Mental health is a prominent issue within the music community, so New Noise Magazine reached out to a diverse group of artists and asked them to speak about their personal experiences with mental illness. This is an exclusive ongoing spotlight—coinciding with Issue #31, The Mental Health Issue, of the print magazine—that showcases a refreshing transparency on the struggles many individuals face and the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to overcome them.
Jenny Fifteen (punk tour manager turned mental health counselor)
Get Out of the Van: A Choice
It took 28 years to learn that my life’s trajectory had a reset option. Until that point, I had been compulsively hammering on the rewind button. Starting over in a new city, making new friends, and changing my hair were futile attempts to record over my choices. My first tour managing gig was a direct result of a bipolar hypomanic state. I was living in Santa Barbara, after rewinding my life from New York, vibrating with euphoric symptoms. I drove three hours south to a bar because a boy I met at a party told me I should. His band was playing to a solid crowd of nine and my hummingbird brain punched me in the back of the eyes, whispering that I should rent a bus and backline, book a Midwest/East Coast tour, and manage the hell out of these dudes. So I did.
Every aspect of managing anything was new to me. I had never heard of Erie, Pennsylvania, until I showed up in an RV, with a box of merch and a band from Long Beach who had seven songs and two covers. The tour worked. And we made a profit. And we crashed the RV into an overpass. And I had finally been to Dayton, Ohio.
I spent the majority of the next seven years in that RV, tour managing any band who would have me. The crushing difference between my first trip to Erie and my last is that I wasn’t thrumming with mania, but buried under the rubble of bipolar depression and painkillers. Every house we stayed at reminded me that I didn’t have one of my own. Touring is pressing the rewind button every time the clock flashes 2:00 a.m. I can try again tomorrow, in a new city, make new friends, and change my hair. It can be hard, at times, knowing those 1,500 people didn’t buy tickets to sing along to my spreadsheets; my role didn’t have a stage to scream from. At that point, the wheels of the RV were the only things moving me forward. This needed to stop. All of it. So it did.
Once I kicked the pills and music industry away from me, my remaining energy was used to take the first deep breath of my 20s—two years away from my 30s. My entire educational background was devoted to art and music, so I contemplated buying a boat and uselessly sailing away forever. Turning my passions into work had suffocated the inspiration. I wasn’t writing, shooting photos, or engineering records, because they had become burdened tasks and clanging alarm clocks. The music was so loud, I could no longer decipher the difference between denial and stagnant procrastination. How can I rewind when the button has been smashed to ashes? I let that question tumble around my brain through many sleepless nights of unemployment and shattered self-confidence.
I wish I could have bipolar disorder for a living.
The tumbling hesitated.
Is that possible?
Mental health issues have always been a part of me, as I live and breathe. I condemned my diagnoses to problems I needed to treat and control, certainly not things to be revered. But I believed I could make a difference, so I leapt blindly into the unknown for the second time. I started attending free mental health trainings in Los Angeles County. My initial certifications were in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills, which started to heal my own wounds in the process.
There was a fateful day in 2014 that renegotiated my definition of possibility. Until then, destiny was simply what teen parents named their third daughter. My phone rang twice, each call revealing a bridge to a new path, each paved in opposite directions. I was first congratulated for being accepted into a mental health counseling and internship program, validating that the first application I had submitted in years held some weight. The second call kicked me in amygdala: offering the chance to work at an iconic recording studio that anyone reading this would piss their pants over. It was an offer need only be asked once, that no sane person would deny and, like a comet, I knew the rest of my life could be dimmer in its absence. I had to choose between having everything I’ve ever wanted or pursuing the flicker of an idea. Since no sane person would turn down the chance to work with music legends, I declined the studio offer because sanity no longer suited me. Several months later, I graduated as a certified Recovery Peer Specialist and Life Coach because, holy shit, I could have bipolar disorder for a living.
Fast-forward. In my career, I am required to have a mental health diagnosis, and my history of opiate use is viewed as an asset to my resume. I have spoken about wellness on endless discussion panels, addressed government representatives, presented to a graduate class of psychologists, facilitated over 500 hours of support groups, and my name is on an office door. I am the coordinator of a statewide mental health program, proudly maintaining credentials to teach the curriculum that saved me and wellness recovery workshops worldwide. What I have built for myself can’t be listed in someone else’s liner notes because this achievement belongs only to me; nobody pulled strings or hit me up from word of mouth. I chose the bridge leading to a whirlwind of strangers and I crushed the reset key for the first time.
In my past life of swirling around a rewind button, I forced myself to be OK, to work, to complete, to handle. With renewed fervor and demolished alarm clocks I, once again, get to bask in the beauty of going to shows, hugging friends, and drinking watery beer. Extracting the work from the passion gave my spontaneity enough space to wander freely again.
My mental health career is undoubtedly challenging, and there are days when the option to rewind beckons, but I don’t call in with an excuse—I show up, because people count on me in ways I have never known. My work is mutually beneficial, and helping others moves me into unknown realms of the mind, blinding me with compassion, empowerment, and meaning. Getting off the road was a tremendously difficult choice, and terribly unnerving. Realizing you have more friends out of state than in your own city; to finally see how much the world has moved on without you; to separate yourself from the intimate road family in which you belonged, and the struggle to find common ground with old friends when all of your stories happened so far away. The bands brought the instruments and I brought the paperwork, but our path was singular, and to divert myself felt like the floor dropping out. Now that I’ve regained solid footing, the adventures of the highway burn brightly with long overdue appreciation. On the inevitable days when getting in a van sounds easier than getting out of bed, I let the songs I heard nightly blaze through the house I share with my husband, laughing about the raging side effects of prolonged propane exposure in a temperamental RV.
The only way I could change my trajectory was to maintain my identity, which is why so many are drawn to life on the road—the safety of living precisely by your own guidelines, answering only to your friends. So, I took what I knew and hauled it with me. I exchanged payment contracts, booking venues, ticket sales, headliners, and direct support for grant contracts, conference centers, scholarship admissions, keynote speakers, and presenters. Same spreadsheet, different road.
If I had to forfeit my comfort, hide my tattoos, or subdue my opinions, the reset may have failed. If you’re like me, torn in the abyss of dreams and options, you are in good company. I may suggest easing into a job that allows you to travel for business, or a role with flexible hours and paid time off to spend visiting friends when they play in your city. If you’re a musician, crew member, or promoter, those skills cross into marketing, engineering, and leadership roles. If you work in tech, learn to craft instruments or electronics. If you work front of house or monitors, consider working in film or broadcasting. Everything learned on the road can be applied to environments you may have only briefly considered, often with no higher education required. Writing a record carries your voice, and there is a job waiting for your influence. If you feel suffocated, you’re not speaking loudly enough. Be yourself, show up, and own it. Bring life to every road you’re on, and don’t leave yourself behind.
My sense of purpose isn’t a far cry from the girl who booked herself into a corner 13 years ago, but the edges are more crisp, the details less vague. I know who I am, and I fought for it. Wearing a pantsuit doesn’t get easier, but neither does putting you on the guest list after doors open.
Jessica Boston (New Noise Magazine Reader)
A record would just be a useless hunk of wax with no one to listen to it, a music magazine would just be a waste of trees with no one to read it, and a punk show would be just depressing as hell with no one to attend it—as so many musicians already know from experience. Jessica Boston may not be a musician, but the art form is still integral to her life and mental well-being. It’s ride-or-die supporters like her who hold the scene together and help it flourish. In this special installment of our ongoing Mental Health Spotlight Series, Boston offers her perspectives and shares her experiences from the other side of the venue.
How does your mental health status interact with or inform the way you enjoy music?
Music has always been my greatest source of therapy, as I assume it is so for many of you. My earliest memories are dancing around to The Beatles’ entire discography, Van Halen, and singing to the “oldies” station on long road trips. I also learned the entire soundtracks to “Monty Python” and “Rocky Horror” before I was old enough to understand why “Every Sperm Is Sacred” or what Janet actually meant by “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me.”
Adolescence was when my own taste in music really kicked into high gear. My first real friend in high school—the cool “rude girl” in the hot pink pigtails—made me a mixtape full of Iggy Pop, Descendents, Billy Idol, The Clash, NOFX, Blondie—tons of punk and new wave. I couldn’t get enough. Over the next few years, I also layered in metal and hardcore/post-punk—The Bled, Norma Jean, In Flames, Refused, Slayer—as some of my favorite genres thanks to my older brother’s influence.
Truthfully, these days, I listen to everything, depending on my mood. I have a Spotify playlist for everything—‘90s grunge, ‘80’s pop and new wave, classic hip hop, indie, current top hits, and all my old favorites. In the last few years, my newer favorites have been Frank Turner, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Off With Their Heads, Bad Cop/Bad Cop, and The Hold Steady.
In many of my darkest moments, while fighting the urge to self-harm, listening to In Desolation by Off With Their Heads on repeat was the emotional release I needed that replaced the need to tear at my skin. There were nights I would take off for a midnight drive and pull over and just sob into my steering wheel. [Vocalist] Ryan Young actually got it, and it was sad and horrible and wonderful at the same time.
When I needed a pick-me-up, Everything Sucks by Descendents—and pretty much anything by NOFX—was angsty enough to be relatable, but upbeat enough to keep me from getting super bummed.
As for hardcore and metal, I recall once explaining to my dad why I loved “all that screaming” so much: it kept me from feeling like I needed to do it myself. It reverberated the loud, painful energy from my own body cavity and held it long enough for me to actually smile.
I’ve had a lot of friends in bands as well, from high school to now. I really enjoy supporting local scenes and the personalities behind such creative force. While many of these people share similar dark memories, they’re also some of the most real and caring people I know.
Are there any personal experiences with mental health issues you’d like to share?
I was 16 when depression first dropkicked me in the face—way out of nowhere, it seemed. I was a happy, bubbly sophomore in high school, enjoying my newfound outgoing personality and being the real “me,” not the idea of me I thought everyone wanted. I was mostly unaware of the abuse I survived in childhood—my brain had locked that away until I’d discover an unsettling court tape two years later—so it was a complete shock to myself, nevermind my coworkers, when mid-shift one night I suddenly just burst into tears. I was in fetal position, barely breathing through heaving sobs, when my Mr.-Clean-with-a-beard manager was ushered in looking very confused and super uncomfortable. He pulled a server off the floor and had her drive me home.
It would take a while for my parents to comprehend my pain. I was angry at them at first, and it wouldn’t be the last time I resented them for not understanding—but I don’t blame them anymore. It had to be tough raising a “happy kid” and wrapping your head around the fact that their mind is full of some really fucked up, dark shit.
At 18, I was date raped. That encounter—and the consequences of it—left me scarred for years, and it wasn’t until therapy a few years later that I fully understood it was rape at all. For the record, “No” means “NO!” and if you continue, it’s rape. Dating or not. If they start crying, it’s rape. If they start screaming, it’s rape. If they drive home wishing a semi-truck would grind their body into the pavement, it’s fucking rape.
I played out all the symptoms: binge drinking, recklessness, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts. At one point, my parents found me sitting expressionless at the kitchen table, staring at the options laid out in front of me, like a scene from some desperately dramatic after-school special: a rope, a collection of pills I found throughout the house, a knife. I spent three days in the behavioral ward before convincing the doctor I was better and left. It wasn’t until my early to mid 20s that I started really challenging my own demons and fighting for my life, not against it.
If you’re facing threats of suicide, imagine it threatening the person you love most. You wouldn’t let it kill them, would you? The pain you “lose” when you die doesn’t disappear. It passes on to everyone that cares about you. If you aren’t ready to fight for your own life, fight for them.
For me, the first thing that kept me from taking my own life was my dog. Yep—a fucking animal. My parents were at a loss managing the self-loathing and grief I was drowning in at 18, so I got Elliot, a rescued runt. Awkward, tiny, nervous—yet the moment he was in my arms, he was calm. Thirteen years later, that little guy is still my support when anxiety strikes. So, if you really think you don’t have anyone that loves you—[well], you’re probably wrong, but get a dog.
After over a decade of effort working to dig my way out of my own darkness—and sometimes falling back into it—here are some of the most helpful things I can share:
Cut out the bullshit.
I read once that who you are is largely reflected in the people you spend most of your time around. If the people in your life only beget more negativity and anxiety instead of gratitude and happiness, cut your losses and find new friends. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.
Create your own meaning.
When you feel your life has no value, give it one. Find an organization important to you and volunteer. For me, it was a dog shelter. Days I felt mostly worthless, I remembered my dogs needed walking, brushing, and petting. The joy in their eyes when they saw me was a reminder that my life mattered.
When I can’t afford a therapist or no one’s free to talk, I write it out. Sometimes, it’s just a flow of incomplete sentences. Other times, I’ll write to someone I love or miss most: my grandma, an old friend, or even myself—practicing kindness in the way you talk to yourself is a huge game changer. The great thing about journaling is there are no rules. This isn’t for anyone but you, and sometimes, journaling can even spawn some pretty creative ideas.
Limit how long you stare at your social media, and don’t compare your real life to someone else’s highlights reel. Delete [and/or] block toxic or upsetting people or content, and don’t air your most personal feelings unless you completely trust all 1,367 of your “friends.” Find someone you can trust to be genuine and message them privately if you’re having a hard time.
There’s more solutions than just meds.
Not all of us can afford—or are comfortable taking—an Rx every day. While you’re working on improving major life changes—job, relationships, living situation, etc.—there are smaller, more immediate ways to help yourself too. Drink a lot of water. Days I make an effort to hydrate properly, I’m way less of a bitch and a lot more motivated. Take vitamins, like methylated B-complex and vitamin D, which many of us are deficient in. It’s amazing what proper nutrition can do for your mental health. Why do you think so many of our iconic music legends have traded drugs and liquor for Whole Foods and Gold’s Gym?
Speaking of which, find a way to exercise that you’ll stick with. Running, kickboxing, yoga, whatever it is—make it part of your routine as much as sleeping and taking a shit. It’s just as important to balance the chemicals in your brain.
Keep a visual of someone you love on hand. My Grandma Boston was the love of my life, and I have her signature tattooed over the scars on my wrist to remind me daily I was born into a strong family that doesn’t back down easy.
Get a massage. Go outside and meditate—it’s basically just focused breathing. Practice mindfulness—focus on where you are right now and respect the impermanence of all things, including the pain you’re feeling. Find other ways to take care of yourself that don’t include binge drinking or drugs.
I don’t even know you, but I value your life and I love you. So, it is my hope that this helps even a little bit.
You’re not alone. You are important. You are loved—fiercely.