Jewel On Overcoming Homelessness, Agoraphobia And Panic Attacks And 25 Years Of ‘Pieces Of You’

Wash your hands. Those three words have echoed around the globe in the hope of protecting people from coronavirus. Yet for Jewel, her hands played a just as simple but vital role in helping save her from another potentially-fatal illness – a mental health battle that saw her fight debilitating anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia, while addicted to shoplifting and almost dying in a parking lot after becoming homeless at 18.

“I was stealing a dress one day and saw my reflection in the dressing room – I had become a statistic and knew I’d end up in jail or dead if I didn’t do something,” recalls the 46-year-old singer-songwriter, who remembered a Buddha quote, “’Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It depends on what you think,’” and decided to retrain her mind. “I thought I could turn my life around one thought at a time. My plan was to not steal the dress and observe my thoughts, but when you have that much anxiety, you can’t perceive your thoughts in real time, so I decided to watch my hands because they’re the servants of your thoughts.”

“I took notes on what my hands did for two weeks, which sounds like a ridiculous life plan!” continues the musician, who penned the 1998 song “Hands” about the experience. “But when I was absorbed in journaling, ‘My hands do this, my hands do that,’ my anxiety went away. It was a massive, shocking side effect.”

It was the start of Jewel’s transformative, lifelong journey into nurturing mental well-being. The songstress now hopes such simple exercises can also help protect mental health amid the global crisis.

Calls to some suicide hotlines have reportedly increased 300% since the pandemic began and heightened agoraphobia has also raised as a concern. The anxiety disorder, in which people fear places/situations, is something Jewel’s deeply familiar with. It’s one of the countless hurdles the Alaskan native faced throughout her youth. “My mum left when I was eight, my dad had bad PTSD and began drinking to medicate that then became abusive, so I moved out when I was 15,” says the Grammy nominee, whose father, Atz Kilcher, and brothers star in the reality show, “Alaska: The Last Frontier”.

Aware that “statistically, kids like me repeat the cycle,” she developed coping skills like observing people whose traits she admired and endeavouring to attain similar attributes. Her efforts helped her land a scholarship to Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts, graduate then move to San Diego to take care of her ill mother.

RELATED: Jewel Says ‘Mental Health Needs To Be A Top Priority’ Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

However, she lost her job after refusing a boss’ sexual advances and was forced to move into her car – until it was stolen. “I ended up homeless for a year and started having bad anxiety and panic attacks,” she recalls. “I’d been in tough situations my whole life and it started catching up with me. I was shoplifting, having really negative self-talk, didn’t trust people and was very isolated.”

“I became agoraphobic, which is a fear of leaving your home … which when you don’t have a home, is intensified,” she continues. “It started while living in my car, then when my car got stolen, I didn’t want to leave a street corner. I thought I’d be stricken with illness. I only felt safe in certain place. Just venturing to get food was a feat. I also had bad kidneys, so kept getting sick and almost died in the parking lot of an emergency room, which only exacerbated my agoraphobia.”

Following her awakening dressing room moment, Jewel turned her life around through observing her hands, journaling and other self-help tools she developed. One of her most valuable skillsets remains retracting the “lies” inhabiting her mind during times of anxiousness and replacing them with truths, aka “antidote thoughts” – citing her first, anxiety-filled movie role, during which she replaced “I don’t know what I’m doing,” with “I won’t quit until I learn.”

While overcoming her shoplifting addiction, she also penned her thoughts every time she felt the urge to steal, subsequently deepening her songwriting skills. “I became very prolific at writing because I was a very prolific stealer!”

Discovered at 21 while performing around San Diego, her debut record, Pieces of You, went multiplatinum, spawning hits like “Foolish Games” and “Who Will Save Your Soul”.

RELATED: Jewel’s Livestream Concert Raises Over $550,000 For Her Inspiring Children Foundation

“My promise when I got signed was that being a happy human would remain my number one job,” says Jewel, who has since released 12 albums and several books. “I took years between records at the heights of my career, which is uncommon – killing your momentum isn’t what people encourage! But I needed it for my mental health. Music has one of the highest suicide/death rates of any industry.”

Although she never envisioned her simple self-help tools would carry her through fame and heartbreak, she eventually realized they were “teachable” and could help others, so her techniques are now available on JeweNeverBroken.com. They’ve also been developed into programs used by businesses and have even been implemented into school curriculums to help arm students with mental wellness tools from an early age. The singer’s Inspiring Children Foundation meanwhile gives struggling youngsters mentoring and educational opportunities – Jewel proudly noting 90 per cent becoming Ivy League-level students.

During the pandemic, Jewel’s further advocating for wellness through e-series, “Live From San Quarantine”, featuring fundraising performances and mental health discussions with fellow musicians like Brad Paisley, Frankie Grande and Rachel Platten. Streaming on Twitch (with the next session on June 2, then every Thursday from June 11) the talks offer “digital tools” for those struggling.

When LFSQ’s not keeping her busy, Jewel has 8-year-old son, Kase, who she shares with ex-husband, Ty Murray, to take care of. “He knows there’s a virus and the world has changed, but I’m like, ‘It’s not our time to die. Life changes and we have to adapt.’”

The power to adapt is strongly woven throughout Jewel’s story. In doing so, she continued to thrive following the whirlwind success of Pieces of You. Recently turning 25, the record “changed the course of my entire life,” and lessons from its era have come full circle with new single, “Grateful”, from her upcoming “’70s, soul, old R&B” album.

“I wrote Grateful while reflecting on my life when I was homeless,” she says. “Then COVID hit and it felt like the right song to release. It’s neat 25 years later to write a song about that time and have it be helpful now.”

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