In this wake of mental health awareness month, this powerful piece by music journalist Kiana Fitzgerald details her experience in the US music community, and offers us ten valuable lessons she's learned during that time.
Guest post by Kiana Fitzgerald of AWAL
In honor of mental health awareness month, Kiana Fitzgerald (FADER, Complex, NPR, Rolling Stone) pens a guest post about all she’s learned during her career in the U.S. music community.
This month, for the first time ever, I was sentenced to a court date for being mentally ill.
The reason for the court date? I broke a toilet. Before you start assuming, I don’t mean that I blew up the spot, with [whispers] fecal matter. I mean I picked up the toilet seat, slammed it down, and dismantled the entire toilet. It crumbled.
It was on my last day in an extended observation unit, in my hometown of Seguin, Texas, where I was being given a new concoction of medication after trying to exorcise demons out of the space. I remember thinking, “I’ll never take another shit here, and neither will anyone else.” Little did I know, it only takes a couple of hours for a toilet to be replaced.
I was picked up by “peace officers” shortly thereafter, who treated me gently, gave me snacks, and transferred me to an actual mental hospital in Austin, my third institutionalization in as many years. They also gave me court papers, which indicated that I was legally obligated to know that I had court dates in Seguin on the horizon because of my actions. The only thing is, I don’t remember this very important development being explained to me.
Two days later, as I was meeting with my treatment team in Austin, a man came in and served me even more papers for a hearing in that city. I was so distraught that I broke down, and my treatment team left, before helping me understand why I was even there in the first place.
For the next few days, I alternated between screaming at the top of my lungs and slamming doors, and nervously shuffling through dozens of pages of papers, the contents of which I continually forgot in my heightened state of mania.
I was diagnosed as bipolar 1 in 2016, which basically means I get high off of nothing and personally feel like I’m in direct touch with God. The other end of that spectrum is severe depression. While mania feels like I’m the center of the universe, hypomania, more common in bipolar 2, can feel like you’re panicked and tethered outside of the universe, which more readily brings about the depressive state.
In the midst of shuffling through the aforementioned papers, I came across a court-issued document with two scribbled words on a pre-printed line, with zero context and zero explanation:
My stomach seemed to plummet endlessly through the floor, the dirt, the layers of molten core writhing beneath the Earth’s crust. I was incensed and ashamed at the same time. Another fucking diagnosis? I thought initially. That was about three weeks ago. Today, with a new set of medications coursing through my blood and a bit more therapy under my belt, I legitimately couldn’t be more proud of and grateful for this updated diagnosis.
My life makes so much more sense now; I’m not living a double life, half-trapped in a secret world where I felt like God had sent down artist after artist to surreptitiously, but directly, communicate with me about His fast-approaching plans for changing the world.
Now, I have a(nother) simple, well-established label that will help me to better focus once more on what matters most to me: music, in its actual sense. In its real sense. Nothing means more to me than being able to connect with artists, and share the ways in which I have fallen 9 times and gotten up 10.
Kiana via Twitter
I’m a black woman from a small town in the South who grew up in poverty and eventually made her way to New York City, and made a name for herself, despite myriad mental health obstacles. If you had told me five years ago that this would be my path, I would have tried mightily to run from it. But now that I’m standing on the other side, healthy and more self-aware than ever, I see nothing but possibilities, and hella hefty bags to be made. Not just for me, but for each one of you.
So, without further ado - let’s rap about 10 lessons I’ve learned in my career as a bipolar, schizophrenic music journalist.
1. Stuck in the mud? Talk to someone.
The best therapist I’ve ever seen - and I’ve talked to a few - came through a sliding scale service called Open Path Collective. I was a contractor/freelancer and didn’t have insurance; as a result, I saw her biweekly in person in NYC. About a year later, when I had my first episode, I fell back to Texas and later D.C. During these times outside of the city, she saw me online via a secure portal: Doxy.me. Not only that, she knew I was low on funds, so she went out of her way to help me pro bono. Pro fucking bono.
We spoke this way for months. Throughout our two-year relationship, she gave me advice and coping strategies that I still employ to this day. I cannot stress the importance of talk therapy enough. Establishing a medication regimen is important, but it’s largely an oft-tinkered experiment, one that can be filled with side effects that I’ve experienced myself.
Unloading all of your issues onto a human being that is legit being paid to listen, is one of the most freeing feelings in the world. But if you can’t talk to a therapist, talk to a friend, family member, collaborator, me - somebody. Get it out of your system. And be honest! If I had revealed all of my innermost thoughts sooner, and truly been heard by real professionals years ago, my paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis wouldn’t have been a blindsiding.
2. Use all avenues to gather info about possible symptoms.
In addition to professionals and of course the internet, utilize your relationships with the people around you to discover more about your own diagnoses, real or possible. I’ve long known my brother had schizoaffective disorder, but I didn’t realize until asking questions after my latest diagnosis that it translates to one having both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, like me.
Outside of family, I have met real-life human beings offline, and been contacted by dozens of people online who either experienced what I’ve gone through or have family members and friends who have. We exchange details about our characteristics and warning signs that foreshadow an incoming episode.
I personally get to a point of extreme mania by doing three things: 1) exploring deductive reasoning to the fullest; 2) connecting coincidences like it’s a game of life; 3) sharing music like the fate of humanity depends on it.
What do your production notepads look like? What do your lyric journals look like? If they veer off into nonsensical territories that you can’t decipher the next day, tell a friend in the same industry, especially one who’s been open about mental health, and ask for their advice. If you’re still concerned yet, take a picture and show it to a counselor.
3. Work through your trauma, and make it your power.
Writing is my way of working through the compounded trauma of my own life, and the complex lives of my family, my friends, and even my ancestors. ScHoolboy Q’s “Attention” succinctly sums up the challenges facing black people, worldwide, in this country, and in his own bloodline: “I can finally understand why my uncles was never sober,” he raps. But instead of succumbing to the man-made traps that have been set for people of color since the dawn of time, Q and artists like him time and again channel that energy into a body of work teeming with life lessons that any person (and any listener) can apply to their own situation.
4. Be open to finding yourself and your audience in unexpected places.
Even if you’re not someone who deals with mental health issues directly, consider this: you never know where your music will be played. In each of my three major hospital stays, patients were given a chance to play up to a few songs they wanted to hear. I’ve heard other patients play everything from Kevin Gates to Panic! At the Disco to Z-Ro, and I’ve played artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Solange, myself. As a music journalist and DJ, I’m hyper aware of people’s reactions to every song that’s played in my presence. Music is life for fans out in the free world, so just imagine what it means for those locked inside four walls. You never know what someone is going through, and where your music can bring someone back from.
Here are two questions to keep in mind: Whose pain affects you? Whose success affects you?
5. Get into Headspace/Talkspace/all the digital app spaces.
If you’re reading this, you have a phone or a computer. You’ve also likely heard a podcast or two by now, which frequently advertise apps, including those for mental health. There’s Headspace, which is used for meditation, and Talkspace, which is used for actual online therapy with licensed counselors. If you’ve never used these services, you can easily find coupon codes online for first-timers. There are also other apps that do the same thing, like Calm for meditation and BetterHelpfor online therapy, so don’t be afraid to play around and try something different.
6. Don’t let cancel culture scare you.
Everyone wants and needs a reason to be offended right now. Look the fuck around. Just do your best to read the figurative room. Try to be incredibly intentional about what you have to say online, and what you want to contribute to the larger conversation. Think three times about a tweet before you send it out. Think about it from the perspective of the opposite of your target audience. As we all know by now, all it takes is one post to break down a hard-earned career.
This should go without saying, but if you ever find yourself going through it, have someone on standby who can monitor and manage your socials, if need be.
7. Breaking out of a small town/market can do a number on your mental.
It is extremely difficult to break out of a small town, and I know that from firsthand experience. It’s like climbing the vertical side of a mountain and having to pick ax your way to the top, then hoist yourself over the jagged ledge.
It’s statistically true and downright obvious that most artists won’t be worldwide famous. Don’t let that possibility get you down. Realistically speaking, I’ve seen with my own eyes that not everyone is built for fame. But everyone is built for creation. Focus all of your energy there, and your audience will come. You can and will make an impact in your created market. Just move with authenticity.
8. Stay true to yourself once you move into the bigger market.
You broke out of a small market? Congratulations! Get a therapist. Odds are, your head is gonna blow up, fast. Or your anxiety will attempt to get the best of you. Don’t fall into either trap. As Pac said at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man”: “All good things come to those that stay true.” Being true to yourself got you there - it’ll get you further.
9. “Music soothes the savage beast.”
This line has been contorted over the years, but it originated from British poet William Congreve, who instead wrote about a “savage breast” in a play in 1697. The current iteration has lived beyond the first version, and it likely means more than it would have had it just lived as is.
To me, this saying means if you find yourself in an emotional rut: don’t just stay in bed in the dark and silence. Go to your instrument of choice and produce a song unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Go lower than you ever have, sonically; go higher; explore the median. Allow yourself to do things you’ve never done before. At your peaks and valleys, you can hear a musical direction that no one else can hear. Take advantage of that.
When all else fails: listen to you. When I spoke with Broward County, Florida rapper Robb Bank$ in January of this year, he told me he spends a majority of his time listening to himself and beats. “I feel like music is my drug, and I am drugs,” he told me, confidently.
Become addicted to yourself and your craft - but not in such a way that you isolate yourself from those around you. Balance, balance, balance.
10. Don’t be afraid to get a lawyer.
If you find yourself mentally unsound in any way, anything could happen, at any time. Period. Protect yourself.
Remember those court dates? Long story short, everything was canceled out when I was released from the hospital. It was a scary couple of weeks as I sat and waited to see how things would go down, but I’m grateful that I never had to actually set foot in court. Even the initial date, my appointed lawyer handled on my behalf, despite my wanting to go protest my holding. If I wasn’t released the exact same day as my final court date, a judge could have assigned me to receive court-ordered mental health services for months, plus a continued hospitalization for several more weeks. Either of those decisions could have changed my life forever.
As smart as I think I am when I’m manic, if left untreated, it begins to seep into my real-life thinking. I can’t control what happens when I’m in the clouds, but I will never misunderstand reality again. I’d much rather be here on planet Earth, with my feet planted squarely, listening to the latest albums from my faves. I look most forward, though, to hearing everything and everyone, anew.