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Gotye, Paul Kelly, Bertie Blackman and more talk drug use in 'Talking Smack'

The following text comes from Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen. Read our interview on the previous page.

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Her first thought was that she was having a heart attack. One night, on tour on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in early 2009, the twenty-six-year-old had a sudden and terrible feeling: she couldn’t breathe. Severe chest pains were accompanied by shallow breaths. She was scared, and so were her bandmates. Next stop: the emergency department of Noosa Hospital. The diagnosis: inflamed cartilage rubbing against her ribcage. The cause: overexertion on and off stage; drinking too much alcohol too often, and feeling invincible as a result. Yet here was concrete proof that the young musician was doing serious damage to her health and that perhaps it might be a good idea to rethink things.

Anyone who saw Beatrice ‘Bertie’ Blackman perform in the years leading up to that health scare would have found her to be one of Australia’s most arresting rock frontwomen. Night after night, she’d be slugging from a bottle of Jameson between singing into the microphone, thoroughly inhabiting the loose, hedonistic image that rock history has conditioned us to expect, if not demand. Blackman’s body became conditioned to the abuse: she could drink a bottle of whisky each night, then hop in the van the next morning, inured to the ill effects. And off to the next city she’d roll, to do it all over again.

When the Sydney-born singer’s half-brother saw her drinking whisky on stage a couple of years prior to that Noosa Hospital incident, he reported back to Bertie’s mother using a particular noun with a long history in the Blackman family: alcoholic. ‘It’s a big word for me, because when I think of “alcoholic”, I think of my dad,’ she says. ‘In a way, I did feel like I needed to drink to cope with my nerves and anxiety. I’m sure my father drank for a lot of reasons, but he was painfully shy, and maybe he suffered from anxiety, too. He was kind of self-medicating.’ Like father, like daughter – at least, for a while. ‘I did get pretty good at hiding it from my family,’ she says. ‘I didn’t wake up and start drinking first thing in the morning. But it was part of my day.’

Victoria Bitter in a can conjures up a nostalgic smell for Blackman: it reminds her of waking up to her father passed out in the morning, and observing the detritus of his workplace. Charles Blackman was a painter who worked late into the night. He’d start drinking at around 3 am and be out of his tree by 7 am, when his daughter would arise just as he’d be winding down. Her parents fought a lot because of his drinking. Blackman’s mother confessed that she was something of a teenage alcoholic, too: at age fourteen, she’d go through a bottle of gin every weekend. But she had outgrown that habit by the time she met Charles five years later.

He hadn’t outgrown drinking heavily, though, and as a result Blackman was surrounded by alcohol from a young age. This early, consistent exposure had an interesting effect on her. There was one party where the curious youngster took sips from plenty of guests’ drinks, felt the woozy effects for the first time and woke up sick the next day, but otherwise she steered clear of booze until her late teens. ‘When everyone else was drinking, I wasn’t interested,’ she says. It was a similar story with pot and acid. ‘I found it all a bit boring, I guess because I’d been around it so much. When it’s accepted, in a way, it’s not like I needed to rebel in any way against it. And then, as a result, I’m not a drug addict!’ She laughs.

We are talking in a light-filled building that looks out onto a spacious home owned by Blackman’s manager, Mark Richardson, at Arthurs Seat, seventy-five kilometres south- east of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula. Featuring a desk, a sofa, a heater and all manner of musical instruments, this is where the slight thirty-one-year-old with messy, black hair has holed herself up while working on new material. It’s a quiet, picturesque spot that’s far removed from the clamour of inner-city Melbourne, where Blackman lives.

Abstaining from alcohol as a touring musician takes an incredible amount of self-control. Emerging artists are offered free drinks in lieu of payment; all the way from inner-city- pub circuits to stadium shows, booze-filled riders are the norm. ‘It really is part of the lifestyle of being a musician,’ Blackman says. ‘There’s a lot of alcohol there. When I got into my twenties and was playing lots of gigs, I went through a stage for a while where I did drink too much. But it’s because you spend so much time at pubs. You’re waiting around for six hours to play gigs, there’s just nothing else …’ She pauses, catching herself on that excuse.

‘It’s not like there’s nothing else to do,’ she clarifies, ‘but when it’s around and everyone else is doing it, you kind of just fall into this pattern of doing that. And then I started drinking on stage, out of a whisky bottle. Then I found myself drinking the whisky rather than drinking water, and by the end of the gig I’d be really, really smashed – and not really realising it, or doing it on purpose.’ The Jameson-slugging rock-chick image: was that an emulation of another performer she admired? ‘No, I just thought it looked cool!’ She laughs.

The health scare at age twenty-six put paid to that habit. There was another reason: concern that she was developing a reputation for it. ‘I also just didn’t want to be seen as “trashed on stage”,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to be known as that kind of person, because there are certain musicians who I know as being heavy drinkers, and people go, “Oh, they’re just drunk again …” When you’re around people and you see them roll their eyes: “Oh, wasted again. And it’s 11 am.” It’s like trashing a tour bus: it just gets a bit old.’

Blackman attributes her increasing reliance on alcohol throughout her mid-twenties to her anxiety disorder. ‘It started off being associated with gigs,’ she says. ‘I’d vomit fifteen times before going on stage, not be able to eat, and then vomit a bunch of times when I got off stage, because I was so exhausted. And then I found myself drinking more, as a result of that, to try and cope with the nerves. It’s something a lot of people automatically do; if you have a stressful day, you have a glass of wine, and it does relax you a bit. It’s a numbing agent.

‘But then, as the anxiety got worse, I would start drinking earlier in the day if I was playing a gig that night. I think my body got confused between a creative adrenaline and a nervous adrenaline – the whole fight-or-flight thing. When the body starts to get confused about the reasons why you’re feeling that anxiety, it’s all in your head. It spins out of control.’ Her mental state worsened to the point where Blackman was forced to cancel several shows prior to the release of Secrets and Lies in 2009. For a time, she couldn’t leave the house. The thought of performing her music before a crowd sent her into panic mode. Blackman took six months off to work through coping mechanisms.

During the first session with her psychiatrist, he counted the number of breaths she was taking in a minute. ‘He said that I was taking three times the amount of breaths that you should normally, which meant that I was basically in a constant state of hyperventilation,’ Blackman says. ‘My body was constantly in that fight-or-flight state, which meant that it was very easy to trigger me off into feeling panicked, or feeling like I needed to have a drink to deal with that.’ She was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression, but it took her a month to start taking Zoloft, the antidepressant that she had been prescribed.

‘For the first few months, I felt ashamed to call my mum and tell her about that,’ she says. ‘It felt like it was a taboo thing to do. I had to be secretive about it.’ This is a curious contrast: Blackman’s mum was relatively comfortable with the idea of smoking marijuana when her daughter was growing up, yet Blackman felt that she had to hide her use of antidepressants.

‘I wanted to be strong, healthy and successful in my life, and happy,’ she says. ‘You feel like you’ve failed, in a way, feeling [depressed], because you let it all get the better of you.’

Yet the reality is that you can’t easily change how your brain works, I say. ‘No,’ she replies. ‘And if you have anxiety disorder, you’re predisposed to it. It’s the same with depression. It’s always going to be there. Once you figure out that you will be living with it for the rest of your life, in one way or another, you go, “Okay,” and you just figure out the way that’s best for you to be able to live with that, and deal with it. You know that some days during the week are going to be harder than others. You just have things set in place to help you deal with that.’ She pauses, then says with a laugh, ‘Preferably not being drugs!’

Besides those that have been prescribed, of course. For Blackman, the Zoloft worked. ‘It was lucky; it only took one go, thank god,’ she says. ‘But it took my body four months to get used to the drug. Taking just crumbs [of a pill] at a time would really affect me. I was really ill for a couple of weeks, feeling worse than I [already] did. I have a sensitive constitution. But, after that, it’s been really helpful for me. The lifestyle that I have, of having to be “on form” all the time – with gigs and press and being creative and all that stuff – there’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself. In the end, it’s helped me cope. It didn’t take any of the feelings away. They still kept appearing; they still appear now. I’m much more happy within myself now than I was then. But that comes with a bit of wisdom – getting older, learning about yourself.’

Her psychiatrist worked through cognitive therapies that addressed Blackman’s anxiety, including inducing ‘safe’ panic attacks and instructing her to write down all of her feelings before and after hyperventilating. The singer would do this five times in a row, until she got to a point where the impending-doom sensation became more manageable. This brain-retraining exercise was incredibly valuable to her, to the point where nausea remains one of her few triggers for anxiety. What she found strange after being prescribed these drugs to manage her mental health, though, was that some people would ask whether they could have a Zoloft, or a Valium, for the purposes of recreational abuse. To which Blackman would reply, with a raised eyebrow, ‘No, I need that …’

I ask whether she was concerned that the Zoloft might wipe the edge off her creativity – her life’s work, and her main source of income. ‘Yeah,’ she replies. ‘And I have been on high doses of Zoloft where I just didn’t really feel very creative at all. But I’ve been on Zoloft now for five years. I mean, I’ve made records in that time.’ This is true: two excellent indie- pop records, in Secrets and Lies and 2012’s Pope Innocent X.

‘My therapist made sure that I told him if I was ever feeling like I wasn’t creative, [so that] we could change the dosage, because he didn’t want that to numb [me] out,’ she says. ‘But I think with the kind of medication that I’m on, it’s not like lithium or anything like that, where it really dulls you out. With all medication, it really should bring you back to a level like this …’ To demonstrate, she moves her hand from down near her knees to her midsection, signifying a happy medium.

She pauses, then says, ‘I did go through a few moments of feeling really suicidal, and not being able to be in control of that anxiety, and the constant panic attacks and stuff. And because I was experiencing them for a while before I got any help, as well.’ I ask her if this is pre-medication. She nods.

‘I realised I’d probably been experiencing the panic attacks heavily for around two years before I went and got any proper help,’ she says. ‘I did try a lot of other types of therapy, like meditation, psychologists, counsellors, yoga; I tried everything before going to a psychiatrist, because I knew that by going to a psychiatrist they would probably prescribe antidepressants. Stubborn,’ she says, following a sheepish chuckle.

At the time of our meeting in June 2013, however, Blackman tells me that she is experimenting with reducing her dose of Zoloft. ‘I don’t want to be on it anymore,’ she says.

‘I’m at a stage where, right now, everything isn’t hectic, so I feel like now is a good time to try and get off it, because if I feel like I can cope [now], everything’s cool. I don’t think it’d be a good time to wean myself off the drugs if I was in high stress. I don’t think I’d be strong enough to cope with that. So where I am now is pretty good; I’m being very creative.’ The room in which we speak seems an ideal means to that end: it contains a bass, guitars, keyboards, amplifiers, a drum kit and a fat notebook that the songwriter looks to have half-filled with ideas for a fifth album.

It’s only since she began taking medication that Blackman has felt comfortable with speaking about these highly personal matters of mental health and illness. ‘But since feeling more in control, I quite enjoy talking about it,’ she says. ‘The more you can help other people with it – to make it easier for them than it was for you – the better. If I’m open about it, then young musicians might feel like they’re not alone. I wish that I’d known about anxiety when I was a bit younger.’

I ask whether she has ever spoken about these matters with her father, Charles, who is one of Australia’s best-known visual artists. ‘No, I wish I’d been able to,’ she replies. ‘My dad has Korsakoff ’s syndrome, which is alcoholic dementia. He’s had that since I was fourteen or fifteen. Before then, he was in and out of rehab since I was about ten. I feel sad sometimes that I haven’t been able to communicate with him about his drinking, or why he drank. A lot of things about his past, certain decisions, and stuff like that. It’s obvious that he’s suffered, ’cause no one’s an alcoholic that’s really happy.’ Then, with a rueful smile, she says, ‘Or not that I know of.’

So, given her journey to mental health, where does illicit drug use fit into Blackman’s life since she began taking antidepressants five years ago? ‘Cocaine will appear every now and then, and I’ll have a bit of that,’ she replies. ‘I’ve never been a big ecstasy taker. I took it a few times; I think it was at Schoolies that I took it for the first time, and it was really great! But then the next time I had it, it was just not good.’

For anxiety-related reasons? She nods. ‘It always induces some kind of anxiety,’ Blackman says. ‘For me, it’s a couple of days of really feeling chemically right out of whack. It’s not worth it for me. And my inner dialogue starts up [while high]: “Don’t act like that, you’re being obvious, people know that you’re on drugs.” Or I’m thinking, “Why are they all having a good time on it and I’m not?” It’s an unpleasantly self-conscious situation. But I am around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it or anything. Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.

‘Plus, there are only so many nights of talking crap to people that you can do, before it just becomes really boring.’ She laughs. ‘And then it just becomes something that keeps you awake, and it’s like, well, for what? ’Cause now everyone’s just talking crap to each other. Nothing productive is going on.’ Blackman says that, although she first smoked pot at age eleven, she has never been able do it with much success; it makes her ‘curl into a retarded ball’, unable to function. Early attempts to emulate Hendrix by smoking a joint on her lonesome and writing music at age fourteen proved disastrous, inducing one of the singer’s first panic attacks.

This physical reaction may be a blessing in disguise, however. ‘I think, in a way, it’s good that I can’t function creatively on drugs, just because of my bloodline: my father, and then my mother’s father was an alcoholic as well,’ she says.

‘There’s a lot of alcoholics in my family, so I’m very conscious of [having] an addictive kind of personality. It’s more the escapism, really. And I like that, because of what I do. I live up in my imagination a lot of the time. Any excuse to remain there is good for me – though I’ve been enjoying earth a little bit more lately.’ She smiles.

For Blackman, recreational drug use has always been a matter of satisfying her curiosity. The first experience with each drug is subject to close internal observation, as she learns first-hand how it works, and how it makes her feel. This curiosity has a limit, however. ‘I won’t ever try heroin or acid, or any of those dirty, chemical drugs,’ she says. ‘I did have magic mushrooms once, in Thailand, on a beach. It was magic-mushroom thickshake. That’s the only hallucinogen I’ve ever done. It was a very strange six hours. That was the most out of control I’ve been on a drug, in terms of having literally no control of how my body was feeling at all. I didn’t like it so much in that way. When I got over it, I was like, “Well, I’m never going to do that again!”’

She pauses as if hit by a sudden realisation, then laughs at herself in retrospect. ‘I mean, it probably wasn’t a safe environment to try something for the first time! Some strange drug given to you by a stranger on a beach in a foreign country!’

Heroin is off her to-do list because some friends of the family have a history with that drug. It didn’t end particularly well, though she does tell an unpublishable story about being taken on drug runs by her babysitter as a small child – which she only learnt a few years ago, much to her surprise. ‘Street cred!’ She laughs. ‘Sitting in a pram in a crack den! God …’ Blackman shakes her head. ‘The way that I think about heroin is that, if I tried it once, I’d be addicted to it, and I wouldn’t have any control over that,’ she says. ‘That’s not [based on] fact; I just think that’s what’s going to happen to me. You just look at the people that are hooked on it; it’s just awful. It seems like you enter that world, and people find it really hard to get out of it.’

‘Acid’ is a word with poor connotations in her world, too. ‘I don’t really want to put it in my body,’ she says. I ask her, What about ‘LSD’? Does that sound better? ‘It does!’ she replies, perking up, her voice raising in pitch. ‘Because I go, “Yeah, I’d probably try that!” For me, it’s definitely got to be pitched in the correct way.’ She laughs. ‘“LSD” sounds like a French name, like it’s melted in some sugar cube. I’d probably be like, “Yeah, okay. I’d like to try LSD once.” A pure, proper thing.’

I tell her that I took acid for the first time two days prior to this interview. I went to a driving range with some friends, who were all sober. The long, green field topped with white balls was a great locale for tripping. I thoroughly enjoyed it. ‘Awesome,’ she replies. ‘That’s great. I like the idea of doing stuff like that, because if you’re in an environment that you know you’re going to be in, and you’re around people that you know really well, I think social experiences like that can be really interesting.’

As a student of the ‘independent, artistic’ International Grammar School in Ultimo, Blackman was shown videos from a young age about the effects of different kinds of drugs. She recalls a documentary that investigated whether cannabis is addictive, based on academic research. ‘I must have had really good teachers,’ she says. ‘And I guess I just presumed that everyone else had that.

‘I certainly think the younger you get children knowing about how drugs will affect you – what they are, what they mean, and what’s in them – the better,’ she says. ‘Obviously, not [teaching] a four-year-old, but as soon as you’re old enough to understand. As soon as I was old enough to take a drug, which was the age of eleven, I was engaging in that. I think people should know exactly what they’re putting in their body. It’s your decision, because you’re doing it.’

I didn’t have a sensible, responsible drug education like Blackman’s. I wish that I did. At Bundaberg State High School, there was complete silence about drug use in all subjects – even health and physical education, which seems like it would have been the best place to raise the issue. As a result, my education was cultivated slowly, in piecemeal fashion, from a series of unreliable sources: hearsay, pop culture, friends.

‘I think it’s natural for everyone to be really curious about drugs,’ Blackman says. ‘You took acid on the weekend. People should go and do it. I would never say “don’t take drugs” or anything, because I still occasionally do it. I think if you have an education, then you know to a point what you’re doing, and what you’re putting in your body. If you’re damaging yourself, or wanting to go down that path, you’ll find whatever you can to do that. But it all stems from whether or not you’re happy in yourself.’

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Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is available now in paperback and as an e-book via University of Queensland Press. http://talkingsmack.com.au/ 

 

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