Through the Strobe Lights, Haze and Frequencies, I still Command the Dance Floor

Ashley Quackenbush (DJ Scratchley Q)

As cliché as it sounds, for as young as I could remember I’ve enjoyed listening to music.

As a toddler, I would listen to my dad’s ZZTop and Beach Boys cassettes until they no longer played any sound. As I grow older, my taste in music changes regularly and my bond with music has grown even more. After all, music is a huge part of my career. It’s my job to create memories and make people have fun. It may have been simpler times being a listener of music than a performer of the craft.

It was a Grade 10 French class project about a dream job that made me discover DJing as a career option. I decided that entertaining dance floors was going to be my future dream job after seeing a DJ on MTV after school one day. In Grade 11, a few of my teachers took notice in my interest in DJing. So at Winter Formal my Grade 11 year, I got the opportunity to hop on a laptop with a DJing program and play a few tracks. The spark was lit. By Grade 12, I landed a position on Student Council as one of the Audio-Visual Technicians and DJ’d the Winter Formal completely by myself. The dance floor was full the whole time. People were talking about the great song selections. That’s when it all clicked. I was made to do this. I knew before I even started in the industry that it was going to be a difficult road, but I truly felt that I had the drive that one needed to be successful.

Once I graduated high school, I moved from Manitoulin Island to Toronto to learn the art and culture of DJing. I picked up on the techniques of blending, mixing and beat matching quickly. I was soaking in every little bit of information in that I could. After each weekly session I would go back to my place and practice for hours. If I wasn’t practicing, I was discovering all different genres of music. I was in my glory. I was loving every challenge that was brought my way. My eyes were set on a specific goal and I was going to do anything I needed to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, later on that would mean being as young and naive as I was, I would fall into some bad circumstances that I didn’t know how to have better control over.

Shortly after a month or so in Toronto, my life started to fall apart at the seams. I had struggled with my mental health before moving to the city and that struggle followed me there. My mental health was starting to degrade rapidly. The feelings of extreme sadness and anxiousness wouldn’t settle or go away. I felt tired all the time. The things that brought joy in my life were no longer making me happy. I lost my appetite for even my most favourite foods. I was distancing myself from my friends and the people I loved. There was even points were I was feeling irritable and would lash out at people for no reason. I didn’t know what was going on or who I should reach out to. I wasn’t fitting into the city life like I was hoping to. I really didn’t know anyone and was feeling lonely. I knew I was beyond stressed about not being able to land a job, the little money I had was pretty much gone. I didn’t have the money for a bus ticket home and I lived off a box of cereal for a month.

My anxiety and depression were taking control of my life.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I had to switch instructors because of scheduling and location. By nature, I’m a people pleaser. I’ll do anything for anyone to make them happy. I never had a good feeling about switching instructors but I agreed anyway. My second instructor was manipulative and really didn’t care about teaching me. He had other things on his mind. And because I’m people pleaser I didn’t know how to stand up for myself and say no. I ended up in situations I never wanted to be in.

On the outside I was trying to hold myself together to the best of my ability. We all know that you have to be careful about your reputation especially when you’re a public figure. I was scared of ruining the very little reputation that I did have. Word can spread quickly in a small community so I kept my mouth shut. I kept thinking What would happen to me if I told someone I was struggling with all these things and what if I told someone that I keep having panic attacks and I’m anxious and feeling down all the time? Part of me was also in denial. I kept thinking, All these bad things could never happen to someone who is an over achiever and over all a good person.

I kept all the bottled-up struggles and feelings to myself for months. I didn’t let on that anything was happening. DJing in front of large crowds didn’t cause me any anxiety at the beginning. Eventually anxiety started to affect my career. I was beyond anxious about everything like song selections and equipment set up, to doing things like opening emails, answering the phone for bookings and connecting with clients. Before every gig I would end up having a breakdown. Music and DJing were no longer enjoyable. I was fighting panic attacks in front of everyone on the dance floor. I couldn’t hold all the emotions in any longer. It got to the point where I made a serious attempt to end my own life. After a couple of days’ stay in the hospital, I realized that I needed to talk to someone. I needed to surround myself with good people and start taking care of myself.

Recovery took a long time. In fact, it took years of ups and downs and finding what fit best for me. Friends and family helped me though a lot of the healing process. During the healing process I would take months off at a time from DJing to reset myself. I started listening to music for myself so I could fall in love with music again. I always knew I could listen to music to bring comfort and strength. Listening to music brought the same kind of joy it did when I was a toddler. I started to enjoy music again as a listener rather than someone who is a performer of the craft. Sometimes the recovery process involved a lot of learning to understand who I am and what kind of DJ I wanted to become.

Part of the healing process has also been sharing my story.

Over the last few years my personal life and my social media has been focused on my experiences as DJ living with mental illness and advocating for mental health of youth and people in the music industry. I’ve had the most amazing opportunities the last couple years to share my personal story over many different platforms but having the opportunities to speak in front of thousands of youth and their educators is something that I enjoy the most and feel that it makes the biggest impact. People relate to personal stories and youth have the ability to make the biggest impact of change for the future. Some of my speaking opportunities have included WE Day X Manitoulin, numerous talks and tours with jack.org as a Jack Talks Speaker, the HeadStrong Summit in Sudbury by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and many more.

Early in 2019, I was inspired to take my advocacy to the next level. I knew that I wasn’t the only person in the DJ industry who has struggled with mental health. It seemed that every time I looked at my phone or went online, I was seeing another person in the music industry who had taken their own life. The DJ and music industry have lost too many lives to suicide. I needed to make a change. As I scrolled through my social media, I was noticing more DJs and producers hinting at the struggles and challenges to their mental health that was related to the industry. I started to reach out to friends and some connections I had though the industry. Once I shared my story, many felt comfortable to share theirs. Many of the personal stories were relatable to mine but no one was really coming to the forefront and saying anything publicly or even amongst ourselves as a DJ community. I wanted to change that.

I wanted DJs to be able to talk about mental health amongst themselves in a safe, positive and supportive environment. I took two things I was passionate about – DJing and mental health advocacy – and blended them together. I wanted to create more open conversations about mental health in the DJ industry specifically. So, I created the Scratching the Surface Tour. Scratching the Surface Tour is a free interactive mental health workshop for those involved in the DJing and music industries. The tour workshop allows DJs to recognize the challenges of the DJ industry and brainstorm positive ways to overcome those challenges. It also covers the topics of self care and reaching out to supports and services when they need them the most. It allows DJs to be comfortable with opening up and sharing their mental health stories. I’ve made it my goal to travel across Canada connecting with small DJ communities to talk about mental health. The tour has brought out some really amazing bonds and conversations. It keeps me going, I like to think that it’s another part of my healing process. I really do hope that it’s creating a positive impact in the lives of the DJs that I meet. I love the connections I’m making along the way. Overall the DJ community is really unique but supportive of one another and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

Though the strobe lights, haze and frequencies, I still command the dance floor. I’ve had my fair share of lows and difficult times over the years. I’ve had some tough learning experiences but some great learning opportunities. Those experiences haven’t left me down forever. Each time I’ve managed to get back up, brush myself off and take control. I’ve managed to take those challenging times, see the positivity within and create something good from it. I’ve learned that one must look after themselves. Listen to their heart and create special bonds and connections. It’s important to find something that gives you purpose, something that moves you and brings you joy. You’ll never know where it will take you. Also adding a little music along the way can’t hurt either.

Check out this special Unsinkable playlist I created on Spotify with some of my all time favourite inspirational tunes.