Comfortably Numb

Comfortably Numb

I first heard The Wall when I was 16. I’d already got a copy of Dark Side of the Moon and had spent many an hour lying in my darkened bedroom – door closed, eyes shut – just listening to it from start to finish. There’s something in particular about Pink Floyd that resonates with me – I can lose myself in the music, becoming totally involved. The sensations – visual, spatial, tactile – conjured up in my mind complement the sound wonderfully.

The Wall connects on another level though – it’s one of the few works where I find many of the lyrics have meaning for me. The second track is The Thin Ice:

“If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice”

This speaks to me of the superficiality of society – how fragile the social structures are that I rely on to support me, and how that support can disintegrate leading me to a breakdown, overwhelmed by my own fears, desperate for help.

The recurrent themes of the album are alienation, fear, desperately seeking connection with others, rejection, bullying and abuse leading to depression and mental overload – meltdown/breakdown, withdrawal and isolation. I can identify with all of these.

But the track that I feel the greatest affinity for is Comfortably Numb. It begins with a doctor approaching the protagonist: “Hello/Is there anybody in there?” – I’m in shutdown brought on by an emotional overload. I can see and hear what’s going on around me – what people are saying to me – but I can’t respond.

“[…] I can ease your pain […] Can you show me where it hurts?” is the misinterpretation of my state by people around me. They intrude, disturbing me and I try to shut them out – to create a barrier in my mind and block them. “There is no pain you are receding […] You are only coming through in waves/Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying” – I’m succeeding in blocking them – filtering them out of my sensory inputs.

“I can’t explain/You would not understand/This is not how I am.” This is my inability to express how I’m feeling. The fact that even if I could describe how I feel, it would be so removed from your own experiences that you could not empathise with me. The dichotomy between my calm, unemotional exterior and my inner turmoil that causes you to misinterpret my feelings.

The song’s perspective switches back to the doctor: “OK/Just a little pin-prick […] I do believe it’s working […] Come on it’s time to go.” This is people trying to change me, to force me to conform and behave in a “normal” fashion – a sometimes painful experience.

The song concludes: “When I was a child/I caught a fleeting glimpse/Out of the corner of my eye/I turned to look but it was gone/I cannot put my finger on it now/The child is grown/The dream is gone.” The illusions that I had in childhood have been dispelled – I can’t even clearly recall the innocent naivete of those days. It can be a hard, cold world and it makes no allowances for those who are different – who have difficulty coping.

“I have become comfortably numb.” If I don’t open up – if I keep myself to myself and don’t get close to anybody, I can minimise my chances of being hurt. I can try to keep a lid on my emotions, I can try to stay uninvolved. I can try to make myself numb – not to care – so that I won’t feel the intensity of emotions, so I won’t feel such pain – so I’ll be comfortable. I’ll be able to function in the world at large but it will be at the expense of losing an important part of myself.

“Comfortably numb” – it’s dangerously attractive, a great temptation to be numb and never feel fear, pain, anger. But such a cost. Never to feel happiness, love, excitement. And that would be a cost far too high for me to bear. So I will suffer the bad times, the depths of depression and the agonising pain in the knowledge that when the good times come round again it will be on a wave of exaltation. The contrast – the ups and downs, highs and lows – the sheer emotional rollercoaster is part of what makes us human and alive, and to abandon or deny that would be to diminish ourselves; it would be a living death.