“It Was This Overwhelming Sense Of Panic, As If I Was Under A Spell And Just Waiting For Something To Break It”: Mark Ronson Reflects On His Anxiety Attacks
“Mark Ronson is one of the greatest producers of this generation and it was an honour getting to connect with him for Service95. As I’ve learned more about his journey, I hear a lot of similarities from my own life story – things I never could have imagined he struggled with. Like Mark, I have also experienced intense periods of disorientation and panic, as if I was lost in a spiritual realm. There’s peace in knowing the people you admire have gone through similar experiences as yourself – especially when you learn how they are fortifying themselves in the midst of those challenges. As an artist, survivor, and fan of his work, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the story he shared with me for this issue.” – Glenn Lutz
“The first attack happened when I was 15. It was 11pm on a school night and it was the most surreal thing because I was lying in bed waiting to fall asleep; I am sure my mother had already stuck her head around the door to make sure the lights were off. I heard this clang of pipes. We lived in an old school building and the heat often made the pipes do this, so it was weird because it was something I had heard so many times before, but this time the pipes sounded… angry. It was an everyday sound that suddenly came across as violent; it was as if an ominous cloud suddenly came over the whole room. It made me sit up and think, What the fuck is going on? There was another clang and, again, it wasn’t that it sounded loud, it sounded angry.
I got up and turned on the radio because I wanted to disrupt whatever this thing was. As the radio came on, somebody was announcing the weather. I’m sure the guy was just saying, “It’s 20 degrees tomorrow downtown…,” but it sounded as if the announcer was yelling at me; seethingly, venomously angry. It felt like I was under some kind of spell.
I went out of my room to wake up my mother. At 15 years old, you don’t want to admit you have to get your mum to fix something, but I went in, she woke up and by talking to somebody face to face, it kind of broke the spell.
That happened two or three more times that year and then, mysteriously, never happened again. I wasn’t in therapy at the time, although I had briefly been in therapy prior to that. We moved to America from the UK when I was around eight years old, and therapy was more of a known thing in the US than it was back in England. My parents’ divorce was pretty terrible, so it was not a very peaceful household where we grew up. So my mum thought it was good for me and my sisters to get therapy when we were around 12 or 13.
I have always been a fairly anxious person, but I didn’t have another of those intense early panic attacks until I was about 27. That was when I started to have them again. It was this overwhelming sense of panic, as if I was under a spell and just waiting for something to break it. One time it happened when I was walking down the street in New York. I was 28, and I think my first album was coming out the next week; maybe it was the pressure of that. It was rush hour and I remember thinking, I just want to lie down on this sidewalk. I couldn’t imagine being able to walk or function or do anything, and I was just thinking about how the only option was to lie down.
That was a very different part of my life, with two polar things going on. On the one hand, I was partying and doing a lot of drugs, and wasn’t in therapy or emotionally intuitive or curious enough to know what was going on. On the other hand, I was super-functional, very driven and ambitious, with too much pride and ambition that I kept up the illusion of having it all together before ever really becoming a full-on fuck up… maybe addict. I was also very good at hiding it. That was how I dealt with my anxiety. I just pushed it down. Having one or two wild blowout weekend binges was how I coped at that time but somehow managed to keep it together enough. I never really thought of myself as a functioning addict, but I probably was to some degree. I coated my anxiety with drugs and alcohol.
The panic attacks and anxiety became more infrequent after that time, but it wasn’t until the past four or five years, through fairly intense therapy with an incredibly brilliant and perceptive therapist, that I proactively started to deal with all this stuff. I hate to say that I did a lot of work because it is such a trite soundbite but there isn’t another way to describe it. I started with therapy twice a week, I read every book my therapist told me to, and he sent me to a place called Hoffman. I was ready to do it. I stopped doing drugs, however, I didn’t get sober – I am not sober, I don’t want to mislead anyone about that. And I recognised patterns of how I dealt with my anxiety that I had chosen to ignore at previous points of my life, thinking, Oh that’s just because I like to party. I don’t have a problem, I just like to go out and blow off steam. I DJ and like to go out late – that’s what you do!
Being way more attuned to what was happening and how I was dealing with anxiety helped me address it. This, combined with a good amount of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and meditation, is what keeps me sane. I like CBT because it gives you specific tools when you go into those sorts of death spirals of anxiety that some of us can be prone to. And, obviously, you need to find the right kind of meditation for you, but I like Transcendental Meditation. I notice if I haven’t done it for a while, I feel this backlog of anxiety creeping up in the back walls of my psyche.
Mental wellness is still sometimes an awkward thing to talk about because you don’t want to come off as if you’re oversharing and using the public forum for your own therapy. But at the same time, it is so helpful that people talk about it. I grew up in a family where you certainly didn’t talk about your feelings, but I think it’s so important because those are the things that break down the stigma. People who need help need to know it’s OK not to be OK and about what channels to go down to find support.
I always feel conflicted talking about my mental health because I don’t want to sound as if I’m smug, like ‘I’ve figured it out!’ because nobody has figured it out; it is always still a journey. But when I read a book I love that I think might help someone else, without feeling like I am being judgmental, I’ll get them a copy. I think it’s good that there is more of an open discourse about it, especially in the time we live in now.
I really do feel that the therapy, reading and inner work I have done in the past four to five years have been the thing to help me get my shit together. My anxiety used to drive my work hustle, so it was hard to look at it as a bad thing because I was like, Well, my anxiety is the thing that makes me a workaholic, that’s what’s driving me and that seems to be good for my career. But that is not a balanced life, and I’m much happier this way. I still love creating and the creative process of going into the studio – I love all the things I used to – but it’s not the only thing that drives me any more. I go to the studio because that’s something I like to do, rather than, Fuck, what happens if I don’t go? Will somebody else get that gig?
I still have bouts of the same anxiety and all the same kinds of thoughts I used to, but now I have a much better tool kit to use when I see them coming. And I do see them coming, head on, and ask myself, Is this real? And most of the time it’s not. There’s a great Fiona Apple lyric when she’s talking about an argument with her boyfriend in the song Paper Bag: “He said ‘It’s all in your head’ and I said ‘so is everything’, but he didn’t get it.” And that is exactly what these thoughts are – anxiety, all these things – they are electromagnetic impulses in the brain and it’s about having the tools to recognise when that isn’t reality and to help correct that. I am not fixed by any means, but I am certainly driven much more by joy than fear these days.”