Seven years prior to my anxiety breakdown, Panic! at the Disco released their third studio album, Vices & Virtues on March 22, 2011. The album was the first to be recorded as a duo by vocalist Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith following the departure of lead guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker.
Since Ross was also the band’s primary lyricist, Urie decided to take over to fill the vacancy in Panic!’s repertoire. As such, the album features prominent themes of manipulation and confusion while drawing inspiration from the Biblical seven deadly sins.
Late to the party as always, I began listening to Vices & Virtues in high school at the beginning of my sophomore year. “Trade Mistakes” quickly became a frontrunner for my favorite track on the album.
My breakdown started with little things like green text messages from an unhealthy relationship. One day, I looked at my dinner, and the thought of eating anything made me gag. My anxiety triggers kept building until I was spinning out of control, with no sign of slowing.
My therapist later explained that my anxiety had triggered my sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. I couldn’t eat or sleep because my body’s extreme state of distress prevented the parasympathetic nervous system from taking over to allow basic functions like digestion. My brain was an inescapable war zone, and with my fight-or-flight engaged at all times, it was impossible to relax.
During the darkest time of my life, music was my therapy (besides real therapy of course). I would play “Trade Mistakes” on the bus as I furiously chewed gum and tried not to think about how I couldn’t eat breakfast again. I would play it as I walked from class to class, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. And I would play it on countless sleepless nights.
“Trade Mistakes” reminisces on a past relationship while also lamenting the wrongs that led to its demise. The persona of the song expresses his wish to reverse his previous mistakes in order to relive the best moments of the relationship. Although presumed to be about a romantic relationship, the lyrics could also express Urie’s longing for his old bandmates and desire to make amends.
Listening to “Trade Mistakes” is like walking through a personal antique store of one’s own memories. Upon inspecting a rusty trinket, the internal floodgates release, and all the good and bad dammed up over the years come rushing out.
The grand orchestral opening fades into a rapid pizzicato that emulates the vibrating chimes of an old grandfather clock. The chimes persist throughout most of the song like a clock frozen in time, ensnaring the persona in an endless loop.
Like the persona in “Trade Mistakes,” I was stuck in my head. I was shouldering a perpetual burden because I felt too ashamed to open up about my feelings to those around me. How could I tell my loved ones that I walked around every day convinced my life had no purpose at all? As time passed and I still struggled to return to my pre-breakdown behaviors, my frustration only reinforced my internal entrapment. I couldn’t understand why my life suddenly felt like a chore.
My self-loathing ran through every fiber of my being. If I couldn’t eat a regular meal or sleep a full night, I would lay in the dark, whispering affirmations of my worthlessness. Sometimes, with my wet face in my pillow, I would scream.
In the second verse, Urie sings, “I feel marooned in this body/Deserted, my organs can go on without me.” In my worst hours, we shared our loneliness; his frustration towards being abandoned, and mine towards my brain’s inability to just be normal. In a world that kept mental health on the outskirts of conversations, it was the first time someone articulated to me what it felt like to live an empty life and go through the motions without any desire to really be there. It was a sign that even though I felt alone, I wasn’t the only one experiencing isolation and confusion.
Although the lyrical echoes in the verses and chorus are distracting, they represent the voices inside the persona’s head that keep him from escaping his thoughts. The echoes create a whirlwind that prevents the persona from reaching out successfully, like how my negative self-talk kept me drowning, unable to lift my head to call for help.
The chorus is a desperate shout, begging to understand what went wrong in the relationship even though the persona refuses to look inward and see his contribution to its deterioration. Every time the lyrics repeat, “Let me save you, hold this rope,” the persona focuses on trying to fix a relationship with a band-aid instead of addressing the fundamental root of its problems. In a song about a failed relationship, the persona views the rope as a symbol of stability while ignoring its dichotomy to be a noose.
While the persona of “Trade Mistakes” could not move forward without reflecting on his own wrong-doings, I was struggling because I couldn’t let anyone into my spiral to pull me out. I harbored so much shame and resentment about my brain’s inability to work normally that I denied myself the stability of a rope or lifeline.
The persona finally realizes his role in the relationship during the bridge. The bridge starts with the lyrics, “And I'll pull you in, 'cause I am an anchor,” as the persona grapples with viewing his role in the relationship as the savior instead of as an equal partner. As the bridge builds, the echoes and instrumentals rapidly crescendo to create an overwhelming cacophony. The chaos and discord of the persona’s clamors reverberate as if he is shouting into a dark, isolated cave. At the culmination of the bridge, the persona has an epiphany, exclaiming, “I am an anchor, sinking her.”
The end of the bridge marks a turning point for the persona as he takes accountability for his mistakes for the first time. He realizes that he is an anchor sinking the relationship, and until he acknowledges his faults, the relationship cannot be rectified.
I was the anchor in my life. I hoped that hiding my anxiety would keep me afloat but instead keeping everything bottled up inside caused my mental explosion. In order to lift the anchor and move forward in my life, I needed to reach out and accept the help offered. Until then, I would continue to remain stuck and alone on the island of my thoughts.
For me, “Trade Mistakes” was a song about finding the power to love myself again. Many nights I would lie awake in bed shaking, my nerves refusing to let my muscles relax. When my ocean waves white noise failed me, which was often, I would open YouTube and queue up “Trade Mistakes.”
With my earbuds in and eyes closed, I would listen to Urie croon, “I may never sleep tonight,” the opening line to the chorus. They were simple lyrics, but no words had ever felt more true. It was the perfect insomnia melody, lulling my fight-or-flight into remission. Urie’s voice was a soothing tide against my mind’s shipwreck, a steady push and pull that could ease the internal storm, if only for three minutes.
For a song about loneliness and helplessness, the final chorus of “Trade Mistakes” is tentatively and vulnerably hopeful. After the moment of epiphany, the echoes and loud instrumentals strip away, leaving the steady beat and syncopated synths to lift Urie’s breathy whispers like a breeze on a warm spring day. The peace only lasts for a few seconds before the track kicks back into a frenzy of frantic instrumentals with Urie’s voice straining to be heard. The song is cyclical, ending with an orchestral outro that calls back to the beginning.
In this way, “Trade Mistakes” is a lot like anxiety. As the song loops back to its beginning, it seems to prove that no matter the lessons learned, the persona ends up stuck again. However, this setback is not a permanent ending because the persona resolves to stay awake, trading mistakes “So they fade away.” Even though the persona recognizes that not all his mistakes can be remedied overnight, he knows that eventually, they will fade away into a distant memory.
When I was in the thick of my anxiety, I couldn’t see beyond the suffocating shadows of my own thoughts. I needed a reminder that this state of mind was only temporary, and I would move into a life where I could feel peace again. Looking back, I latched onto “Trade Mistakes” because it vocalized what I was going through in a way that no one else could. Most importantly, it reminded me that my anxiety would fade, even when it felt never-ending.
As I began to heal from my anxiety breakdown, Panic! at the Disco fell into the background of my mind. However, as any person with mental illness knows, you are never truly “cured.” So when I lie awake on another endless night, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and remember that I will learn to sleep again.