This year, Julia Michaels skyrocketed from behind the scenes songwriter to the center spotlight in pop music with her infectious breakout hit “Issues.” The song has since gone triple platinum, and she's up for two highly coveted Grammys (Best New Artist and Song of the Year). While it might seem that all of this means Michaels should be feeling on top of the world, the truth is a little more complicated. The artist decided to speak up this week about the pressures of success and her struggles with anxiety in the form of an endearingly honest open letter, which you can read in full below.
I started having anxiety for the first time when I was 18. I’d just signed my first publishing deal, and I felt so much pressure to perform that it sent my mind and body down something that felt like a never-ending spiral. I thought I was dying. Most days, I couldn’t breathe or leave the fetal position. I would rock back and forth, tapping my feet on the floor because I thought if I stopped I would pass out. I became afraid of everything. Going out. Eating. Driving. Writing. My life became a string of, “What ifs?” What if I eat this and I’m allergic to it? What if I’m driving and get in an accident? What happens if I stop moving? I became consumed. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had completely isolated myself—even from the things I loved. This continued heavily for the next few years.
Anxiety feels like an earthquake shaking your entire body and can last for minutes, hours, or sometimes days. It makes you feel like you were just in sunny California and teleported to winter in Chicago. It’s a lot like that friend who says they’re happy for you but secretly roots for you to fail. It’s always waiting to ruin you and make you feel small. It’s like you’re in a prison with yourself, like there are a thousand bricks weighing your body down. What’s really terrifying, though, is when those bricks start to feel comforting.
“It's scary what your mind and body can get used to.”
Because of this I’m very open about having stage fright. On one occasion, for example, I was performing at Logo's Trailblazers Honors with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Normally when I perform, my throat gets dry, my hands shake and sweat, my body starts freezing, and I have to assure myself that this feeling isn’t going to last forever. But on this day, I was the most calm I’d ever been. I actually panicked because I wasn’t panicking. It’s scary what your mind and your body can get used to.
The first time I performed “Issues” on television was live for the Billboard Music Awards. At the end of the performance, everyone commended me for being so open. But in reality, I had a massive panic attack on stage. The hug you see me go in for to my keyboard player was actually me turning to her saying, “I can’t breath!" I walked off stage and crumbled into a ball in a backstage hallway. I was so afraid that people could see me. I was so afraid what they would think. So afraid that I had hit all the wrong notes. That I wasn’t ready. Or, even scarier, that I was. So many thoughts in milliseconds streamed through my head. My manager sat with me on the floor and held me until I was able to stand again.
It got to a point where I was having panic attacks every day. I had to sit in a ball and rock myself until I was back to “OK.” I remember thinking, If this is how the rest of my life is going to look, I can’t do this. I can’t live with this constant broken feeling. This constant grey cloud sending out hurricanes every chance it gets onto my skin. I called my manager and told her it was time I see a therapist. My first couple sessions, all I did was cry and panic. I didn’t realize how much emotional duress I was holding inside of my body. How much childhood trauma and avoidance account for anxiety. How the less you talk about how you're feeling, the more it builds—until you’ve created an over-populated city in your head of everything you’ve suppressed your whole life. I learned that the more toxicity I surrounded myself with, the more toxic my mind became. The more therapy I did, the more the panic became less and less. I learned that for each thing to have anxiety about, I had an association to link it to. For example, when I get anxious before I go on stage I think to myself “Why?” And then I think to myself, “Oh, it’s probably because that one time when I was 12, someone really close to me told me I couldn’t sing, and I’ve held on to that. But that was a long time ago. I’m OK.”
I started weeding out a lot of negativity and things that constantly made me feel emotionally tiny. I am learning every day that those moments will forever be a part of me, but they are not who I am. I am not other people’s projections of their own insecurities. I am my own. I have learned many coping methods and there are different ones for everybody. Rationalizing with myself has been the one to calm me down the most. When that doesn’t work, I do something called grounding, where I take my shoes off, no matter where I am, and plant my feet on the ground. It makes me feel centered, stable, and less confined.
To people who don’t have it, anxiety can seem so foreign and burdening. I once had a boyfriend who would get mad at me every time I had a panic attack. At first, he would try to comfort me, but when I wouldn’t “snap out of it” right away, he would get frustrated. He made me feel even worse than my mind was already making me feel. My dad went through a similar phase with me as well. He would say, “Julia, you’re fine,” to which I would respond, “Please don’t leave.” He didn’t get it until one time we were back in Iowa for the holidays and decided to take a family drive to Illinois. All of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I took off my sweater and started screaming. My cousin pulled the car over and opened the minivan doors. It was 40 degrees, and I had stripped myself down to leggings and a bra. My dad had never seen it so severe before. It was the first time he didn’t look at me like I was crazy. That’s what anxiety does: It comes out of nowhere and causes chaos just for fun.
“That's what anxiety does: It comes out of nowhere and causes chaos just for fun.”
There’s one time my anxiety turned into a positive, though. I was asked by Ed Sheeran and producer Benny Blanco to come to a house in Malibu and work with them and a few of Ed’s favorite collaborators. It was beautiful, and the people he surrounded himself with were just as beautiful. One day, I was writing in the courtyard with singer/songwriter Foy Vance when these cameras that were following Ed came to see where we were at with the progress of our song. I became so overwhelmed that I discreetly walked away and ran into Benny’s room. I curled up in a ball on his bathroom floor and hyperventilated. Benny left the room and came back in with ice. He had me hold it in my palms tightly to distract my brain from my thoughts and to focus on the cold cubes in my hands. He told me this is one of the methods he uses when he has panic attacks. He stayed next to me and talked me through it. It was the first time someone had stood in front of me and understood me. He knew exactly how I was feeling. It was the first time I didn’t feel so alone. I will never forget that, and I will always have a love and appreciation for him because of that day. For the next two days, we just worked together. We went through a few ideas until I sang the start of a melody that turned out to be “Dive” on Ed’s album. I had laid down the chorus melody and left. The next day, when I came back, Ed loved the idea and wanted to finish it. Knowing I was surrounded by genuine people that day made such a huge difference. It still does.
This year, I’ve made so much progress with my mental illness. Even seeing videos back from where I started to where I am now, I feel an amazing sense of growth and accomplishment. When you're stuck in that vicious cycle it’s easy to think that you may never get out. And when you realize that prison has an escape door, that Chicago winter suddenly starts to feel like summer again.
I believe I stayed a songwriter for so long because of my anxiety. I was scared I wasn’t good enough. Scared I wouldn’t be accepted. I was scared of not hiding anymore. I was scared of reaching a level of potential I had never reached. I was scared of myself. I convinced myself I didn’t want to be a performer. What if it goes horribly wrong? What if it goes right? I tried to weigh out so many pros and cons for something that I can’t control. But once I’ve made up my mind about something. I go all in. So the day I made the decision to become an artist, there was no going back. I wanted this, and it was time to face my fears..
“All it takes is one person to listen. To care. To make you feel like you're not crazy.”
When I see people sing "Issues" with me, it’s the most incredible feeling in the world. When we sing it together, we understand each other. We understand that everyone and everything is flawed, and it’s the thing that connects us the most. When we sing “Issues,” we sing it hundreds of different ways for hundreds of different reasons, but we do it as a whole. We lay all our insecurities out on the table. This is what I’ve always wanted. To be understood, to be heard. To be seen. Just like so many others struggling with mental illness. This year has been a crazy long journey and everyday I’m learning something new about myself. I’ve always found my power and confidence when I write; now, I’m finding it every single day as an artist. I may not know a lot, but I know one thing for sure: This is the most alive and free I’ve ever felt. Pouring out these emotions, facing my fears, and confronting these things I’ve never been able to before is making me stronger everyday.
People with anxiety often don’t talk to others because they think they’re are burdening them with their problems. But all it takes is one person to listen. To care. To make you feel like you’re not crazy. I wouldn’t be making these huge strides every day without the incredible people I surround myself with. Without the help of therapy, my friends, my family, my fans, and my colleagues, I wouldn’t be on this journey. And I’m so glad I am.