13 Mar Finding Full-Time Music With Help From Anxiety
The letter below was written in December 2016. In September 2016 (three months earlier) I had left the corporate career mentioned as a contributor to my declined mental wellbeing. I was still struggling with the aftershock of anxiety and depression when writing the letter. In the Epilogue at the end of the letter I describe what happened since, but nevertheless, the circumstances in the letter below were a definite catalyst for where I am today, living and working as a full-time musician.
My name is Jeremy Johnson. I am a confident, adventurous thirty-one-year-old. My last 10 years have been a whirlwind of self-discovery, from travelling widely across the globe, climbing the ranks of multinational corporations, playing music live as an emerging songwriter, competing in international endurance events and generally living a life-less-ordinary. Outwardly I am healthy, happy and successful. I have enjoyed an incredible life which continues to blossom into a remarkable and varied story. Although it may seem so, my intention in starting this letter in this way is not to brag, but as reference to a part of my life that sits quietly in the shadows, that very few people know about and even fewer would suspect. This particular part is remarkably difficult for me to talk about and seemingly impossible to fully communicate to those who have yet to experience similar. That part is my ongoing struggle with mental health.
Firstly, let me address the automatic recoil you may have felt reading those two words, particularly if you are a friend of mine. For many years, I had done the same thing when it comes to the mental health of those around me. I just didn’t want to know. Mental health was not something that was ever going to affect me. How could it? “I’m a strong, gregarious and successful”. “Surely mental health was reserved for the weak, the bullied and the timid…”. “Mental health issues are things you were born with, or developed because of some heavy, traumatic event in childhood…” It is important you understand that I never imagined I would develop a mental health disorder, and in some way, that made me more susceptible. I, as with many, was just living in the dragnet of stigma that surrounds mental health, which was one of the most important things I learnt once I came to terms with the reality of being a young man who struggles to stay mentally healthy.
All stories have a beginning. More importantly, all stories also have a foundation upon which they are built. I have come to realise that I was never pre-destined for struggling with mental health, for me it is the product of a gradual and insidious lowering of my defences. This is something that surprised me, as my ignorant previous assumption was that mental health was linked to some sort of pre-conditioned ‘issues’ with the sufferer’s brain; a miss-wiring of sorts. I realise now that we are all at risk no differently to our susceptibility to physical health struggles. Neglect of our mental wellbeing can result in becoming poorly and cause conditions and illnesses in exactly the same way as neglect of our physical wellbeing. Throughout my life I have always taken my physical wellbeing seriously. I realise now that I never showed the same respect to my mental wellbeing and this is one of the pillars in the foundation of why I would go on to develop a mental illness.
My illness is anxiety. Painted perhaps with a splash of irony, anxiety about my health.
The foundation on which the development of my anxiety rested was made up of a number of contributing factors; I had found myself working in a corporate company which did not suit my natural talents. I was constantly swimming against the current and felt like a square peg in a round hole. Work was making me unhappy and in turn I was also coming to the realisation that I had spent the best part of a decade building a career that I didn’t really want. I was living in a place and a community which simply did not fit my natural state and I felt claustrophobic. These two factors combined were causing a consistent and exhausting depression. In an attempt to counteract this I was putting enormous pressure on myself to remain productive, excited and outwardly exciting in my personal life and hobbies, which while having some consoling effect against the depression, also generated a stress that had no clear way of release. I was also coming to terms with being ‘older’. I was in my 30s (to my elders this will seem ridiculous) and this was having a bigger effect on confidence in my health that I ever realised it would. For me, these factors lay the foundation for allowing my anxiety to develop into a repetitive disorder and all it needed was a spark.
My anxiety began rather abruptly and with no warning in early March 2016. I was sitting, watching a movie on my laptop in an empty train carriage when I felt a strange sensation in my chest. Almost as if my heartbeat was suddenly laboured and struggling. I had felt this same feeling before, 6 years earlier and can best describe it as a heart murmur. 6 years before however it had no significant effect on me, as I was sitting in a hostel in the Uzbek city of Bukhara whilst travelling through central Asia and my mental wellbeing was in great shape. On the train, I was quickly aware of a shortness in my breath and a light-head. My heart then began to race uncontrollably. Standing up, I took a short walk into the vestibule to get some air, but on returning to my seat I once again felt a similar episode of symptoms. This second time was accompanied by deep and unrelenting fear and I found myself questioning whether I was having a heart attack. Another passenger on the train noticed my uneasy movements and asked if I was ok. As I described what had happened he gave a soothing reassurance that he too had experienced similar things and it was usually nothing to worry about. I immediately felt calmer and more relaxed, but the whole experience and particularly the associated fear was to leave a lasting imprint.
Over the following weeks and months, I began to experience more and more of these episodes. It felt as if my cardiovascular health was beginning to fail me and I developed a strong paranoia around my general wellbeing. As anxiety took hold my energy levels plummeted and I would find myself becoming quiet and unresponsive in social situations. I went to see my doctor, but found it very difficult to articulate the symptoms I was suffering, especially the intense feeling of dread that would accompany each episode. I felt silly and embarrassed trying to describe what I was experiencing, but the episodes themselves were terrifying and characterised by multiple physical symptoms, particularly a shortness of breath in varying intensity – which I later found out was hyperventilation. The doctor sent me for a number of tests, which all came back clear and concluded the episodes I was struggling with were in fact anxiety attacks.
It is easy to call the episodes I suffered anxiety attacks now, as I write these words, but the physicality of symptoms during the attacks made it impossible to fully believe they were associated with mental health. Once panicking, I found it impossible to use logic to talk myself down. In each case my mind would race with caveats and what-if scenarios that would keep me locked into the cycle of symptoms. Even after multiple attacks with similar characteristics I would still find myself wondering if this new episode was a sign of a serious cardiovascular condition. Hyperventilation became one of the more common symptoms I faced. Breathlessness became perpetual because once I was aware of my breath, I would breath abnormally, leading to imbalances in my blood stream which in turn would make me feel like I couldn’t get enough air, continuing the cycle. I had always known about hyperventilation through the “Hollywood” style – quick panic and grab a brown paper bag understanding. The hyperventilation I would experience however, could last anywhere from minutes, to entire weekends of not feeling like I had enough breath. Even following the all clear from my doctor, my rational mind would always find a way to kick start the cycle of fear that would culminate in an anxiety attack. I realised at one point that my creative and analytical mind was partly to blame for my anxiety. I would try to make myself better by obsessing over minute details of how I felt, patterns of attacks or characteristics of symptoms. I was sure I could ‘think’ my way out of an anxiety attack. To this day, I have never managed to get even close. The only short term solutions I have ever noticed working are sleeping and becoming distracted… both of which require no thought on my behalf!
I recognised that my attacks were happening more often when I was tired, run-down or lonely. Conversely, I would very rarely get an attack in the presence of other people or while engaged in an activity. I also recognised that I was tending to have anxiety attacks associated with certain physical events. Often I would suffer some sort of attack whilst travelling, particularly alone and long distance. This makes complete sense in association with my first attack on the train. For me, these realisations and correlations were a breakthrough, because I could finally see a pattern that explained what felt like physical symptoms occurring randomly and out of my control. In turn this reduced my anxiety about the anxiety and my attacks weakened and became much more infrequent.
To this day, nine months after my first attack, I am still not completely recovered from anxiety. My mind is simply too powerful to let the sensations go without a fight. I do suffer much less and that is because I have made a significant contribution to improving my mental wellbeing. I am much better rested than I was, and commit a larger portion of my life to things that make me happier. I fully accept that I do not have to constantly strive for productivity in every aspect of my life and try not to berate myself when I do something I am not particularly proud of. I have got to the point where I no longer have a compensation lifestyle. In other words, I do not do things to compensate for unhappiness in other areas. I used to fit a huge amount of different activities into my schedule to compensate for being unhappy at work. Eventually I realised that I needed to address the root cause and move my career into areas in which I have natural talent and passion. This has helped enormously. Above all else I have become more and more open about my own mental health. I am no longer embarrassed to admit that I struggle. I actively admit this regularly, to myself, my friends and even new acquaintances. I feel privileged and strengthened that I have been through Anxiety and understand myself infinitely better than I used to. I no longer hide illness away and make excuses, I actively make myself vulnerable and strive for solutions.
I decided to write this letter and share my experience of depression and anxiety for a simple reason. Once I developed a mental illness and began talking to people about it, many of my friends would then describe similar experiences or episodes that they had been through. This shocked me. How did I not know about this? One of my closest male friends even admitted after I shared my story that, unbeknownst to me, he had ended up in hospital due to an anxiety attack 12 months earlier. When it comes to mental health, we are so unwilling to admit to our friends that we are or have been struggling at some point. I have noticed that men are particularly bad at this, myself included. Especially when a little knowledge and sharing of warning signs can help prevent serious mental illness in those loved ones around us, no different to explaining to someone the warning signs of serious physical illness. A big inspiration for me has always been the communicative philosophy of Men’s health foundation ‘Movember’, which promotes moustache growth in the month of November to help initiate discussion (particularly for men, but aimed at everyone) on the topics of physical and mental health. I hope this letter is a small step towards supporting this same philosophy.
I write this letter in hope that it inspires at least one person to view mental health as it should be viewed; free of stigma and embarrassment. If that leads to an honest conversation with a loved one about their own mental health, then this letter has achieved its aim. I write this letter because the health of my friends and family and other men and women who may stumble upon these words, is more important than my ego and how stigma in our society may cause me to be viewed differently by those who don’t understand the message I am trying to promote. I urge everyone who is struggling or have buried experiences to do the same. You are not alone. Let’s start a conversation and help those who are lucky enough to have never struggled with mental health to realise that they are as susceptible as you or I and prevention is as easy as viewing your mental wellbeing with the respect it deserves. Let’s start a conversation so that talking about mental health and mental wellbeing becomes as commonplace as which superfoods help prevent the common cold. Let’s start that conversation and keep talking, because it’s needed, it’s lacking and maybe one day it will make the difference with someone you love.
Thank you for reading,
As mentioned in the prologue, I wanted to write a few lines to give the letter above context. One of the things I eluded to as a contributor to my poor mental health and the onset of anxiety as a condition was years of following a path that just didn’t feel natural. I took time off following the break from my corporate career and gave myself time to think and search. Two years of time to be precise. I travelled, I followed passions, started a surf company which would later fold. Most of all, I reassessed.
Eventually I wanted to ‘give music a go’. Although music had always been there as a love, I had never thought I was good enough to pursue it as a career. At some point I realised that this insecurity was irrelevant and I stopped waiting for other people’s approval. Once I made this simple distinction, my journey started making sense. I write this epilogue in March 2020. I have been a full-time musician and singer-songwriter for two years. I have lived in a van for two years. I love my life. I am happy. I cannot remember the last time I had an anxiety attack, but it’s safe to say that for the time being, anxiety and depression will not be returning.
Quitting the ‘rat-race’ was certainly not the silver bullet I may have once hoped for, but it was a huge step in the right direction. I struggled with anxiety attacks for well over a year before I felt a concerted recovery, but slowly I began to heal and eventually it had been a long period without any relapse.
So the question is, what did I learn? If I had to break it down in the simplest terms, I feel that my own mental health problems stemmed from a slow betrayal of the truth. A denial of myself and my outlook on life. Trying to fit in to society’s expectations and ignoring my own true self. It took a huge reset to get to the place of calm and self-love in which I exist today, but fundamentally it was driven by knocking my rickety, yet polished house down and rebuilding the foundations with idealism. I feel privileged to have taken this journey. I feel excited to be building my house again. This time however, the house is built to last, hopefully until long after I am gone from this Earth.
If you would like further information or feel like you recognise some of the issues I have talked about in this post, I have added links below to some very good online resources which helped me in my time of need:
Anxiety.org– gathers and presents the most current anxiety research, treatment information, and resources.
Time to Change– UK-based campaign is a social movement currently working to end stigma against mental health conditions.
Calm Clinic– Ryan Riviera (a sufferer of multiple forms of anxiety) created the website in order to provide supportive information to those facing similar challenges and also facilitate a greater awareness of anxiety and what those who cope with severe anxiety experience on a daily or near-daily basis.
The Reality of Anxiety– A personal blog developed in order to share the author’s strategies for coping with extreme anxiety, panic attacks, and stress.