JULIA STONE ON CHANGING COURSE
I realised that throughout my life I’ve always been interested in people’s stories, struggles and challenges
When the pandemic shut down entertainment last year, Julia Stone was forced to evaluate her place in the world without live music. Her search uncovered a passion for connecting with others and led her to being a trained volunteer with The Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria. Here, she writes about what it taught her about her own mental health and the power of listening.
It was the final day of production rehearsals in March last year when I remember hearing echoes of a virus in Wuhan. I was due to fly to Europe to shoot the cover for my new album Sixty Summers, then to Mexico City for a one-off show, then back to LA for a photoshoot. I called my friend Louise, a doctor who works with medical organisations around the world, who responded directly: “I strongly recommend that you don’t get on that flight.” And just a few days later, borders around the world closed one by one.
As our government attempted to control the situation, I was very aware that the entertainment industry and arts would suffer. I’m a huge advocate for the arts – a civilisation can’t thrive without it – but cultural events of any kind weren’t going to be possible for the foreseeable future. Artists and musicians started producing performances online as the first lockdowns started. I found this a very inspired response, but the last thing I felt like doing was making music.
Music, especially live music, has been my passion for the past 15 years. Somehow, imagining people alone in their homes watching me sing on their computer screens amplified the solitude for me. It felt in direct opposition with the very thing I love about performing live.
But what would I do if I couldn’t play? How would I contribute to the world? What else was I good at, or even interested in? Touring is an all-encompassing lifestyle. I write to record, to perform. Travelling, meeting people, seeing the world through the lens of live music generates inspiration for another cycle of writing, recording … and so on. I asked myself, what, from all of it, meant the most? What frame of reference could I use to follow a different path?
I realised that throughout my life I’ve always been interested in people’s stories, struggles and challenges. The most connected I have felt is when listening to others. Some of my most profound interactions have been with strangers and there’s something oddly reassuring about finding trust with someone you don’t know. Once, on a plane, I sat next to a young man who was struggling with leaving a job he disliked to follow a dream to live in Berlin. Another time I listened to a man share the fear he felt on the drive to the hospital with his anaphylactic daughter suffocating in the back seat.
I started thinking about the period in my life when I suffered badly from panic attacks and anxiety. It was following a mammoth touring cycle after my brother Angus and I had released our self-titled record. We’d toured for a couple of years nonstop. I remember sitting in a hair salon the first time it happened. My heart felt extremely painful and I was struggling to breathe. I had the help of some brilliant psychologists who gave me conceptual and practical ways of understanding anxiety and how it works. I wondered if perhaps
I should go back to university and study psychology. I became gripped by the idea and almost forgot about music altogether.
My sister Olivia, who’s studying psychology, supported the idea I would be a good candidate. She wisely suggested a smart first step before committing to a six-year degree would be to volunteer for The Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria. I put an application in the next day.
I have never done a job interview before. I was nervous and felt way out of my depth, but I also felt deeply passionate about learning more about mental health. I talked openly about my own anxiety and relayed that because of my experience I might be equipped to understand what someone else is going through.
After being accepted, I was blown away by the training. I learnt how to sit with someone in their discomfort and pain, and to actively listen. We did suicide-awareness training and I was shown how to be direct with someone thinking about suicide or showing signs of thinking about it; to remove the longstanding taboo and just ask the question: “Are you thinking about suicide?”
There are so many ways to be there for someone and, conversely, different ways you can shut someone down without realising it. The most relevant lesson for me was about being mindful when listening and allowing an individual the space to share. When a person is having a mental health crisis, unhelpful things can happen despite the best intentions: comparing your experiences to theirs, predicting what they will say next, thinking ahead about something to say while they’re talking, judging, half-listening or multitasking while listening, or sometimes even starting up a debate.
I was surprised by how, even when your intent is good, like hoping to find a solution, that you’re not really listening. I also recognised my own desire to avoid pain and the fear of my own anxieties being sparked by someone else’s. All these quiet truths surfaced as I was being educated in how to be an effective volunteer.
I did a short meditation before I opened up the platform to begin my first shift. The first call I took was with an older man. I was nervous as to whether I was going to do a ‘good job’ and realised 15 minutes in that just being with him and listening was all he wanted.
I am now five months into my work and it’s the thing I’m the most grateful for at this moment in my life. Each week I’m blown away by people’s strength at reaching out for help.
I have never understood so deeply how innately similar we are as humans across all the different life circumstances we find ourselves in. Someone truly listening with love and kindness can change the course of a life.
Julia Stone’s third studio album, Sixty Summers, is out April 30.