how much comfort music and that record store brought me.

I want to emphasize the importance of using music in a healthy way, not to avoid ownership and shirk responsibility as I was doing. At a certain point, my immersion in music became another symptom of my depression and I should have taken my headphones off for a moment to face reality.

In closing, I want to say I am doing much better today. I ended up leaving UIUC, but I’m currently majoring in political science at Armstrong State University with aspirations of some day working in the foreign service. If you happen to be struggling right now, I want you to know that there are brighter days ahead and that you are loved and valued. Even though I still struggle, I am living with purpose and drive and you can too.

“Anyone that’s making anything new only breaks something else”

Sincerly, Mary Dillard

P.S. A playlist for your troubles