Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Name: Julia Allen
Age: 27 years old
Occupation: Toronto-based Content Creator / Singer & Songwriter “For Keeps” Location: Toronto, ON
I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember. I struggled with what I can now identify as extreme separation anxiety as early as four years old, around the time I started Kindergarten. I remember feeling so overcome with mental worry that I would become physically sick and beg my teacher to let me call my mom to take me home. It eventually got so bad that my parents thought something might be wrong with my physical health, so they took me to the doctor for a checkup. But after nothing showed up in an ultrasound, the issue was never addressed again.
It wasn’t until my first anxiety attack in university that I considered something was wrong. I was under a lot of self-inflicted pressure and was struggling to manage all the newfound responsibilities associated with leaving home and being a full-time student. I started blaming little things like my closest being disorganized for what was “stressing me out”, but what I didn’t see was that I was also going out most nights, drinking in excess, eating poorly, saying yes to everything and everyone that came my way. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t feel like myself; didn’t feel like I had control over the things happening in my life. I remember wishing someone would ask me if I was okay. For awhile I felt angry that everyone seemed oblivious to how badly I was struggling. This manifested into pretty intense internalized stigma that made me feel like maybe I was making too big a deal out of things or worse – maybe I was making it all up.
Depression followed my anxiety later in my teen years and was more insidious.
I think the first time I felt truly depressed was in the 12th grade. I had spent my entire life up until that point prepping and genuinely believing that I would pursue a career in musical theatre. That year, like every year, I auditioned for one of the lead roles in my high school’s yearly production. Only this year I wasn’t given the part I worked for. It was the first time in my life I felt the crushing weight of disappointment and rejection. I remember crying shamelessly in the stairwell after the cast list went up and being told to “tough it out”. I started to pull away from the things that I enjoyed. I slept every chance I could get. Was quick to anger and clouded by brain fog, so much so that I eventually made the decision not to go to school for theatre. I was hit with the harsh reality of the real world; that outcomes are uncertain. And decided I ultimately shouldn’t build a career out of uncertainty. I was afraid that pursuing a career in the arts would leave me financially unstable; unable to take care of myself. That’s a lot to come to terms with at 17 and my sense of identity quickly became displaced.
I can’t say how long this episode went on for or what prompted my eventual turning point. All I can remember is being 21 and deciding I didn’t want to live the rest of my life feeling this way. I realized that if what I was waiting for was someone else to help me, to notice something was wrong, then I was going to wait forever. I decided that my well-being is no one else’s responsibility but my own. I made the decision to see a counsellor for the first time at the end of my second year at university. My school’s mental health services were pretty awesome – they offered students ten subsidized counselling sessions. I remember sitting in my first ever session saying something along the lines of, “ok great, so do you have some sort of pill that’s going to help me feel better?” And the counsellor looked at me thoughtfully, patiently, and said, “why would I give you a bandaid when I can give you a toolbox?” The first of many lessons in unlearning my internalized stigma around mental health.
I moved to Toronto four years ago, during what I can now identify as my second major depressive episode. I had just finished my undergrad, ended a very tumultuous relationship (the fallout of which would last another year on top of that), and was coming to terms with parts of my sexuality previously unexplored. I was trying to juggle the pressure I felt to begin my career with the immense guilt I felt for not moving back home after school. My Grandpa’s health took a turn and his partner died in the same few weeks. I was trying to process a lot – more than I could put into words. It was a very emotionally chaotic time where I turned to songwriting as a means of therapy. I’m not even sure I did it intentionally. Reflecting on it now, I think I was avoiding being alone with myself because it forced me to confront thoughts that made me feel like I was a bad daughter, friend, sister, person.
But when I did find myself alone, I started gravitating towards my ukulele. Music has always been a place of solace for me, but at the time it also became a very effective (and decidedly healthier) way of distracting myself from negative thoughts. When I was playing music, I wasn’t ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. It gave me the ability to be present. And it felt damn good to be creating something. I don’t think I ever sat down and decided “ok cool, today I’m going to write a song.” I think when I finally gave myself a bit of space, the songs just came. They had to; I was at emotional capacity.
I wrote and recorded three songs during this time – each of which were very obviously the byproduct of three intense experiences I was attempting to process: the breakup fallout, my newfound bisexuality, and the first time I consciously considered that I might be depressed. I sat on the recordings for awhile; I wasn’t sure what to do with them. If I should do anything with them at all. Who were they for? What was their purpose? Were they any good? Was I revealing too much about myself, being too vulnerable in ways that would make others uncomfortable or worse, worry about me? After about a month, I had a moment of sobering self-clarity. I decided all of these questions didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was how the songs made me feel. And they made me feel good. So, on January 01, 2016, I decided to publish them to Bandcamp. Putting them into the world made me feel proud of my ability to be so openly vulnerable. It made me feel lighter; maybe even understood. I think I posted them on New Year’s Day as a way of setting intentions for the year ahead. I wanted to put all the bad things of 2015 behind me and just move forward. When I listen back to those early recordings, I’m still so proud of them. They’re lo-fi as fuck and the vocal harmonies are a 10!
Music has been a therapeutic outlet for me as far back as I can remember, albeit in different ways at different times. When I was 4, my parents put me in voice lessons. We all agree that we can’t remember whose idea this was; mine or theirs. And anyway it doesn’t matter. The teacher they wanted me to study under was initially hesitant to train me; she normally didn’t accept students who couldn’t yet read. She eventually conceded and asked me to audition for her by singing part of my favourite song on the spot. I started vocal lessons shortly after. I love that this early little moment of victory is part of my journey. It feels like the beginning of a story or something, where the character discovers her superpower from a young age and uses it to try and make the world a more joyful place. I hold this childhood story close to my heart. It’s a narrative and feeling I come back to when I feel unsure of my place in the world.
Just as I’ve grown and changed, so too has my relationship to music. What remains consistent is this: music is the thing that most helps me understand and experience myself. It is how I most easily communicate my feelings and emotions to the people around me. Nothing gives me more clarity on my emotional state than sitting down to write a song. It's so curiously interwoven into the fabric of my selfhood that it feels futile to untangle. And even if you could, you wouldn’t find the stuff that makes me, me. My ability to feel deeply and wholly; the way my emotions ebb and flow, and ebb again like a reluctant but tenacious crescendo. Some people journal their feelings, I like to write mine into songs.
It’s funny, because starting a band was never on my radar. I wish I could say that I thoughtfully orchestrated the whole thing, but it really just fell into my lap. When my partner Bradley and I moved in together 2 years ago, we decided it would be a fun project to re-record those early Bandcamp songs and a few others I’d written since then. He’s a talented audio engineer, and his enthusiasm to do this nice creative thing together was really energizing. What started as a cute little creative project between the two of us eventually started to take shape into something bigger. As we began recording we invited two friends, Cam and Jeff, to come in to play drums and bass on the songs. We had no deadline, we were simply recording in our spare time. We eventually finished recording while I was in the middle of another depressive episode, having just left my job and dealing with some residual physical health issues. It was mid-January and we were listening to the album together and thought, “these are great, it would be a shame if no one heard them. Wouldn’t it be fun to play these on stage?!” and after that things just kind of fell into place. We were even able to settle on a band name and make it official in one night, which wasn’t hard since I’d been keeping a working list of potential band names as a half joke for about 2 years. We decided on For Keeps and I’m so glad we did.
In late 2017, after years of wondering if something was wrong with me and fighting the possibility that my struggles could be related to my mental health and not my physical health, I finally pursued diagnosis. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Having these diagnoses has been insurmountably helpful in my healing. They gave me permission to feel my feelings. They gave my emotional weight validity and forced me to take ownership of my well-being in ways I had never done before. In ways I’m still learning to do. My diagnosis is still new; it’s something I’m continually unravelling and coming to terms with. A lens I’m continually reflecting on my past self with. But having it has given me a new perspective and understanding of my life. It's forcing me to learn how to take care of myself. When to pause, when to set a boundary, when to let myself cry because feeling like I need to be positive all the time is triggering. I'm learning how to trust myself again. It's challenging and exciting all at the same time.
When I look at how far I’ve come with my mental health over the last 4 years, I feel incredibly proud of myself. It’s the first thing in my life that I feel I’ve taken ownership of. I wish I could say something like, “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for [insert name of loved one],” but the truth is this process has largely been a long and lonely one. And that's okay – everyone's journey is different. I'm only now learning how to ask for support and how to be vulnerable with people beyond songwriting. I still have a long way to go but I feel more optimistic about my future than I have in a long, long time.
Getting a diagnosis has helped me understand my mental illness is likely hereditary; a genetic predisposition. I’m the first (and only) person in my immediate family to pursue diagnosis, though I’m definitely not the only person living with depression or anxiety. While I don’t fault my family for not pursuing diagnosis, I am relieved to have a name for what I experience. Giving a name to my depression and anxiety has helped make them feel more manageable; less of a question mark and more of an answer. And I feel hopeful that, if I decide to have children one day, they will not spend years full of painful, silent wondering. That I will be a beacon of unconditional love and support through example. That they will spend less time questioning themselves and more time understanding themselves. That maybe my diagnosis is the first of many necessary steps toward intergenerational healing.
Sometimes I wonder if things would’ve been easier if the people around me or even I was more knowledgeable about the intricacies and symptoms of mental illness. That’s a really painful thought. Though that hurt sometimes creeps in during moments of self-doubt and hesitation, I remind myself that this is part of my story.
When I zoom out, it’s easier to see that we are only now beginning to talk more openly about mental illness. Ruminating on the past won’t change the present, or the future. I feel grateful to be coming of age at a time when people can share their stories and experiences more freely. I think the more voices we hear and have access to, the more normalized things become. And maybe the less time someone else will have to spend wondering.
For Keeps plans to spend the remainder of 2019 filming their debut music video + recording their next album, both to be released 2020. Their next batch of live shows will kickoff January 2020, with a potential Eastern Ontario tour to follow.