It would happen in the grocery store. It would happen at soccer practice and at middle school dances. It would happen on long road trips, at friends’ houses after school. It would start to happen slowly and seemingly all at once. It would happen out of nowhere; this vivid sensation that I was exiting my body. I would enter into what felt to my 10-year-old self like a sort of dreamy uneasiness. I was completely out of touch with my physical presence and felt my consciousness, or whatever, carry me above myself.
It wasn’t until it had already begun that I would realize what was going on, and then I would panic that I was dying or losing my mind, losing touch with myself in a way that I could never come back from. Everything felt fake, somehow. Hoping to regain normalcy, I would find my mother in the grocery store or on the soccer field, but I would become even more panicked, because even she seemed distorted and manipulated during these episodes. Eventually they would pass without me knowing they’d passed—sometimes it would take a day or two to realize I was finally feeling human again. I woke up terrified that it would happen again, thinking about it everywhere I went.
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I grew up privileged, sheltered enough to actually believe I could never be sick. When my siblings and I were hurt, our parents could send us to a doctor. With my childlike optimism, I believed that if there was a solution to this problem, my mom and dad would find it—until then, I hadn’t seen a problem they couldn’t solve. But this was different, abstract and unfamiliar. The most painful part was that I had absolutely no idea how to describe it, not even to myself, let alone to a doctor. My mom, to whom I spoke at length about how I was feeling and who would always encourage me to be open, was stumped as well. We would both pass it off as dehydration or lack of sleep. It wasn’t until years later that my mother and I concluded I was probably experiencing episodes of depersonalization, likely due to the extreme anxiety and depression I had started feeling in my youth.
This realization saved my life. It allowed me to look at these painful, scary feelings of doubt, fear, shame, and depersonalization as symptoms of a studied problem, instead of defects of my soul. For much of my childhood, I hid my flaws, insecurities, and fear because I worried that acknowledging them would mean I was irredeemable and would be defined by these feelings. Allowing myself to understand I was suffering from something so common—even if it’s rarely discussed—provided a small light at the end of the tunnel: I was fighting an illness, and I was not alone.
Once I had a cause, it was time to face the effect. Bettering my mental health continued to be a struggle for me as I forged my career in music. The lack of structure and uncertainty of finding success in a cutthroat industry wreaked havoc on my well-being. The exhausting grind of touring while battling writer’s block and performance anxiety and the ensuing depression became unbearable.
In my early 20s, I started breaking down, drinking in excess, binge eating and then not eating. I would cry my eyes out to my parents and listen to their advice: get a therapist, take medication—we can help you. I knew they were right, but I told myself that the next tour, or the next album, was going to fix the feelings. I just wasn’t successful enough yet.
A few times, I scanned the small list of regional therapists in my area until my finger settled on a name. I drove 45 minutes to a rural office—one way full of hope, the return full of reticence. Who could blame me? Sometimes the therapist would be an old classmate’s father, or would know my parents somehow. It felt hard to open up to anyone.
I tried medications but felt unequipped to deal with the side effects, in particular the dulling sensation that made it hard for me to write songs. I would quit them cold turkey and hope I could figure it out myself, ultimately leading to a downward spiral. I cycled through dark, months-long depressive episodes, half committing to one treatment then relapsing into old habits again. I was writing songs about navigating depression and anxiety, yet was absolutely clueless as to how to manage my own. Making music became too challenging and required too much energy. I slowed down creatively, and emotionally drifted away from my work. I was feeling less passionate about music and about life in general.
Read More: How to Find a Therapist Who’s Right for You
And then, in spring 2020, the world stopped and I returned to my childhood home, temporarily awoken from my emotional hibernation by the alarm of a global crisis. Suddenly, the world came to a halt, and in that respite I felt alive again.
The pressure was off. No one knew when the industry would come back, so I started to simply make music I loved again. I returned to therapy and resumed taking medication. I regained control over my mental health and accepted that I would always have to be vigilant in watching for symptoms. I still felt anxious every day, but I learned how to work through the thoughts, to sift the rational from the far-fetched. I made an album that brought me so much creative joy that for the few weeks we worked on it, I felt like I was floating—but this time fully cemented in the reality of it all. I smiled and cried tears of joy and of sorrow for the years that I’d wasted running toward nothing. My album did well, and I eventually began touring again, this time maintaining my commitment to staying in therapy every week and taking medication that helped keep me grounded.
I worked with my managers Drew Simmons and Ryan Langlois to create the Busyhead Project, a nonprofit to help provide the resources that changed my life to folks around North America. I am so grateful to my parents for the love and support, both emotional and financial, that allowed me to have a safety net to catch me during my darkest moments growing up. I wanted to use my public platform to help support organizations across the country that provide the same safety net I was fortunate to have. It’s no secret I pour my mental health into my music, and I will always continue to do so, but it means so much to me to be able to evolve that into actionable support. The Busyhead Project has surpassed our initial 2023 fundraising goal of “$1 million for mental health” and has reached $1.9 million as of today.
Read More: Noah Kahan Is on the 2023 TIME100 Next List
As I’ve been touring the country supporting my record Stick Season, many people have told me my music saved their lives—that I gave them the strength to carry on. Though flattered and honored, I am inclined to disagree. The strength it takes to get through difficult moments and complicated challenges, mental and physical, comes from within. Any person brave enough to share that they have made it through a struggle deserves every ounce of credit for making it to the other side. As the artist Grandson often says: “You did this yourself.”
I still experience days where I feel myself drifting, and the old, familiar fear starts to set in. I go through days of anxiety when I can’t sleep or eat, and I wonder if I’ll ever feel better again. Sometimes I look at the crowds of people at my shows and feel an emptiness within myself that infuriates me. What do they see that I can’t? It’s a stark reminder of the truth that I have had to come to terms with: there is no perfect ending or conclusion in my journey with my mental health. These problems will likely be with me forever. The difference is now I know I can treat them with therapy, meditation, and medication. I can talk about them with friends and family. I can write them down, and I can make them smaller. Dedicating my craft to opening up about my mental health has provided me with an arsenal to live a meaningful life, and to not be defined by the chemicals in my brain.
Kahan is a singer-songwriter and a member of the 2023 TIME100 Next list. His latest album is Stick Season.
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