I’ve worked as a touring sound engineer for 12 years now. Mostly over the last five years, Bastille has been my main show. It was two years into this, that I first became aware of my own mental health issues.
You hear about it, here and there. I was certainly in the “oh, come on…just think about the good things in life, you’ll be fine” brigade. No question. It’s odd just how quickly that can change.
In an industry like ours, things like anxiety and depression can get hidden away from view quite easily over the short term. It’s a job often full of late nights, free drink and a lot of camaraderie. I can’t deny that this is wonderful to have but long term this can certainly provide crutches to people often without them knowing they’re dealing with invisible demons.
I can pinpoint the day my tiny demon made itself known to me. There was a show I mixed, the largest one at that point in my career (a festival in South America), I should have been ecstatic at the end of it, it should have been a career-high. The show had such a great atmosphere and an incredible crowd, a desk and PA I knew well (these things do help!), with an amazing crew, and as the last show at the end of a campaign, you couldn’t really ask for any more.
Thing was. I didn’t feel anything.
I can’t emphasise how much that isn’t like me. I get nervous before big shows, and jubilant after if everything goes well. I am usually first in the dressing room for a glass of wine and a “congrats” to the band. But nothing. So I packed some of my things up, went to the dressing room, said my congratulations, then sneaked off back to my hotel room. All I had pictured in my head, was the dark hotel room, the AC, and possibly the contents of my minibar. Alone. Nothing else sounded good to me. The tiny demon had won.
The next morning I felt fine as far as I was concerned I was back to normal. I put it down to being tired (it’d been a long tour) and went home. I lasted about three days.
I had an argument with my then-partner about something tiny. For some reason in my head, all I could see was a dark room and it was the one I knew the best at my parent’s house. At the age of 32, this was not a usual immediate, natural thought. Regardless I booked a train back to Birmingham and I started off on my journey. She met me at the train station and called me back. Reassured me it was ok and that if I needed to be alone, I could be there and be alone. That I should probably look in to perhaps talking to someone.
Now, when you tour and work freelance for a living if you’re lucky, you’re away from home a lot. What an odd situation. You spend your time at home, trying not to be. This is the same for the musicians themselves also of course. A lot of musicians don’t make money if they’re not touring. So, when you have a gap of days off, regardless of whether it’s 5 days or 3 months, something happens. You’re used to a routine. Every day you follow a sheet of paper/email (known as a day sheet, vague sheet, book of lies) – but when you’re home that gets taken away. Sounds like a simple thing, why don’t you just do what you’d normally do? Well, your body and brain don’t really take this too well. A routine that isn’t really a routine, more a set of time constraints and instructions has just been removed. So you often find people’s immune systems drop, they catch a cold, or that sort of thing when they get home. Everyone called it “post-tour blues”. You lose the things like direction, and most importantly that “post-show high” that everyone from the crowd to the performers themselves feel. Now imagine having an underlying, little demon knocking about at the same time as this.
This is when people often try to recreate the touring environment at home. They bring their habits home. So, you drink a little more than your friends. You smoke a little more than your friends. You do whatever makes you feel that little high that your day is missing. This is when the little demon gets its chance to hand you that poisoned chalice. That crutch. Not everyone needs it, but those that do, soon find a support structure for their needs.
I had been doing this for years without realising. There’s a difference between having fun with friends, or even just feeling like getting out of your mind. Both of those are fine. Do whatever makes you happy. When you’re doing it to reach some unobtainable high, to keep away any feelings that will stop you enjoying what’s happening…then it’s definitely time to talk to someone.
I got lucky. I talked to a friend who was quite open about his issues. Maybe three sentences in, I quickly realised what I was doing and why.
I finally realised I had a little demon who wanted a piece of my life for itself. Lots of things from years ago, and even in my daily life, sort of made a little more sense. Oh, that time I broke down literally mid-conversation in a bar. That time I lied to my old boss and stayed in bed for three days. That odd over-sensitivity to happy or sad things, that sometimes make me feel the opposite way. I’m what a lot of people call “mental”. Great. You quickly learn what an awful term that is. Assuming reading this, you probably know anyway.
I got on the internet and started to try to look for some answers. This was me going the back route, and I wouldn’t recommend doing that. The internet is full of people who know very little, handing out advice (he writes, having scraped his A-Levels, trying to be self-aware and funny..). There are however some wonderful resources, and groups of people who are just happy to talk about it. This, combined with a few lifestyle changes helped me bring my instances of the little demon right down. They’re barely there now. I get bad days, but I know why they’re bad, so I don’t try and fight them with things that are self-sabotaging. I take that day as a “right I’ll nip to the gym for an hour”(If you knew me, you’d realise I could probably do with a few more of those…) or “grab a little time to myself to read” day. Anything I can do to help give my ever so slightly different brain, something good to do. Some days it doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s always close enough. I have enough experience now to address what it is. If it ever gets worse, I know who I need to talk to and will not shy away from doing so. These things have taken their toll for too long on people.
Apparently, the little demons like to hang out around creative people quite a lot. So, of course, our industry is rife. From the people who screw together the stage to those people on it. You’ve definitely seen it in the news, famous singers, musicians and actors. Imagine the toll of those people around them too, the ones that don’t make the headlines. There can be hundreds of people involved in a show. This is a lot more widespread than even now, people are willing to acknowledge.
It says a lot about our society, that we’re only really now getting some words out that it’s ok. You don’t have to deal with this alone. Organisations such as Music Support are springing up and spreading these kinds of messages. It can’t happen quickly enough.
I count myself hugely, hugely lucky.
I have friends who get it, a caring fiancée, a great home life, and a full understanding of how to manage the tiny demon, and when it feels like coming to the surface. Just imagine not catching it when it is still in its infancy. Envisage what it’d be like to never find out that it was a part of your brain, that could be managed, whether that be with the simple things I do for mine, or with medication if that’s what it takes. Feeling like there’s nothing you can do to stop that.
I caught him in time before he grew.
Make sure you do too.
The first step is a chat.