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SK Shlomo: Mental Me

  • SK SHLOMO mental health.png

Simon Shlomo Kahn, aka SK Shlomo, is a world-record breaking beatboxer, world looping champion, and collaborator with artists including Björk, Ed Sheeran, and Damon Albarn. For many years, he carried a secret: like many other creatives, he struggled with depression, and at times it felt like it was going to swallow him whole. This is his story, in his words.

In 2018, I had been off the road for nearly two years after a series of suicidal episodes. But last year, I launched my debut album to raise mental health awareness, gave a TEDx talk telling my story, played on the Other Stage at Glastonbury Festival, and created a one-man stage show that got nominated for the Edinburgh Fringe Mental Health Award.

I went from barely being able to perform in 2018, to heading on a tour of over 140 shows throughout 2019. I can’t tell you how proud I am to have made this recovery, and how grateful I am for the huge amounts of support I have received from family, professionals and from the public.

So when Novation asked me to write a piece about my story, I saw this as an opportunity to be honest about what happened to me. The intention is to encourage others to be more open about their vulnerabilities with the goal of normalising the concept of struggle. That way we collectively feel safer to support each other, rather than feeling isolated or believing that everyone else is living the ‘perfect’ life that we see on platforms like Instagram.

I have always identified as a performer. As a preschooler growing up in a noisy British-Iraqi-Israeli family, I believed all the countless Arabic aunties telling me I was beautiful. Aged three years old, I was belly dancing at my grandmother’s parties and I quickly learnt to win love by projecting a happy persona. My family’s loving praise made me the centre of the world - a world rich with vibrant colours, rhythms, and imagination.

Until I got to school. Grey, British primary school. We were the only immigrant family and aged four or five, I was painfully aware that I was different. I didn’t belong, and it hurt. Until I turned eight and discovered my super powers. On the day of my eighth birthday, my parents gave me a drum kit. And with that drum kit, I began a love affair with music that took me away from my pain. I found a rhythm - a purpose.

I started making tapes of songs I was writing, singing, rapping and drumming. I made rudimentary multi-tracked recordings by stealing my brother’s tape recorder so I could press play on one tape and record myself playing along on the other. I started to dream of becoming a world-renowned musician like my heroes — The Prodigy, Michael Jackson, and Freddie Mercury.

I kept practising my drums and, after a solo drum kit performance at the school concert, I had my first taste of ‘fame’. Suddenly, the kids who had never given me a second glance knew my name. They wanted to be my friends. This felt good, and it was addictive. I wanted more. I doubled down on my drum practice and applied for a scholarship at music school.

But after complaints from the neighbours, my parents had to impose strict rules about what time of day I could practise my drums.This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because it led me to discover the art of beatboxing.

Beatboxing was an even easier way to impress people, gain acceptance, and even get free food by showing off my vocal skills to unsuspecting takeaway owners. What I hadn’t realised was that beatboxing would change my life.

One day I was approached by Björk to work on her all-vocal solo album, Medulla, an experience so inspiring I decided to go solo. I picked up a loop pedal so I could expand my beats into full songs. I became the first World Looping Champion, and the first non-classical Artist in Residence at London’s famous Southbank Centre.

This beatboxing had given me an international audience. I was making a living from my art, and from the outside, I had the whole world in my hands. But there was a truth that I was too scared to tell anybody: I was deeply unhappy.

Every new broken barrier left me even more hungry to find that ultimate achievement that would finally calm my unrest, until there was only one ambition left: I wanted to be a singer-songwriter and make my own album.

One day in 2016 I felt a spark of inspiration. I sat at the piano and started to write. But what came out was terrifying - it felt so real, so raw and emotional, like I couldn’t control it. I hired a studio in the middle of nowhere where I wouldn’t get distracted and settled in to write. I wrote five sick tracks. It was flowing. I was thinking, ‘I’m a flipping genius’. But, on the sixth day, things went wrong.

After those years of touring, the constant distraction, the crowds cheering me, validating me, I was suddenly left alone with only myself and my mind. It felt like I couldn’t breathe, like the built-up waters of anxiety were finally rising above me. I felt helpless, panicking.

It felt I would never feel safe to be seen again. And after a few weeks of stasis, feeling like I was holding back some kind of tidal wave of disaster, I was finally ready to admit that I wasn’t okay. First of all to myself, then to my partner, who after a lot of encouragement and false starts, helped me to speak to a doctor.

I reached out to BAPAM — the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, and the BAPAM doctor referred me for therapy. Over the months that followed I worked so hard, avoiding being out in public, but trying to pull myself back up from the darkness, trying to rebuild something. I tried yoga, meditation, journalling and CBT. I didn’t want to take medication.

This depression episode had me hiding away for nearly a whole year, writing my truth into my songs, isolated by the shame of this secret suffering. And as a performing artist who was off the road, but still responsible for feeding a family of four, I was not earning any money. The CBT was helping, but the therapist was concerned that I needed trauma support and referred me to a trauma therapist. I immediately began treatment for PTSD.

This meant facing my biggest fear: I had to revisit my memories of surviving that near death experience when I was four years old. I realised just how much of my life I had spent in ‘fight or flight’ mode as a result of that trauma, like I had to be on guard day and night in case anything terrifying happened again.

I kept on writing my music. The songs became part of the therapy; a vehicle for processing the truths of my past.And when the logical time came to tell the world I was making an album, it was scary because these songs were about depression and very few of my friends, and certainly none of my fans knew I had been struggling. But these songs came from the heart and they felt right. I decided it was time to come out of hiding.

I launched a crowdfunding campaign with a video talking openly about my mental health. It was scary, but empowering — I started getting messages from people all around the world who could relate, and my total quickly zoomed up to 15%.

I had been warned that I would need a thick skin, so I practised in therapy, refining and simplifying my story, until I’d found what felt like a safe way to be vulnerable. But nothing could prepare me for what happened next. One day, a few weeks into my campaign I woke up to a barrage of angry messages from somebody on Twitter, claiming to be a fan but attacking me about my mental health. He told me I needed to see how low I had stooped.

He told me that depression, and specifically suicide, are evolution’s way of weeding out inadequate men who aren’t fit to reproduce, who aren’t fit to be fathers. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t breathe. I kept having these frightening, intrusive thoughts.But one thing had changed since my last episode of depression.

Since I’d opened up online, my friends, family and fans had started checking in with me every day, and a well-timed online message just asking if I was okay brought me the courage to share what was happening in my head. And being met with compassion and reassurance helped me pause for breath, to see that I didn’t have to attack myself, or shame or isolate myself for not feeling good enough to live.

Looking back, I know these feelings are all too common. And this anxiety only becomes amplified within the artificial walls of social media — the echo chamber for all our insecurities. It’s like the noise drowns out all reason. Zooming out, I could see just how much I still had here to live for. That online message saved my life.

After this point in my story, something changed in me. I had learned to surrender, to breathe a little bit deeper every time I felt like I couldn’t bear who I was. Once I started to embrace my whole truth, I found my centre, I rediscovered my spirit. For me, recovery meant learning to stop running from the pain.

I realise that we can’t ever be 100% recovered, but recovery hopefully means finding a balance, and accepting when things are just too much. Mental health is just like physical health, in that it will go up and down over time, but when it’s hard, hopefully we can learn to take it a day at a time, or even one breath at a time.

We all have painful emotions and it takes great strength to examine them with honesty and truth. I wouldn’t change any of the pain I’ve been through. To change that would be to change who I am today. I realise how lucky I am — at no point do I want to imply that my life has been harder than others.

But when you’re in it, you can’t see the truth. In fact that feeling of privilege can work against you — like you should be happy, or you feel like you’re not worthy of that privilege because you’re not good enough.Anyway, since I decided to be open, my whole world has transformed.

People look me in the eye now. They aren’t afraid to be real with me. And it turns out the community around me was ready to transform too — people reported back to me that they are now getting support with struggles they had previously been too ashamed to share, some even seeking professional help after hearing my story.

One of my fans finally signed up to become a mental health professional after watching the stage show I made about my journey. Since giving my TED talk I’ve been asked to speak about my experience at multiple events and I’m often asked:

‘What is the one thing we can do to support people around us who we might not know are suffering?’ My answer is simple: don’t probe into their lives, but be more open about your own. When we demonstrate vulnerability, we make it safe for others to do the same. I’m not suggesting we all have to broadcast our deepest darkest insecurities on the internet — that is not the answer to our suicide epidemic.

But to feel safe enough to ask for help with our setbacks way before they grow into shameful, destructive secrets, we all need to take small steps towards vulnerability.

If like me you believe that sharing our weaknesses makes us stronger, I invite you to try something. Try sharing one truth today, big or small. By sharing what’s really happening today might help someone else speak their truth tomorrow. Who knows, it might even save a life.

My dream is that we collectively change our approach to the way we talk about our struggles, especially via social media, and turn these vulnerabilities into a means to create a positive support network.

What if we decide to celebrate all that we are, even the parts of us we are ashamed of? Mine is just one of millions of similar stories, and even though I felt suicidal, like I couldn’t go on any longer, I wouldn’t change any of it, because without my story, I wouldn’t be me.

Read this in Headliner Magazine, here.