Ella Vos: Do I have to be mentally unstable?
“You’ve suffered so much, you must have TONS to write about.”
“You’ve suffered so much, you must have TONS to write about.”
The year is 2015, I’m drowning in new motherhood, I resent my husband, I’ve just begun my solo career and everything is difficult. I think “perfect, just the amount of tragedy I need to be a successful artist”.
The year is 2017, both of my successful songs were written about postpartum depression and my struggling relationship. I feel affirmed that my tragedies are the key to my success.
The year is 2018, I’m on my first headlining tour and one week in I get diagnosed with cancer. Again, I think “perfect - more to write about”.
The year is 2019, my husband wants a divorce, I’m struggling with severe depression and anxiety and I think “wow, more to write about!”
But by this time, I’m exhausted.
I have an intense writer’s block. I’m at a loss of what to say about what’s happened. All I know is that I don’t want to suffer anymore, but I fear that if I get better, my art will suffer instead.
When I started my solo artist career, I told myself and others that writing songs were the best form of therapy I could give myself. I even believed that I cured myself of postpartum depression by writing my first song “White Noise”.
I admitted in 2018 that maybe art alone wasn’t enough, and I started going to therapy. But I still had resistance to getting healthy. I was very anti-medication, and I depended on my pain to be the source of my art.
This time last year I was struggling to take care of myself, and struggling to create. But I couldn’t get over the fear: would I still be able to create if I’m not suffering and tortured?
I immediately think of Van Gogh who painted iconic pieces in the throes of mania, and the claims that Kanye wouldn’t have written 808s and Heartbreak if he took medication for depression.
I wrote one of my best songs in the lowest lows of postpartum depression. It felt natural to me that I needed to be hurting to make art. My therapist asked me several times what it would be like to feel better. It was nearly impossible to imagine at first, but like a little ray of light, I had a beautiful brief thought that maybe I didn’t need to be hurting ALL THE TIME in order to create.
The fear that I would be “cured” and then have nothing left to write about couldn’t be further from the truth. In healing and through therapy, new subjects to write about have emerged.
I’ve begun to write about love as I found new love and learned to love being a mother.
On my recent album, I wrote about my tendency to self-sabotage as I reflected on my past. I’ve been able to write about physical and mental health more openly as I stopped seeing my body as something I had to be at constant war with.
There are two songs that stand out to me as songs directly inspired by going to therapy that I want to share.
The first is a song called “State of Emotion”, written after I discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person, or an “empath”. I feel things deeply, I feel what others feel, I’m sensitive to weather, nature, animals. I often confuse other people’s emotions as my own - like a receiver for emotional energy. It’s a blessing and a curse but knowing this has helped me make sense of so many past experiences.
Like when I was diagnosed with lymphoma, I not only felt my own feelings of fear, but everyone else’s around me. It made sense now why everything felt SO overwhelming and why it was so hard to write about it.
The EP of five songs I wrote during cancer treatment was an exhausting struggle. It’s considered a very vulnerable EP but I know I could have been even more honest.
Unfortunately, I lacked the vocabulary to express myself. I struggled to be present. I wanted to be anywhere except where I was. I wanted to be able to look in from the outside and know how to pull myself out of the pit I was in.
“Being present has allowed me to write about my life in a new way.”
In many ways, therapy has given me perspective.
Therapy has helped me be less fearful of being in a pit of despair. It’s changed my perspective so that rather than needing to fix myself as fast as possible, I’m comfortable to be present in the way I’m feeling. I don’t feel like I’m drowning, and I don’t feel so attacked by my emotions. Being present has allowed me to write about my life in a new way.
The album’s opening track is called “Dreaming, backwards”. It’s a song about how I’ve been living life in contrast to how I wanted my life to go. I got married young, to my best friend who I loved, but I was never “in love”. I actually wanted to be single for at least another decade, live alone, and travel the world alone.
But I got scared of that dream and thought “that’s immature” so I tried to grow up fast and settle down. I had a baby long before I was ready to become a mother. A month before I found out I was pregnant I told people that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to have kids. Both of these happened before I had established a career while having dreams of becoming a solo artist.
Even when I began to ‘follow my dreams’, I held back. I was tormented with imposter syndrome, I didn’t take care of my postpartum depression, and I stayed in my unhappy relationship. My suicidal ideations wrecked me daily. This went on for years because I would dissociate, escape, and numb. It’s my survival method and it works - too good at times.
Thankfully, because of therapy, I’ve begun to recognize when I detach. Instead of being terrified about what I’m experiencing, I’ve been able to turn around and look at it. I can know what “it” is. And knowing what it is that I’m feeling has given me new words to write about. In “Dreaming, backwards” I speak about a wasted youth, as I’ve been trying to grow up fast for as long as I can remember.
I speak about self-sabotage, admitting my own struggles. It’s a song of self-admission in an effort to let others know that none of us are alone and that it’s not too late to start making a change. “Dreaming, backwards” is a brutally honest song that I couldn’t have written without that self-realization.
I know I’m not alone in believing that we have to suffer in order to create. Or that we have to suffer in order for our life to have meaning. If you’re human, you are already suffering enough. Don’t suffer for the sake of your art more than you need to.
The year is 2020, I’m still in therapy and getting comfortable with being on medication. I’m navigating life as an empath and figuring out what healthy boundaries look like. I just released an album and have to sort through those emotions. I feel balanced, I feel healthy, I feel present, and I have so much to write about.
Source: Ella Vos, FortheRecord