‘How can I complain?’

An essay about mental health by musician James Blake, from It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (And other lies).

James Blake
James Blake discusses mental health
Musician James Blake at Way Out West festival on August 8, 2019. Photo: Getty

It’s especially easy to poke fun at the idea that a white man could be depressed. I have done it myself, as a straight white man who was depressed. In fact, I still carry the shame of having been a straight white man who’s depressed and has experienced suicidal thoughts. And still, when discussing it with most people, I will play down or skirt around how desperately sad I have been; instead I emphasize how much happier I am now. I emphasize the work I had to do to get to a better place, and how it was hard work and fruitful work, and how I empowered myself by doing it. I usually focus on how I regained control and an enthusiasm for living (‘Nice one, mate!’), not on how I lost it. That is the last of my defensiveness.

I remember doing an interview with the New York Times where the interviewer asked me why my childhood was painful, and how I got to such a dark place in my late twenties. I told him, ‘You know, other kids, bullying, etc.’ – and instantly regretted my brevity. He said something like, ‘Right, so a pretty standard childhood then.’

Fuck. After all this public talk of depression and anxiety, and many albums of expressed pain, I felt exposed as a fraud, but I was relieved not to have shown my cards and revealed how pathetic and weak I must have been when I was younger. Maybe he was right. He’d probably been through worse and wasn’t complaining about it.

I picked up a resentment towards other people from school. My parents were very loving and supportive and, unusually for my generation, still together. I went to school completely unequipped to deal with certain kids who were taking their fractured and in some cases abusive home lives out on me. I know that now. I was ‘too sensitive’, and I never learned how to act. I was a baby who’d been kept away from germs, and now I was getting ill from anything and everything. (I should say now that I have many happy memories of childhood, especially of my parents and of certain friends who I could count on, and that my inability to focus on those positives probably didn’t help.) 

‘I wondered for years whether I had some behaviour disorder’

During my school years I spent thousands of hours walking on my own with headphones on or playing piano in the practice rooms, often going there first to cry in private and then occasionally with a mind to play. I was addicted to video games from the age of twelve, rarely going out to socialize. I had a few ‘best’ friends over the years who, looking back, I didn’t know well. But I’m grateful for having had them.

I put girls on pedestals and worshipped them, but only ever remained their friend. I fell in love many times and it was never reciprocated. I had no automatic right to them of course, but they kept me around for years and allowed me to be bullied and humiliated by their friends, accidentally betraying me out of awkwardness. I resented their understandable, youthful inability to know what to do with a sensitive boy who made them laugh and feel good about themselves, but whose body they did not want.

Boys would see my sensitivity as weakness and, while I was sharp and quick-witted, I wasn’t sporty, which was my first mistake with them, I think. Again, I didn’t know how to act. I wondered for years whether I had some behaviour disorder. I still wonder. In any case, year upon year of capricious bullying and humiliation followed.

These feelings of betrayal, persecution and rejection I kept to myself. In the crude gender stereotypes I was aware of at that age, I thought I had the sensitivity of a female but in a male’s body. I joked my way through it and made sure nobody ever saw me cry. I remained a virgin until the age of twenty-two, because I was awkward and unable to be natural around women. I was afraid of the vulnerability of sex after so many embarrassing attempts at it. (The song ‘Assume Form’ is, in part, about finding the ability to feel safe during intimacy.) It seemed to me that it had taken my success as a DJ for women to pursue me, and then I distrusted them for their sudden, transparent interest, so I pushed them all away. Slowly the face of every woman morphed into the faces of the girls who I felt had betrayed and humiliated me. And the face of every man became a bully who would underestimate me and try to kill my spirit. 

‘The guy with the “Pitchfork best new music 8.0+” was also experiencing daily panic attacks, hallucinations and an existential crisis’

Becoming relatively famous, my persecution complex turned into a self-serving narcissism, and my obsession with proving my worth to people who’d underestimated me was now being rewarded financially. To those ends, my first emotional language – music – had been the vehicle. I wanted to show everyone what they’d missed out on for all those years.

To some extent I succeeded in that, but I became so self-obsessed and isolated that I wasn’t the success I seemed to be on paper. And so the chasm grew between my alias – the guy with the ‘Pitchfork best new music 8.0+’, with the uncompromising and flourishing career, who seemed in control of everything – and the man-child who for many years was hurting, spiralling, never leaving the house, wasting away in an ego prison, refusing to collaborate, allowing himself to be bled financially and taken advantage of by his friends and their extended family, playing video games and smoking weed fourteen hours a day and not taking any care of himself what-so-ever until he was in a black depression, experiencing daily panic attacks, hallucinations and an existential crisis. I was asking questions like ‘What is the point of me?’ and saying I didn’t want to live. I became afraid of the growing fog of war outside my house because of what I knew people expected of me if I entered it: a normal interaction and, even more impossible, a new album.

I wanted people to know how I felt, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them. I have gone into a bit of detail here not to make anyone feel sorry for me, but to show how a privileged, relatively rich-and-famous-enough-for-zero-pity white man could become depressed, against all societal expectations and allowances. If I can be writing this, clearly it isn’t only oppression that causes depression; for me it was largely repression.

I’m still not sure I fully believe I am entitled to be depressed or sad at all, because I’m white and cisgender and male, and life for people like me is undoubtedly the easiest of any group. But my privilege didn’t make me want to stick around, and it makes me feel even more embarrassed for having let myself go.

‘I’m still not sure I fully believe I am entitled to be depressed or sad at all’

When the delusional mental force field of whiteness finally popped (the ‘psychosis’ of whiteness, as Kehinde Andrews puts it, which most white people are still experiencing – I was still able to reap the now obvious benefits of being white, straight and male but without the subconscious ability to ignore my responsibility to the marginalized), I started having the uncomfortable but rational thought that my struggle was actually comparatively tiny, and that any person of colour or member of the LGBTQ+ community could feasibly have been through exactly the same thing and then much, much more on top of that. A plate stacked until it was almost unmanageable. For me it became embarrassing to mention my child’s portion of trauma and sadness.

Combining that thought with the normalized stigmatization of male musicians’ emotional expression in the media, I felt like I must be the ‘Sadboy Prince and the Pea’.

But my girlfriend verbally slapped some sense into me, saying it does not help anybody, least of all oneself, to compare pain. And that was good advice to hear from someone who’d been through what she has. I can only imagine how frustrating it was for this Pakistani woman to watch me – with all my advantages in life – self-sabotage and complain like I have. Fuck.

And then you look at the statistics: according to the Yale Global Health Review, ‘in 2015, the crude suicide rate [in the USA] for white non-Hispanic males aged 40 to 65 was 36.84 per 100,000 people – more than twice the rate in the general American population’. If it wasn’t already clear that we have more than enough representation, we’re huge in suicide too.

‘I thought I had the sensitivity of a female but in a male’s body’

Given this, I think it’s worth examining why many privileged white men can end up feeling they have no legitimate claim to pain, and then never deal with what they can’t lay claim to.

Even while writing this I’m visited by the thought ‘Who even cares? There are much bigger problems in the world than white men who feel sad.’ (This is a bloody laughable thing to write your first piece on – get some perspective, arsehole, and put away your tiny violin.) But you know what? I’ll continue because I think we need to advance the conversation around mental health for everyone, and it’s the only experience I feel qualified to talk about.

From systemic toxic masculinity (‘Boys don’t cry’, basically) and an ostensibly homophobic fear of sensitivity being beer-bonged into us by our friends, family and the media from as early as we can remember (‘Chug, chug, chug!’) to the slow realization as we get older that the world is actually stacked towards our success, we end up thinking that our individual psychological decline is shameful.

I believe it is psychologically dangerous for our egos to be built up as much as they are; for the importance of success to be so great; for the world to open its doors more to us than to others (most of us wilfully ignore that those advantages exist, though we feel them deep down, and subconsciously know that it is unfair and that we must capitalize on them). 

‘My persecution complex turned into a self-serving narcissism’

It is dangerous for us to be made to feel we can do anything and be anything, to gain an understanding of women as a resource rather than a lesson in empathy and love – and then find in all our capitalistic and egoistic fervour that we have neglected to take care of that other muscle that enables our survival: the mind.

I for one felt like Donald Trump, starting with $413 million and ending up broke and lying about my tax records. Maybe then it’s no surprise that so many disaffected white men identify so deeply with him. (It should be noted that I absolutely don’t.) That and our shared love of doing anything we want and saying whatever we like without consequence to ourselves.

That shared love has rightly led to a debate about what white males are entitled to say and do. I believe we’re entitled to no more than anybody else, which at this point requires a lot of listening and rebalancing. I also believe everybody is entitled to pain, no matter how perceptibly or relatively small that pain is. I don’t want the shame around depression and anxiety in privileged people to become worse any more than I want it for the marginalized. Because without addressing that pain we end up with more cis-gendered white male egomaniacs who bleed their shit on to everybody (and some of them will write albums about it).


James Blake's essay is from It's Not Ok To Feel Blue (And Other Lies), a collection of writing about mental health, curated by Scarlett Curtis.


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