Vukovi’s Janine Shilstone, on being diagnosed with OCD and making ‘Fall Better’

It’s OCD Awareness Week. Here, Vukovi’s Janine Shilstone tells fellow sufferer James McMahon how she fought the debilitating disorder to make one of 2020’s most exciting albums. "Making that record felt a lot like exorcising so much of this stuff," she says.

Vukovi are one of the most exciting new bands in the UK. Taking the Serbian/Croatian word for ‘wolves’ as their name, the Scottish quartet released their self-titled debut in 2017. That record offered forth a sound much like Paramore on batshit drugs or Florence Welch backed – not by The Machine – but by Rage Against The Machine. Brilliantly unique, boundlessly creative, their future looked as bright as singer Janine Shilstone’s neon hair do. And then…

Just over a year ago, after a lifetime of keeping her intrusive, unwanted, negative thoughts buried deep inside, Janine’s then-undiagnosed OCD became too much for her to carry. OCD is a much-misunderstood illness. The World Health Organization has described the disorder as within the top ten most detrimental illnesses to a person’s quality of life, a far cry from the gags you’ll see on social media about cleanliness and rogue bathroom tiles. Somehow Janine found some fire to fight back. Got a diagnosis. Started treatment for recovery. And made an album, entitled ‘Fall Better’ that is a stunning document of what happens when your brain decides to work against you.

This being OCD Awareness Week, we thought there was no better time for NME journalist James McMahon – who has written about his own battle with OCD here – to sit down with Janine to talk about this wretched illness, her battle for sanity and why ‘Fall Better’ is one of 2020’s most anticipated records…

Hey Janine, you’ve recently been diagnosed with OCD…

“It was fifteen months ago now. It got to the point where how I was feeling was so unbearable I had no choice other than to go private and get professional help. I thought I was going mad. I thought, ‘if this is my life now, then I don’t want to live’. It was a relief to finally get diagnosed because it was proof I was ill and that was a starting point to go get treatment.”

People with OCD often have a variety of obsessions and compulsions. But, if you don’t mind saying, what is it that causes you the most distress?

“I think that someone is following me. I never feel alone in a room, I always think that ‘thing’ is there with me. If I do something bad it’ll punish me. If I do something good it’ll reward me. When I’m stressed, I just think it’s out to get me. Stress is the biggest trigger. At it’s worst it’s saying to me, ‘I’m never going to give up until you kill yourself…’ That was where I got to when I finally had to go get help. It was so bad that I couldn’t be awake.”

That sounds awful. OCD is such a terrible disorder…

“And I have other things. I have a thing where if I’m drinking with friends, I have to swallow my drink before the person I’m with finishes talking or someone I love is going to die. I don’t even have to be out to think like that. If I’m on my own, I have to finish my drink before the advert on the television finishes…”

I used to have a thing where I had to touch doorframes three times with my nose or I’d think the same… 

“It’s just fucking crazy isn’t it. It’s no way to live.”

It’s said that it takes a long time for people who have OCD to get a proper diagnosis. Was this true for you?

“I think I’ve had it since I was five or six. It’s come to light recently that my mum used to keep a diary of my behaviour when I was little, and when I finally told me my mum about the thoughts I was having, she dug into the diaries and found that I’d been talking about being ‘followed’ by someone from about the age of seven. Thing is, I just thought that everyone thought like this. I thought it was normal for so long. I’ve been told that my type of OCD is called ‘action fusion’…”

That’s when you believe thinking about something is the same as doing it, right? Or if you think about an unwanted action, it’s more likely that action will actually happen?

“It’s something like that, yes. The more I learn about it, the more I feel like I’m taking some control of my brain back. I’m in therapy and I’m on Prozac – although I’m going to change drugs I think because I don’t think it’s quite right.”

OCD is notoriously misunderstood. I was watching a prime-time BBC comedy only yesterday that made an OCD joke that showed such a pathetic understanding of the weight of misery caused by the illness. Have you told your friends and family? How did they respond?

“For a long time I only told my partner, and he was very good. He’s seen me at my absolute worst.”

I go to an OCD support group and it’s been huge for me. Knowing you’re not alone is so powerful. Sometimes my wife comes with me to try to understand. I often think of the impact OCD has on the people around us…

“Oh completely. It must be so hard for him to understand when I’m in such a state. It was him who pushed me to get help, which I’m so grateful for. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t think anyone would understand – how can anyone else understand when you don’t understand it yourself? He tries to distract me or move my thoughts on somewhere else, but it’s not like he has any instruction manual for how to help someone with OCD. Who does?”

The biggest learning for me was getting to a place where I can sometimes dismiss a thought as ‘just’ OCD. So hard to do, but crucial – I think – to recovery. Can you do that?

“That’s what I’m working so hard to do. I went down all kinds of other avenues first though; is this some kind of spiritual being that’s following me? Am I cursed? I thought all these things. The way forward is trying to untangle all of that and see the thoughts as just OCD and not as… I dunno… magic?”

Let’s talk about the new album, ‘Fall Better’. A lot of that is about OCD isn’t it?

“Oh, making that record felt a lot like exorcising so much of this stuff. I reference the person following me throughout. Sometimes it’s a ‘he’. Sometimes it’s a ‘she’. Often it’s an ‘it’. There’s a song on the record called ‘I’m Sorry’ that was pretty much me telling my partner that I couldn’t go on like this. He works offshore, and I remember thinking before he left that I was definitely going to kill myself. This would be the last time I see him. It was a goodbye. Now when I listen to the song – which is still so hard – I’m happy that I’m not in that place. It’s sort of become a marker for this journey I’ve been on.”

I have to say, it would be terrible if you did that…

“But you know when you think things would be so much easier for everyone else? I don’t think that now, but in that moment when I was so lost to the thoughts… There’s nothing on the planet I fear like my own mind. At that point I just didn’t think I could have kind of life that wasn’t consumed with negative intrusive thoughts and obsessions…”

I think when you feel like that, you have to remember, ‘you don’t want to die, you just don’t want to feel like this’. And there is hope; cognitive behavioural therapy is a proven and effective method of ‘getting better’…

“That’s it. I’m not depressed. I’m so enthusiastic about so many things in life. I just hate what OCD has taken from me. Like, I love being in Vukovi. I’m happy with what we’ve done and what I think we’re going to, but there’s no question that the OCD has heightened everything about being in the band. Good things and bad things. It’s a hard industry as it is, and OCD just multiplies how much I might ruminate on something. Everything just feels so much bigger and complex.”

I’ve had that problem all the way throughout my career as a journalist. And also, the lifestyle – the hours you keep, struggling to eat a proper meal, booze and drugs everywhere… It’s not in sync with looking after yourself. OCD really needs you to look after yourself…

“You need routine – and there’s no routine. But I wouldn’t ever do anything else because I love music. I couldn’t not play music. Performing and writing music is one of the only things that helps. Without them this would all just be in my head. Playing music is the reason I get up in the morning. It’s what I live for. Without it, I really wouldn’t want to live…”

Vukovi’s second album is released January 24th, 2020. You can pre-order ‘Fall Better’ here. For more information on OCD, you can contact the UK based charities OCD UK and OCD Action.