Not all in the mind.
Jonny Hennessey-Brown
17th May 2016
Not all in the mind.

“What difference can this guy possibly make to me?” I thought. He seems nice enough, but my marriage is in tatters, I have just come out of rehab and nobody is going to employ me… “There’s no future for me as a person or a musician.”

Then we started to talk. Matthew from Help Musicians UK had driven down to Surrey to see me. What he and the team did from then on was truly wonderful. He listened and made a fair evaluation of my mental state. He provided me with some financial support to help with the inevitable expenses of being a father and out of work musician. He also arranged that I had therapy paid for with an addiction specialist.

The money that I got in those 6 months made it possible for me to continue to follow my dream to be a musician in this country. It is a competitive market at the best of times. When you have been plagued with mental health issues and alcoholism and your reputation is not the best, it is almost impossible.

I talked it all through with my therapist and he invoiced Help Musicians UK. Then I got a gig playing the Four Last Songs with Renee Flemming at Lord Dyson’s House. I thought to myself, “Oh my God. I am actually working again.” Then work went extremely quiet again! One or two trusted fixers continued to call, one dear man with a seat in a show kept asking and I built up some teaching.

But does any of this really cover up the hole in the soul that so many of us have? Can a thousand gigs a year make us happy? No. Playing music that is worthwhile to us with people that we care about and, if possible, for causes that mean something. Well, that is a different story.

As I recovered and kept away from alcohol completely something else started to happen. I could not slow down. My brain was like a washing machine. I started to spend money that I didn’t have. I started to just wander around London at night on my own with no real purpose. I started to lose touch with reality. I was discovering why I used to drink so much. I suffered a complete bipolar one high that I could not come down from. I remember going to a session 45 minutes late with the wrong cello because I was in a fantasy world and kept getting on the wrong train. (I am never late to gigs and normally get their too early!) As I mention in my blog for MIND, I got to the stage where I was picking up cigarette ends in the streets. I did the same when I was eventually sectioned. Most of us did. There wasn’t much to do there apart from smoke and try to avoid being verbally abused.

I didn’t drink but I went to hell and back and so did those that loved me. I called Help Musicians UK again after I was released from hospital. I think they supported me again but I am afraid I was so depressed that I can’t quite remember. I didn’t want to do anything. The low after a bipolar episode can last a very long time. For someone who has always liked to network, socialise and make music, it felt pretty weird spending about 16 months essentially in bed. I would get out to see my children, eat junk food and play the occasional concert.

I also kept close to a support network of people that understand how my brain works and are non-judgemental and prepared to talk about this stuff. They inspire me. So do my parents.

The only other constant through it all was the Santiago Quartet.

We kept rehearsing, even when my inactivity almost brought us to a complete stand-still. Playing in a string quartet and particularly the beautiful music of Piazzolla gave me some motivation in very dark days. I nearly gave up on it all together. But now we are re-formed and on the cusp of making our second album, “Language of The Heart.”

There is a video here of Cressida, our violist, and I talk about what is going to be on the album and our support of MIND the mental health charity.

So what keeps me well apart from music, fellowship and my medication? Helping other people is the answer. The amount of conversations with other musicians who suffer with mental health issues, either directly or in their family has been staggering. The stigma has not been anywhere near broken. You WILL get booked again if you tell people that you suffer from OCD, depression, Bi-polar or whatever it may be. My message is have no fear, don’t be ashamed and talk about it. It helps other people come out of the woodwork and get well.

I have had two years without any blips at all. Playing music, being a Dad and being open about my illness are crucial factors in staying well.

I really hope that the Santiago Quartet can continue to raise awareness around mental health in music and that our next album will raise some money for MIND. I also hope that we can put on a fund-raising concert for Help Musicians UK just as a small expression of my gratitude to a wonderful organisation that helps people with far worse plights than mine.