As a world-class beatboxer, Simon pushed himself to continuously reach new highs, but emotions he’d been hiding from eventually caught up with him. Following two breakdowns, he found the power in being vulnerable, and realised that his online community could truly be a place of positivity
We all know how toxic social media can be, myself included. A few years back I realised that I struggle with addictions, one of which is internet addiction. It had reached a point where I was so desperate for online validation that I would be awake all night, isolated, and unable to break the loop. I would always pretend to be OK, only sharing a perfect, always happy, infinitely successful version of myself.
But recently this all changed. I made the decision to be open online about my battle with depression, trauma, and addiction, and the transformation I have seen in my life has been astonishing; ultimately, my virtual community saved me from suicide.
I have lived in a whirlwind my whole adult life – soon after leaving home, I started gaining recognition as a beatboxer, breaking world records, a live looping artist winning World Looping Championships, and performing with household names like Ed Sheeran, Damon Albarn and Basement Jaxx to huge crowds around the world. I was growing up on the road, on stage, and in the public eye. I was desperate to prove myself.
Beatboxing is hugely empowering – you can stand up and literally move people with nothing but your voice and a microphone.
I started beatboxing as a child as a way to practise the drums after my baby sister had gone to bed. I had the rhythm bug – I couldn’t switch the music off in my head, so I started using my voice to express what I heard in my mind.
When my friends heard the sounds I was making, they would freak out. I realised I had something special, so I practised with a passion, and in 2003 I left my astrophysics degree at Leeds University to pursue music full-time.
I’ve always loved the thrill of performance, and at the start I used to get these huge rushes from the shows. I’d be soaring high from all the endorphins, all the energy from delivering this passionate and adrenalised experience. But the problem is you can quickly get addicted to those highs. It was almost compulsive the way I would push myself. I was always trying to be bigger and better, to outdo myself, or break the next world record.
One day in summer 2008, I performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, which had been a massive dream of mine. I walked off thinking I should feel amazing, but I just felt empty. Now what? Now I have to find something even bigger to do. It felt like it would never end. I couldn’t understand why my life felt like a race, and why I was never satisfied by my achievements.
I desperately wanted to create an album of my own, but I spent years obeying the voices in my head telling me I’d fail. In January 2017, in a moment of inspired courage, I vowed to stand up to my inner critic. I was coming off tour to get this album written. But the process of stopping the whirlwind was far more painful than I had imagined.
I made the decision to be open online about my battle with depression, trauma and addiction
I thought it would be easy, but the isolation completely broke me.
In May 2017, after weeks of mixed success trying to write my album, I had a breakdown. My addictions relapsed, and I quickly found myself in a suicidal space.
I didn’t want to live any more. I was fantasising about how I could escape my own life. I was lucky though. Michelle, my wonderful life partner and business partner, could see I wasn’t OK. When she gently asked me what was wrong, I could finally admit how I felt. With her encouragement, I sought help.
By September 2017, I started cognitive behavioural therapy, and after another breakdown in March 2018, I was referred for trauma therapy.
In trauma therapy, I learned tools to process something I had been too afraid to talk about: when I was four years old, I had a near death experience ending with emergency abdominal surgery. I never realised that I had been running from the trauma my whole life.
After seven weeks away from work, piece by piece, I slowly began to rebuild myself.
Music was my therapy. By writing down my stories and embracing my pain, songs were starting to take shape. I realised the album I had been writing was all about this journey with trauma.
By June 2018, I had written half of the album, but I knew I’d need funds to record and release it. I decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, which could also raise mental health awareness, and money for a mental health charity.
To launch the campaign, I posted a video about my mental health. People immediately started reaching out to me, sharing their own journeys and offering support. I felt more real, more connected to the world than I ever had before.
But then the funding stalled. I started doubting whether this was a good idea. I was getting supportive messages every day, but a lot of them contained traumatic stories, and I wasn’t sure if I could cope.
Then one day over summer 2018, I was attacked on Twitter about my mental health. Someone sent me a barrage of tweets, telling me that I should be ashamed. That it was my own fault. That depression and suicide were evolution’s way of weeding out weak men.
My mind was racing. What if I’m not fit to be a father to my two sons? I spiralled back into terrifying suicidal anxiety.
But things were different this time. Since I’d opened up online, I was no longer isolated. My friends, family and fans knew I was vulnerable. They were checking in with me every day. And sharing what had happened to me brought me some new-found courage.
To defy my attacker, I posted my story in depth, sharing my truth with anxiety, addiction and trauma. The reaction was overwhelming. I received hundreds of messages, from all over the world, containing love, hope, support and strength. And stories of similar struggles.
People immediately started reaching out to me, sharing their own journeys and offering support
My community rallied around me, the article soon went viral, and my crowdfunding total zoomed to 112% within days.
More importantly, my followers also started talking honestly about their own mental health. It seemed to spread – people reported that their own network had started supporting them with struggles they had previously been too afraid to share.
That summer I started #WEARELISTENING – a series of ‘real talk’ live streams inviting guests to open up about mental health. The first live stream with Grammy winning artist Jason Mraz was watched by more than 95,000 people around the planet.
I learned that sharing vulnerable truths online is scary, and maybe the reluctance to be open is because of a fear that people don’t want to hear about the pain. But we can all work together to create a tolerant online culture.
If you’re with me and you believe that the internet can be a tool for positive social change, rather than a popularity competition, then I urge you to try something. Try sharing your truth today. Post something vulnerable you might not normally share, and invite your friends to do the same.
Who knows, it might help someone else speak their truth tomorrow. Ultimately, it might save a life.
Rachel Coffey, BA MA NLP Mstr, says:
Simon’s story reminds us of a universal truth – we are all vulnerable. We may not always feel it, but inside all of us is a part of ourselves that needs to be listened to and taken care of. Simon discovered it was something he’d long forgotten that he needed to process. The point we stop and have space, is often when our mind focuses on unresolved issues. It is at these times that we need support – Simon found a way to do that for himself and thousands of others. However alone you may feel, remember we are all stronger together.
Listen to tracks from Simon’s, aka SK Shlomo’s, forthcoming album that’s raising mental health awareness, out 29 March: skshlomo.com/listen