Twenty minutes before he's about to get in the car to go to the Grammy's, Alex Milligan is in the bathroom of his hotel and he is freaking the fuck out.
Hands on either side of the sink, heart beating rapidly, uneven shallow breathing, leg quivering kind of freaking out.
It’s not about the awards but the awards sure don’t hurt. That recognition doesn’t hurt. That feeling of validation after leaving home at seventeen to sleeping in your car to slowly but surely paving your own way to eventual radio play doesn’t hurt. Having Elton John in your contact list doesn’t hurt. Being invited to sit with the bigshots of the music industry doesn’t hurt. Having your voice matter, actually matter, doesn’t hurt. It’s easy to feel at ease when you’re at the top.
Alex has always been able to throw all the passion he has into his art. He has always been willing to throw all parts of himself in it. He's been able to keep a level head and dip his toes in the fame pool but withdraw when it's necessary so that the fame game doesn't swallow him whole. He's been lucky enough to win awards, amazing awards, for pure songwriting alone and yet he starts questioning himself even more when thinking about the Grammy's. The pesky, pesky Grammy's. That American award show he hasn't been able to successfully break through to just so happens to be more pressure to the pile adding up in his already chaotic mind.
The past two months have been rough musically. That doesn’t just happen to him, and when it does, he tends to keep moving forward until inspiration hits without much of a second thought to it but this time he feels a sense or urgency when it comes to the music. The music balances him. He likes to write songs that have such strong meaning attached he can’t help but pen down his thoughts and feelings and slowly but surely it turns into something with accompanying music and a specific tone. Now, there’s a feeling that it’s not enough. That maybe it will never be enough. This is album number three and album number three has to be even bigger than album number two but album number two hit numbers he didn’t even dream to be possible. He knows there’s a lot riding on it.
Theo, bless his manager Theo, tells Alex to do what he does best and it'll all be okay. But it’s so much more than that. He's doing what he thought he would never, ever do: allow the opinions of others to impact the way he sees his craft. Allow those pesky thoughts to seep down into his soul and make him feel a sense of unease he's never quite experienced before. Not like this. When he's writing music, he feels like a stranger within his own skin. It's a numbers game and he doesn't just want to play, he wants to keep riding the wave of success to the top. He wants to keep putting out successful album after successful album after successful album. Because what if he doesn't. Normally, he'd say fuck it. He'd say that if he enjoys an album, can leave it and still enjoy it when he comes back to it, then that's all he needs to be happy. If he puts his all into it that's all anyone can ask for. He wouldn't care if others disagree because that is his piece of work and he's proud of it and that's that. This coming from the man who once openly stated that music critics are "kind of ridiculous if you really think about it" because everyone has their own opinion, as they should. It's been his mantra for as long as he's been making music and it's what helps guide him and all of that is slowly breaking down.
In December he takes a pill to soothe his anxiety. Just once. He tries it just to try it, no prescription, and he feels the inordinate thoughts escape his mind which allows him to focus intently while making music in the studio but more than anything he deems it simple experimentation born out of sheer curiosity.
In January after a meeting gone wrong with a record label executive who tells him that he’s got, at most, half an album they can market, he spends the entire next week day in, day out in the studio, ordering takeaway and sleeping on the floor so he can come up with something. Anything. It doesn't work. He lies to friends and tells them writing is going incredibly well, puts on an act in front of the producer he’s working with, and tells the record label he'll need to come in soon to show them all the great new stuff he's got. Still, he can’t shake that rising feeling of not being able to do this. That maybe he’s reached his peak. He feels the pressure and instead of allowing it to be used to propel him forward like he usually does, he allows it to weigh him down.
Why, some would ask. Why would you care about such inconsequential details when you've got it all? And he does have quite a lot when it comes to blessings in the music industry. He’s got name recognition, musical collaborations no one would ever guess, other awards to look through. But the devil is truly in the details. He isn't thinking about the wide array of things that he's got in his favor. That would be sensible. This is Alex Milligan internalizing at its finest. Ignoring the good in favor of the momentary self-deemed bad. Allowing those negative thoughts to become all consuming. Putting so much pressure on himself until he inevitably breaks, but keeping it all compartmentalized in the "music section" of his life so that it only comes out when the songwriting process starts up.
One week after the meeting, he’s so rough with strumming on the guitar his fingers bleed. He doesn’t notice until the blood seeps onto his jeans. Two weeks later, he doesn’t sleep for three days in a row because he’s on an erratic stream of consciousness that needs to turn into a song. It doesn’t. Three weeks later, he spends hours looking through songs written on the last tour that can potentially work for this album until the entire floor in the main room is covered in papers.
The pills make their reemergence back in his life somewhere in week one and they allow him to step outside of his mind and just relax. Breathe. Be in the moment. He doesn’t feel the regular stressors that are related to the music making process, album number three doesn’t exist in that state of mind, he can just focus on the music and that’s what he needs sometimes. That's all he ever needs.
But when you lose control of the thoughts that make you who you are it's easy to lose parts of yourself along with it.
He exhales slowly and stands up straight, taking the small white pill from his pocket into the palm of his hand. A higher dosage than he's been using. He looks in the mirror for a second, and ever so briefly those words of sensibility rush through his mind. They are just as quickly shot down with the much more powerful negative sentiments that have been looming, waiting to attack. He takes the pill with a glass of water as his sister calls out that the car has arrived. It's showtime.
Before the live show even airs, he wins an award. Then he wins song of the year. Two out of three and he's ecstatic. Genuinely. His mum calls him crying, musicians who are friends and strangers alike congratulate him at all ends of the room, his friends who aren't there send texts, his manager gets partially emotional over the win after a tiny speech to him said in private that ends with "now go have a damn good time, you deserve it." He feels great. He feels untouchable. That feeling doesn't fade. Tonight is a night to forget about the worries and just be in the moment.
He thinks that this is all he needs to reassure him and every other fear will fall to the side starting tomorrow.
Except when the excitement fades he'll realize that a piece of metal can't fix a mindset. He will think of it as even more eyes watching him carefully wondering what he'll do next. He'll soon get a call from an overly excited record label executive asking him how things are coming along. He will still overwhelm himself with excessive thoughts that center around doing all that he can to make it count. Working harder, writing the most meaningful songs he has ever written, bettering his best.
Whatever it takes.