The Big Burnout

[Photo Credit: Daniel Jensen]

[Photo Credit: Daniel Jensen]

I stood there by the front of the stage, people milling about as the event ended. Standing in front of me was an old friend from my university days. I’d seen him earlier from the stage as I was leading the band. As he asked me about my life, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t find any words to say. I couldn’t even put a “Hello” or “G’day” together, let alone respond to his polite greeting. I just stood there staring at him blankly. The speech centre of my brain had completely shut down. As I looked embarrassingly at the floor he moved away, probably offended by my lack of response. I was freaking out inside as I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me.

I was in my mid-twenties and I was experiencing what I later found out was a physical burnout. For me, burning out took away my ability to speak and find words.

Prior to the incident mentioned above, I had been through some of the most successful years of my life. Maybe they were too successful. Over the space of just a few years, I’d been a youth worker working at a drop-in centre in-between playing in the band of a hip mega-church. The drop-in centre started a youth magazine which became the third largest in Australia. I became its creative director, as well as a very unqualified music journalist, being inundated with interview requests and invitations to album launch parties from every major record label in town.

I started studying media at night school when I wasn’t still attending police stations and courthouses with young offenders in my continued role as a youth worker. I was hosting a radio show and also working shifts at a pinball arcade that the youth centre had set up.

The mega-church had recorded one of my songs which was soon being sung around the world - the first of my gospel songs to do so. Life was made up of playing in a band in front of huge audiences, interviewing artists like Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, rushing off to an album launch at Taronga Park Zoo, darting into the courthouse to give a character reference for one of the kids in our programmes and then catching a late night train into the city to study radio announcing before heading to bed in the wee hours of the morning. Then the alarm clock would buzz and it would begin all over again.

A few years later, and here I was, unable to speak. I wasn’t quite sure what life had in store for me after that. Was the ride all over? Who’d want a musician who’d lost his words?

After a time away from it all, I found the words returning, albeit in a slight stammerish kind of way. It was easier for me to write songs and to sing than it was to have a conversation. Soon enough though, I was asked to tour Australia as a gospel artist for a series of conferences. Part of the new role was to teach a workshop or two. I was scared, to say the least. “What if my mind goes blank again?”

In the end, everything seemed to come together. I still noticed at times that I’d lose my words when I got overtired, however, the workshops and music went so well that I was invited back and ended up as a full-time touring artist for the next few years.

Since that first occasion where I burnt out, I’ve tried to be careful by including times for ‘strategic rest’. I’ve also tried to include moments to look at the occasional ocean and sip an occasional coffee to take stock of things. Unfortunately, being an independent artist means that the music industry throws things at you that you can’t control. Sometimes it’s felt like I’ve been doing every single job simply to get a tour underway, or to get an album out the door. I’d like to say that I’ve been a good steward of both my energy as well as my craft. When I’ve battled, I often wonder.

For my most recent album, “Outside the Inside”, I’ve highlighted the struggles that many people go through in finding the right perspective on life. Oftentimes we attempt to build a bigger life and miss the smaller joys. And it’s the smaller joys that sustain us for big things.

Oftentimes we attempt to build a bigger life and miss the smaller joys. And it’s the smaller joys that sustain us for big things.
— David Willersdorf

I remember watching a television show about people that shouldn’t have survived certain catastrophes. One father and son were whitewater rafting when they came upon a stretch of river that had completely frozen over. They were swept underneath the ice, grabbing quick breaths from any air pockets they could before being hurtled further along. It was only the chance air pockets they encountered that allowed them to get through the other side of the frozen river, beaten yet alive.

It reminds me that we all have those small moments in life - the air pockets if you like - which we can ignore or which we can pause at to breathe in the joy and to carry that joy and positivity forward to sustain us through the challenging times. When I’ve been fatigued and speechless, it’s been the stored-up joy of friendships, chance conversations, oceans, sunrises and kindnesses which I’ve drawn on to survive.

So, take a moment now to think of one good thing that has happened for you today. It could be small or large. Start thinking of some good things that happened for you yesterday… last week… last year…

And I’d like to take a moment to thank every one of you who has been a part of my life, my musical journey - thank you.

David Willersdorf is a singer-songwriter, traveller and food and coffee enthusiast

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