Main Photo: Simon Holliday

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, with 2016’s theme centring around relationships. We asked our friend Jeffrey Johns aka ‘Big Jeff’ to tell you about his experiences in overcoming relationship struggles and how the Bristol music scene has helped him embrace who he is.

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Photo by Sofi Nowell

So this week is mental health week, and their main focus of this year has been looking at
relationships and different aspects that having mental health issues can affect.

I’m someone who has only just, in recent years, been given a diagnosis of Aspergers or being “officially listed on the autistic spectrum”; my parents decided to avoid a diagnosis as they feared I would face stigmatisation by being on the autistic spectrum. This was largely because I have an uncle on my mum’s side of the family who was born quite severely autistic.

My parents saw certain personality traits that were quite similar, in the way that I behaved, that I struggled with being overwhelmed by loud noises and overly stimulated atmospheres like parties. I found it quite challenging being around other people sometimes as I found it hard socialising.

This might surprise a few people as I have made most of my friends big loud environments being down the front at gigs. I basically found live music as a way of being OK in a room full of strangers; I managed to twist my parents arms into taking me out to a few shows when I was a teenager and I gradually found myself being drawn towards the Bristol scene because of going to Ashton Court Festival.

“I struggled with being overwhelmed by loud noises and overly stimulated atmospheres”

It was a really big deal – for many years it was the only festival in Bristol, it gave bands a chance to play on a big stage. I found the local scene to be full of left field oddball characters that I was drawn towards and in turn, it was a bit of a revolution for me because I knew these characters existed!

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When I eventually moved to Bristol to study contemporary popular music at Access To Music, I found it difficult to live away from home in a shared house full of strangers. I also had the traumatic experience of nearly dying on the operation table and having a friend pass away just months later was pretty devastating; I ended up having a nervous breakdown from the psychological trauma.

I found that being in a room with musicians playing live was a great way to break down the barriers that I had experienced in other social situations. I found myself regularly going to places like the Louisiana and The Fleece where I would turn up to the shows and not really speak to people; sometimes I would turn up to completely random things, just going on the basis of a band’s name.

Gradually I made friends with the staff at the Louisiana over a process of years and began to speak to people at shows. I did find the Bristol scene quite accepting; I made friends with some of the bands and artists like Kid Carpet, who even allowed me to stay at his place after one of his shows, because I wasn’t living in Bristol then!

“I slept rough after shows because I found communication really difficult”

I also made friends with Fortune Drive, Santa Dog, Three How’s Two Mexicans and a Tin of Spanners, Big Joan, Halo, Grebo, Five Knuckle, Gravenhurst, to name but a few.Sometimes I slept rough after shows in Bristol because I was living with my parents in the countryside and I found communication really difficult – picking up the phone and calling people is something I still struggle with and I couldn’t drive, because my dyspraxia would flare up – oh the fun of nearly crashing the car every driving lesson!

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So I have nearly always found the music scene in Bristol to be quite supportive; there are people who embrace their oddness with playful glee.I tend to find that whenever I go to a new venue that I need to get there pretty early so I can get a mental map of the venue, so I can asses things like where the stage is, what the shape of the room is and look for the safest escape route is in case I need to leave or go outside.

Sometimes it can take me a while because I need to suss out where my safe space is. Usually my safe space is somewhere by the stage because then I don’t feel the pressure so much to talk to people especially when I don’t feel very confident. I tend to find bar areas can be unintentionally quite intimidating.

I am lucky that I have been really widely accepted in general sense of things, but there have been times where I have had anxiety because of the amount of people, which has changed how I feel in a space.

“I am lucky that I have been really widely accepted in general sense of things”

I also found that the wider arts scene has also been really encouraging, I was a member of art and power for a number of years, an arts group for people who had special needs. They did great things for me and my overall confidence – they had a real creative gang style mentality.

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I did things which I could not envisage myself doing, like conceptual dance performances and poetry slams. If anyone had anything going I generally signed up to it! These people saw my strengths and my weaknesses, but generally it was good to have a supportive network around me.

I even delved into several attempts at making music myself, doing outsider hip hop, inventing a character to deal with things that were happening internally.

I invented Manic F a paranoid split persona of myself, and had bands Negative Mental Attitude, and Non Compus Mentis. Largely it was about taking the negative psychology and trying to create something positive and honest. The few shows I did were generally awkward and intensive therapy sessions, with mesmeared in black and white face paint and usually wearing an orange boiler suit.

“Largely it was about taking the negative psychology and trying to create something positive”

The Bristol scene is generally be quite supportive of me, even when I am having one of my mini panic episodes – I can usually find someone to talk to who can help calm me down. I have often found myself and my mental states being transformed by live music, allowing myself to not really discriminate between different musical genres. I did feel a few things change when I told people that I was on the autistic spectrum; I think some people’s reactions towards me changed, or maybe my reactions to other people changed. But I do feel quite supported and lucky to be embraced by those in the music scene here.

Check out Jeff in the Augustine’s video for ‘We Are Alive’ right here:

For more information on Autism, head to the National Autistic Society