I’ve always been a bit melancholic, however much I smile externally.
I took it as a character quirk for years and never paid it too much attention. Until the summer of 2008, when I became so miserable a year into a full-time job in entertainment PR – i.e. being paid to smile – that I’d cry upon arriving at the empty office every other morning. I’d get it together by the time the boss got in, then lose it again when I got home. Sometimes I found myself sitting on the bathroom floor crying for no tangible reason, before dragging myself to bed and doing it all again.
I soon went to the doctor and brought up some irrelevant, mild physical ailment [an itchy foot, I believe] before bursting into tears and mumbling the truth of what was going on. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. I cried harder. It had never occurred to me that I might suffer from depression. That something was happening to me. In me. That the up and down emotional cycles I’d been experiencing regularly since I was a child, weren’t just me being a bit moody by nature.
In retrospect, my first real indicator that it was something more serious was at university. I went from being a straight A student, sports captain and serial hobbyist at school to someone who could barely drag herself out of bed in the mornings, let alone make it to class. By year two, it wasn’t uncommon for me to dissolve into 18-hour sleep marathons. Immobile. Disinterested. This was unbeknownst to my friends there, who generally weren’t studying the same courses as me and wouldn’t notice my frequent absences because I still found a way to show up at the club – breakfast time, for me – and lose myself in music for a few hours before heading home to repeat the cycle. I knew this was a serious problem, but still didn’t connect the dots.
I came up with the idea for SoulCulture that year, and thought my new-found passion was in part the reason for my sudden disinterest in studying. Or that it was discord with the city I was studying in [Manchester]. Or after-effects of the tough breakup I’d been through. Or…. Well none of that really felt like the reason, I had no major traumatic event to reference, but I also had no alternative ideas. So I moved back to London and gave a different university [King's College] a go – for a year – before giving up on that too. I worked various jobs in entertainment for a while, and freelanced for a few music magazines.
I was going to say, freelancing with fluctuating income whilst attempting to get your mind right do not go together so well. In fact, doing ANYTHING whilst trying to get your mind together can be an immense, intense mission. I still don’t have a tangible reason for why I experience depression. For why, on some days, I absolutely cannot open my eyes let alone get out of bed. For why I can be on top of the world in one moment, and in tears the next, without trigger. Or why I practically fall into a coma sometimes when I do sleep.
But I know I’m not the only one. And I know I have to do something about it.
sending all my love to those who feel down sometimes and don’t know why
— warsan shire (@warsan_shire) March 18, 2013
Following that definitive doctor’s appointment, I was prescribed medication to cope. Fluoxetine. It made me nauseous, restless, and tingly all over my body – but it got me off the bathroom floor. I switched over to another drug, Citalopram, shortly afterwards, and lost those side effects. Drugs first, therapy later – unfortunately, unless you’re wealthy, help is likely to come in that order. Waiting lists for counselling or CBT therapy on the NHS in the UK can be six months, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t going to drag ourselves down to the doctor at the first inkling something might be wrong with our mental health – it usually happens when you’re already at breaking point.
Having someone to talk to does help, even though they won’t understand exactly what you’re going through – because no one lives in your head but you [unless...]. It may not fix anything, but it’s a necessary starting point. It can give you courage on the days you feel like a failure. A reminder that you’re not a terrible human being – no matter who and how many people you let down when you can’t fulfil your promises, or turn up, or communicate – all of which is a pretty big deal in life, let alone when you work in a demanding, competitive industry like the media.
I didn’t tell my parents, or anyone, for a while. But I eventually told my best friend, who immediately supported me and has done ever since. When I tell people about my experiences with depression, some wonder how on earth I still have a growing business and appear to be functioning. I can tell you, simply put, that my friend [and SoulCulture's Creative Director] Eddie is almost single-handedly the reason SoulCulture is still standing. By being there for me, pushing on, encouraging me and picking up the pieces of this business when I could not. It’s incredible how basic human functions can feel impossible when you’re going through something.
— frank ocean (@frank_ocean) March 3, 2013
Five years on since diagnosis, I feel a lot better now. I’m still dealing with it and probably always will do. I still fuck up sometimes. Sometimes I miss important emails and phone calls because I can’t bear to look or listen. Sometimes I stay home instead of doing the schmoozing and networking people will tell you is essential to succeed. But I read, I write, and I talk – and I listen to music, super loud, whenever none of those feel like options. It gets me through.
And yes, it did occur to me that I may well be rendering myself unemployable by sharing this publicly, given the field I work in, but it would absolutely be hypocritical for me to tell YOU that it’s OK to experience this if I don’t. And truly, it is OK. [I don’t want to work for anyone else anyway ;)]
I tell you this just so that you know: if you’re going through it, you’re really not alone. And it’s not over. I’ve been there. I’m still here. And I’m actually doing good, despite having experienced many low moments during which I could no longer fathom a good day. And if you’re lucky enough to never have experienced it, without a doubt several people in your life have and do. Even the strong, inspiring, seemingly untouchable people you look up to.
Momma, look at ya son, what happened to my smile?
My tears is tatted, my rag in my pocket
I’m just looking for love, I know somebody got it
Champagne for the pain, weed for the low
Goddamn I’m so high, where the fuck did I go?
I’m losing myself, I’m stuck in the moment
I look in the mirror, my only opponent
Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the Pres?
Either they know or don’t care, I’m fucking depressed…
–JAY Z (“Welcome To The Jungle“)
Part of starting SoulCulture was about celebrating music, it’s culture and history. But another part of the longterm mission is about people. Society. The people behind the music, the people who digest the music, and the cyclical impact of music on life and vice versa.
Depression is so epidemic it’s become a norm. Be it depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem or rage, they’re all interlinked and we sing and rap about it – but we’re collectively not doing or talking enough about it. In real terms. So, today we launch OK NOT TO BE OK. SoulCulture’s ongoing campaign to raise and spread awareness and support for the mental health of our generation.
It’s no secret that music plays a cathartic role for many of us, whether you’re a listener or a creator. So, join our journey as we speak about life, music and the beautiful struggle with artists, musicians, creators, health officials and regular folk like you and me. Help me help you. If you need a support system, let’s build one.