In the past few months, Chris Hawkey has told the whole world secrets he has kept his entire life.
The country musician, producer, director and happy-go-lucky sidekick of the top-rated “Power Trip” KFAN morning radio show is publicly talking about his longtime struggle with depression.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have terrible, dark moments,” said Hawkey, 46, in an interview with the Star Tribune.
First with the release of his song, “Happy,” and followed by a TV interview on KARE 11, Hawkey is speaking out about mental health issues and the burden of being expected to be the “life of the party.”
Q: How long have you been dealing with depression?
A: Even when I was a child there were moments of severe darkness. It took the form of OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] for me in the very early years. I felt so unbalanced and so afraid of myself in some ways. The only way I could protect myself was to put up these defenses. I had to do everything four times and I did that for tens of years, through college and the early days of my marriage. Overeating and gambling have been an issue for me, too. From the very earliest memories I have, I had a problem. There was something in me that just wasn’t quite right.
Q: When was the first time you publicly shared that you have been struggling?
A: I have flirted with it on the radio and at my shows from time to time for five years or so. It didn’t become something I was willing to talk about until after Chester Bennington [of rock band Linkin Park] died by suicide. Somebody came up to me at work and made the comment, “How can someone who’s a rock star and has all the money and all his dreams come true be depressed?” I went home that night and it was like a pebble in my shoe. I kept thinking about the fact that he didn’t understand. I went to my writing room and 17 minutes later I wrote the song, “Happy.” I sent an e-mail to my manager and I said, “I think I did something special here.” I don’t mean that I wrote the next “Light My Fire,” but for me, the ultimate mark of a really great song has nothing to do with its popularity, but the truth of the song to the person who wrote it. I got it right. That was one of the very few times in my life I got it right. I said exactly what I meant to say. It came out of me effortlessly, like that’s the song I was put on Earth to write.
Q: Are people surprised to hear that you struggle with mental illness?
A: Yeah. That’s been one of the wonderful outcomes of this. Whether they listen to me on the radio, or come see the shows, or whether they just know me in my neighborhood, people have been surprised and in a lot of cases, surprised that I am dealing with the same things they’re dealing with. The last thing I want to do is inflict myself upon other people’s lives, especially people I care about. I didn’t want my kids, wife, parents and friends to be weighted down by all the things I’m carrying, and so you learn to become an actor. In my case, it expanded to the nth degree — on stage, singing, and trying to be the life of the party and being on the radio and trying to make people laugh.
A: Is it a burden for you to be the life of the party when you don’t necessarily feel that way?
Q: I do have a fantastic life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also have depression. If I broke my leg, I would have a great life, but I’d still have a broken leg. Depression is a real affliction. It’s a disease. There’s an issue in my brain that keeps the receptors from taking in what they need and that makes me depressive. I was born with a brain that wasn’t going to get what it needed to keep from getting depressed. My brain isn’t quite right and because of that, I suffer.
Q: Is it hard to talk about it? To be vulnerable?
A: Yes. People in general, but specifically for guys of my generation, you just don’t talk about this kind of thing. It’s killing us. In this day and age, people are telling you how bad you are all the time. Whether you’re a public figure or a 15-year-old kid, people are taking every opportunity to remind you of what your inner monologue is saying all the time. It’s very hard to admit that I have a hard time, that I’m sad. I didn’t want to tell my kids and I didn’t want my wife and co-workers to know.
Q: So why now?
A: I think it’s important at this point, with all the hatred that’s out there right now, that we start to speak out, and say it’s OK to have depression. You don’t always have to be a rock. You can say that you need help before you end up letting the darkness take over and take your own life. If you can’t talk to someone about that, it’s going to keep getting darker until you find a way to turn off the voice. I hope that perhaps admitting my issues will help someone admit it to their family or go see a therapist. Then maybe they can turn off that voice before it’s too late.
Q: How are you dealing with your depression?
A: I found a fantastic therapist two months ago. That’s my fourth try in finding a therapist. It’s not like every therapist is right for everyone. If you’re out there reading this, and saying to yourself, “I tried that and it didn’t work,” try again until you find the right person. I wouldn’t be telling you this story right now if I hadn’t made the phone call and gotten the right therapist two months ago.
Q: Why do you think mental health issues afflict so many musicians?
A: People have been wondering about that for ages and ages. I certainly don’t put myself among the ranks of those people; I’m just a guy who writes his own little songs. In some ways when you are an artist, by nature, we feel things in a different way. But here’s the crux of it, the big thing: If you have dreamed your entire life about being a rock star, that’s been your goal your whole life, and then you get there and your dreams come true and you still hate yourself when you look in the mirror, you feel like you have nothing else.
Q: What’s the song “Happy” about?
A: It’s not a cry for help. It’s an explanation for people who don’t have depression from those of us who do, about why we feel the way we do and why we can’t help it. The response to that song gave me the guts to be willing to stand out on the stage at my shows and admit that I have depression issues and admit that I’m a broken individual just like so many other people out there.
Q: What’s the response been like?
A: The reaction from across the world has been unbelievable. Chris Cornell’s and Chester Bennington’s wives retweeted the link. I was getting e-mails and tweets from Spain and from Russia from people who just said, “I hear you.” I got an e-mail from someone last night who, to put it quite bluntly, said, “I saw this at the exact right moment.” If nothing ever comes from all of this, I was able to help someone in their greatest moment of need. That is an honor. I can’t explain how it feels to know I was there for someone who was thinking about walking into the darkness. My mantra for all of this is: “Give it one more day.” No matter how bad today was or how bad you feel right now, give it one more day. Find out if tomorrow is better because almost every time it will be.