The Only True Sanctuary I have Ever Known by James Paul Matthews

The Only True Sanctuary I have Ever Known by James Paul Matthews

Music is a rather wonderful thing, isn’t it? A free form of artistic expression, which has transcended generations and generations of existence, where people are unified by one universal language to which we can all lose ourselves in amongst the hypnotic beauty of sound. A place where we connect our emotions to an instrument we can play, and release our pent up energy. Maybe it is just for listening pleasure to find a form of music, or a style of lyricism that we feel we can truly connect with that mirrors how we are feeling in that moment. Whatever your connection you may have with music – no matter how small or significant, it is a welcome staple in our everyday lives.

For myself, one of the most intriguing aspects of music, is not only how whatever music you are listening to can be a reflection of how you are feeling in that moment, but also how it also can be your saving grace. Your muse, your teacher, your guide, your sanctuary. Especially for those who suffer with bad mental health. Now whilst in the past I had suffered with severe depression and anxiety, I have been fortunate enough to overcome this dark cloud. However, when you have truly connected with your darker half of your psyche, it never truly leaves you. In fact it makes you ‘real’, it makes you more appreciative of what you have around you. Be it your loved ones, be it the small, sentimental things in life, or just to be alive in general.

One of the main things that helped me through a particularly dark time in my life between the years of 2009-2013, was in fact the solace that I found within music. Of course the other things that contributed to helping me through this time was the encouragement of my loved ones, and bizarrely learning things the hard way within my life at that point, but the music was something that gave me a substantial sense of direction. It gave me an outlet to release emotions that I had a lot of trouble being able to release from my extremely reserved confines at that point in time. But before I expand on this, let me digress a little as to how music has been an important part of my life, and how it helped me through this turbulent period.

Since I can remember, music has always been a constant in my waking life. Be it dancing around as a two year old to ‘My Favourite Waste Of Time’ by Owen Paul – the first song I fell in love with, or to exploring new genres of music within my mother’s and her friend’s vinyl and cassette collections back in the late 80’s/early 90s. Discovering everything from classical, metal, hip-hop, acid-rave, grunge, you name it… I discovered it. Within all of this it paved the way to expand my musical horizons, but it also taught me how to channel emotions and how to ‘feel’ the music, as I allowed it to connect with me on an instinctive and spiritual level and take me on a journey. To this very day this is still the case, and it is a feeling unlike any other.

However, between the ages of 7-15 years old, I would sadly suffer with severe Epilepsy, and that inevitably changed the course of my life forever. My dreams and ambitions of doing what I always wanted to do academically, socially, personally, it all went down the drain, because of suffering at least 4-5 petit and grand mal seizures a day. This combined with a few yet greatly affecting personal, health, and domestic problems, caused me to have my confidence knocked down quite a lot. I also had to grow up pretty quickly due to a few problems at home. It was around this time between 1993-2000 that I truly felt a sense of loneliness within myself, and something that has kind of stuck with me ever since. The kind of feeling where I have had to remain fiercely independent and loyal to me, because I had to make a lot of decisions by myself, which have had an impact on me later on in my life.

Fast forwarding to 2001. My health and personal problems affected me so bad in school that I had absolutely no hope of ever going to college with what I wanted to do, because I had no passable grades to get me there. I was predicted A’s, B’s, and C’s but I screwed up because of a plethora of things that were just beyond my control. However after having a meltdown and wondering what I could do, I relied on the one thing that actually stuck with me all my life… music. Fast forward to 2009, and I graduated out of university with a BA / BSc in Creative Music Production, Technology, and Science. Something which I never, ever expected to achieve, nor did I ever think I would make it through to the very end (especially as I somehow managed to blag it in to college!) There were tough times during this period as well – particularly between 2005-2006, but I managed to pick myself back up and carry on. However it was not until 2009 that everything in my world felt like it was truly falling apart.

2009 was what I would call ‘my bad year’. The year where I literally felt like everything was falling apart. A horrendous break up, a lot of betrayals from so called ‘friends’, my mother having a cancer scare, and a truly awful moment where I had to console my then best friend and his immediate family with some unfortunate news of a passing close to home. It all kind of happened all around the same time, but on top of this I felt like I was losing control in some strange ways which I could not explain. My feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, and all out notion of feeling lost, projected me in to a place where I never really had been before. This combined with a further descending alcohol and drug habit which pushed my boundaries of excess and spiralled me further down to a place where I never really felt like I could escape or understand my surroundings.

During this time, the only thing that was really making some sort of sense to me was music. My music choices reflected how I was feeling, because at that point I could not really explain how I felt inside. The resounding emotions I was feeling was predominantly anger, sadness, loneliness, and numbness. Whilst I felt like a prisoner within in my own walls left to rot, I knew that deep down this was an ultimate test – not just for my health and wellbeing, but for my sanity. Later on in 2009 I would be diagnosed with severe depression, after a massive, scary mental and emotional breakdown following a string of events that led me to a point where I did not even recognise myself anymore.

I felt numb, even when family and friends were noticing changes in me, I could not see it. I could not connect, because deep down… I felt lost. I did not know how I felt, I felt like nothing at all. Unimportant, yet worryingly nihilistic, because my sense of self-worth had been reduced to an all time low. I recall one moment in Broadstairs during Folk Week 2009, where I ended up seeing some teenager around 16-17 years old at the time, make a female feel really vulnerable and scared after yelling some immature sexist obscenities at her, thinking it was ‘well funny’ because he was around his immature bunch of mates. Yet whilst I was with my people, I feel that it would be safe to say that I behaved uncharacteristically by walking up to this person and pinning him against a wall, by strangling him and putting my thumb in to his throat, and making him piss himself with fear. Whilst not only were his ‘lot’ scared and yelling for me to get off of him, but my friends were in shock as to what to do, because if you know me personally… I am a diplomatic, chilled pacifist who avoids confrontation. But there was this feeling in me that made me feel so numb and cold, that I just wanted to take my anger out on people who were doing wrong – and the kind of people who like to bully others. If I must be harrowingly truthful, I wanted to squeeze the life out of him until he wasn’t breathing.

When I eventually snapped out of it, and was given some raised concerns by my friends, I then realised in a minimal way something was not right. That is was far cry from who I am, and what I am about. For the first time, I was scared of me and what I was becoming. Only two other outbursts similar to this happened around this small frame of time, where I challenged some rather unsavoury characters without acknowledgment of the consequences of what would happen to me. This led to me having a mental and emotional breakdown in my back garden after one night where I was emotionally pushed to my limit, and ended up fighting someone or something that wasn’t there, whilst my mother looked on in horror. I could hear her telling me to stop, but I was adamant that I was going to take down what was in front of me. There I ended up punching a wooden pole to the point where I was bleeding and with fists full of splinters. It was this point that I looked at my mum and then paused in the midst of the madness, and I said… “What’s happening to me? Help me…”.

Later the next day I would be diagnosed with severe depression. It is truly a weird experience when you are given that diagnosis, because you still don’t feel like you are depressed. You brush it off, you get on with things. But in reality, you are denying everything. Cast the shadow away from you and focus on someone and something else. “Don’t’ worry about me, I’m fine” I would say – a.k.a. the biggest, most obvious lie anyone with depression could say. “I’m fine” is code word for ‘I’m not OK.’. But fast forwarding a little bit, the whole period between 2009-2013 was what I would call the darkest period of my life. The feelings of hopelessness, depression, small levels of anxiety, numbness, confusion, and worthlessness where overwhelming. I don’t care what anyone says, you do not know or understand depression fully until you have experienced it for yourself. A constant state of auto-pilot, which the ‘dark cloud’ follows you. It was around this time that my bond with music became even stronger than ever.

There would be nights and days where I would lie in my bed, and I would not move. I was in my safe spot, and I did not want to do even the most menial of tasks, like make a cup of tea. Talk to someone over the phone. Anything. But I would put on my headphones, and I would listen to music which resonated with my soul deep down, which would lure and conjure the repressed emotions that I had buried deep within me. When I was at my loneliest and saddest, I would listen to artists like Alice In Chains, Massive Attack, Type O Negative, and Portishead. When I was angry and full of rage, I would listen to a lot of hardcore and punk music like Terror, Hatebreed, Sick Of It All, Madball, Gallows, Set Your Goals, Converge, and Youth Of Today. Contemporarily speaking, these forms of music and their lyricism helped me identify with how I was feeling by paying attention to the lyrics, and the mood of the music itself. It helped me realise that I could actually ‘feel’, something which I felt that was slipping away from me. To be perfectly honest, I just wanted to cry harder than I ever have done. But I couldn’t find the words to justify it. But listening to those bands and other artists whose messages spoke louder than the music, helped me find my escape, my roar, my sanctuary.

There was a lot of other horrible things that happened during this period of time, but predominantly I made a few bad life decisions and ended up being my own worst enemy half the time. But you know, you don’t really know anything about yourself until you are truly lost, right? However, as much as I craved affection, love, and just the most minimal form of acknowledgment (even though I did receive that, even though I did not compute at the time, because of my depression). I still felt lost. But the music was taking me in the right direction, it was my 24/7 guide that was medicating me more than Citalopram itself. However my true epiphany during this period of time came in early 2013, when I went to Europe for the first time in my life and went to Groezrock Festival in Belgium. It was there that I found a greater sense of connection mentally, physically, and spiritually, because I was in an environment with people from all over the world who could not speak the same language, but we all resonated with one language which we mutually understood – music. Which kind of brought it full circle with me. It was like the moment where I realised that there are people all over the world with a story to tell – some more tragic and tougher than others. But we all congregated to one place where we felt like we could have a release. A catharsis. An outlet. A means to unleash our negative energies in the form of a positive artistic outlet where we could unleash our aggression, without hurting ourselves and other people around us. It was a truly liberating moment for me, which then made me realise where I had been going wrong in my life.

Since 2013 I have been on a personal quest of self-growth, self-discovery, and reconnection to the person that I truly know deep down who I wish other people to see, respect, and acknowledge. I have come to realise that not just listening to music has become a means of connection and escape for me, but live music is where I truly thrive and am able to purge all of the darkest parts of me out. Physically speaking, when I go to a livelier show at say a rock, metal, or hardcore show, I can mosh, stage dive, crowd surf, I can dance in any aggressive style I want, and am able to free myself from the shackles of negativity. But with other styles of music say like classical, hip-hop, ska, blues, reggae, I can just dance, or I can just vibe with what I hear. It sets me free and allows for me to have a natural spiritual connection which for some people is hard to acquire.

I made some major changes in my life from 2013 onwards, and all for the better. I changed my incredibly excessive lifestyle, and cut out smoking, reduced my alcohol intake by a good 90%, and I pretty much brushed aside drugs, meat and dairy. I also adopted yoga, and rediscovered my love for exercise, and in turn with making all these nutritional and health based changes, I lost 9 stone in weight, and at nearly 33 years old I am now in the healthiest, most energetic and plentiful condition of my entire life. I also decided to get rid of all the toxicity and negativity from my life – including people, situations, and environments. And you know what? It feels bloody great. By being able to adopt that positive mental attitude, and believing that anything is possible if you so want to achieve it, it has helped me rediscover who I am, and also taught me how to deal with tougher situations that have occurred since then.

Not only have I made some great personal, health, and spiritual changes, I have also decided to leave the music industry, and decided to pursue my dreams and ambitions of professional acting and writing – which was one of many things I was denied a lot earlier on in life due to my Epilepsy. But now I feel free and that it is the right thing to do in my life, I feel positive about this change. It feels right, and I do not want to let anything limit me to what I can do, particularly the negative feelings of past lore.

Sadly some real life situations which have had much more of a greater significance compared to the events of the past, have occurred since. I suddenly lost my Dad a few days before my 31st birthday in 2016 – and ironically one day before my acting debut. This was another instance where I was dangerously on the verge of losing control again, especially as this was when I first truly experienced the feelings of anxiety – which may I add is absolutely horrendous. What I saw that day will haunt me for the rest of my life, and I would never, ever wish that upon my worst enemy what I witnessed on that very day. But somehow, I managed to keep it together over the extended period of time, and ended up looking after everyone else and making sure everyone else was moderately alright, before I tended to myself. Was this out of pure stubbornness and pride? Probably. But I guess that I knew that I had been to the darkest parts of my psyche, I got lost within my own darkness, and I made it out alive. I know what I can take, and I know that no matter what life throws at me, I am unbreakable.

Of course there is a lot of things in my life that I have gone through that I have not even remotely touched upon in this article, which has affected my mental health and shaped me to be the person that I am today. But for what it is worth, it helped me learn a lot about myself. I am a stubborn believer in learning the hard way. I genuinely feel that if I did not have these life experiences the way that I have been dealt them, I would not be as insightful, wise, and understanding as I am today.

There were times where I was pushed to my absolute limit, and it toyed with my own mortality. Where I guess I could crudely say I stared death itself straight in the face, and was able to get away with telling the tales of survival. You see, you do not need to be self-destructive in order to challenge your own mortality. Sometimes being pushed to your limit against your will is a test of life and death in an abstract way, but ultimately you do not realise just how strong you truly are. The biggest misconception about depression, anxiety, and any mental health condition relating to these, is that you are essentially just too weak to carry the weight. That is nonsense. It is not because you are too weak, it is because you have been too strong for too long, and now you need to be carried, and for someone to help take the weight off from you.

But I conclude this article with something that I read in a psychology journal somewhere. It was about a Japanese psychologist, who gave a great analogy about depression called the ‘Water Bucket Theory’. Now imagine you have your arm held out holding a bucket out in the open. When it rains, the bucket fills with water, and with every ounce of water, the bucket gets heavier, and the stress upon your arm becomes greater. Eventually the rain has nearly filled the bucket, and you are holding on some much to the point where the bucket is starting to overflow. At this point you must ask yourself, do you hang on, become weaker and in pain, or do you let go of the bucket that contains the weight and the pressure? So with that in mind, if the rain is symbolic of depression, anxiety, and negativity, then there is only so much you can take before it overflows and brings you down. Just don’t be scared to let go, because someone WILL be there to help you when you need to.

Be it the healthy beauty of openness and conversation, or finding sanctuary within music, art, poetry, literature, acting, sports, meditation, whatever that may be… just know that there is something positive out there that is waiting for you to resonate with it. In my case it is music. But with that, I realised that whilst music is my input for emotional response, I am the filter to which I can decipher its messages and how I feel, and my output is now acting and writing. I have found my happy medium, and that creativity now allows me to feel truly free! It is a truly wondrous, beautiful feeling. I am no longer afraid. I am no longer afraid of anything that stand in my way. All I know is, is that you do not live until you are ready to die. I have been to the edge and back, and with music as my guide, I am able to truly focus on what is important – now. The present.

Birth and death are two truly natural things in life, which both should not be feared at all. It is loss that we fear. But do not be afraid of loss, when you can be spending the rest of your life being productive, doing all the things that you want to do in order to make you feel content and happy, because let’s face it… we do not want to reach our death beds wallowing over what we have lost, and what could have been, do we?! Tomorrow will be the next day of the rest of your life, and it is entirely up to you how you write the rest of your book. Just make sure that you have a great soundtrack to go with it, it makes for a more soothing and plentiful journey.

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