I’m a songwriter.
At least, that’s what I tell people. It’s what I’ve been telling people for years. When I first started, it was true. I’d write voraciously, carry a notebook with me everywhere I went. I’d sit outside in between classes at school and then, at university, outside lecture theatres, scribbling ideas and poems, lyrics and sketches. I’d sit for hours in front of my laptop, stitching songs together on garageband. I’d write whenever I could. My favourite place was in between the carriages on trains, or down by a little-visited pond on Exeter campus, but I’d even do it while I cooked (I have the chilli-stained notebook to prove it). Ideas came easy. Not everything I created was great, or even good, but I didn’t mind. My creativity was ferocious.
I can’t pinpoint when things changed. This isn’t unusual; most things don’t happen at pinpointable times, and all things happen a long time after their groundwork has been laid. Every disaster is a disaster waiting to happen, and we spend our lives learning how to convert the energy from these events into something positive. Joy from tragedy, life from death – this is the impossible alchemy that we achieve every day.
Nonetheless, I have been at a loss. All that ferocious, self-sustaining creativity of my teens and early twenties hasn’t just ebbed away; it’s disappeared. Or rather, it’s become inaccessible. I can still feel it, like you can feel the eyes of a hidden observer on the back of your neck. But whenever I turn to meet it, it’s gone. Whenever I put pen to paper, it fades into darkness. And all that ferocity turns in on itself and becomes hateful, dark and resentful.
I love performing. When I’m on stage, I’m authentically me in a way that I rarely experience in my day to day life. And yet, I haven’t even played at an open mic night in over a year. In fact, the number of times I’ve so much as gone to the pub in that time probably doesn’t stretch far into the double figures, and house parties have become a thing of the past entirely. It’s not because I don’t want to go; it’s because I’ve started to believe that I can’t. There’s plenty of evidence: panic attacks, stomachs in knots, friends let down, connections lost. It’s become easier to just accept that this is how things are now.
A few nights ago, I did something unusual – I made my first attempt at going to an open mic night in a very long time. It was at the university. Here’s what happened: I signed up, bought a drink, watched for a little while, and I went home. I didn’t perform. Somewhere in the middle of that process, I started to feel like I was going to die.
I don’t want to be blasé about this, but I feel like I’m going to die a lot. I’m not exaggerating. I fear for my life on a weekly basis. It happens mostly at night – which is why I don’t go out at night if I can help it – but not uncommonly during the day. It might be a man walking towards me in the distance; a raised voice from an open window; a dropped glass in a bar. It could be anything, or it could be no discernible ‘thing’ at all. I used to put this down to trauma I sustained six years ago in Exeter, and that’s certainly been an intensifier, but I’m starting to realise that this particular root system goes a lot deeper.
When I suffered that traumatic experience six years ago, it broke me open. But the behaviour I was exhibiting was only an exaggerated form of how I’d been feeling since childhood: anxious, ashamed and afraid. I saw a cognitive behavioural therapist for a while, and I felt insulted by the experience – I felt like something incredibly important was being ignored. I didn’t have the tools to work out what it was and, for my therapist, my psyche didn’t even come into the equation. My inner world was an inconvenience to be ignored or a foe to be vanquished, not a part of myself to be included in the discussion.
Now, this isn’t a criticism of CBT. It’s not even a criticism of my therapist. It’s just that it was entirely the wrong tool for the job. Entering into a behavioural therapy at that stage in my life was like attempting alchemy without the prima materia, so it was inevitable that it would end in fire and smoke. I left the experience feeling worse than when I entered it.
I’ve carried on calling myself a songwriter all these years because I believe it to be true. I think that the creative energy that I used to use to write songs has been bound up in other things for a long time. Working with my unconscious has helped to loosen those shackles and this blog, in fact, is proof of that. It’s the beginning of a long process of liberation, and it’s an indicator that I might be ready to try something scary. After six years, I’m considering incorporating some behavioural aspects back into my mental healthcare because I finally feel like I wouldn’t be treating the symptom while turning my back on the cause. Now that I’m learning to treat my inner world with respect, consciously trying to modify my behaviour will no longer be an act of domination; it’ll be an act of love.
I’ll keep you updated.