Mentally Exhausted?! Impossible. I’m Too Busy To Be Tired.
This column was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
I was about to write about going back on the road from an artist-entrepreneur perspective when I read the moving and humbling page Catherine Harrison from Over The Bridge wrote in the last issue of Canadian Musician. That, along with the generous interview from The Strumbellas' lead singer Simon Ward and Isaac Wood stepping back from one of my favourite new bands, Black Country, New Road for mental health issues, inspired me to use my column in the magazine to share about my own recent emotional fumble. This is a view from within...
It’s quite incredible to realize that it’s already been two years since everyone’s lives have been profoundly impacted by the still-ongoing pandemic. It’s unreal on so many levels. I was coming back from a European tour when it all began… I thought it would be a two-week kind of thing. I didn’t pay too much attention to any of it at first, nor was I was too inclined to invest any of my newfound energy in something that felt so elusive from afar. I was starting my solo journey after what I would later realize was the result of an undiagnosed depression following my father’s passing, which led me to take a break from my 10-year tenure as Your Favorite Enemies’ lead figure. My album, Windows in the Sky, was collecting positive reviews all over the world, I had two years of tours aligned, was set to play at the Tokyo Olympics… I was finally turning what felt like a never-ending corner in my life. It felt good for several reasons. Then two weeks turned into months, months led to a first tour postponement, then a second, and so on… but I kept on going. DIY style. I did a series of livestreams before it was even a thing and managed to keep the circus going. I was not only benefitting from being locked down with my band and crew for weeks as we got back from tour, but everyone was staying at my studio, which allowed me to keep the high-speed motion I was on. All that while supporting collaborators of my label and releasing all sorts of new projects. No matter what hit me, it was all about going forward. I was pridefully determined to outrun the crisis and fiercely committed to doing so no matter how long it would last. I had to be the first in line, all systems ready to go, when everything would open again — or so I believed.
I’m from a very tight community, and we’ve been through a lot over the years: heartbreaks, betrayals, divorces, parents’ death… Life being life. But what I wasn’t ready to face was the proliferation of friends taking their lives during the initial COVID phase, followed by old-time business partners deciding to reinvent themselves in a different work area. Tensions arose as preoccupations grew amongst our usually close relationships. Old acquaintances radicalized themselves and suddenly turned their back on what was now seen as working for the “worldwide brainwashing machine” in regard to my positions to rebuke any form of violence. And if everything I have built over the years seemed utterly fragile, I kept on going and pressed on. I didn’t care about all the red lights, about the warning signs. A drink became two. The Friday gatherings became a daily affair. And every time someone took upon themselves to reflect on the dangerous path I was fully engaged on, or to say just how out of character I was acting, my answer was always the same: “No worries, I’m alright. I’m just a little tired, that’s all.”
I kept feeding the facade, especially as I had all the right reasons to maintain the fast-pace roll I was on and all the pre-fabricated excuses I needed to explain why I was so frantically speeding up. “My loved ones trust me to lead them all through that perfect storm” was one of them. “I need to go forward, further and faster. That’s who I am and how I managed to get where I am at this point in my life” was another. Everybody knew I wouldn’t stop. I didn’t even know what “slowing down” meant. I had the vision. I had the determination. I had a purpose. For me, it has always been full-throttle or nothing.
Then, a very close friend of mine told me that I had all the symptoms of burnout, of mental exhaustion, and that I was about to hit a major breakdown. I laughed about it until it freaked me out for an instant. Wait a minute… What about all the ventures I am involved in? I don’t have time for any burnout or mental exhaustion. I have a new record to finish. I’m halfway through writing a book. I have a movie score on the way. I have a label to look after, a studio to operate, a merchandising company, a vinyl plant I want to open next spring. That’s why I’m tired and stressed. I mean, ain’t this the reality of every artist-entrepreneur? Nobody else will come and save the day, it’s on you and nobody else. I’m not burnt out, it’s normal exhaustion based on normal worries associated with my job — or at least with the way I decided to work and operate. I mean, my closest friends understand that. Well, they do, right…? And to top it all, I can’t miss potentially crucial opportunities. If I say “no” now, I might not have that call a second time around. If I’m not ready, someone else will take my place or benefit from my groundwork. And that’s why I can’t slow down, let alone stop. It would be ridiculous. I mean… These are only plain facts based on the rules and the nature of the entertainment business. Or are they?
While it all made sense intellectually, I would soon have to face a much more concerning reality. My health began to greatly deteriorate to add to the vitamin D deficiency I have been dealing with for years already. Back issues, neck pain, teeth and jaw problems, severe headaches, a loud buzz in my ears — all on the right side of my body. I didn’t care. I made it through sinus cancer and went on tour all over China right after surgery, so it can’t be worse. Then came dizziness, imbalance, blurred vision, sleeplessness, lack of energy, anxiety… I carried on, released more projects, made more business acquisitions. I even had the incredible opportunity to be one of the first Canadian artists to tour all over the U.K. and Europe last October. I was indeed the first in line when the world slightly re-opened for a second. I thought I was right to have pressed on. Whatever the cost, tiredness is only temporary anyway. I had won that crazy rat race and outgrew the waiting game.
I obviously didn’t see the Omicron variant coming up nor did I believe it would turn the world upside down once again. Amazing opportunities got canceled. I had to push releases back. I had to deal with the horror of having more friends take their lives. And just like that, I sort of collapsed. The signs of an upcoming physical crash were already there, but the mental disruption that came thereafter was even more detrimental to me as I now had to face an emotional breakdown. It was serious, but I nonetheless kept on going for a while… Until I wasn’t able to look much further than my health condition would allow me to. Burnout, momentary depression, or mental exhaustion… Whatever it was, it sounded like someone else’s problem, not mine. How could it be? I lived my life on a New York minute. There was no time to waste, I was too busy for that nonsense. My content schedule wouldn’t wait for some headaches and dizziness - or so I wanted to convince myself. Until I wasn’t able to get out of bed. And that was it. It wasn’t about me willingly deciding to take a break anymore. It was me being broken and having to deal with the reality of being too damaged to stand… Beyond repair.
It was incredibly difficult for me to accept that I had reached that point, that I had pushed too hard and for too long. I was in complete denial, frustrated, angry, bitter. I had to let it go. The future wasn’t a concern anymore, as every day became a battle against sorrows, sadness, and a profound sensation of failure. Days became weeks. And if I refused to see the reality of my condition at first, I made the best of it when I did. I slowly transitioned from “doing” to “being”. What was to me a way-too-long physical and mental resting period led me to reconnect with the fundamental passion I had for music and arts, allowed me to get back in touch with people I never took the time to even send an occasional text message to before. I joined online support groups and ultimately decided to write handwritten letters, to send postcards. I wrote a few blogs about mental exhaustion, about being damaged. And if it looks like it took an eternity for me to accomplish it all, every tiny step was an immense victory towards recovery, if there is ever one for such affective issues. My health became the most important project of all. It was slow but steady. The most challenging elements remained being truly at peace with declining offers that wouldn’t be beneficial for my inner reconstruction and emotional restoration. It wasn’t about the fear of missing out, it was about being happy to choose me over anything else. And that is still a work in progress…
I wanted to share my story not because I think that I’m the only one who had it though over the last 2 years - I’m too Irish proud for that - but to offer a perspective to those who, just like me, are so deep into their own process that they might lose perspective about their health or what should matter the most in their lives. Some friends told me that it takes courage to admit your own limits, and I guess it requires even more blind pride to keep going when all the lights on your engine dashboard are flashing. This is also very difficult to accept when you are used to constantly bet on yourself, always. At least, I found it difficult to accept limits. Maybe it’s because we operate in a very competitive sector, that we are often seen as having the most fun of all jobs (which is sometimes an accurate presumption), that we can’t be exhausted from playing guitar and writing lyrics… This ostracizes us as much as it provides the perfect excuses to keep going no matter what. And even if we all have our reasons, our own paradigms to deal with, professional obligations, loved ones to care for and look after, there’s no weakness in putting a knee down, nor is it shameful to fully kneel. On the contrary, this is synonymous with taking care of what matters the most to your friends, fans, business partners, family members, or whoever’s precious to us: ourselves. So please, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need to. Take a break if you need one. Listen to all the voices imploring you to slow down. It’s never too late to make the right call, even if, just like me, you don’t have time for any of that burnout and mental exhaustion stuff…
If you ever need help:
Suicide Action Montréal
Phone: 1 866 277-3553
SMS: 1 855 957-5353
Alex Henry Foster is a Montreal-based singer, musician, writer, and activist who fronts the Juno-nominated alternative band Your Favorite Enemies. His solo debut LP, Windows in the Sky, is out on Hopeful Tragedy Records. His latest release is Standing Under Bright Lights, a triple LP and DVD from his sold-out concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. www.alexhenryfoster.com.