Living Life As An Australian Musician With An Invisible Illness

6 March 2023 | 11:04 am | Josh Stewart

Josh Stewart, a songwriter and producer based in Queensland, Australia, talks about balancing his music career, chronic illness, and his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Despite his success, he has been facing the challenges of living with Crohn's disease since 2012.

(Source: Supplied)

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of mental health. If you are suffering from any of the issues that have been discussed or need assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

Living with Crohn's disease has made life and pursuing a career in music incredibly challenging, but I'm grateful for the lessons it's taught me. Over the past decade, I've learned to slow down and accept my physical limitations. Unfortunately, it's not just Crohn's that I've had to deal with, as I also have osteoporosis and other related health issues, including frequent migraines from medication.

Despite the challenges, Crohn's disease has helped me become a better songwriter. Before I was diagnosed, I was in a band for all the wrong reasons, but the illness changed my priorities in life and sent me in a different direction. Music became my therapy, a way to escape reality, and it helped me handle disappointment better.

That being said, songwriting requires a lot of mental energy, and some days, it's a struggle to even get out of bed. Likewise, as much as I love playing for an audience, performing can also be challenging, especially with the heavy immune suppression I've been on for the past ten years, making me more susceptible to illnesses. I've fallen ill on tours before, and it's affected the shows. I remember one time in particular; we were in Sydney, and we had a lot of industry people there. Basically, if there was ever a night to not be sick and have a kick-ass performance, it was that show... spoiler alert, it was not kick-ass.

In addition to Crohn's, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2 towards the end of 2021. It went undiagnosed for a long time because I associated how I was feeling mentally with how I felt physically. I can't really remember having any mental health issues before Crohn's disease, but then again, that feels like a lifetime ago now. My symptoms tend to manifest in long-lasting depressive episodes. I would just wake up some days and be so down that I wasn't even able to get a word out. 

While navigating personal relationships with this new diagnosis has been challenging, it's helped me understand my mental health better. I tend to drop off the map when I'm going through a depressive wave. I retreat into my own little world, which I guess is the core of what High Tropics is. I'm still learning how to manage it, but knowing what it is now helps me get through the storm. I'm also very grateful to have an amazing support network in my family, friends, band, and caring physicians.

Living with chronic illness means taking things one day at a time, which makes planning for the future challenging. Sadly, pain-free days are few and far between; there are days where I cope and days where I don't. Nevertheless, I'm blessed to have the opportunity to create music and am grateful for the songs I may never have written had it not been for my troubles. 

For a long time, I hid my illness from my audience, partly because I was embarrassed and partly because I didn't want it to take away from the merit of my music. Now that I'm older and have seen a bit of the stigma around disabilities lessen in society over the last few years, it's helped me reflect and embrace my own struggles and experiences and see it as part of my story, not something to be ashamed of. 

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I want to be a force for good, and hiding my condition from the world doesn't help anyone. Our industry has made some great headway with diversity over the last few years, but disabled artists are still extremely underrepresented, and my silence certainly hasn't helped. I'd like to see more support for people living with disabilities, specifically within the music industry. It's time to lose the stigma; let's show the world everybody can rock.

Check out High Tropics' new tune, Girlfriends, below. High Tropics is the moniker for Josh Stewart.