Deaf Havana’s James Veck-Gilodi On Mental Health: “You Can’t Express It In Words”
We’re chatting to some of our favourite people about their mental health experiences in conjunction with our friends at YoungMinds as part of a partnership that was only supposed to last a month, but has been such a success we’re going to keep it rolling for a while. Today James Veck-Gilodi opens up about his past struggles and how they’ve influenced his music and outlook.
James Veck Gilodi’s problems with anxiety began when the Deaf Havana frontman moved to London nine years ago. Suffering from repeated panic attacks, he turned to alcohol as a way of coping with his anxious feelings.
Having overcome that dark period thanks to music and the support of those around him, the vocalist/guitarist is now looking to raise awareness about mental illness. Here, he talks to Kerrang! about the indescribability of anxiety, the influence his experiences have had on Deaf Havana’s music, and the damaging ‘macho’ attitude towards mental health in men.
Can you recall your first panic attack?
Yeah – I’d never experienced anything like it before, and it was so alien – the first thing that came into my head was, “I’m about to die.” I was living in North Finchley in 2008 the first time it happened, and I just got dressed and went outside one day as normal, but then as soon as I got out of the door, this massive haze came over me. I was thinking, “Shit – I’m going to faint,” and my eyes closed into tunnel vision. I didn’t know what was going on, so I tried to get on with my day and walk down the street, but it scared me so much that I had to go home. I didn’t leave the house for a month after that, other than to go to the shop and buy supplies. I couldn’t get rid of those feelings – it was so, so bad. I’ve probably experienced panic attacks as bad as that since then, but now I know what they are. That first time, I was terrified – I thought I was having a heart attack or a stroke. It was horrendous.
It’s an almost indescribable feeling, isn’t it?
Totally – how on earth do you describe it to people?! When you do describe it, people are like, “So what? I don’t get what you mean.” You can’t express it in words.
Despite the difficulties that come with articulating the feelings of anxiety, did you eventually open up to those close to you?
Yeah – I was with my ex-girlfriend at the time, and she was really good about it. She was very understanding, and that made it a lot easier. But it’s hard for people who don’t experience mental illness to understand it: for example, I may have to leave a meal halfway through, and people will be like, “What do you mean you have to leave? Why?” And things like that can get in between people and ruin relationships. People who’ve never experienced it might think you’re making it up or just looking for attention. But I’ve spoken to my mum about it, and my partner now is really supportive too. I’m generally in a much better place.
Much is made of how men in particular struggle to talk about their mental health – why do you think that is?
A lot of it comes down to that macho perception of what a man should be. I’ve got friends who would think that talking about your feelings is unmanly, and a lot of it is down to how you’re brought up. I’m quite a feminine guy; I’m not macho at all – I hate that shit! But I can totally understand how some people might think, “We’re men – we can’t talk about our feelings. We just shove them away in a dark place somewhere and don’t think about them.” Some people see it as a weakness, but I’ve never felt like a stereotypical man, so I’ve never had a problem talking about my feelings.
Whilst you were struggling with anxiety you turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism – how did that exacerbate the problem?
Anxiety aside, turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism is pretty damaging anyway. In my case, it just turned into this horrible cycle. In the short term, alcohol makes you feel loads better, because you can lose a lot of anxiety when you’re drunk. But then the next day, it has the opposite effect, because you feel run down and on edge. And that coupled with anxiety can destroy your life. The amount of things I haven’t done because of having a panic attack due to drinking or being hungover… it’s ruined my life at times. It’s ridiculous the effect it can have.
What’s even more damaging is the cycle you can get into, because you think, “I’ll have a drink and feel okay,” and then the next day you feel like shit again. I wasn’t addicted to alcohol; I was addicted to the way it made me feel in relation to my anxiety. I’ve never smoked weed or anything like that, despite people telling me it could help, so I needed something to help me get out of the house, and that was alcohol. It never got to the point where I was addicted to it; it was more like my version of an anti-anxiety drug.
A more positive way you’ve coped with mental illness is through music – what one Deaf Havana song stands out to you as encapsulating your struggle with anxiety?
The song Anemophobia on Fools And Worthless Liars was written following one of the worst panic attacks of my life. I can’t exactly remember where I was, because I’ve blacked it out, but it was horrendous. I was a mess for a month after that. I wrote the song really quickly, but I never sang it to myself; I just sang it in my head. The recording on the album is the first take and first time I ever sang it. I thought it was the last thing I was ever going to record, because I was 100% sure I was going to die – I’d developed hypochondria as a result of the anxiety. You can hear how desperate I was on the song, and the lyrics are pretty brutal.
Has working in music been beneficial to your mental health?
Working in music has 100% helped me with my mental health. I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t channel everything I’m feeling into songs. Yes, sometimes when you’re on tour it can be hard, but that’s a small price to pay. Overall, music has been a massive blessing – I wouldn’t have dealt with my mental health as well as I have without that outlet. The music industry has helped me massively.
You’ve done a bit of work with mental health charities in the past, right? Tell us a bit about that…
Yeah. We did this thing called The Guitarwrist, where you donate your old guitar strings and they turn them into jewellery – we had to pick a charity to donate to, and we picked West Norfolk Mind. I normally do one or two shows a year in aid of them, and I’m hoping to get to do one this year around Christmas. The reason I picked West Norfolk Mind is because I grew up in that area, and it’s a place where that macho attitude of not talking about your feelings is very prevalent, and where a lot of people also suffer with mental illness.
As well as music, what positive coping strategies do you now employ to help combat your anxiety?
It’s a really simple yet difficult thing to achieve, but for me, once I understood that it was just a panic attack, and that I wasn’t going to physically get hurt or die, that helped me loads. If I’m at home and I get a panic attack, I’ll play the guitar or do something familiar that’ll take my mind off it.
The worst scenarios for me were always being on public transport. Being on my own, surrounded by loads of people and it being really hot – that was my fear. If I felt like I was on edge, I wouldn’t use the tube, and I sometimes still don’t, because, in my mind, it’s the worst place to have a panic attack. But even then, the most important thing to remember is that it’s just a panic attack; it will go away – you just need to breathe and remind yourself of that fact. It’s just becoming comfortable with it and knowing what it is. It’s like owning it, in a way, instead of it owning you.
If you’re struggling with your own mental health, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone you can trust – it could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, a doctor, a counsellor or a helpline – or visit YoungMinds for more information about how to find support. If you’re passionate about improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing then take a look at all the ways you can get involved with YoungMinds’ good work here.