The Troubled Artist Benga, 31
A sudden psychotic episode took London-based MC, DJ and producer Benga to the edge of reason. Today, music and the support of others help him stay in tune with his mental wellbeing
“My first breakdown happened in September 2013. Looking back, I’d been suffering from anxiety for a while, but didn’t realise that was what it was. I was doing a lot of drugs at the time, taking ecstasy and ketamine every day. I was playing shows, doing radio and I’d just entered a relationship – I was in love for the first time. I had a lot going on.
“Once, I was lying in bed with this girl. We’d done a lot of drugs and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t move. I’ve always been religious – I was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness – and the thing that went through my mind was, ‘God is trying to connect with me.’ We went to hospital, and the doctor told me I’d be OK. I chalked it up to a random event and left it at that.
“I had a few more similar attacks, and slowly started to lose all sense of rationality. I began to miss gigs. In my head, I was on a mission from God. He told me I had to go and collect what was mine. I would walk up to people on the street and make a certain sign with my arms. I’d ask them, ‘Do you know what you took from me?’ I thought people were following me. I thought the CIA was involved.
“This carried on for months. I also thought there was a hex on me and that I had to get rid of everything I owned by a certain date, or I would die. I gave away my possessions to random people on the street. I gave away three Rolexes and an Audemars. I gave away rings, chains, all kinds of stuff. At one point, I went into my bank, withdrew £30,000, spent it in Selfridges, then went home, poured bleach all over what I’d just bought and threw it in the bin. One night, I threw away my TV, my sofa and my bed.
“After a while, my girlfriend called the police and I was sectioned. I was in hospital for about seven weeks. Being sectioned was a pretty hardcore experience. I was around a lot of other people who were ill. I would see a psychiatrist every three to four days, but they are struggling to look after everyone, as giving every person the treatment they need would cost a lot.
“Gradually, I began to realise what I had been doing. The people around me, including my girlfriend at the time, really supported me. When I got out of hospital, I went to my mum’s house, set up a studio and wrote a song called “Psychosis”. I was just writing and reflecting. This process helped me learn to deal with my mental health. I still got ill quite a few times afterwards, but music keeps me going, and it gives me something to focus on. It’s always been my lifesaver.”
A severe breakdown in his early twenties led Benjamin to the edge of despair. He has since been awarded an MBE for his work helping to bring others back from the brink
“My first major breakdown happened when I was 20, in November 2007. I was in my third year of university in Manchester. I’d been unwell for a few years but hadn’t addressed it. I’d been having suicidal thoughts, hearing a voice in my head and seeing things that weren’t there. I was also struggling with my sexuality. One day, I ended up on the streets, screaming at people. I’d lost control. It was horrible, like being in a trance. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’
“I was taken to hospital. The worst part was sitting in front of a psychiatrist with my family, because it meant that I couldn’t hide it from them any more. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder. He said that I’d have to go to hospital and be placed on suicide watch. It was hell. I had an overwhelming sense of shame and confusion. There was no sense of relief. I didn’t want to live. It was unbearable.
“In the hospital, I started having anxiety attacks, getting tight knots in my stomach whenever I left my room, or was around the other patients. After a month, I ran away because I couldn’t bear it. Suicide seemed like the only way out. I went to a bridge to jump off. In the end, I was stopped from doing it by a stranger. He was very calm and reassuring. He said to me that I didn’t have to feel embarrassed in front of him. It was amazing to hear that because I was utterly embarrassed about my condition. The key thing was that he said he thought I’d be all right, and I’d get better. That changed everything for me, and I knew, somehow, that I would get through it.
“I was taken back to the hospital and sectioned. I felt like a coward, that I’d let people down. But the difference was that now I had some hope that I would get better. I still struggled for the next few years, but I started to address my mental health and talk about it. I began to feel more human again. Simply having that sense of hope made a massive difference.”