Interrobang: Singer/songwriter shares his battle with mental health demons

by Tyshia Drake | originally published at Interrobang

Paul Federici, a singer/songwriter and a graduate of Western University, released his new album Now And Then in June. But before his success, he battled with a number of mental health issues.

Generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression took over his life and hindered his dream of becoming a musician. After obtaining a degree in social work, and helping others with mental health issues, he decided to leave his struggle with anxiety behind him and find success as a musician.

How did your mental health issues affect your daily life?

Federici: “I often found my interpersonal relationships to be stormy and inconsistent, largely because my emotional swings could be quick and intense. I found it difficult to keep jobs long term, especially because I would struggle with overwhelming fatigue and painful stomach issues related to the anxiety and depression. All of this contributed to me having a very poor self-image. I ended up becoming very insecure, and for years I was sort of a chameleon – constantly changing, trying to fit in and hoping to find some career path that would make me happy.”

How did they affect your career and your passion for music?

Federici: “In terms of my earlier career efforts, I would find it hard to remain balanced in my emotional responses to things under stress – I would often react emotionally only to regret things later on. On top of that, I would often miss time as I constantly felt sick, fatigued and burnt out very quickly, which wasn’t something many supervisors were sympathetic to.

“Music had always an emotional escape for me – I always felt a strong connection to it, but once I discovered the guitar, something clicked and I became obsessed with learning the instrument. The difficult part was that I was very hard on myself and would go through phases where I just hated the way I sounded, what I was writing. There were times when music became very unpleasant for me, and it wasn’t immune to the peaks and valleys I experienced in all other areas of my life.”

How did your mental health affect your time as a student?

Federici: “I would often put unrealistic expectations on myself, and if I wasn’t able to live up to my rigid goals, I would become very discouraged and depressed. However, there were times when my more obsessive perfectionist mentality actually was a productive trait, especially if I was able to channel that energy into a more positive direction, like learning the guitar and songwriting.”

What advice would you give to students who are suffering with a mental illness?

Federici: “What helped me the most was having a support system around me and talking about my emotions instead of bottling them up or being ashamed. I would encourage people to talk to someone, whether that’s a therapist, a good friend or family member – someone you trust who can help you realize you’re not alone.”

What made you decide to switch careers to a musician?

Federici: “Music was always something I felt I had unfinished business with. I had always wanted to pursue a career as a musician, but my insecurities were too intense – I didn’t think I was good enough or that anyone would want to hear my songs. I also would experience panic attacks before going on stage, which made the experience overwhelming, and for many years I didn’t pick up the guitar at all. I ended up doing what I thought was expected of me by trying to find a traditional career, but I always felt like I was trying to force myself to be something I wasn’t.

Ironically, despite finding myself in the greatest opportunity of my career managing a mental health crisis network of all things, I had never been unhappier. Emotionally I bottomed out and became incredibly depressed, fixated on suicide – it was probably the lowest point of my life.

With things falling apart around me, I started to take stock of my life in a very honest, non-judgemental way, and I kept turning to my guitar to try to cope. Ultimately music helped get me out of that rut and gave me hope. Everything about playing again felt right; it reminded me to follow my heart and take chances again. It’s like I started living one day at a time, and focused on things that I would do if someone told me I didn’t have much time left in my life.”

Where did you find the courage to pursue music and perform?

Federici: “I think I just started to embrace who I was as a person – flaws and all. I had spent so many years trying to be someone else and that led me to such a dark place that I really felt like I had nothing to lose by letting go and trying be myself for once, and music genuinely felt like the right path.

The performance side was very difficult to work though at first – I remember being terrified to perform my first gig after many years of not playing and it was hard. In fact, for the first number of shows I had to take [medication] before going on stage just to calm my nerves down enough so my hands wouldn’t shake, but there’s always been a part of me that was drawn towards challenges. Over the years I came to realize that I grew more as a person when I stepped out of my comfort zone so I just kept trying to perform as often as possible. I started to meet other musicians and over time I started to find myself on stage, and that helped me develop a confidence that I’d never had before.”

Do you still have issues with your mental health?

Federici: “I can honestly say that the last few years have felt like the most calm, stable and enjoyable that I can recall in my life. I definitely still struggle with anxiety and perfectionist thinking, but that’s just part of who I am and I’m not trying to eliminate it or push it away anymore. I’ve learned to embrace these qualities in me and not be so judgemental about them, and that freedom has allowed me to find ways to work through the difficult times more consistently than in the past.

I think that being around music, which is something I truly love, has made me a happier person and much more appreciative of life in general. Overall this whole experience has taught that, when it comes to depression and anxiety, we think so much about medication first when oftentimes the lifestyle choices we make have a profound impact on our mental health.”