She was 22 when she burst onto the local music scene in 2005. She was a multicultural threat who wowed French, English and Spanish audiences with her impressive range, originality and heartfelt sincerity.
She was soon to win Félix Awards for World Music Album of the Year for Bossa Blue and La Historia de Lola.
But just as insiders were predicting that the seemingly ever-effervescent and cheerful Florence K would be making a major breakthrough in this country as well as the rest of the world, she pretty much fell off the radar.
Unknown to fans, friends and even family members, Florence K was beset by an illness she could not beat: depression. Nothing was working for her. So left with few other options, she entered a psychiatric facility and through therapy and medication and interaction with fellow patients, she was able to begin combating her demons and resume her career, cutting new discs and receiving more accolades.
She later stunned many when she released her first book, Buena Vida (Good Life), which chronicled her descent into mental illness and her subsequent return to form. The book, published in French, went on to sell more than 25,000 copies, and there is now talk of an English release.
But Florence K, 34, is taking nothing for granted. She is abundantly aware that she must remain on guard, that she is in store for a lifelong struggle.
With Mental Illness Awareness Week beginning Sunday, she wishes to speak out, both to de-stigmatize the disease and to encourage those on the brink to seek help before it is too late.
She has also been selected as the spokesperson for the city’s fifth Au Contraire Film Festival, Oct. 24 to 27, which focuses on offerings and workshops dealing with mental illness.
Florence K is all smiles sitting on the terrasse of the popular west-end Café Gentile. There is nothing about her demeanour to indicate any sort of troubling issues. She has just dropped off her 11-year-old daughter, Alice, for a tutorial, after she just had finished recording her weekly CBC Radio show Ici Florence as well as an English version of same for future airing. Plus, she is in the midst of recording another disc, a tribute to Harry Belafonte, planning another Montreal jazz fest performance and promoting her second book, the fictional Lili Blues.
“It’s been a crazy day,” she declares, before quickly adding: “But a good crazy day.”
As far back as she can recall, Florence Khoriaty has been accustomed to this sort of frenetic activity. She comes from the sort of multicultural background that makes this city so fascinating. Her musician father Hany is Egyptian-born of Greek origin and her Tokyo-born mother Natalie Choquette is the award-winning francophone soprano adept at everything from opera to pop.
“It all makes for a wonderful mix. But what people don’t know is that we have a Greek salad, the Khoriaty, named for our family,” says a winking Florence K.
And also what people also didn’t know about was her near-crippling ordeal with depression.
“It was never a question of me not liking my life. I loved my life. It was like monsters suddenly started living in my head, and I couldn’t even recognize myself any more.
“Everybody was so shocked when I revealed it. I never said a word about it for years. Then I published the book and when it all came out, people went: ‘What?’ ”
She traces her problem back to 2011. Her daughter was four. She was working non-stop. And she was unhappy in her relationship with the father of her daughter.
“Still, I thought I could handle everything. I always did. I had a hard time picturing that things weren’t fine. I had this pressure on me to be happy all the time, because I felt so lucky and privileged to have a job I loved and a happy child. Suddenly, I started to feel guilty about it and feeling guilty about wanting to leave my child’s father. I had this imposter syndrome. I was tired all the time.
“Things started to get out of control with insomnia. Then the anxiety kicked in, because I was lacking sleep so badly. Then I started having panic attacks during the day. I was just losing control.”
The situation continued to deteriorate, particularly while separating from her mate. It was further exacerbated by feelings that she was breaking up her family. She had lived through the breakup of her parents.
“Although my parents have since remarried and are all doing well, I still wanted to succeed where they had failed the first time. It wasn’t really a failure — that’s life — but that’s the way I saw it then. I just wanted to be a superwoman, mother and succeed everywhere. But I completely cracked and I lost my mind.”
Her anxiety led to paranoia. But she had no clue what to do. She started taking vitamin supplements and changing her diet and exercise habits — but to no avail.
“I just couldn’t function. I couldn’t even cry. It was like I was out of life. Then I had to go to L.A. to record, and I had lost my pace for the music. I had lost my pace to make friends. I felt so empty and felt like a horrible mother.”
This continued for five more months. She began losing weight. She started losing her hair. She was sleeping even less. She finally consulted a doctor, who prescribed her some anti-depressants and told her to seek therapy.
“But I refused to take the pills. I had never done that before. I said I could get through it but, of course, I couldn’t. I had a complete disconnect from reality.”
She went to the emergency ward of the Jewish General Hospital, where she was prescribed medication. But knowing it would take several weeks for the meds to kick in, her panic attacks worsened to the point she thought she was having a heart attack.
“I started smoking and it was the only thread keeping me going — or so I thought. I was performing, but as soon as I was off the stage, I couldn’t move or talk. Then I started auto-mutilating and contemplating suicide.”
She was hospitalized shortly thereafter in the Jewish General’s psychiatric unit. She resisted treatment at first, but finally gave in.
“I was screaming for the first week. Then I just slept. And then I started hanging around with the other patients, who were dealing with bipolar and depression issues. And I was finding a sense of community there and a glimmer of hope. And not feeling like I was the only one suffering.
“I understood at last that I had an illness, and on the day I was able to disassociate myself from that illness was the day I started getting better.”
She continues on her recovery path through meds and regular therapeutic counselling. She is content, both professionally and personally, with her daughter and a new partner, musician Ben Riley.
“And I stopped smoking,” she says, flashing a big grin.
“Mental illness is a reality for so many, but it is so hushed. It’s a disease like any other, and just like there is no stigma for having cancer, there should be no stigma or shame associated with mental illness. When I first decided to talk about it, I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, asking: ‘Am I really doing this? Am I really exposing everything?’ But I decided I would talk about it — and I won’t stop. The message has to get out there.”
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