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Mental health in the music industry

  • #wellness
  • #music
  • #mentalhealth

Published byRob Macfarlane

A Half Remembered Anecdote

Once upon an absolute age ago, I’m almost 100% sure I heard this anecdote in a film. It might have been 1997’s Good Will Hunting, or it might be crime classic Se7en, but I’ll have to ask you lovely readers to confirm that for me in the comments. I remember the anecdote well, because in the film it’s posed as a question, and because I was unfortunate enough to learn the answer.

In the film, our hero has interrupted an exchange between a minor pest and the lovely lady. She is having her evening in the bar interrupted by the repeated and unwanted advances of this random bar-pest and the hero interrupts the current unwelcome attempt at courtship with the following zinger:

“Hey! You know crazy people? How they’re acting all crazy, staring into space, painting the walls with random symbols and babbling at random? Do you think they know they’re crazy? And a follow-up question; do you think idiots know when they’re being an idiot?”

Now when I first saw this film, I remember this scene landing incredibly well, satisfying every tension it had so artfully set up, and providing a plausible reason for our hero and love interest to strike up conversation. But long after the film ended, I remained struck by the question: 

Does crazy know it’s being crazy?

The Problem As I See It

I suffer with my mental health. 

For me, even the act of typing that sentence is laden with complication and self-doubt, as I consider the seemingly torturous variety of verbs to put inside it. Would ‘struggle’ be more appropriate? Perhaps ‘have to actively maintain’? ‘Fight’? 

I decided on ‘suffer’ because realistically, my relationship with my mind is an ultimately frustrating one; in which I constantly have to second guess my feelings, moderate my reactions and ruthlessly discipline my thoughts.

Perfectly mundane interactions I have with my colleagues to which they barely give a first thought, let alone a second, become monolithic chapters of my day that I will think about, overthink about, force myself to relax about, forget about and then remember as I’m trying to get to sleep. Every criticism is a firing offence, every compliment a sarcastic dig and every second of silence an awkward eternity. 

I’ve also found that my mental health has at times given me tremendous appreciation and joy to be found in the little things. A walk through the park on a sunny day, it seems like every single dog has been sent across my path specifically to raise a smile, and my walks past London Zoo have always been a guaranteed cure for any daily ailments. It’s one of the many ways I’ve learned to manage my personal mental troubles – but there lies an important observation – my methods are not necessarily what will work for everyone.

I’ve never assumed that my experiences with my mind will be of any use to someone else’s uniquely bothered brain. As monumental as my struggles are to me, it would be naive to think that they even register on the scale of how bad these struggles can be for those with dissociative identity disorders or psychotic episodes. Furthermore, pain is never lessened by hearing the other patients in adjacent beds screaming for help. If anything that just feeds the fear that our own cries for help, and likelihood of getting it, will be lost in the fray. 

Often my unwell friends and I will discuss medication like a bizarre game of illness top-trumps, each of us desperate to prove to the world (and therefore ourselves) that our pain is as unique and untreatable as it feels every day.

However there has always been one thing that has consistently, reliably and measurably helped me throughout my entire life, and I’m confident might be a universal treatment. Music. 

There is no place my broken brain has ever taken me, that my friends on the other side of the headphones have not been able to lead me out of. It may not be immediate, and it may not be a straight path, but my album catalogue seems like a vast and well stocked pharmacist – filled to the brim with cures and remedies for whatever mood I happen to have trapped myself under. 

A life long cynic and skeptic, I’m often allergic to happier treatments until I have my sadness diagnosed and recognised by one of the more morose medications; Elliot Smith or The Cure then as the starting therapy. As they comfort me along, I become able to digest the brighter pleasures of Kendrick Lamarr and Tuneyards, before finishing my course with a heavy dose of the truly concentrated joyful Queen. 

Starting Out

This absolutely key nature of music in my life led me to an insatiable desire to pay this kindness forward. I categorically had to work in music; as a moral obligation to all the songs that had at one time or another saved my life. 

I begged, borrowed and stole my way through part time cash in hand jobs until I finally achieved that pinnacle of my ambition: being a part-time teaboy at a London recording studio. I was so grateful for this position that any hour, of any day, I would happily crawl over hot coals if even for a second if I thought it might help. 

This dedication and commitment led to me progressing to Assistant Engineer, where I was struck with a second wave of gratitude and imposter syndrome. When Chase & Status asked me to be their permanent Studio Engineer, I completely struggled where to fit my overabundance of thankfulness and obligation. 

A few years later I had still not shifted my overwhelming imposter syndrome. I knew a thousand people would kill to be where I was; that ten thousand more had worked harder than I did, but just didn’t catch the breaks I had. Engineering for a new client now, I was working more than 120 hours a week as standard, and spending each one of them terrified I wasn’t living up to the expectations I so keenly, permanently felt. 

One shift saw me at the desk for 60 hours straight, leaving only momentarily to use the toilet every few hours. I started hallucinating huge, shapeless black spiders darting across the floor, and began teleporting across the room as my brain shut off for the short walk across to move microphones. And it was here I finally got the answer to the question, barely remembered from a film I had seen so many years before.

Getting A Little Lost

No. You do not know when you have lost your mental health. You do not know that your behaviour could be reasonably described as utterly, totally crazy. For everything I was doing at the time, I could provide what seemed to be a perfectly rational, reasonable motivation. The fact that I was killing myself in service of a project that had no end in sight was inconceivable to me; after all, if that was the case, then why was everyone else in the room doing the same thing? 

I was not obsessed with being the person to see the project through for my client, I was just doing what had to be done. Great art takes great sacrifice, and in my head, great sacrifice must therefore automatically create great art. 

Towards the end of that project I was hospitalised with a complete mental breakdown. I was so keen to not let the team down that I almost immediately returned to work to have another, more serious psychotic break. The fallout from that period of my life nearly five years ago still presents the bulk of what I have to deal with today.

A Way Out

But the very thing that drove me to such a difficult place, was once again the tonic that led me out. There were of course a number of key people whose help was immeasurable, it does after all take a village to raise a corpse, but alongside all of them music was a constant source of rejuvenation. 

Throughout the course of my career, I had increasingly begun to listen to all music as its constituent elements. Rather than a song, I heard a kick drum, a bass guitar, a Hammond organ; and then would obsessively analyse and deconstruct each of these to glean details of use in my work. In doing so, I had deprived myself of my favourite cakes and shifted instead to a diet consisting solely of eggs, sugar, butter and flour. 

I recognised I had fallen out of love with music, and resolved to earn back it’s love until we could mutually renew our vows. Instead of myopically focusing on the details, I forced myself instead to concentrate on how the parts came together to form something greater than any of the individual parts alone. 

I rediscovered ‘the song’, and the power that music has as the sole form of emotional communication that needs no words, no context, no effort to understand. And here is where I finally answered the second part of that filmically posed question. 

Yes. I can recognise when I’m being an idiot, when I’m listening poorly and robbing myself of the greatest joy I have in my life. All I have to do in response, is open my ears and remember to Listen Well

It’s Okay Not To Be Okay

You cannot serve from an empty vessel; without first looking after your own needs, you cannot look to properly satisfy anyone else’s. Struggling with your mental health is just as common as struggling with your physical health, but a cold or a sore back will be talked about far more openly than any grey-matter issues. 

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, take some time for a little self-care; whether it’s taking the first steps towards talking to a professional or something as simple as listening to a little musical medication. 

I’ve put some of my favourites into a Spotify playlist.

Tag @irislistenwell on Instagram and let us know what audio helps you through your journey.