"I can't be myself when I'm with anyone" —From "Hurricane" by I Prevail
We are a society that celebrates extroverts—people who derive satisfaction and energy from interacting with others. As kids, we were always told to go play outside with other kids and speak up in class. As adults, we are told that having many friends and partying on the weekend equals social success. Nights alone evoke raised eyebrows from friends and family.
But for the introverts among us—those who find social interactions draining (except with close friends and family) and who need time alone to recharge—these expectations can feel overwhelming and oppressive. It's to the point where there's a stigma attached to introversion, leading many introverts to feel shame just for craving some solitude.
I recently spoke with Brian Burkheiser, a vocalist in the rock band I Prevail, about his lifelong struggle with the stigma of being an introvert. "I've always felt so different—so unlike a lot of people. I was a guy who stayed to myself. When I was in high school, I would always feel so sh*tty, because I was not the kid who would go to parties," Burkheiser told me. "I'd want to go home and play Halo on my Xbox with some close friends. And I felt like some people made me feel like it wasn't normal."
And Burkheiser's rapid ascent to rock stardom only exacerbated this struggle by depriving him of the time and space to recharge that he desperately needs to maintain his well-being. I Prevail's EP Heart Vs. Mind (2014) quickly drew attention when their cover of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" went viral, and soon I Prevail was signed to Fearless Records, recording their first full-length album Lifelines (2016).
"It was definitely something to see how quickly life changed," he recalled. "During our Lifelines process, we had so much pressure… to get on the road quicker… to get this album out. We never had time to recharge. After we got on the road it began to wear on me, being this introverted guy… it can wear on you mentally. I was trying to get away from people. I felt like I lost control."
In addition to losing control over his schedule, Burkheiser also felt the band's creative freedom slipping away and resulting in an album that didn't fully represent his authentic emotions. "With Lifelines, we preached so much positivity that we'd be on stage singing songs and thinking, 'I don't feel this sh*t.' There was a song called 'Stuck in Your Head.' I'll be honest, the guy we wrote it with stomped all over us in the writing room," Burkheiser explained. "That song was pegged as one of our biggest songs and our biggest messages, and I'm like, 'I don't give a sh*t about this.'"
Burkheiser was caught in a vicious cycle, leaving him feeling depressed and isolated. He could neither get the rest he needed nor authentically express his feelings through his music. The strain on his emotional well-being began to surface during the 2017 Warped Tour. "I hated it because there was nowhere to escape. We had one bus with our whole band and the entire crew—14 or 15 people. And every night, the Warped Tour would host these bonfires, and it felt like high school all over again," Burkheiser described. "If you wanted alone time on that tour, good luck. It was two months of my counting down the days to get back to some normalcy."
"That tour broke my heart," he said.
However, there was no rest in sight, as I Prevail's management booked a 50-show tour immediately following the Warped Tour. And Burkheiser's stress was further compounded by emerging difficulty with his voice. "I was having a lot of vocal trouble, and I would just beat myself up every day, telling myself, 'You're not that good of a singer,'" Burkheiser recalled. "I'd shower three or four times a day in the venue just to get away from people, just because I felt like I was not in a pocket to want to talk."
And while Burkheiser's stardom continued to soar, he personally spiraled downward. "We had played our biggest headlining shows ever. So, if you heard that on the street, you'd think damn, that guy is living his best life. All I could think about was get me the f*ck out of here; I can't do this anymore," Burkheiser explained. "My voice hurts; my mind hurts. I'm tired."
Then one night in Chicago, Burkheiser was unable to fall asleep and realized that he needed help. "Suddenly it's 5 a.m., and I'm awake, just sitting with my thoughts. I can't stop thinking about everything. I ran into the shower—and just let loose everything I had pent up over the years," he said. "And I just broke down. I bawled my eyes out. I started screaming—calling myself stupid, an idiot. I'm emotionless. I feel super empty. I was just so over everything." And that morning, he called his family to ask for help. "I needed to know what's wrong with me. For my own mental health, I needed to call somebody and get the f*ck out of here," he said.
Burkheiser decided that if he wanted to continue with his career, there would need to be a change. Leading up to making their Grammy-nominated 2019 album Trauma, Burkheiser was determined to surround himself and I Prevail with people who would be respectful of his and the band's mental well-being. The band found new management and worked with producers and songwriters who respected their creative vision and process.
"I want to make this the most mentally healthy year and cycle and album I possibly can. Because I can never go through what I experienced again, and I never want anyone else in my band to," Burkheiser said. "We had a phrase: cut out the dead weight. We need to eliminate anyone in our circle who brings us negativity and brings us down. We started to weed certain people out."
Burkheiser also sought care for his throat and depression. He had his throat evaluated and discovered a large polyp that was removed. And Burkheiser was particularly grateful to meet Dr. James Lewerenz, who took the time to understand both his mental and physical struggles to treat him more holistically. "He said my cortisol level was one of the worst he had ever seen in anybody my age," Burkheiser recalled. "He's not my therapist per se… But he really took the time to get to know me and my story. He brought such positivity, such an impact," he said.
Burkheiser also realized that a large component of his well-being consisted of being mindful of and even embracing his introversion. "The introvert/extrovert thing, it's OK to be a certain way. Just because you're a musician, you don't need to be the most out-there crazy extrovert. I tell people at shows that if you're outside the box, that's a good thing. It shouldn't be viewed as a negative. I feel like introverted people are always told they're weird or depressed," he said. "I've now built a team and infrastructure around me where I get to have all the family time I need. We're not the dudes that like to go out and party. My version of a good time is getting together with a couple of bandmates on the bus and hanging out, talking about the next show, or playing video games."
And he's hoping other people, introverts and extroverts alike, learn from his experience by taking care of themselves and getting the help they need. "We're going to tell people it's OK to have negative thoughts. It's OK to not always feel at your best," Burkheiser described. "If you are feeling a little sh*tty, text your dad, text your mom, text one of your close friends. Text your significant other. If you bottle that stuff in, you'll end up like me, and everything will reach that boiling point where you have that crazy explosion."
With a focus on nurturing his physical and mental health, Burkheiser is looking forward to life as a rock star introvert. "I used to wake up and want to stay in bed for four more hours. Now I jump out of bed. I'm eating healthy; I'm working out every day, taking vitamins," he said. "I'm creating goals for myself. I'm on an anti-depressant. I have a whole new perspective.
"I feel alive again."