DJ Courtesy on Finding Balance and Overcoming Health Anxiety
On this episode of It’s Complicated, I, Reece Cox, sit down for a conversation with Najaaraq Vestbirk, aka Courtesy, DJ and founder of the record label, Kulør. Vestbirk has been rather busy over the last few years growing her career as DJ. Now, she maintains a rigorous international tour schedule and enjoys working on growing the label. Yet, the path to success and the maintenance thereof have left her grappling with some fundamental existential questions, e.g. what makes it worth? Will I be able to have a family? Do I have time to be a good friend? Do I have enough energy for the ones I love? Additionally, along the path to success Vestbirk found her self suffering from health anxiety which reached it’s peak earlier this year. At this critical point, she decided to share her experience on Instagram and was pleased to discover that openness would become an essential step towards healing.
Through the Noise is a mini-series where we hear stories and examine the struggles with mental health faced by those who work and participate in the electronic music industry. Through conversations with artists, therapists, and other professionals in the field, we’ll be taking a close look at the unspoken pressures and dimensions of a culture that is otherwise all about image and exposure. Because of the various idiosyncrasies of the culture and industry, the personal challenges it has to offer are vast and public discourse on the matter is a relatively fresh phenomenon. Seeing as It’s Complicated HQ is in Berlin, a global hub for electronic music with a rapidly growing therapy scene, we’re thrilled to have a voice in the conversation.
The following transcript was edited from the second episode of the It’s Complicated podcast Through the Noise: Courtesy. It contains segments of a larger conversation between me, Reece Cox, and Courtesy on the subject of mental health in the music industry and overcoming health anxiety.
Not only is Najaaraq a friend of It’s Complicated, she and I are also partners and we recorded this conversation in our home in September of 2019.
Courtesy: I feel that one half of my job is to perform and deliver, but the other half is just to show up on time. That means not missing flights, not canceling shows. You do that and maybe you have a year of touring – one round of festivals, one round of club gigs. But if you burn all those bridges, those are the people that are supposed to book you in the future. If you fuck that up there’s no future for you in this job. So there is this pressure to maintain good relationships with people, at least if you want to do it for more than one year. A lot of people don’t. A lot of people go in and they tour for a year or two and they find out it’s not for them for whatever reason.
It can be very stressful having a job where you get sick and then you don’t get paid. I’ve only tried this once. It was quite an expensive tour overseas and then you just have to pay for the flights. You don’t get paid. But if you’re sick, you’re sick. What are you going to do?
Reece Cox: Essentially you had to find a model that worked for you if you were going to continue this career and not end up burning out. But what about a point where you felt you were in over your head?
C: It’s a mix of being capable of doing my job while also being there for those within my private sphere. It’s the pressure of performing and then going home and being a good girlfriend. The mix of those things is really difficult – being a good family member, being a good friend, all of these. When you’re doing this intensely, it is almost all you have the energy for and you start doing everything else poorly. Or you start prioritizing everything and you feel this fear of it compromising your work, and that’s difficult. Sometimes I’ve felt like a bad girlfriend and a bad DJ in the same week. I felt I didn’t have the energy to accomplish any of those things and that sucks. Those are the worst ones.
RC: Essentially you’re talking about this problem of having a very demanding career while desiring a fulfilling life and to be good to those you care about. It’s not like you’re an employee. In your career, you are as good as your demand in a sense. If you’re not doing a good job and you’re not in demand, the career suffers.
C: I don’t pace myself that way because for me to be a good DJ is for me to have a lot of fun doing it. I think people will catch up immediately if I’m stressing out about every detail or pressuring myself too much. Over time I have developed a healthy and very fun approach to DJing. Essentially when I took that pressure off I became the Courtesy that people know me as now. When I stopped pacing myself and thinking that everything I do is going to have immediate consequences, that was when I became successful.
It’s different, for me the big pressure now is just getting enough sleep so I don’t go crazy and so I can enjoy my life. This year I had a tour and for some reason, the jet lag affected me in a way where once I returned I was not able to sleep for more than four hours at a time. When you can’t get proper sleep for months and months it’s horrifying and it takes the quality and enjoyment out of everything. That’s been one of my biggest fears recently – am I going to sleep properly again? What is this going do to me long term? Does this mean I’ll have to quit DJing to sleep? That’s scary because I’ve spent so much time building this up and getting to a point that somehow feels quite safe. I have this amazing team of people around me. I’m running a label that’s super fun with amazing people. Feeling as safe as you can feel as a self-employed independent artist, and then for the destruction to come from within me. That sucks, you know?
Feeling as safe as you can feel as a self-employed independent artist, and then for the destruction to come from within me.
RC: Is this a present fear? Is this something that you confront regularly?
C: It just got better recently, but we’re talking three weeks since I felt I’m getting through this period and I’m going to be okay. I had a couple of intense months. I look at any photo from myself from that period and I can see I looked different. I had specific darkness around my eyes I’ve never had before. I feel that is passing now, but it was scary. That’s what stresses me out – it’s not ‘when you go up you go down’ or these cliches about music careers. I feel very much in control. Maybe I’m being naive but my fear of not sleeping, for instance, is a big one.
RC: Knowing you personally, you have things well balanced considering the demands that are put on you. But I know from your past that it’s been a bit of a struggle, speaking specifically about health anxiety. Do you want to give a background on dealing with health anxiety and your decision to speak about it openly?
C: I guess I’ve always had a little bit of anxiety towards my health. It’s something that I was less aware of in Denmark because we have universal health care and you don’t have to pay the doctor’s bills. I didn’t notice until moving to a country like Germany where I had to claim back my bills and I started realizing to what extent I was going. I can look back and see that every time that I would go through a breakup or a friend break up or a family… I had an uncle that died and I had a really hard time feeling anything about it. Also with breakups and these friendship things that happen I would get this very quickly escalating health anxiety – almost like attacks. It was very intense and I would get fixated on a pain in my body or my chest. This would change just depending on what article I had read about that person who got lung cancer at the age of 26 or…
I went through a breakup earlier in the year and it got very bad afterward. I go to therapy and I was going through, what is it called? CBT.
RC: Cognitive-behavioral therapy.
RC: I want to ask a clarifying question. Do you think hypochondria is an adequate term to describe health anxiety or is it something different?
C: I don’t know. In psychology, they call it health anxiety. Maybe you use different wordings because of the negative connotations with the word hypochondria. It’s something that you tell someone when you’re not taking them seriously. That’s the opposite of what my psychologist is doing. She took it very seriously. Within treatment, it’s called health anxiety but it basically means that you will react very strongly to any physical symptoms you have and you think of the worst possible thing it could be. It could be a slight pain in your heart – it’s some kind of heart disease that you’ve self-inflicted. Side pains, lung cancer; stomach pains, another form of cancer; you name it. People have many different things that they point at.
Another clear sign or symptom is thinking you’re not going to be able to overcome it. You think you will die or you won’t be able to manage it. That was the situation I was in and it was very bad. I had woken up one morning… I would get these home assignments from my psychologist called modules and one of the questions was, “How does health anxiety affect you?” And I just sat down this morning that had been particularly bad – this was a period where I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would have these chest pains. When you wake up in the middle of the night and you have this kind of anxiety and you’re alone it’s not like you can call someone so they can talk you down, you’re just totally alone with it. I woke up, grabbed my computer and answered the question. I wrote this long answer and shortly afterward I sent it to a friend and said, “I kind of feel like sharing this or posting it.” I’d never written anything that raw and then thought about publishing it. Generally, Facebook posts are well thought and have the purpose of communicating something that you want to promote or tell people. For this, it was like sharing a piece of diary, but it seemed appropriate… I’m sure people knew something was up, maybe not my fans, probably not people that I don’t know, but people knew something was up and it felt a lot easier to share this one thing and then tell people.
You think you will die or you won’t be able to manage it.
RC: Can I ask you to read what you wrote?
C: I could read some of it, yeah. Can you find it?
“I worry about my health every day during periods where it’s really bad, I look at all the future gigs I’ve accepted and the plans I made with my label and I think, “yeah, it’s cool that these things are happening, but I won’t around when they actually take place.” I wake up in the middle of the night and feel weird sensations around my chest and I have a deep fear that all the partying I did over the years did some kind of irreversible damage to my heart, which will suddenly stop beating. Sometimes the tightness around my chest even starts when I’m playing and I try to keep a happy face while I worry about my perceived heart condition in front of a room of partying people. The worst thing about this is that I don’t fully enjoy my life. I have many moments of happiness. Most of them while I’m playing, having conversations with inspiring people or hanging out with my best friends and their children. But the majority of the time I worry and I daily consider it if I should accept the anxiety medicine that the psychiatrist offered me when my doctor referred me after a bad cycle of thinking I had multiple different kinds of cancers over a couple of months.”
At the end of the post I wrote, “it’s hopefully clear to anyone that has seen me play recently that I love DJing so much. As I said, this is one of the places where I’m, most of the time don’t worry. And if I do, it’s a real bummer because the booth is my sacred place.”
RC: What motivated you to make this public?
C: I didn’t think it through, honestly. I don’t recommend people do that, there was just something in me that wanted to share this. I can tell you all the good and bad things that happened afterward and how that affected me. It was just immediate. The same feeling that you want to talk to your friends about your feelings. There was just something that naturally inclined me to want to share this. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about something that uncensored and honest before – it would feel too vulnerable, maybe. Which it did, but the response was quite overwhelming. I ended up posting it in a couple of pictures on Instagram and I got hundreds of messages from people thanking me for sharing it. It turns out I’m not the only one that feels this way and has anxieties specifically linked up to this. I knew one person previously that had dealt with some of the same things, but at that point, that person hadn’t shared it with me yet. I was very alone with it. That’s probably also one of my motivations for sharing it.
I just got so many messages, so many. There was no way I could answer everyone. It was just physically impossible for me, especially this being quite a stressful period in terms of my anxiety. I only got the most amazing messages, actually.
My health anxiety wasn’t caused by the number of gigs I was playing. Now I see a very clear pattern and it’s completely linked to my private life. It is not a gig, touring thing. It is a way that I deal with trauma which is not very helpful and can be quite inconvenient, but it’s not a DJ disease. As I learned, it’s something many people suffer from.
The same day I was biking through Friedrichshain and I was at a red light. This woman came up to me and said, “I just read your post!” She hugged me and it was just so cute! It was just a really…
It ended up being an enormously healing process for me. When you deal with this kind of stuff, you feel that, yes, it’s statistically unlikely that I have XYZ disease, but the statistics don’t matter to the individual. When you get hundreds of messages from people that have experienced similar things, my rational brain can take over and see these people are not sick. And for me, that was a massive healing process. Because I saw how common this was I could look back on myself and realize – as unlikely as it is that these people are sick I can reverse that and mirror myself in it. It didn’t happen immediately but this post and sharing it became a massive step in learning to deal with this better and lowering my anxiety in general.
It ended up being an enormously healing process for me.
When you’re a person that shares stuff like this, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I have learned over the last couple of years that you will lose people in your life if you are sharing what they perceive as private. That has consequences. I would tell them about the positive impact it had on me and some would understand, but essentially it just makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
RC: When you started talking openly about your mental health and considering the greater dimensions of the way this job impacts your life, did it change your understanding of what it means to be a public figure?
C: Yeah, it actually did. I think it made me a lot more… Well, I’ve been pretty open in interviews before. I am probably in the category of oversharing. It isn’t the first time I have experienced people coming to me to say that they felt not alone in my sharing something personal. I think that’s very powerful and meaningful when you’re in a position like me. Where people listen to you and you have a voice. So I’m aware of that.
RC: Having gone through this whole experience – and as you mentioned, it isn’t a DJ disease, it’s not because of the flights, because of the gigs, because of the partying but It’s something very personal and related the way that you deal with trauma. Was there ever anxiety about a potential illness that was brought on by having to stay up, by having partied, by having spent years sleep deprived?
C: I think anyone that’s been in the party scene for as long as I have has fears about what the partying, the alcohol has done. I honestly think the health anxiety would have been there whether I’d been a DJ or not. I think the main mental stress of DJing comes from the way in which this lifestyle affects my private life and opportunities. Am I going to miss out on big things in life because I choose this job? Am I going to have kids? Am I going to have good healthy relationships? Am I going to see my friend’s kids grow up? Am I going to see my family enough… Is it going to be worth it? A lot of touring artists already made that choice. A lot of people don’t want these, let’s say, normal things out of life. This has caused me a lot of stress because I felt it quite hard to see how I was going to get any of it. As a woman, there are some other physical aspects of this. That kind of stuff stresses me out more than the consequences of the partying – that was more in the past.
RC: So it’s bigger – what are the things in life that this is going to prevent or make more difficult?
RC: You also asked the question, Is it going to be worth it? What would make it worth it?
C: Well, the thing is I love DJing. I think it’s incredibly fun and I feel unbelievably connected to people when I do it. I didn’t feel this much when I was younger, but I feel that I make a difference for people. I can see in the response that I have a positive impact on individuals. It’s not just about going into a random room playing music. It’s bigger than that for me. For me, when I talk about it being worth it, it has nothing to do with whether that time is well spent or not because it is. It’s all the surrounding shit.
I think it’s also about not being greedy, not taking too many gigs. Thinking about how the distance between where you’re going and the impact you’re having on the world in terms of flights. Being more mindful in the way that I approach the planning of my schedule so that it will have less of a negative impact on my personal life and the world.
RC: You chose this career, you continue to choose this career, and you continue to make choices that enable you to stay in it. Obviously you have a lot of motivation for it. It’s clear that you love what you’re doing.
C: Yeah, what makes it worth it… It’s obviously a combination of things. For one, the joy of the actual performance. I get to play music very loud that I love. The reason that this fits well with my personality is that I am a massive control freak and if there’s anything that gives a sense of control, it is controlling a dance floor.
Learning how to engage with that over the years has given me a lot of pleasure. There’s a specific feeling I get in my body when I’m DJing – a certain kind of euphoria or pleasure that I physically feel from this interaction, from all these axes meeting: the music, interaction, the aesthetic pleasure of looking at people. For me, it’s very important that I can see people when I play. I can only get that sense of control through DJing and it’s a major motivation for me. I just don’t feel that anywhere else.