EL Letter: Julia Why? shares her mental health story

JuliaWhy_band-photographer-Rhea Caldwell-L-R-PeterBeringer(drummer), Julia Wylie (lead singer bassist), Caleb Jacobs (guitarist).jpg

Disclosure: This letter addresses mental health, for help contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or for Support Act’s 24/7 wellbeing helpline contact 1800 959 500.

When it’s broken, my mind can trap me under the earth’s surface. At the same time, it can throw me up and outwards through the sun and into the stars. 

Bipolar disorder is this intense fluctuation between what’s referred to clinically as “mania” and “depression.” For me, it revealed itself most intensely two years ago. 

JuliaWhy-flower-photographer-Emma-Therese-makeup-styling-Beth-Halsted.JPG

I had just come back from touring Canada. I was completely exhausted; physically and mentally. I organised, booked and managed this 17-date tour without a manager, agent, label or publicist. I did it all myself as well travelling to, promoting and performing each show. Add to that less than a few hours sleep each night, alcohol, drugs and an unsupportive, all-male band that made me feel completely alone. It was an extreme lesson in what not to do. 

When we made it home I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt helpless. I couldn’t imagine the future. I was so heavy with sadness I left my wallet at home, wrote a note and drove to The Gap. When you’re depressed, it feels like the weight of the world is so dense you’re kind of sinking in quick sand. You keep trying to twist free but the more you move, the more tired you become. Eventually you feel so stuck you sink. I had already been swallowed up and I couldn’t see out. To be honest, the only thing that stopped me at the time was thinking about my dog at home alone, wondering where I was. I still credit her with saving me that night. 

A few months later, I broke up with my fiancé. Then the night David Bowie died, two of my friends had an exhibition opening at the Bearded Tit in Redfern. We the bar blasted Bowie, we all cried together and celebrated his life until morning. After that, I started seeing synchronicity on every street I walked on. I stopped sleeping. I would stay up all night until 8am (partying, writing songs, making plans, starting a business, playing shows). At 9am I’d go to work until 5pm and do it all again, 5 days a week. This went on for months. I was insatiable. I felt so confident I could do anything. I did everything. But no-one could keep up. One minute I was laughing, the next I was crying. I was paranoid. I knew I had to get help when my friends told me they’d never seen me like this before. When they told me to slow down because I was talking so fast. When the person I was seeing broke it off because they were exhausted. When I couldn’t eat because I was so full of adrenaline. When I became terrified that I’d lost total control and couldn’t get it back. 

JuliaWhy-guitar-photographer-Emma-Therese-makeup-styling-Beth-Halsted.JPG

 Two weeks before going to hospital, I was fired from my job when I publicly called out my boss’s sexual harassment. He refused to sign Centrelink forms so I had no income. Days before I went to hospital, my card got skimmed and all my money was stolen. I felt completely desperate, like the universe was conspiring to screw me over. Sitting on the floor on the verge of breaking down completely the name Support Act went off like a lightbulb in my brain. I knew about them because I’d helped promote one of their events a few years back. I went on their website, submitted a rambling, stream of consciousness application and didn't expect much. 

Support Act really came to my rescue. Within a few days, I was talking through my situation with Lindy. She was straight talking, funny and empathetic. She listened to everything I had to say and called my ex-boss a prick. After about 90 minutes of conversation I realised I was talking to THE Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens; only one of my greatest musical heroes. I cannot tell you how happy this little sign from the stars made me. On a practical level, Support Act helped with my hospital costs and paid my rent while I was recovering so I didn’t have to stress about finding a job while I was sick. On an emotional level, Support Act made me feel hope again. 

My ex-fiancé checked me in to hospital; the psych ward. I asked him to. The term “psych ward” sounds intense but where I went was far from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Luckily I had private health insurance which covered the otherwise exorbitant cost. Many people, like the homeless men you see talking to themselves on the street, can’t afford the hospital care I received. It’s not fair.

JuliaWhy-posed-photographer-Emma-Therese-makeup-styling-Beth-Halsted.JPG

For once I actually liked the doctor I was assigned. He seemed very calm, had kind eyes, glasses, was short, from Malaysia. I noticed he had handmade paintings, sketches, framed photographs and handwritten cards hanging on his walls. Looking closely, I realised they were from his previous patients. I thought that was a good sign. I’d had many doctors before who didn’t understand me or seemed to care. Some I actively despised. I’ve since learned that any kind of mental health professional, whether it’s a GP, a therapist or a psychiatrist, it’s worth taking the time to find one you click with. Follow your gut and believe your first impression. 

Music has played a big part in this journey. In the period of 6 months or so when I was really sick, I wrote the best songs I think I ever had.  That’s the new album I’m putting out next year - it kind of documents this experience.  A reoccurring theme throughout hospital and talking to Support Act, is that I have to keep doing it - doctor’s orders. 

The reason is, music has always been a release for me - even back when I started writing songs and playing guitar at age 10. I was a weird kid. I went through periods of muteness, months at a time. Looking back, I realise I was extremely anxious to the point where I couldn’t talk. When I couldn’t speak, I wrote songs. Music was a way for me to express what was going on inside my head when I couldn’t verbalise it. This is still kind of true. Even now, my songs express emotions and thoughts that I sometimes struggle to articulate through conversation. There are complicated reasons why I struggle with passivity sometimes. Music is my way to break out of that. 

I look at Trump. I look at Tony Abbott. I look at Harvey Weinstein. I look at Sticky Fingers and I listened to their “boys will be boys” defence on triple j. I think about male friends who’ve betrayed my trust or crossed my boundaries. I look at festival line-ups full of white men. This power imbalance grinds me down sometimes.  I try as hard as I can but sometimes I doubt my own strength. I feel insecure. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to argue my point of view and I feel like giving up. When my voice is muted like this, music is a way for me to be heard and to stand my ground. To be true to myself. Being able to sing and scream on a stage everything I want to say, it’s like an antidote to sinking in that quick sand.  

JuliaWhy-laughing-photographer-Emma-Therese-makeup-styling-Beth-Halsted.JPG

It’s been three years since I released my last album. It’s been two years since my breakdown. It’s been one year since the MeToo movement. Now? My doctor told me my recovery was “miraculous.” It’s kind of true - I love life at the moment. And I haven’t relapsed in two years. I take medications that luckily work for me. And despite common fears about meds, I’m not numb. I still feel things intensely. Often I laugh so hard I cry and my stomach hurts. Sometimes I just cry. The beauty of music is that it’s always there to comfort us, to heal, to share our stories and learn from others’. Soon I’ll release a new album but this time, I’ll take it slow. And I'll be strong enough to be myself, fully – the ups with the downs. 

If anyone out there reading this is struggling, I want to promise you that things will get better. They will. It's The Boethian Wheel. You just have to keep going. It's incredible what we're capable of getting through. The hole that mental illness, or any kind of adversity, can leave in you opens up a space that can be filled with future joy. I really believe that. So hang in there. 

For help contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14

For Support Act’s 24/7 wellbeing helpline contact 1800 959 500

For more information on Support Act’s services visit: https://supportact.org.au/

Friday, November 16 is Aus Music T-Shirt Day where you can donate directly to Support Act

Follow Julia Why? on Instagram, like her on Facebook and listen to her music on Spotify.