As of the time of writing this I have only interviewed a hand full of people, and have less than 200 followers on Instagram, but I think the interview below will be one that I come back to and repost again and again. I really like and admire the people I have interviewed up until now, but interviewing this person was a rare opportunity. For all intents and purposes he and I are very much alike, he shared a lot of my interests, philosophies, tastes in music and unfortunately a lot of the same mental issues. The one key difference is that he is also VERY highly educated and so has insight and a way of speaking that makes these conversations invaluable. Not only for myself, but for everyone reading this.
Given the nature of our conversation and the career implications he has asked to remain anonymous so I cannot formally introduce him, but if I give him the pseudonym “Andre” for this piece, I’m sure that you will agree the interview with him is incredible.
Rory - First of all can you just please tell me your name, where you're from and what you do.
Andre - My name is [Andre]. I am from the mainland Europe, born in a small village. I studied medicine and graduated as an MD in 2016. I also obtained my PhD, a bachelors in Philosophy and my basic qualification to teach at universities. Currently, I work as a post-doc researcher at the same department where I did my PhD.
Rory - Excellent, thank you. And do you now, or have you ever struggled with your mental health?
Andre - As far as I can remember I have always been ‘sensitive’ and ‘overthinking’. I’ve talked about this with my parents and it is something that also runs in the family. Both my mom and dad have been on antidepressants and, for example, my grandma has been on them for years. However, my own first overly apparent struggles came when my parents (and I) moved from one town to another when I was about 15. This was an extremely difficult period as I did not connect as much with the people at my new high school. I felt lonely and depressed.
This also manifested itself in lower back pain. I visited my GP for this but was never put on any meds and when I met my (ex-)girlfriend at the age of 17 this stabilized somewhat.
It is safe to say that after that period I have never not struggled with my mental health. I usually explain it to people as being a sine graph with a low baseline. I have some stable melancholy/sadness, a slight depression, going on with momentary high highs and low lows.
I know this about myself and can sort of live/deal with that. Things really turn bad when the baseline gets screwed over. Unfortunately, that has been happening more often lately which I attribute mainly to sleeping issues and doubts about my future (career). My nights are filled with anxiety and a subsequent sleeping pill habit that has gotten out of hand. This in turn affects everything I do during the day.
Rory - That's interesting. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask. Do you think since your whole family suffers with it that it is genetic or something acquired from observing and learning from your parents?
Andre - That is a good question. I definitely believe there might be some genetic predisposition but that is never the full story. Upbringing I think is a big part of it too. For me the feeling that I’m never good enough at anything is also main contributor. I’m not sure where this exactly originated though but it is definitely not something posed upon me by my parents as they have always been very supportive.
It is interesting because I actually had a deep conversation about this with my dad not too long ago. He asked me if there were things going on as a kid that they might have ignored or turned away from. I do remember that when I was very young, stressful events and stuff manifested in nausea and belly pain. In response to this, I remember my mother usually tossing it off as being nothing and I should not complain about it. However, some periods it stayed for days or weeks and I was really upset but afraid to talk about it.
Rory – It’s interesting where you say you felt you were never good enough. I think that was the origin of mine, too. I have a textbook inferiority complex. I'm not super successful but I think I've succeeded where I have because of the chip on my shoulder. And I used work as a distraction, I escaped into progression. Is your experience something similar to that?
Andre - In a way yes. I always feel like I could be doing better, doing more. For me this is entangled with the feeling of doing things wrong. I am also notoriously bad at making decisions. This lead in practice to me doing loads of different things, like getting a PhD degree, MD degree, Philosophy degree, teaching degree, but simultaneously not knowing what I actually want to do. It feels like I'm doing it to show I'm capable of achieving or something. It is hard to exactly put into words but it is some sort of pressured feeling I need to be better, to show that to the world. However, the reality is that no-one or nothing is actually pressuring me.
Rory - That's totally understandable, I've had the same pattern to a degree. And this kind of instability and pressure, how did that manifest itself?
Andre - It manifests itself in different ways. One of the ways is that it results in me wanting to do everything and also excel in all those things. This is very counterproductive and usually leads to a vicious cycle in which I do 5000 things at once but get nothing 'really' done or not be extremely good in anything. For an example just look at my bookcase, 90% of the books are non fiction and of those 90% will have a mark at about 2/3rd into the book.
This 'doing a lot of things at once' leads to anxiety and depression, which as you can imagine do not affect my efficiency positively. However, it is very difficult for me to do otherwise because of what you could call a sort of fear of missing out (FOMO). Don't get me wrong, I have (objectively) achieved many things but it feels like I am never the best in something, so it is never good enough for me.
Rory - I totally understand. It took me years to reconcile the fact that I could be good, but there's only one 'best'. For years I would think that kind of settling for what I have mentality was giving up, but I've never felt happier. Do you also struggle in relationships?
Andre - I do, a lot. The backstory here is quite long but the short version is that I had a beautiful girlfriend for about 6 years. However, we got together very young (I was 17, she was 15 when we met) and I think a combination of both our personalities and (low) self confidence lead to me sort of socially isolating myself in other contacts. When I started college I did not go out or party, I just dove into my studies and lived for her... After that ended (on relatively good terms) and I started dating again, I've been with many girls but never commit to anything serious. As soon as something started to look like a relationship, I backed out. It was some kind of fear of commitment but possibly also related to 'the grass is greener...' thing. I always thought there would be someone 'better' out there for me. Even though I do still regard all the girls (with 1 or 2 exceptions) I've been with as amazing people. With most of them I'm actually still in touch. Recently this did change a bit though when I met someone I was actually willing to commit to while I lived in the US. Unfortunately, it was not reciprocal in a way (also a long story). To be fair though, I think in the long run it would probably not have worked as we were objectively such different people. However, it was nice to have this realization that I might actually still be able to commit.
Rory - Do you have any idea where that tendency to want to back out came from? I struggled with the same thing; I was single for 10 years until I met my current girlfriend. I hate to say it but I think mine was a basic fear of either hurting someone or getting hurt in an endeavour I just saw as destined for failure.
Andre - I think that was part of it for me as well. If you commit to something for such a long time, potentially your life, the danger of making a mistake and hurting someone is enormous. I think, however, that for me it is also intertwined with that feeling of wanting 'the best'. Always lingering on the thought if this girl is really 'the one' or if there is a better fit for me out there. The idea of commitment is scary AF.
When I got single, I opened up and met so many new people/girls. This was amazing but also lead to almost a sort of compulsion of always thinking there were people out there who would fit me better, so I had to meet everyone. I always tried to walk away from those thoughts by keeping things 'casual' but that never worked out in the end. At some point one of you is going to want a foundation, someone to trust and to fall back on at any moment. Even though I tried that in certain ways, I don't think I could be that person for a while, at least not in a 'classic style' love relationship. Although it was never my intention, I know I broke some hearts along the way.
Rory – Me too. I'm lucky that I have an understanding girlfriend who can handle my mood swings and insecurity based on all of that old stuff. I don't really believe in the fairy tale of there is 'the one', Sarah and I have been friends for years and after she split from her ex we were just casual and fell in love. That works.
The only advice I can ever give to you is that you have to approach things with a degree of selfishness in the beginning. I think the reason that the first love or your early relationships are so intoxicating is because there are no barriers, no preconceived notions of what is right and wrong in a relationship or the consequences that come with that. Once I started seeing the pure enjoyment in relationships again and forgot about the consequences (as selfish as that may seem) everything fell into place.
I don't even like the word 'relationship' in that context. You and I have a relationship because we're buddies, Sarah and I do, my family and I do, my colleagues and I do. But when you apply the term 'relationship' to a romantic context there starts to be a weight to it.
Andre - Yeah, I get you. Also I put 'the one' in brackets because I also don't believe in that. However, the fact that I started knowing so many people and its so easy to get to know more and more, especially in this day and age (Tinder etc.). This increase in variety highly contributes to the state of doubt I'm already in. It leads to much more overthinking like 'oh but this girl likes the same music', 'oh but with this girl the sex is amazing', 'oh but with this girl I can talk about stuff' etc. etc. I'm sort of trying to do what you say and experience instead of rationalize. Currently I'm seeing this girl which, if I try to rationalize, I have not much in common with, but if I just live the moment and not think about it, it feels so good being together.
Also, I had a conversation with someone about this the other day but for me love is really a spectrum. I'm very affectionate with most of my friends as well, in the way we interact both with words and physically.
Rory – Me too. I’m a ‘huggy’ person for sure. And I think you're right. I think every generation thinks how they did it in their formative years is healthy and 'better'. I think that there's a psychological lag in these kind of things. It sounds antiquated but the generation now knows Tinder and POF etc, digital interaction. I think they'll struggle with what comes after that.
I want to change the direction for a moment. You and I met at a gig a while back, do you have a certain amount of escapism in being at a heavy gig? I used to relish being in a super heavy pit because I COULDN'T think. It was a temporary escape.
Andre - It is a sort of temporary escape. It doesn't always work that way though and it depends on the specific type of (heavy) music. If it's a heavy gig with crowd participation (i.e. stagediving, moshpits), the adrenaline rush also helps with actually being able to shut off the negative thoughts and patterns in that moment. However, with some more droney doomy slow stuff it can be different.
Rory - I understand totally. For the longest time I only ever went to the visceral gigs, high octane etc. Now my head is settling somewhere I like a calmer gig. It's a nice change of pace not to come out covered in 3 kinds of someone else's bodily fluid.
Andre - haha yeah, I feel that. Sometimes it is still nice though.
Rory - Of course. It's a primal thing. I remember going to see Lamb of God and there was a guy there whose nose was crushed flat to his nose and it looked like he was having the time of his life!
Andre - I remember once a friend of mine got a heavy nosebleed, went to the toilet, stuffed paper in his nose and jumped back in the pit. I have picture of his face with the paper and bigass smile (haha).
Rory – (haha) Excellent! You feel like you've earned something going through a heavy pit.
So, I wanted to verge into something far more serious and significant. I've been very open about the 2 times I've made an attempt to take my life. Have you ever had those thoughts or moreover have you ever actually made plans and steps?
Andre - I have suicidal thoughts a lot. Mostly at night when going to bed but sometimes also during the day. Actually making plans is something far more significant and to be fair I have not really gone that far. I have, at some occasions, been Googling stuff about ways to take your own life and how to obtain certain things etc., but never went through with anything.
Also, one night I was feeling so bad I wanted to jump off a bridge. I had already put on clothes but then realized I had no 'real' plan. There was not even a bridge close I could think of that would be sufficient. So I took my clothes off again and went to bed for the rest of the (very anxious) night. I also once gorged on sleeping pills while drinking whisky. However, I knew this was just going to knock me out very badly and probably not kill me. That is exactly what it did. I can tell you, the next morning was not pleasant.
Rory - No of course. I'm sorry to hear all of that. It sounds like you deal with a lot of internal conflict. A lot of torment. I've had quite a few instances of suicidal thoughts, it's sad that it's often my first 'go to' thought. I often reconcile myself with carrying on by thinking "If it gets too bad I can always end things myself". That’s exactly a healthy mindset.
Andre - Yes, I have the exact same thing.
Rory - It's a weird, comforting thing I have found. It's not a very popular or widely known impulse that people have. The only way I can rationalise it is that in a mental state where comfort and contentment is something that your mind doesn't allow for, you have to find comfort and security in whatever you can. And what's more secure than that.
Andre - Yeah, that sounds like a good explanation. I always feel when I do have the thought that it is really selfish. To me that is probably the main reason I never went on to make actual plans. I’ve seen the grief around me when people die and I don’t want to pose that on the ones close to me.
Rory - No of course. It's more of a philosophical question but do you believe in assisted suicide?
Andre - Pweh that is a very difficult question. I mean I’m pro euthanasia but it is a complex situation especially in the case of mental problems. In the case of physical issues, suffering is in a way more ‘quantifiable’ whilst with mental issues it is different. When being physically completely healthy and I say I want to die today, does not mean it can be different next week or year.
Rory - I totally agree. I think that deciding when you want to die is the single biggest freedom a person can have. But if you take away the complexity and you appreciate that mental illness is as serious as physical illness, the logical inference is that one should be able to decide when they die if their mental illness is too severe.
Andre - It is often very difficult judging from the outside how severe the suffering is and where you draw the line though. This is already difficult with euthanasia right now. I’ve seen some of the stuff first hand. What I know to be one thing that helps is when the people close to the person requesting euthanasia, sort of support his/her decision. This means that his/her loved ones see the severity and realize this is the only thing left to relieve the suffering. But of course this is an ideal situation and unfortunately in practice it is not that straightforward.
Rory - I totally agree, it's interesting to me because once assisted suicide for physical sufferers is made legal, and I truly hope that it does one day, then this question will inevitably come up. I have 2 more questions if you can, please. One quite deep but one quite nice.
Andre - Yes of course.
Rory - Thank you. My first is to please tell me a little bit about the pattern of how your sleep became impacted by your mental health and your descent into sleeping pill addiction, if you're comfortable doing so, please. And the second would be please tell me a little about how music helps you. Outside of actually attending concerts, does music hold any therapeutic value to you?
Andre - I do not recall exactly when my sleep started to get worse. It has been up and down for I think around 2 or 3 years now. It coincided in a way with developing tinnitus (the ringing in your ears that never leaves). I spent nights fixated on the sound. I also remember one breaking point where I had a hard day of partying (with accompanying intoxicating substances) and couldn’t sleep at all for two nights in a row. This resulted in having palpitations and panic attacks. I went back to my parents, totally broken both physically and mentally (I was in full tears which does not happen often), and my mom gave me my first sleeping pill (temazepam, a benzodiazepine) to calm me down and get a good night of sleep. It was not until much later that I got my own prescription.
At that point, I was just using it occasionally when I had some bad nights in a row. The thing with bad sleeping is that it affects both your physical and mental state during the day. I’m much more resilient when I get a good night of sleep. This is one of the reasons I started getting afraid of not getting sleep. It was not until a few months ago that my sleeping got so bad that I started taking pills almost every day. I went into a sort of vicious cycle/spiral of developing anxiety to go to sleep. Right now, I am still in this cycle. I can order my pills online which also removes a boundary there. Fortunately, I’m seeing a sleep therapist next week and I hope to finally kick my pill habit and find another way to combat my endlessly brooding mind.
And to answer your other question, music is extremely important to me. I felt like during my whole life for as far as I can remember, music has been the only real ‘stable’ factor. Even though my preferences and tastes developed I have always been a heavy music listener and concert goer. A pitfall is that it almost became an obsession as I ALWAYS have to be listening to music. However, to me music is the way I process life, it gives a voice to feelings and states that cannot be described/felt by just words or physical experience. The fact that music for me transcends these things is why it almost feels like a religion/faith. Aside from that, I also met so many amazing people (like yourself!) at shows and bonded during concerts/festivals. I have no idea what or how I would be without it. I am very certain that it was music that kept me going during some very deep downs.