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On touring with a mental illness /
by Alanna McArdle

TW: mental illness, self harm

Guilt, shame, embarrassment. These are feelings you’re likely not afforded to dwell on when you step into the very public arena of performance. Or, if you do, you’d better get over it very quickly.

Guilt: that comes with the self-doubt many performers feel as they come to accept they’re getting recognition for their art.

Shame: from the prospect of baring yourself to an audience, opening yourself up to critics on every platform available, and the consequent embarrassment when you fuck up. And then your actions are probably already on the Internet before you even realise what you’ve done.

Embarrassment: because we all know that performers who have even the smallest amount of public recognition are regarded without acknowledgement of these human qualities.

What happens when these emotions, these painfully human qualities you are expected to discard or bury to achieve your art, are also some of the main symptoms of your chronic illness?

Guilt, shame, embarrassment. These are feelings that can overwhelm the worlds of myself and others who struggle with certain mental illnesses. My mental illnesses—manic depression, anxiety, and all the off-cuts that come with that combination—do not marry so well with the sort-of-job I do as a performer. For better or for worse, I’m in a band that tours quite a lot. This is one of the biggest parts of my life, but it’s hard to reconcile with what is possibly the most significant aspect of my life, my mental illness.

NO. 1: Keep your friends close, and your bandmates closer

I am in Glasgow and it is 4am. We’ve been on tour for a pathetically short amount of time, but as I’ve been learning, that doesn’t actually affect the timetable that my manic depressive outbursts follow. I did not want to go out after the show. I did not, in fact, want to go to the show. I do not want to be anywhere on this earth, but I am. I am in Glasgow, in someone’s bathroom, trying to extract the individual blades from this Bic razor I found in someone’s cupboard. My bandmates are all asleep in the next room. I decide that waking up my friends would be too much of a bother. They don’t know the extent of my crazy, so I can just creep back to bed soon and no one will have to know I felt this bad in the first place.

My mental illness has always had a profound effect on my social ability and relationships. Like a worst enemy, it has a knack for tearing down my own confidence in platonic and romantic relationships, or just ending them in their tracks. Finding friendships after a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, subsequent hospitalisation, and the seemingly insurmountable task of recovery at 18 years old, was a minefield of self-doubt and loathing. Keeping friendships was even harder.

I joined Joanna Gruesome at a time when I was essentially starting my social life again from scratch. I found them, but then I had to keep them. And what I’ve always called my “bad brain” was not going to get in the way this time; I wouldn’t let them figure out how bad it could really be. This was an awful mistake I made in the early stages of the band, but I’ve learned from it. Bleeding all over someone’s sofa and trying to cry as quietly as possible so I didn’t “make things awkward” in the middle of a tour was the point when I realised I needed to take a different approach to keeping myself sane. Your bandmates should be your friends. And friends don’t feel awkward about other friends having a really shitty time -- they try and help.

NO. 2: You are not a trope

There are countless misunderstandings around the inner-workings, effects, symptoms, and general realities of mental illnesses. General consensus seems to be that whatever you say you have doesn’t exist, or if it does, you can probably get over it by thinking a certain way. Mental illness, of course, is an incredibly broad term that covers a huge array of diseases and disorders, but this reality seems to be upsettingly complex for some people.

Viewpoints towards certain mental illnesses may be slowly turning towards a right direction, but more often than not the method of bringing mental illness to the public consciousness is misguided and dangerous. The mainstream media, with its knack for failing to comprehend any intersections or complexities of class, race, sexuality and gender, is largely to blame for what most people think suffering from depression is like.

Here’s the cliché: the arty guy, he plays an acoustic guitar with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he’s wearing a black turtleneck probably, he writes a diary, sometimes he cries. The cliché has been adjusted over the years, and it goes even further back than Holden Caulfield or Hamlet, but it’s a literary and filmic trope that just won’t go away.

Gender has a very specific role to play in the way we are taught to see depression. And it is incredibly harmful. Suicide is, in the UK, a silent killer of young men. But we would rather not believe this. We would like to maintain a romantic view of depression to the point where the disease itself is almost becoming a sex symbol. We have films like Silver Linings Playbook, which I had to stop watching before it even got to the half-hour mark because it was so upsettingly misrepresentative of manic depression. I don’t actually know what the film is even about, but I know I really fucking hate it.

Where imagined young men with depressive traits are celebrated, their genuine real life counterparts are dying. We are at a sickening impasse wherein mainstream media can simultaneously find ways to make depression seem like a desirable and beautiful personality trait, and look down on its ugly realities. Transgender people in the UK are far more likely to suffer from depression than cisgender people, and the parallels are similar when comparing depression rates between hetero and non hetero people in the UK.

Mainstream media platforms want to feed you a view of mental illnesses in very black and white terms, so it suits them well that the common representation of women with mental illnesses is actually just women who are fucking crazy. This stems from, among many things, an incredibly discriminatory medical approach to women. You would think the idea of women being hysterical would have gone away by now, but people actually seem to believe in it more and more. The crazy hysterical woman musician is a trope that lives on in order to discredit women’s incredibly valid feelings as purely whining, shrill, trivial angst. Y’know, Kurt was a tortured genius; Courtney’s a crazy bitch.

This twisted gendering of mental illnesses, this confused glorification of depressive men (that offers no sense of aid or genuine empathy alongside) and the vilification and discrediting of “crazy” women seems to take shape in a particularly sinister way in creative industries, as these industries inform so many of the beliefs of the public. Since I started writing songs and playing shows, I have constantly been trying to reaffirm that my creative output, and even just that my creative existence is more than just an extension of my feminine trivialities, my overblown teen angst, the parts of my diary that I should probably just keep to myself. These criticisms are often used to make women artists feel less than, to remind women that their place in creative industries is a supporting role, not the lead.

Attempting to reject that support-role expectation is just another part of balancing being in a band while also coming to terms with manic depression. (Which is, by the way, the archetypal crazy-bitch mental illness. “Watch out, she might have a mood swing! Is she on her period?”)

Learning to reject the stereotypes that inevitably come flying your way based on your gender expression is hard, and probably not something I’ll ever “complete.” But recognising the skewed ways in which mental illnesses are represented can help you learn to define your own place as an artist or performer, and help you begin to let go of learned self-doubt.

NO.3: If you can’t beat it, join it

I remember lying in bed with an ex a year or so ago. I was crying and banging on the wall, repeatedly shouting that I didn’t want to be ill anymore. It’s actually something I find myself doing a lot, as every so often my anger over the unfixable and shameful existence I’ve been chemically confined to sends me to a place that isn’t depression or mania, just sheer frustration. He told me, in an attempt to console me, that I shouldn’t be so down on my manic depression, because it led me to write so much and to be so creative. The suggestion made me livid. I told him something I can’t help but sometimes still believe: that I’d rather have never written any of my songs or stories or poems if it meant I could be free from manic depression, from exhausting mood swings, self destructive behaviour, broken relationships, and all the guilt and shame and embarrassment. Anything I’ve written doesn’t seem worth this illness that nearly killed me, that I have to carry around with me wherever I go. But the thing is, I have it, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. Friends and family have often tried to make me feel better about my illness by telling me variations of, “it’s not you, it’s just something you have.” This is of course true. Mental illnesses are illnesses. I am not bipolar, I have bipolar: in the same way that when I got tonsillitis as a kid it didn’t suddenly become my main defining personality trait, it was just something shitty that was also happening to me.

But I’ve actually been able to accept my illness more by allowing it to be something I don’t try and constantly other. One of the most effective ways I’ve managed to do that is by writing about it. The technicalities of being in a touring band more often than not exacerbate all the bad symptoms of my illnesses; I have spent countless nights hiding in far away corners of venues just waiting to be able to go home, I have cried into my bandmates’ shoulders in a staggeringly wide mile radius across the world. But at the same time, I spend each of these nights screaming my heart out about how I’m trying to understand everything that’s happening to me. As much as being in a band sometimes makes me feel like I really am a crazy bitch, I’d be worse off without it.

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