Kevin Braddock has been involved in the high-flying world of fashion journalism since the late 1990s, first as a writer at The Face, later with GQ, and most recently at the helm of a German title where he served as editor-in-chief. It was during this tenure in Berlin that his mental health began to deteriorate.
“I was doing a job where I was editing a fashion art magazine, and some of it was great, but the commercial side of it I found very difficult. I’m just not a businessman, you know? I don’t have a commercial mentality. I sort of thought that I was doing the wrong job. Anyway, it was a very, very stressful job to do,” says Braddock.
“There were a number of work crises that happened, and then I got glandular fever out of nowhere, and then was drinking too much and taking drugs. A lot of things culminated into what’s known as a breakdown—what was written down in my medical record is called a major depressive episode. I was in a whirlpool of suicidal ideation. It all happened very quickly, and it was similar to what had happened to me once or twice before, but it was way more intense.”
Braddock had suffered from several depressive episodes earlier in life; one at 21, another in his early 30s, and now, entering his 40s, he felt that another might be overdue. He was dependent on antidepressants, had been through various courses of therapy, and had begun to be more open about his history of depression.
These earlier struggles with mental health had been comparatively surmountable, and although acutely aware of the difficulties facing a conflicted mind, Braddock welcomed certain aspects of his condition.
I think I’m prone to depression. I think I’m an over-thinker. I’m quite an anxious person. But that’s why I’m creative. I don’t think that I’m an artist, but I have inner conflicts, and where there’s conflict you get creativity too.
Certainly it was his creativity that had permitted him to travel internationally as a journalist for most of the previous decade, and had secured him a job in an office atop a skyscraper in central Berlin. But on reaching the top Braddock found himself very much alone, tethered to a strict schedule and hierarchy he was unaccustomed to.
“We had to run the magazine and effectively run an advertising agency alongside it doing advertorial, and branded editorials; pay some money, and instead of buying an advert we’ll make a production for you, and get your logo on it for your credit. That was interesting. Normally you’d have a creative solutions department for that. We didn’t. We would have to think up about 50 concepts per issue, ten of which might get actioned. Doing advertising creative work and trying to then sell it to the client was how the magazine stayed afloat.
“When it’s going well it’s fine. When you’ve got problems it becomes very difficult. I’d never had any experience at managing before, and I’m much better at coaching people than managing them because I can’t do the discipline side, and you need it sometimes if people aren’t delivering on time. Magazines run on deadline: you need things to be done at a certain time, and I was shit at resolving conflicts, I just didn’t know how to do it. It makes you feel like a failure, and it’s just lonely at the top.”
Juggling working life, depression, drink, drugs, glandular fever, and a new relationship eventually became too much for Braddock, and one sunny August morning he hit rock bottom.
“I was sitting on the pavement at the bottom of a skyscraper in Berlin. I had been in the office… printing out a resignation letter. I had left it on my desk, folded up with my initials on it. I walked out and started to cry and couldn’t stop. I got the lift and went down to the ground floor and out the back entrance and sat on the tarmac on this empty Sunday street for a while, smoking and sobbing and wondering what the fuck to do. The words kept coming into my mind: the gun, the noose, the blade, the bottle, the pills. Ways to end it, or ways for it all to end.”
A few years on Braddock is on a very different journey; the paragraph above is taken from the opening pages of his new magazine, Torchlight, an in-depth document of the events that led to his breakdown, and his slow road to recovery. Instead of making impossibly polished fashion magazines he’s retraining as a counsellor at Goldsmith’s university in south London, learning to help support people who have experienced the same crushing bouts of depression as he did. He still picks up the occasional bit of editorial work or copywriting, but without the same relentless cycle of stress that saw him come unstuck.
Braddock has prior experience when it comes to making publications that subvert and skew the typical modes of commercial publishing. In 2009 he launched Manzine as a response to the decline in publications like Maxim, Arena, and FHM, offering an alternative narrative to those explored in these hyper-masculine titles, opening up a whole side of men’s lives that wasn’t being discussed.
“That was like a direct critique of men’s media as it was, that world of either metrosexual magazines or magazines that were all about getting a six pack. The whole thing seemed very false to me. Those magazines offer a prescription about how to be a man. It’s a set of lifestyle guides and a whole bunch of stuff you can buy. For me, it’s just not accurate, I don’t think it’s contemporary, and I think this is another narrative that’s not being explored.
The failure of masculinity is an interesting story—guys attempting to fit this perfect image of sex appeal, strength and dominance. That’s what I see time and time again; men struggling to be men.
“Nobody knows the answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ Let’s stop trying to answer it. Let’s just do a magazine about how to be honest, and funny, and warm, and authentic, and satirical where we need to be about it—like a broader spectrum masculinity thing.”
Torchlight builds on the commitment to honesty that Manzine began, and the extent to which Braddock reveals the details of his breakdown is humbling. He also returns to those themes of masculinity in the modern world, the consequences of which he acknowledges contributed to the deterioration of his mental health.
“I wonder why men can’t talk to each other about their feelings and they have to get to a certain nadir of desperation to be able to do it? That’s what happened to me. In the week or two before this breakdown happened I just knew I was getting worse and worse and worse, and wasn’t really conscious of it—then just reaching a point and thinking ‘I can’t hold it in anymore. I see that the choice is either to just end it—and I was planning ways of doing it—or ask for help.’ By then I didn’t really care where the help came from, but I had to start speaking openly about it. This publication’s like an objectified version of speaking about it in a sense.”
In spite of the themes of masculinity explored in Torchlight—which occur not by design, but because of the personal nature of Braddock’s experience—it is consciously written to have universal resonance.
There’s a lot of stuff in the story that I think most people have either gone through or know someone that’s going through it. Existential questions or suffering from anxiety disorder or dependency or a big problem at work or a love situation. It’s all common stuff, isn’t it?
“I wasn’t thinking of this as a magazine for men, I was thinking of it as a human story about breakdown and recovery. When I was writing it I was thinking ‘Is this just me telling it to myself?’ Partly it was, because it was a therapeutic process to write. In the middle of it all I thought ‘There’s a story happening there, I should write it down. I’m going to write it.’
“In fact, somebody said to me a couple of days after I had the breakdown, ‘Look, from now on you need to be really open and honest about all this stuff. Confront it head on. Why don’t you write it down seeing as you’re a writer?’ I thought that was a good idea. I said, ‘Why do you feel that way?’ He said, ‘Well, because my sister had the same thing, and she didn’t make it. She took her own life. ’ I thought, ‘okay.’”
Beyond the magazine Torchlight extends to a set of Practice Cards that suggest actions to aid recovery from or act as preventative measures against breakdown; writing a gratitude list, getting into nature, taking a cold shower, meditating, chopping wood, carrying water. These are all methods that Braddock has tried himself, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by attempting them all at once. The cards are designed to make these actions more manageable, and by attempting two a day to set up some kind of rhythm in the user’s life.
Braddock also runs occasional ‘Firegazing’ events from his home, inviting friends and acquaintances to come and share their own stories. Inviting people to be open and honest about their experiences is an essential part of the project, and something Braddock feels is often missing from our public lives, particularly in Britain.
“Enver Hadzijaj, the guy who designed Torchlight, grew up in Germany, but he’s a real student of British culture—he’s really into ’90s drum and bass, although his favourite band is Suede—and he said, ‘The thing about British culture is that everything’s ironic.’ He said that, and I thought fucking A, so right. It’s like, you’re never sure what people really mean. When you say you’re alright it could mean a million things; I’m suicidal, I’m totally delighted, I’m very happy, I’m in love, I’m despairing, I’m fucked off.”
So far, Torchlight has been a cathartic release for Braddock, if not a complete cure, and he feels positive about how it will evolve. Nevertheless he can’t be certain there won’t be negative repercussions too. “If you write something down, then it’s kind of there forever—you’ve altered something. I agonized over a lot of stuff that feels very exposing to say, and I could quite anticipate years down the line trying to get a job and hearing ‘Oh, sorry mate, we heard you’ve had problems with mental illness and drink and drugs.’ You’ve said it, there it is.
“But then on the other hand I think I try to live by a code of honesty really, because I know that it’s healthy for me to do that. Being honest with myself particularly. The point is to get the basic message across—to ask for help and talk about these things—to people who might need to hear that.
“There’s a high burnout rate of people who just go to Berlin and lose their minds. I always thought I was immune to that, but then it happened to me.”