Life Mental Health

Thursday 28 August 2014

Mind Yourself: Kevin Nolan on how to beat the blues

A lifelong love of music kept Kevin Nolan afloat through years of mental illness

Kevin Nolan

Published 18/03/2014 | 02:30

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Multi instrumentalist Musician Kevin Nowlan whose debut album "Fredrick & the Golden Dawn" is to be released in April PIx Ronan Lang/Feature File
Multi instrumentalist Musician Kevin Nowlan whose debut album "Fredrick & the Golden Dawn" is to be released in April PIx Ronan Lang/Feature File

I've been admitted to St Patrick's University Hospital more than a dozen times over the last 12 years, formerly in a depressed and psychotic state and in all have spent about three complete years there.

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On my first stay in 'Special Care', the high security ward (about which I've written and recorded a 10-minute blues song), I couldn't do anything: sleep, socialise, watch TV, read, think or even speak – all I wanted was to listen to music.

My dad remembers me as a child, cheerful and outgoing. During my illness when I told him that the lead singer of The Fall was talking to me through their music, understandably, he tried to take away my CDs.

This may sound crazy, but my music was the only thing that kept me sane throughout those nightmare years.

I would spend hours on end listening to Tom Waits and Stereo Lab and many others. I existed for a while inside those songs because whenever I tried to acknowledge real life it was too painful and overwhelming, so I hid in the melodies and words of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for safety.

I also used to listen over and over to Julie Feeney's song 'Stay'.

The music was in my head, providing an anchored focus in the midst of the chaotic deluge in which I found myself, in a time when suicide seemed to be my only option. In those days to be honest I think the only happiness I experienced in my life was when I was listening to the music I love.

Growing up in Drimnagh, I had always loved music. I went to the local schools and just after my Leaving Cert I experienced a psychotic breakdown.

I had applied to study philosophy in The Milltown Institute and somehow managed to attend the first months of the course before my psychosis became obvious and I found myself medicated and in the closed ward in St Pat's Hospital.

Over the next number of years I experienced 'the revolving door', well known to mental health sufferers. This is when you are unable to sustain anything like a normal life outside hospital, you find it so hard to manage your illness or even understand what is happening to you and you keep relapsing and being readmitted to hospital and you are powerless but to be completely enveloped by your illness.

It takes a long time to learn how to manage your illness and try and accept it, to even come close to either of those things is a triumph over suffering.

I still don't really understand everything of what has happened to me. It was only through the support of my family and friends and the amazing psychiatric team in Pat's that in some way I began to comprehend, gradually accept and manage what had happened to me. As I mentioned before I had always loved music but now, as my consultant psychiatrist agreed, it was to become my salvation.

Since early teens I had worked with a four-track composing mostly light poppy tunes.

However, after hospitalisation, my music became much darker, in the words of my friend, the author Rob Doyle, "Nolan's music is a seething cauldronful of the literary, the theatrical, and the gothically flamboyant, seasoned with a smattering of infernal burlesque".

As I recovered from my illness, I totally immersed myself in composition, working long hours day after day, week after week, month after month.

Sometimes months would go by where I could do nothing because I was so depressed, I couldn't do anything but be depressed, I could feel it physically as well as emotionally, a pain in my chest and stomach like a black anchor pulling me down stopping me from living my life, all the time I was going in and out of Pat's as my illness worsened and eased.

Finally I produced an EP called 'Here's a Piece of Ivan's Head'. Three tracks which I recorded at home on my eight-track. I met a producer named Philip Begley who took an interest in my song 'Splinter' and subsequently we worked on the EP.

In some ways Ivan was an alter ego I assumed during the musical process and during the gigs I did around Dublin in those years when my health was less severely affected.

All the time I kept working on my album, it seemed like I'd never finish it, but it was the only thing that kept me going. In all it took eight years to write and record it because I kept getting depressed or psychotic, which meant I could do nothing but go back to hospital and let them bring me back. A few years ago my consultant psychiatrist prescribed me an injection called Risperdal Consta.

Since then my mind has been my own again, it's an amazing experience to actually know myself, to know how I feel, to feel at all, to know what I think, to know what's real. I can't express enough how amazing it was to wade through my illness and find myself again because for so long I was lost even to myself. Everyone experiences some form of mental illness during their life, most are lucky enough to have only a fleeting familiarity with that cold indifferent corner of the human mind.

For those of us who are gripped and dragged into it's icy landscape, it is only through the warmth and affection of friends and family that we finally manage to effect an escape back to some real life.

Medication and therapy are very necessary supports but it is the amazing people I have been privileged to meet and befriend who have been my greatest surprise and joy. From old friends and lovers who stood by me to the many brave people I met in Pat's, both fellow patients and staff, to the gifted musicians who have worked with me to perform my music.

A while ago I showed my EP to singer/composer Julie Feeney, she really appreciated where I was coming from and subsequently played my songs on national radio. Julie has been an amazing presence in my musical life ever since, most recently singing with me on a duet I wrote called 'Aubade' which will appear on my debut album which is now finally finished. In St Patrick's there's a music therapy room where I wrote 'Aubade' on the hospital piano.

I recorded it with a zoom hand-held recorder I kept with me and then emailed it to Julie. She thought it was beautiful. Later I met a producer and so I contacted Julie and we spent a day recording it.

It was an amazing experience to work with Julie, she is such a calming influence and gave me great vocal tips on the day and most of all the confidence to believe in myself and my music knowing the Sysephean heights I had conquered to regain control of my sanity.

Now I manage my illness well and have regained an even life where I can work on my music and play gigs in Dublin. Music has definitely been the reason I made it through.

'Fredrick and the Golden Dawn' is released on itunes on Friday April 4. The album launch takes place at The Grand Social, Liffey Street, Dublin 1 on the same date.

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