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The Good Fight

The World’s Only Classical Music Ensemble For The Mentally Ill

After his own career almost unraveled, Ronald Braunstein founded the Me2/Orchestra to help fight the stigma against mental illness in the classical music community.

Prizewinning conductor Ronald Braunstein had a much-heralded early career in the classical music scene that began to unravel due to his bipolar disorder. But his experience with this condition eventually led to the founding of the Me2/Orchestra: the world’s only classical music ensemble for the mentally ill (and their advocates).

The conceptual origins of Me2/ date back to 2007, when Braunstein, then living in Prague, observed the huge gap in music education between public and private schools. “I wanted to create an orchestra that was inclusive of students from all socio-economic levels. The idea never went anywhere in Prague but I picked up that seed a few years later in Burlington [Vermont] – only this time my heart was in it. The inclusion I sought had to do with mental health rather than economic disparity,” he says.

There was good reason why mental health was a priority: Braunstein had just been fired from a job because of his bipolar disorder. “I was in the process of sorting out my mental and physical health and I knew I didn’t want to get a job where I could be discriminated against again. I decided to create my own orchestra and ensure that it was a safe place,” he says, before adding, “I knew that if I was feeling so much pain from being discriminated against that there must be other people like me.”

 

Ronald Braunstein.

I knew that if I was feeling so much pain from being discriminated against that there must be other people like me.”

Braunstein, who was born in Massachusetts but raised in Pittsburgh, says that as a child his father took him to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with “bad nerves” and “prescribed some type of medication, maybe it was valium.” He adds how, “Over the years several people told me that I needed to see ‘a doctor,’ but this was during the ’70s when nobody spoke [about] mental health and I honestly didn’t know what they were trying to tell me.” For many years he contended with symptoms “but things started to get really revved-up in [his] early twenties.”

While studying at New York City’s famed Juilliard School his condition became severe. “I ate very little and didn’t sleep. I thought that food and sleep took away my brilliance. I experienced all of the classic bipolar behavior: delusions of grandeur, rapid pressured speech, irresponsibility in dealing with money, etc.”

However, he managed to graduate from Juilliard in 1978 with a degree in conducting. And at age 23, he became the first American to win the Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin. This prize greatly boosted his early career and took him all over the world as a guest conductor at orchestras ranging from San Francisco to Norway to Japan. He later joined the Juilliard conducting staff.

Braunstein was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. “I took a friend to his psychiatrist appointment,” he recalls. “And, through an odd turn of events, I walked away from that office with my own diagnosis.” He feels that the stigma surrounding mental illness has decreased since the time of his diagnosis, but “we still have a long way to go.” That said, he hasn’t encountered any stigma-related obstacles when trying to arrange a Me2/ performance. And he views the orchestra as helping to “change audience members’ perceptions” about the mentally ill by “showing what we are capable of in performances.”

Many believe a link exists between creativity and mental illness, and Braunstein notices a particular prevalence of bipolar disorder among the musically gifted

Many believe a link exists between creativity and mental illness, and Braunstein notices a particular prevalence of bipolar disorder among the musically gifted. Of brilliant composers likely afflicted, he gives a slew of examples: Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Berlioz, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Handel, Holst, Mussorgsky, and Rossini. Another prominent example is his favorite composer, Beethoven. He also admires Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Otto Klemperer (whose battle with bipolar disorder was well-documented), and Igor Stravinsky. Among his influences are Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and, especially, his mentor Herbert von Karajan, the longtime conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who taught him “how to really hear the orchestra” while conducting.

Braunstein conducting the Me2/Orchestra.

Of his own dual experience with gifted musicianship and mental illness, he says: “When I am in a manic phase I can be brilliant, or so it seems. When I come to a more stable point I can see whether the brilliance was actual or an illusion. And then there’s the question I always have after conducting a great concert: whether it was my musicianship or my illness.” He says that his symptoms are managed more effectively these days and are less likely to distort his self-perception. Previously, he was more inclined to have a “lack of insight into how [he] was doing” and hold an unrealistic opinion of his performance.

The question I always have after conducting a great concert [is] whether it was my musicianship or my illness.

The flagship chapter of Me2/ was established in September 2011 in Burlington, Vermont. September 2014 saw the launching of the Boston chapter. Though many members have diagnosed conditions, Me2/ also includes those who support the mentally ill, along with mental health professionals, such as one psychiatrist who plays trumpet for the Boston orchestra.

Me2/ has performed at several formidable venues, such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals – settings that don’t exactly evoke thoughts of classical music, but actually have provided the most engaged and appreciative audiences. In such places, the music “reaches their souls,” observes Braunstein, who adds how Me2/ has “never been unappreciated” at any type of venue.

 

Currently, fifty musicians belong to the Me2/Burlington, and the Boston chapter has 35. The orchestras perform 5 or 6 times per concert season. Of the musicians who join, almost all stay for a long period. There are no auditions to worry about. Braunstein’s programs are “designed for the middle-level of the orchestra. For the people who are less experienced, we offer coaching but technical perfection is not what we are about. We have professional musicians sitting alongside near-beginners and it works.” Many other members are skilled amateurs who “received extensive training earlier in life.”

Among mentally ill members, conditions range from depression to PTSD to schizophrenia to dissociative disorder, among others. Members aren’t required to disclose their diagnoses, but some do so “within the first 5 minutes.” Others are less than forthcoming at first. Braunstein recalls one member who “didn’t want her name printed in materials because she didn’t want to be associated with ‘the mental health orchestra.’ She didn’t disclose her diagnosis for a long time; however, after playing with us for a few years she has now become an outspoken advocate about erasing stigma.”

Though a few members prefer to keep to themselves, many others become friends and socialize outside of Me2/. Braunstein describes rehearsals as “extremely social” and adds that the “positive energy is palpable.” He recalls one man who, after a few months with the orchestra, had reconnected with his long-estranged extended family because Me2/ “gave him the confidence and self-respect he needed.”

Another member considers each Me2/ rehearsal his “detox” from the remainder of the week. And for some members with a tendency to self-isolate, the orchestra “gets them out of the house and surrounded by supportive friends once a week.”

Braunstein currently lives in Burlington, Vermont, with his wife, Caroline Whiddon, a Me2/ cofounder who serves as Executive Director and also plays the French horn. They drive back and forth from Burlington to Boston each week, as the Boston orchestra rehearses every Monday and the Burlington one every Thursday.

“[Music] is a space to be in that is safe and beautiful… it has given my life meaning.”

The conductor’s future aspirations are “to continue to grow and learn as a musician and a human being. Me2/ is my project for life.” His life-project has grand plans in store: A Me2/ chapter has just launched in Portland, Oregon, and Braunstein anticipates another chapter launching this summer in Atlanta, Georgia. In three years, he hopes to have 20 affiliate programs in various cities. Ten years from now, he sees Me2/ having “affiliate programs nationwide, including orchestras and various ensembles.” He also envisions “hosting conferences where Me2/ members from various locations come together to rehearse and perform in massive events.”

Though some afflicted persons might view music as an escape from psychological duress, Braunstein prefers to think of music as “a space to be in that is safe and beautiful.” When asked about the effect of Me2/ on him personally, he concisely replies, “It has given my life meaning.”

Me2/ is open to ages 13-80+ and there’s no cost to participate. For further information, see the website.

Profiles

The Adopted Artist With Her Head In The Clouds

Anxiety, depression, and the nature of memory intertwine in Andrea Joyce Heimer's unforgettable paintings.

Like many young artists, Andrea Joyce Heimer spent her early twenties stuck in an office job that she didn’t like while she tried to find her creative voice. Unable to afford art school, she was determined to teach herself to paint in a photorealistic manner — the only style she thought could convey the adolescent memories she wanted to depict. But no matter how many instructional books she bought or how hard she tried, she couldn’t master perspective. Eventually, she quit out of frustration.

Andrea Heimer.

Around the same time, Heimer, who had been struggling with anxiety and depression since high school, fell into one of her deepest depressions. She couldn’t get herself out of the house for weeks. “It was like I just hit a wall,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to off myself unless I figure out something to keep me busy.’”

Still surrounded by art supplies, Heimer decided pick up a brush again. This time, however, she wasn’t going to worry about what the painting looked like. She told herself, “I’m just going to do it how it comes out. I’m going to return to childhood where I just draw for the fun of it.”

She ended up painting four pieces. The paintings were all flat, with no shading and the perspective was skewed. But there was something appealing about them. With encouragement from her husband, she reached out to some folk art galleries and received a positive response from the first place she contacted. She was still stuck in a depressive loop, but that positive reply gave her just enough of “a little oomph” to make another painting and then another. Slowly but surely, that momentum built on itself, eventually pulling her out of her dark hole.

Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane

Today, Heimer is a full-time artist, splitting her time between an MFA program in New Hampshire and her home in Washington. Having dispensed with spatial perspective, her paintings are filled with layers of detail, all floating on the same plane. Objects and characters that might otherwise be hidden are brought into view, unveiling the mystery and violence hidden just below the surface of suburban neighborhoods. The effect is akin to Grandma Moses meets David Lynch. In her acrylic world, ordinary rites of passage collide with mystical rituals: cult members argue over wallpaper choices, giant wolves suckle teenage boys, and a devoted husband drinks his wife’s bathwater. At the same time, kids get bowl cuts in the living room, bad boys hang out at the baseball diamond “being dangerous and irresistible,” and girls cultivate crushes that are mythical in scope.

Often only 16 inches by 20 inches, or smaller, her paintings reward viewers who pause for a closer look. Minute patterns on wallpaper and clothing reveal themselves to be cowboys and Indians, thunderstorms and rainbows, or a starry cosmos of planets and comets. These repeated patterns are therapeutic for Heimer. Even when the painting doesn’t aesthetically need the patterning, Heimer needs it. “For someone who has tendencies to overthink things, it’s such a relief to go do something repetitive,” she says. “It’s that meditative process of drawing the same tiny design over and over and over again–you can lose yourself completely for two hours just doing that.” To paint these details, she leans close to the canvas, keeping her face only an inch away from the surface. “I’m sure that’s terrible for my spine,” she says. “But it’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it. I miss that when it’s not there.”

It’s that intimate time spent with that object that breathes more life into it.

Heimer began developing a keen eye for detail early on. When she was in third grade, her parents pulled her aside after dinner and told her that she was adopted. Visibly uncomfortable, they kept the conversation short, and didn’t discuss it again. Determined to never be surprised like that again, she became a studious observer of life in her hometown of Great Falls, Montana.

“You’re going along, you have this normal life … and then all of a sudden you find out that your parents aren’t who you think they are,” explains Heimer. “Then that opens a door. You’re like, ‘Okay, well what else isn’t what it seems?’’’

Great Falls sits on the northern Great Plains, surrounded by vast stretches of open prairie. “You can literally find the edge of town and go stand there. There’s nothing beyond it, which is an unnerving thing,” says Heimer. The neighborhood she grew up in, however, felt like a typical suburb. She lived a couple blocks away from her elementary school. There was a park across the street from their house and beyond that a golf course.

Heimer would spend hours riding her bike past the houses, coming up with narratives about the lives inside. “I don’t know if there’s some underlying perversion in me, or something. Maybe it’s a normal tendency. You ride the same route and you start noticing the same people and you wonder, ‘Are their lives like my life?’”

Heimer at work in her studio.

As a goth teenager, she’d go to music shows and sit in the parking lot because she was more interested in listening to people’s conversations than the bands inside. “I would sit in my car a lot with the window down pretending to read a book or something, but really I was listening to the people who were standing next to my car talking,” she says. “Saying it now, I’m like, ‘God, what a weirdo. Just go talk to somebody like a normal person.’”

All those years of listening have turned into a wealth of stories to draw upon — and led to conversations that Heimer could never have predicted as a teen. “The paintings are almost like — this is going to sound so stupid — but I feel like each one has its own personality or its own magnetic force,” she says. “I feel like they’re little people trying to help me along.”

I feel like each [painting] has its own personality or its own magnetic force… like they’re little people trying to help me along.

The lively, diary-like revelations in her paintings seems to help others open up as well. “I don’t know if it’s because a lot of them are very embarrassing, but you would not believe the things that people tell me at openings,” she says. “After a two-minute conversation, they’ll confess something really deep or embarrassing or touching. I wasn’t expecting those interactions, and they make me feel good in a way that nothing else does.”

Heimer has found that these moments of connection give her a sense of buoyancy that helps counteract the weight depression. She is pursuing her MFA in part so that she can teach part-time and make interacting with others a more regular occurrence. “I realized that I was spending eight hours a day alone in the studio painting. That’s not healthy either,” she says. “I totally love being around art students. It’s another magical thing, being around other people who are making things and learning.”

“I don’t want to be super dramatic and be like, ‘It’s given me something to live for,’” says Heimer of her art. “The pace and the momentum of it, I think, help. I still have medication. I do all the stuff that I’m supposed to. But there’s something about that forward momentum. It doesn’t have to come from a painting career. It can be anything that you care about that propels you forward.”

Profiles

Guarding His LGBT Kids Against Depression

1/3rd of LGBT teens have attempted suicide. That scary statistic is why Evan Peterson is putting his kids' mental health first.

Growing up, Evan Peterson never felt he could be himself. Living in small-town California with a homophobic stepfather, Evan kept quiet when he realized he was attracted to boys as well as girls. Confusion and loneliness took its toll, culminating in clinical depression and a suicide attempt.

Now a single parent, Evan is determined not to let history repeat itself with his own family. Of Evan’s four children, three identify as LGBT. Lane, nineteen, is bisexual, while Jamie and Elliot, sixteen and twelve, are transgender. Their younger sister, Grace, is nine. (All names of the children in this piece have been changed at Evan’s request. – Ed.)

It’s a role he might not have expected but one he’s well equipped for. Evan spent the best part of the last two decades becoming more and more involved in the LGBT community, where he routinely speaks out against injustice and bisexual erasure as a writer with Bisexual Books

Evan Peterson is a writer on LGBT issues, as well as the parent of four kids.

“Finding where we’re marginalized and speaking about it and trying to give us a voice. That’s where I am now: I’m that guy,” he says.

He wasn’t always that guy. Around the age of eleven, Evan realized he was bisexual. The realization confused him: a situation exacerbated because he couldn’t discuss his sexuality with his “openly homophobic” stepfather.

“When I was a teenager I didn’t really trust my parents at all, I wouldn’t share any sort of problems I was ever having. At that time the word bisexual wasn’t a thing, people didn’t talk about that, just, you’re gay or you’re straight. I was really confused throughout my teens, I just considered myself straight and I was confused as to why I was also attracted to guys.”

His inner turmoil and sense of isolation made him deeply unhappy.

“When I was in the closet, I felt confused. I felt like I was drowning and miserable and had no way to come out of it. I self-medicated with alcohol and promiscuity. I attempted suicide – no one ever found out.”

When I was in the closet, I felt confused. I felt like I was drowning and miserable and had no way to come out of it.

Leaving his hometown for a new life on his own in southern California changed everything.

“I was twenty-one, sitting on a beach by myself after dropping everything and moving to the coast. The sun was a pre-dusk buttery yellow, and I found myself admiring the other people around me. For the first time, I felt no guilt or shame. I felt lighter and free. From that day forward I opened myself up and remained true to myself. [My new life] came with its own worries and complications, but it also filled every part of me with peace, with bliss.”

Evan began coming out to friends, and let his family find out through the grapevine. The relief of being open about his identity improved his state of mind. While  he still battles depression –he received a formal diagnosis in 2004– knowing who he is has given Evan the resources to tackle his mental health.

“I am a happier person having allowed myself the strength to be myself,” he says

Day-to-day, Evan manages his well being by taking a daily dose of Welbutrin, and by writing, which channels his energy into creativity. He also leans on friends, some of whom are far flung but still keep in close touch.

But even more important to Evan than his own mental health is that of his kids. LGBT youth are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than straight and cisgender kids. A third of LGBT youth have also attempted suicide. Harrowing figures like this have made Evan hyper-aware that supporting his kids.

LGBT youth are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than straight and cisgender kids.

“I’ve always raised the kids as [an] openly bisexual [parent], and we’ve always had queer friends around. The kids have always known that home is someplace that is safe, so it was easy for all of them to come out when they decided to come out. I think they felt reassured they’d have a supportive home here. They still come to me with problems and that’s a good sign.”

A small but significant part of that support is respecting Jamie and Elliot’s chosen pronouns. Jamie and Elliot prefer “they/them” pronouns, which Evan says some find confusing, or even use as a way to bully or belittle. At home, though, everybody respects Jamie and Elliott’s personal pronoun choice.

It’s important to Evan Peterson that his children be given constant acceptance and support, so they don’t grow up with the same depression issues he did.

Evan also respects his children’s chosen gender identities. Jamie, born female, is treated like Evan’s son. Elliot, meanwhile, doesn’t consider himself to be a boy or a girl. “Elliot’s still twelve so they’re still figuring all these things out. But they’re pretty open about it.”

Outside of his home, though, Evan has less control. Both Elliot and Jamie face a constant onslaught of negativity from schoolmates and extended family members. As a family, it’s something the Petersons work hard to address: by going to therapy, and by openly discussing what’s going on with their mental health..

“We do talk about [mental health], mostly as me checking in on the kids and how they feel their progress is in counseling, or if there are new issues they need help working on. We also discuss the ways we see other people, in reality or in media, treat themselves or others with mental health issues.”

Evan is a strong role model. But away from the safety net of home, there are some problems that are beyond his control.

“Most of Jamie’s friends have been really supportive through the whole transition, accepting Jamie’s name change and using the right pronouns, so that’s been positive. However, Jamie has also been the recipient of all the bullying you could expect to have at a high school when you’re a transgender kid, with other students deliberately misgendering them and name-calling.”

School’s a little easier for Elliot, who goes to an alternative school, where most of the students hail from left-leaning, hippy-type families.

“Elliot dresses mostly like a typical boy, but many of the kids don’t really dress or act like they conform to gender or societal norms anyway, so Elliot fits in no matter how they identify. I’m worried about Elliot going to high school because that will be a stark change for them.”

The family is concerned about the current political climate, which Evan says is swerving far from LGBT rights and acceptance.

“We have a lot of uncertainty about what our future looks like; how much support we’ll have, how many of our rights will still exist or be taken away; there’s a lot of fear about that right now.”

“I don’t really see [my depression] as negatively affecting my parenting; if anything, the kids drive me to keep going because they need me.”

He’s particularly concerned about Jamie, as the current climate could have a direct impact on their physical and mental health. It’s recommended that transgender children start on puberty blockers by around sixteen. Jamie’s hoping to start taking the blockers soon… something that in today’s political climate could stop being supported by insurance companies.

“There’s a lot of excitement, because maybe that will go forward, but also fears: what if we start puberty blockers and then lose that ability [to fund the treatment through insurance] in the next few months?”

The powerlessness over their fate in the face of political change has caused both Jamie and Evan a lot of anxiety.

“As they get older the amount of things you worry about grows and the worries are more severe and more complicated. I long for the days when my biggest worry with Jamie was something like crossing the road, or losing sight of them in the crowd for a few minutes. Not that I miss Jamie being anything other than what Jamie is now, but I miss the more simple worries that you have with the younger kids.”

Navigating this path as a single parent can be difficult and lonely, Evan says. “When there are problems it can feel overwhelming because you don’t have a partner to lean on, to vent to or give you a break. I’m less miserable than I was when I wasn’t a single parent though, so I take the good with the bad.”

“I don’t really see [my depression] as negatively affecting my parenting; if anything, the kids drive me to keep going because they need me.”

But life’s mostly good, he emphasizes. He wouldn’t change who he was, or who his children are for anything. And like any parent, he just wants his children to be happy.

“It’s more important than anything else. Happiness is the most important thing for me. That would tell me that they’re at their best emotionally, they’re content with life – and it’d give me less to worry about.”

Histories

The Late President of Protest

Folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs gave voice to the righteously rebellious 1960s, while trying to keep his depression in check.

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

 – “When I’m Gone,” Phil Ochs

“I just can’t keep up with Phil,” Bob Dylan once said of his friend and fellow folk singer, Phil Ochs, who was just one year Dylan’s senior. The two met in the early 1960s New York music scene, cementing their fates—and often, their respective legacies—as forever intertwined. In the 2010 Ochs documentary, There but for Fortune, cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens noted that while anyone can like Dylan, many do not even know who Ochs was.

By the time he was 30, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs had written hundreds of protest anthems including “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” which covered by folk heroes Arlo Guthrie and Richard Thompson, and “Love Me, I’m A Liberal,” which was given the punk treatment by performers Jello Biafra and Mojo NIxon. Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, and even Pearl Jam have all paid homage to Ochs’ powerful legacy by playing his songs. When Ochs died at age 35, the size of the FBI’s file on him resembled a novel.

Ochs was no ordinary rebel. The El Paso, Texas-native was born in 1940 to a homemaker mother and physician father who struggled with depression and mania. To escape his volatile home life—his joyless mother, a nouveau riche Scottish immigrant, was said to refer to her children as “you stinking Americans”—he devoured stories of lone heroes found in Westerns. One of his favorite movies was Rebel Without A Cause.

Ochs and his brother, Michael, were always aware of how their family history might impact their health as adults. Phil was prone to depressive symptoms and mania from his youth. In There but for Fortune, Michael notes that he and Phil had an unlikely (and they hoped, unnecessary) brotherly pact to never commit the other, no matter the circumstances.

“The source of our liberty…”

After high school, Phil Ochs enrolled in the journalism school at The Ohio State University and worked for the school newspaper, though he was later demoted for his fiery political columns and eventually dropped out of college—but not before winning his roommate’s guitar on a bet that John F. Kennedy, not Richard Nixon, would win the 1960 election.

As he moved into adulthood, Ochs maintained a reputation as something of a hothead, prone to alienating loved ones. But he was also considered a brilliant, rising star who attracted plenty of likeminded rabble-rousers. “A democracy should turn you on,” he enthused of political activism.

He would stay up late reading headlines from which to draw songwriting inspiration. Some of his most famous song lyrics were ripped straight from the headlines or inspired by his fellow anti-war artists. “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” for example, was inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, whose neighbors heard her screams for help but did nothing to intervene. Lamenting the violence in response to the 1963 civil rights protests at the Birmingham, Alabama jail, he wrote “Talking Birmingham Jam.” “The War Is Over,” inspired by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s declaration that the war would end if enough people proclaimed it over and finished, became an anti-war anthem.

He also penned popular songs such as “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” a biting satirical critique of the lip service some supposed progressives give to causes while doing little to actually support them. Some songs were more personally motivated, such as “Jim Dean of Indiana,” a heartbreaking tribute to one of his cinematic heroes, James Dean.

The writer Richard Just notes in a recent piece for The Washington Post that Ochs is the folk singer all Americans need in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. “As we enter the Trump era, and as a new mass protest movement begins to take shape,” he explains, “[Ochs’] music would be worthy of a revival.”

“Taken together, his songs offer an exceptionally compelling tour of the deepest questions currently confronting liberals—questions about democracy, dissent and human decency in a grim political age,” Just adds.

Despite the birth of his only child, daughter Meegan, Ochs continued his restless touring and demanding performance schedule throughout the early and mid-1960s. Those who knew him best said he never turned down a benefit request, eager to play in support of worthy causes—and often, because those offered a larger audience than commercial shows. As the early ‘60s wore on, he played the landmark 1964 Newport Folk Festival and inked a deal for a new album. Somewhere along the way, England’s Melody Maker magazine dubbed him the “president of protest.” (Bob Dylan was named the king of the same.)

A 2017 Pitchfork review of Ochs’ 1965 album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, explains the songwriter’s ongoing sense of urgency. “To Ochs, there was no time for subtlety,” explains editor Stacey Anderson. “He sets his agenda firmly in the title track—an opener that rouses and incites despite a pallor of exhaustion, regret, and fear.”

To Ochs, there was no time for subtlety.

Ochs did derive some satisfaction from his tumultuous but satisfying personal life. He loved being a father, his estranged widow Alice explains in There But For Fortune. “It was safe to love a child,” Alice noted of Phil’s past familial pain and his ability to parent so happily in spite of a fractured relationship with his own mother and father.

Fatherhood did not dampen his political activism; if anything, it kept him fighting ever harder for social change. In 1968, along with his perhaps more famous political prankster co-founders, Ochs helped start the Youth International Party, the so-called Yippies who made headlines thanks to the street theater antics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. When he was called to testify at the trial for the Chicago Seven accused to inciting riots during the anti-Vietnam protests at that year’s Democratic Convention, Ochs recited the lyrics to his protest anthem, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” (The judge wouldn’t allow him to actually sing it in the courtroom.)

The album cover to Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”

Even as he began battling symptoms of mental illness in earnest, Ochs didn’t want to give credit to his mania for any of his songwriting or performance success. Still, according to Marc Eliot’s 1979 Ochs biography, Death of a Rebel, Ochs wrote all the songs for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement in just two weeks.

There are debates about what tormented Ochs as the ‘60s waned and the ‘70s approached. When you believe your generation can change the world and that momentum falls short of the radical revolution you anticipate, how do you continue to move forward? It wasn’t a struggle unique to Ochs but one shared by many of his contemporaries. Still, the promise of the 1960s counterculture seemed to hit Ochs harder than most when some of the highest goals for human rights and equality still seemed out of reach.

As it was for so many, the 1970s were hard on Ochs. And as is so often true, it’s hard to know what caused Ochs to start experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

As his health deteriorated and his career seemed uncertain, Ochs took a series of what he thought might be restorative trips to other parts of the world, including several countries in Africa, where he was among the first Americans to record on the continent. While in Tanzania, robbers mugged and beat him one night, his vocal chords crushed in the assault. The random violence, while physically devastating, had a darker psychological impact on an already shaky Ochs, who swore his assailant was a CIA operative. (His fears were not totally unfounded; his friend, the Chilean protest singer Victor Jara, was brutally murdered by dictator Augusto Pinochet’s army in 1973.)

As Ochs’ voice partially healed—he never regained the high end of his vocal range—he continued to perform and record sporadically but became increasingly paranoid and was never able to shake the demons that began to haunt him daily. He took on an alternate identity, John Butler Train, and became ever more divorced from the man he’d once been. He hung himself in 1976, leaving a rich legacy of music and activism to inspire the generations to follow.

In “That Was the President,” Ochs wrote of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination what could also double as his own eulogy:

Here’s a memory to share, here’s a memory to save
Of the sudden early ending of command
Yet a part of you and a part of me is buried in his grave
That was the President and that was the man

 

The Good Fight

Ghana’s Purple People

In Ghana, where mental health issues are widely misunderstood, a homespun support group helps people suffering from anxiety and depression.

Ceiling fans, planes flying above her hostel and anxiety over school work used to send Sandister Tei into a state of panic and shakiness.

When she went to a local doctor in her home country Ghana to try find out why she was having strange thoughts and these physical reactions to them, she was told she had malaria–a common disease caused by mosquito bites in this West African country.

At 19, she knew this diagnosis was wrong. She knew what malaria felt like, but didn’t see the connection to her current state.

Sandister Tei was 19 when she started suffering from anxiety attacks. She was diagnosed with malaria instead.

“Being nervous and panicking about things, I didn’t think malaria could do that to me.”

So, she did her own research on Google and happened upon the word “serotonin,” telling her that what was going on was more likely to do with a chemical imbalance.

It got her thinking about how she was as a child, she often suffered  fatigue and would worry a lot. People would accuse her of being lazy, or that she kept to herself too much. Her school work suffered as did her self-esteem. Thanks to Google, she had some light thrown on her situation.

“I did more and more reading and realized this thing is not as exclusive: there are others out there,” Tei, now 30, and an online journalist for one of Ghana’s top media houses, recalls.

Journalism Leads To A Proper Diagnosis

She found ways to try and cope and deal with her mental health problems, but it affected her university life. She was studying geography at the University of Ghana when she started working towards a career in journalism, kicking it off with the student rags and local newspapers.

She then started blogging, and posting on Facebook, which lead her to wanting to work in online journalism.

“Being nervous and panicking about things, I didn’t think malaria could do that to me.”

Tei sought out opportunities to learn more about online journalism, with her eyes set on studying outside Ghana, as she did not see any courses within the country that had this focus.

In 2013, Tei landed a scholarship to do her masters in journalism at Cardiff University in Wales.

It was in Wales that she went to another doctor and was properly diagnosed with depression.

That diagnosis and the treatment turned her life around, her grades improved as did her energy levels. It got her thinking about the years she suffered in Ghana, because no one was able to tell her what was going on with her health.

“If I had someone to tell me to go to the hospital to get this drug, maybe I would not have suffered this much needlessly for like ten years. So that is when I thought I should be able to tell people about this, to help somebody. I am not going to administer drugs, but tell them you might want to go to hospital because there is medicine for your problems.”

When she came back to Ghana in 2015, she felt it was only people who knew about mental illness that would speak about it.

There wasn’t too much education available on mental health. “It wasn’t a national conversation,” she found.

This is something the experts echo. In 2016, Executive Director of the Mental Health Authority, Dr. Akwasi Osei, told local media mental health care in Ghana needed critical attention. He said  Ghana’s doctor-patient ratio in the mental health sector stands at 1:1.7 million as compared to 1:1 million in Nigeria and 1:50,000 in Kenya. He quoted a report that suggested  41 percent of the population, predominantly women, suffered from mental distress and depression.

41 percent of Ghana’s population, predominantly women, suffer from mental distress and depression.

In late 2016,  nurses from the Accra Psychiatric Hospital went on strike to highlight how dangerously underfunded the facility was. It is often in the news for not having the means to feed and medicate its patients. In the capital Accra, it is hard not to notice the number of mentally unstable people left to fend for themselves on the streets.

With this context, Tei decided to start a mental health support group in Accra.

Ghana’s Purple People

A friend organized a free space for her to hold the meetings, and she named the group Purple People – an affirmative name for an affirmative group.

“When you are depressed, anxious or when you are in a very bad mood, people say you are feeling blue. Purple has some blue in it, and the color purple is linked to royalty, well-being, affluence, goodwill. A lot of positive things. I think that even though we are ‘blue people’ we have the potential to crossover to the purple space.”

There are about a dozen members, they can meet each week, whoever feels like meeting, can do so.

Tei Sandister founded Purple People as a way to help raise awareness of mental health in Ghana.

Tei keeps contact with the members in a private Facebook group, and then has a public page to post articles on mental health and to advertise the group meetings if people want to join.

Purple People seek to listen to each other on common experiences, share and shed light on coping strategies to help each other while also encouraging members to seek professional help.

Since she advertises the group through social media and a blogger email list, she has found most of the members are professionals in Ghana, aged 27 to about 36. There are health care workers, an entrepreneur, software engineer, an environmentalist and Tei is a journalist.

While the group members are well-educated, living in Accra, eventually Tei wants to be able to target those in this country who might not have the same access to information.

“With Purple People, all of us can speak English and all of that but at a certain time I will focus more on people who can not speak English or even access Google, or don’t have the internet.”

She plans to try spread the message of her group in one of Ghana’s local dialects–Akan, through local radio stations in the future.

With the current formation of Purple People, she says, people don’t just connect in the weekly meetings. 

“There have been times people will write there [in the Facebook group] they are feeling really bad and need help – can someone get to them. I don’t want to call it a hot line, but eventually it became something like that.”

When this happens, members will rally and get the person the help they need.

Despite starting the group, Tei also uses it to learn more about her own issues.

Last year, amid work-related problems, she started developing intense anxiety.

She turned to the group for some pointers on what was going on and how she can help manage it.

“I set up a group but ended up going back to the group and asking ‘I know some of you have panic attacks already how is this thing like’?”

In Ghana, if a person seeks treatment for depression, they are likely to be taken to a hospital or a church group.

Another member of the group held a session for those who wanted to learn more about anxiety and shared coping mechanisms.

However, Tei is quick to point out that the group does not try, or seek to treat people, but instead helps them finds ways to get treatment, or deal with issues.

They support each other to go to the hospital to get professional help.

Tei explains that in Ghana, if a person seeks treatment, or someone seeks it on their behalf they are likely to be taken to a hospital, or a church group. Ghana does not have the General Practitioner (GP) system many western countries have.

In cases where someone might be aggressive, Tei notes they might be checked into a psychiatric  hospital, though depending on who is trying to help them, they might end up at a church, under the belief that prayers will fix them.

It was Google that helped her realize her racing head wasn’t malaria, and it was through the internet she brought Purple People together. And with her whole work being about being online, this extends to the little free time she has as well. Tei is involved with the Wikipedia community, where she edits Wikipedia Ghana. She is a co-founder of the Wikipedia Ghana community, and one of its representatives.

A Changing Direction

While she had to search hard to identify what was going on with her 11 years ago, Tei says there is a lot more mental health awareness and advocacy in Ghana now. Those who feel like they are lost in the dark luckily have more avenues to turn to.

Those who feel like they are lost in the dark luckily have more avenues to turn to.

“I have turned on the radio a few times and heard people talking about mental heath, and I have read a few articles here and there of people talking about depression.

“I have sat in meetings where people have come out and said ‘Hey I am depressed, have anxiety or am panicking’,” Tei says.

“I get the impression people are becoming more aware and speaking up.”

 

Profiles

Bipolar, Face-Blind, And Internet Famous

Comedian Michael Noker wants everyone on YouTube to know his face... even if he can't know it himself

Every week, hundreds of viewers tune into Michael Noker on YouTube, ready to laugh at his breezy tales of dating disasters and self-deprecating life advice. On Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, photo feeds punctuated by Michael’s sardonically raised eyebrows have attracted nine thousand or so followers.

As his online presence grows, the twenty-six-year-old is starting to become recognizable… an irony that makes him chuckle, since face blindness means, for this YouTuber, recognition’s a one-way street.

He admits it’s a little odd for someone with face blindness –or prosopagnosia–to use their own image to seek fame and fortune on the internet, but Michael says it’s a way of pushing himself out of his comfort zone.

“I went through a period of my life–basically the first twenty-five years of my life–when I was afraid of everything. I was really anxious and I was terrified of lots of things.”

Last year, he decided to change his life. “YouTube is something that involves a lot of creativity, and it was also one of the scariest things I could think of, because what’s more terrifying than putting your face on the internet?”

“What’s more terrifying than putting your face on the internet?”

Watching Michael’s upbeat, confessional-style videos, where he seems to be almost always on the verge of laughter, there’s no hint at the anxiety and depression that have dogged him throughout his life, beginning with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at fifteen. But like face blindness, that’s the nature of depression, he points out. It’s not a heart-on-sleeve condition.

“I struggled with a lot of things for a long time, I felt ugly, unwanted, unlovable, I felt like a loser and like I didn’t have anything to offer to the world.”

Michael Noker has face blindness.

Creating videos on YouTube is a way of presenting the person he wants to be to the world. Self-acceptance is a theme that runs through his work, and Michael, who describes himself on one of his videos as “moderately, yet approachably-attractive male”, says his own journey is still a work in progress.

After spending a few years unhappily medicated–“I don’t know anybody who says, ‘hey, I’m on Prozac and I feel great!”–Michael swapped medication for meditation after talking to a roommate about Buddhism.

Depression is not a heart-on-sleeve condition.

He’s quick to point out this route isn’t for everyone. “It was a very foolish decision that worked out very well for me.”

“In meditation you take the idea and observe it, then you just let it go. You don’t assign a label to it or identify it as good or bad then you let it go. It’s the same thing with emotions, if you feel sad you don’t have to feel bad with it.”

Sadness doesn’t have to be a negative feeling that drags you down, he points out. “That was a strange thought but it works for me.”

This meditative technique is a central tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, and, Michael says, a powerful way to take control of a mind that’s completely out of control.

“As soon as I stopped letting my thoughts run wild, and stopped calling myself ugly or worthless, everything went back to normal and I had this new emotion, happiness. I am a happy person, who knew?”

I am a happy person, who knew?

“To help myself, I look at the really good parts of me you don’t find in everybody. For me that is compassion, empathy. I’m a very good listener, good at supporting people. I’m a great cheerleader, if you’ve got me on the sidelines you’re going to feel special you’re going to feel empowered.”

Dealing with the aftermath of his divorce has played a large part in this journey. Michael met his ex-husband in an online chatroom at the age of sixteen. At nineteen, he got married.

“I’d never dated before, I met him on a chat room online. Being a gay teenager, that’s your option as far as seeing people. It’s been a decade, we’ve made some progress, there are more safe spaces now, but at the time; if you were gay and a teenager and you wanted to meet other gay people you got online.”

Being gay in New Mexico isn’t easy, but the hate is one-sided: Noker tries to love everyone.

While he says neither bipolar disorder nor face blindness had an impact on his relationship–except for a few awkward dinner parties where he failed to recognize his husband’s friends despite several introductions–he admits the decision to stop taking his meds was central to the breakdown of his marriage at the age of twenty-three.

“[My ex husband] was very much against that, he did not want me to do that, for good reasons. It’s a very dangerous, risky choice, it’s taking your life into your own hands, when your hands have proven incapable so far.”

Michael moves from earnestness and flippancy in describing the lessons learned from his break up – which he’s also detailed on YouTube. “It wasn’t a great relationship but I learned things there are things you can gain. It’s not a happy relationship that was ending, even if you don’t recognize it as being bad, so that is one perspective.”

“You also get to watch a whole bunch of romantic comedies, you get to cry, you get to eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate syrup. Break-ups are great.”

Six months ago, Michael quit his regular job and moved from Albuquerque to El Paso to concentrate on “building an empire” full time. “I’ve been bold and fearless and stupid… very, very stupid, but mostly bold and fearless. I’ve gotten really lucky.”

“I’ve been bold and fearless and stupid… very, very stupid, but mostly bold and fearless. I’ve gotten really lucky.”

As his nascent media empire grows, he’s learning a fair bit about what it means to be a public figure. That includes dealing with less-than-complimentary comments, which he chooses to interpret as constructive criticism.

“When people leave you really horrible comments it can push you in the right direction. Obviously they don’t say ‘hey, this is a really ineffective way to communicate, I would appreciate it if you’d work a little bit to clarify the message’. No. They say ‘go die in a fire, go kill yourself’. I try and find the message behind that and use it to improve.”

Some of the exploits detailed in his videos–like dealing with a creepy neighbor who tried to catfish him (pretending to be someone else online) with fake pictures, or receiving unsolicited cock shots from strangers–sound less than ideal, but Michael turns these into funny vignettes to amuse his audience.

“Most of my comedy comes from dating, because dating is hysterical.”

Towering over most of the population at six-foot-four inches, platinum blonde Michael stands out in a crowd. But he shrugs off the suggestion that being unable to identify others in return can be disconcerting. After all, he’s lived with face blindness his whole life, and developed a number of coping strategies.

“When I have a conversation with someone face to face, I note how they talk, how they stand; I have to pick out something unique about them, like tattoos, or height. So if someone’s tall and blond with tattoos I’ll know who that is, but if you show me a picture, I’ll be like, uhhh, I don’t know.”

Michael can trace his memory of face blindness to a perm that sent him screaming to his room.

Michael posing on a rock in Red Sands.

He was four or five, and his mom had just come home from the salon. “She had a bad perm, straight out of 1986,” he says. But it wasn’t the fashion faux-pas that terrified the young boy–the change in hairstyle meant he no longer knew his mother.

“I just started screaming and ran away from her and wouldn’t come out of my room.”

He laughs as he remembers the incident, but admits face blindness meant childhood was sometimes confusing.

It came as a shock when Michael discovered not everyone uses hairstyles to tell people apart.

Like the time he was eleven, when he became separated from his family at a fairground.

“I was looking for my parents and I saw a guy with a bald head, so I thought it was my stepdad and I tried to talk to him. He was staring at me like, what is this crazy small child talking about? So I was like ‘you’re not my dad’. Then I saw a lady with blonde hair and I’d think, oh, that’s my mom … no, not my mom.”

It came as a shock when the adolescent Michael discovered not everyone uses hairstyles to tell people apart. “There was this moment where I was like, oh, okay, so apparently people recognize each other by faces.”

So what does he see when he looks in the mirror?

“I do recognize myself. But it’s been tricky. I’m naturally brunette, but about a year ago I started to bleach my hair. All of my older pictures have brown hair, so when I look at them I don’t recognize myself. I’m aware it was me, I remember when the photo was taken, but it doesn’t look like me anymore.”

Adolescence is difficult enough without being able to recognize your friends. Add to that coming out as  gay and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in small-town New Mexico, and you could have a teenage nightmare.

Yes, he admits, he had a rough couple of years. But coming out was one of the easier parts.

It happened in a high school geometry class. “[My classmate] said ‘dude, I have a question. Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘yeah,’ and she was like “cool.” And then everybody knew, and no one cared.”

 

Based on geography, El Paso should be conservative, but is actually laid back and friendly, Michael says. He hasn’t had any problems in his day-to-day life, but he’s aware progress still needs to be made.

“I have a deep appreciation of how much we still have to fight. There are certain people I meet, and as soon I talk to them I know they hate me, and I think, yeah, you don’t like me because I’m gay.”

But the hate is one-sided, he says: there’s too much of it in the world already.

“There is something good in everybody, and I do love everybody and want them to do well. That’s the choice I’ve made, and how I’m choosing to live.”

 

Q&As

We Are Legion, We Anxious People

Author and ex-dominatrix Kat Kinsman talks about how to defeat "the feral cat to depression's black dog" and "coming out" as mentally ill.

Dancing, driving, getting a haircut, seeing the doctor, talking on the telephone, getting trapped in a crowded subway car, and picking up a pair of shoes from the cobbler: These are a few of writer and editor Kat Kinsman’s irrational fears. She knows they’re irrational, but that knowledge doesn’t stop her from blanching in terror at a FaceTime request, or plotting escape routes while standing as close to the doors as possible whenever she rides a train.

Kinsman, a senior editor at food website Extra Crispy, was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder at age 14, and has been plagued by what she calls “the feral cat to depression’s black dog” ever since.

She’s far from alone: 18 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, two-thirds of them women, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The average age of onset is 11.

“We are legion, we anxious people,” Kinsman writes in her painful, funny new memoir, Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves. But the stigma surrounding mental illness leads many to suffer in silence: “We hunker and hide in fear of being judged imperfect, unlovable, high maintenance, and insane. We do not speak of it.”

Kinsman wants to change that. Her brave, confessional book is a plea to normalize the conversation surrounding mental illness. Anxious readers might find solace in seeing their own battles reflected in hers, while lucky unaffected readers will come to better understand the plight of their clinically nervous friends.

The cover of Kinsman’s memoirs.

In her book, Kinsman recalls her quaking hands during a kindergarten read-aloud; the “stomach-sick, rot-brain, dizzy-headed, sweat-soaked-sheet” weeks of withdrawal from the antidepressant Effexor; and panic attacks that leave her crumpled on the floor.

They’ll also find hope: Kinsman finds respite in her dungeon-dwelling years as a dominatrix, named Mistress Cherry; in caring for a twitchy pet rabbit named Claudette; in “coming out” as anxious in a CNN blog post that went viral; and in “orgasms, Champagne, L-theanine, [and] holding [her husband] Douglas’s hand.”

We talked to Kinsman about how to “come out” to family, friends, and coworkers as mentally ill; the power of “channeling your inner frat boy” (or your inner dominatrix, whatever suits); and how to cope with anxiety in times of political turmoil.  

Why did you write a memoir about anxiety?

I wanted to normalize the conversation about mental illness and put out a plea for better care. I realized the amount of privilege I have: the more I talk about mental illness, the more I talk to people who can’t afford healthcare. I’m sick of the stigma, of people feeling like less than they are. I’m sick of excellent humans feeling like freaks when we’re all struggling.

I’m sick of excellent humans feeling like freaks when we’re all struggling.

Did the process of writing about being anxious make you anxious?

The book was pretty awful to write. There’s some stuff in there that I’ve never told anyone. But I thought that if I experienced these things, someone else probably did, too, and this might relieve them of feeling like a freak and broken. I wanted to be that kind of light in darkness, for people to see their own experiences reflected out there.

In Hi, Anxiety, you chronicle your years spent working as a dominatrix, named Mistress Cherry, and the relief you found in acting as this powerful alter ego. How can anxious people who don’t necessarily want to go become dominatrices employ the tools you learned while working as Mistress Cherry?

I like to channel my inner frat boy. When I worked at Maxim, I sometimes adopted the persona of this dude Chet. Chet’s not a bad guy. But Chet sees what Chet wants and Chet’s gonna get it. He deserves it, he’s worthy of it. I see people like Chet, who just assume things are there for the taking, and it just wouldn’t occur to them that world wasn’t built for them. They mean no harm, they’re not bad people. They’ve always been told the world is for them.

I remember a good friend telling me she didn’t think she was worthy of stuff that she’d been given. But if not you, who? You’re a great person who goes out of the way to make people feel understood and normalize the conversation. If you don’t deserve good things, then who the hell does?

I remember a good friend telling me she didn’t think she was worthy of stuff that she’d been given. But if not you, who?

When the political world seems to reflect your inner chaos–as it has in the past several months–how do you cope with anxiety? What has your experience with anxiety been like in the wake of the U.S. presidential election?

It’s hard to separate out the strands of anxiety as of late. The book came out week after election. Before that, my mom was very sick. And there’s all this free-floating anxiety that I have anyway. All of a sudden, it had something to stick to. It’s hard to unravel the threads and figure out which is which. Talking about mental illness has been normalized lately because even people who had previously not experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder were suffering from panic attacks from very specific fears tied to the political landscape. I had a couple friends end up in ER after having panic attacks; they thought they were dying.

What do you suggest as coping devices for politically-induced anxiety?

I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t be scared, because we all should. It’s entirely rational to be frightened right now. It’s disturbing when you have GAD–this free-floating, out-of-the-blue physical upset—-so it’s almost kind of a relief to have something concrete to tie the anxiety to, because then you can do something. In this case, it’s a little easier to metastasize into anger and action. But you also want to avoid hyper vigilance–the feeling that ‘Oh, if I don’t make that phone call to my congressman, or stay up late refreshing Twitter, the world’s gonna end.’ Not everything is resting on your shoulders.

Preemptive worry and magical thinking doesn’t solve anything. You’re allowed to take care of yourself and rest and be a person. The battle is not going away anytime soon. There’s a long haul ahead of us. I think you can calm yourself without normalizing anything. I’ve been doing this myself: Set an alarm or reminder on your phone to stand up and breathe once or twice day. Give yourself the luxury of standing and taking a couple breaths.

You talk about “coming out” as anxious or otherwise mentally ill. Do you have any tips for people who want to talk for the first time to friends, family, or employers about their mental illness?

I think the internet can be a really great safe zone for a lot of people. Even if you can’t be public [about your mental illness], you can find support in strangers on the internet. Weirdly, the anxiety group on Reddit is fantastic, incredibly empathetic and supportive. Pockets of the internet in pockets are kinder than people could imagine.

Nobody ever died of a panic attack. Even if it feels like it…

As for personal relationships, if you’re “coming out” in blog posts, or on social media, if there’s someone who pushes back at you because of that, they don’t deserve to have you in their life. If you’re saying ‘Hey, I’m a vulnerable person, I have this illness,” and they’re not willing to be sympathetic, you should reevaluate your relationship with them. Part of taking care of yourself is figuring out who you want to voluntarily spend time with. I believe very strongly in chosen family, and I’ve taken care to surround myself with people who are good, supportive, and have my best interests at heart.

Come armed with some things for them to read. Some sites with good mental health coverage are The Establishment, The Mighty, a new site called Anxy is coming out. “Here’s what it is, you don’t have to be afraid. You have a new piece of information about me, or maybe an answer—here’s why I don’t go to parties, or why I flaked out, or why I’m always late. Here’s an explanation. Maybe we can start a dialogue about it.”

Kinsman at a recent talk.

What’s the most helpful thing a shrink has ever told you?

“Nobody ever died of a panic attack.” Even though it feels like it–it feels so much like you’re dying when a panic attack is happening—you aren’t. That’s really helped me get through a lot. To know that I’m not actually dying when [a panic attack] is happening. That’s hugely helpful. Also, a therapist taught me how to do three deep breaths, in through my nose and out through my mouth. I saw him on and off for 15 years, and he drilled that into me.

What are your favorite books about mental illness?

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan—it’s not about mental illness per se, but a brain disorder that made her crazy for a brief period, and what she learned about life and how people regarded her when she was in this state. Atlantic editor Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxietythat book did a huge amount to really open up the topic of anxiety in contemporary books.  It’s really tremendous, and also surprising—you’re the editor of this tremendously influential publication, and you have all this? I love how Roxane Gay puts all her stuff out in the world, the way she talks about her issues fitting into world. Whether you can relate to them or not, they’re so thoughtfully and humanly presented that if you don’t like her writing, I think there’s something slightly off in your soul.

You write a bit about impostor syndrome–about the fear of being found out that you’re not a “real” reporter while writing about food on CNN. Now that you’ve published a book, are a senior editor of a Time, Inc. website, and have received all kinds of positive feedback about your work, do you still feel like an impostor?

Even more so. Now there’s an actual document and people are gonna think, “Why her?” With greater exposure comes greater risk. I had a stress dream the other night that someone a former colleague reviewed the book, and he had been waiting the whole time to do a takedown of me—to say what a terrible writer, reporter, and human being I was.

You can buy Kat Kinsman’s memoir Hi, Anxiety through Amazon here.

 

Profiles

Princess Leia’s Patronus

Therapy animals like Carrie Fisher's bulldog, Gary, are more than just pets. They're soothers of the soul.

She may have been best known as a princess, but Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher, who died at the end of 2016, was much more than an actress. She was a fearful wit, a raw and clever writer, and a tireless mental health advocate, having suffered with Bipolar Disorder throughout her life.

Carrie Fisher also had a companion animal: a goofy French Bulldog with a personality as large as his constantly protruding tongue. His name is Gary Fisher, and he accompanied Carrie everywhere, from the red carpet to the White House. He has over ten thousand followers on both Twitter and Instagram.

Din/date night with mom 🐶❤️️#garyinitaly2016 #garytravelstheworld #garyloveshismom

A post shared by Gary Fisher (@garyfisher) on

 

He was by her side during many interviews, and she spoke about how his presence helped her deal with her mental illness illness.

“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she told ABC News in 2000. “I have two moods. One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”

Bipolar Disorder is characterized by these unpredictable changes. Manic episodes can bring excessive energy, decreased need for sleep, exaggerated self-confidence, and reckless behavior, while  depressive episodes induce severe low moods, inability to concentrate, and lethargy. The condition can be managed with medications and psychotherapy, but for Carrie and many others, there’s a cuddlier way to treat their condition: therapy animals, like Gary Fisher, who exist to reduce the anxiety and loneliness that can come from being chronically ill.

Fisher is not the only celebrity to have a therapy animal.

Musician Aesop Rock, the New York American hip-hop artist known for his famously verbose rhymes, suffers from depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. But recently, he’s had a bit of a breakthrough, something he talks about in Kirby, a track about his cat from this year’s Impossible Kid. The final lines, “Fifteen years taking prescriptions / Now a shrink like, I’onno, maybe get a kitten,” suggest that animals have an important role to play in mental health treatment.

Portland musician Aesop Rock credits his cat, Kirby, with helping relieve his chronic depression.

Rolling Stone magazine asked the rapper if a therapist did actually make the recommendation. “Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “I don’t know if it was brought up by them or brought up by me, but it was definitely confirmed as a good idea. Just how animals can give us, you know, a feeling of a purpose, to some degree, and just taking care of something can be a positive thing.”

The science is all there. A South African study showed that interaction with dogs can double a person’s blood oxytocin–a hormone and neurotransmitter that controls fear and anxiety–as well as increasing beta endorphins (natural painkillers), and dopamine.

Researchers at the University of Missouri also found that petting dogs causes spikes in serotonin, the neurotransmitter that many antidepressants attempt to elevate.

“By showing how interacting with pets actually works,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, “we can help animal-assisted therapy become a medically accepted intervention— one that could be prescribed like medicine and reimbursed by insurance.”

An examination of studies on the role of oxytocin release in human-animal interaction ring up an impressive list of benefits. The presence of a companion animal has measurable anti-stress effects, reducing fear and anxiety and promoting calmness. Having an animal at home can also lead to better physical health – one study showed that pet owners had 15 per cent fewer doctor visits than non-owners. Plus, oxytocin–often called the “love hormone”–helps increase empathy, memory, trust, positive self-view, and social skills.

The author’s cat, Carina, barely sits still long enough for a selfie.

I can testify. I have my own oxytocin-inducing fur friend, a rescue cat I adopted five years ago from a shelter where I was volunteering. I had no intention of getting a pet, but Carina–who made a name for herself as a revolutionary by learning how to open cages and letting herself and other cats out– stole my heart. I’ve never looked back.

Therapy animals don’t always reduce anxiety, of course. Take it from me. A few mornings ago, I  walked into my bedroom after taking a shower – only to hear the telltale noise of a cat about to be sick.  “Oh no!” I thought. “Where is she?” I looked around wildly then dropped to my knees and peered under the bed.

And there she was… right next to my pile of carefully wrapped and hidden Christmas presents. I dove, not thinking anything beyond ensuring that my family wasn’t going to get a box of cat barf for Christmas. I got there in the nick of time. The second I scooped her up, she let rip. All. Over. Me.

Yes. Half naked, clawed, covered in cat sick. What a way to start the day.

But I quickly forgave her, because Carina is my rock. When my chronic pain, fatigue, and depression hit, she’s there. Unlike humans, there’s never any judgement when I can’t meet the day. In fact, she’s not only not judgemental: she’s thrilled that I’m spending the day in bed with her. She’s the warm furry “little spoon” that makes the situation bearable.

Anthea Whittle, who spoke with Folks last year about her rare neurological disorder, says the same about her cat Hollyberry.

“I first met Holly when she was living with a friend, being around three other cats was making her stressed and anxious. I took her on and was really pleased that her condition instantly improved It wasn’t long before she became my best friend. She never criticizes me or cares if I sleep all day – in fact she usually joins in. Her genuine affection for me is clear, I am her person now, the one she trusts, and that feels really great. She has an amusing personality and is such an adorable companion constantly, whether I’m feeling well or unwell.”

“It just feels good to be able to provide a happy life for her and have her unquestioning affection in return.”

 

Carrie Fisher was a force to be reckoned with. She spoke openly about living with mental illness, her past taking illegal drugs to deal with her disorder, and the pressure of being a woman in the film industry. And, of course, she talked about Gary and what he meant to her.

“He’s very soothing to have around,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross in November.

“Is he officially a therapy dog?” asked Gross. “You get to take him everywhere… Did you have him certified as a therapy dog so you could take him onto planes and things like that?”

“Yes, yes,” responded Carrie. “… he’s just very nice to have around. So he sits with me on the plane. Frequently, he sits in the chair and I sit on the ground.”

When I awoke to the news of Carrie’s death, like so many others I was terribly sad–and one of my immediate thoughts was: how will Gary cope?

The dog’s social media accounts remain active, and Carrie’s daughter Billie Lourd has taken Gary in. Most of the posts are sad, first-person anthropomorphizations about how much Gary misses Carrie.

That’s what makes Gary Fisher amazing. Even now, he’s providing therapy to people.  His owner might be dead, but as the world mourns Carrie Fisher, they externalize their grief upon this timelessly goofy dog, filling the comments on his social media posts with outpourings of love, affection, and support…. all writing straight to him, like Gary can read the comments.

Even after her death, Carrie remains a light for many people with mental illness: how to cope, how to keep going, and how to face stigma head on. “I outlasted my problems,” she said in that famous ABC interview. “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that.”

Meanwhile, Gary Fisher, and other therapy animals, provide a different kind of light: that even in the midst of chronic illness, or darkest depression, every human is worthy of acceptance. Every human is worthy of being loved.

Histories

Virginia Woolf’s Powerful Essay On Illness

In "On Being Ill", the feminist author asked an important question: why isn't illness one of the great themes of literature, alongside love and battle?

Virginia Woolf was no stranger to suffering from various ailments. The successful feminist novelist–best known for A Room Of One’s Own, the book-length essay in which she declared that women writers need a room of their own for serious scholarship and thought–long struggled with depression. So notable were Woolf’s struggles with what we now call bipolar disorder that several biographies, rather than focus on her brilliant modernist essays and innovative criticism, are almost solely devoted to dissecting her mental illness and its impact on her life and career.

This treatment, while perhaps frustrating, isn’t entirely unwarranted. Often, Woolf’s real-life experiences made it into her fiction. For example, in her popular novel, Mrs. Dalloway, she explores the psyche of a returning World War I soldier with post-traumatic stress, which leads to hallucinations and eventually a far more tragic fate.

But Woolf offered a more personal contribution to the public discourse about disease with her 1925 essay, “On Being Ill.” Commissioned by her friend, the writer and critic T. S. Eliot, for the British literary magazine The Criterion, Woolf wrote the piece shortly after suffering a nervous breakdown. Being ill was, at that time, no doubt top of mind.

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Nicole Kidman famously played Woolf in The Hours.

Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf was born in England in 1882, a time and place that might’ve served her creative aspirations much differently were she not the daughter of a prominent writer and editor, Sir Leslie Stephen, and the model and philanthropist Julia Stephen. Woolf’s mother Julia died of influenza when Woolf was just 13–and Woolf’s beloved half-sister passed away within another few years–which lead to the first of her depressive episodes. She eventually married fellow writer and political theorist Leonard Woolf, with whom she enjoyed a reportedly happy marriage as she continued to manage her own health and bloomed into a renowned writer.

Written when she was about 42 years old, Woolf had considerable experience with illness when she penned “On Being Ill,” having been in and out of mental hospitals several times. Indeed, she wrote the essay while ill in bed.

In her lengthy piece, Woolf considers the place of illness in then-modern literature and culture. She begins the piece:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this an infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

The cover to the Hogarth Press edition of "On Being Ill."

The cover to the Hogarth Press edition of “On Being Ill.”

Despite her history of mental illness, not everyone thought Woolf’s contribution to the illness dialogue was warranted, nor has “On Being Ill” garnered the popularity of her more well-known works. Writing about a reissue of the essay in the New York Times in 2002, Judith Shulevitz posits, “”On Being Ill” also begins with a silly question: why isn’t illness one of the great themes of literature, up there with love and battle? But by 1925, it was and had been for some time.”

While this is true, women’s voices speaking and writing about illness were hardly as widely and forcefully amplified as their male counterparts; Shulevitz mentions Proust, Chacuer, the Brontes and a Thomas Mann book published just one year before “On Being Ill.”

Shulevitz also dismissively writes, “Overstatement, though, is a trope of the ill, a sick person’s way of gesticulating toward a point, rather than actually making it.”

This sort of disdainful sentiment, still often the way writing about illness is read and perceived by the immune and well, is exactly why Woolf’s contribution on the subject matters so greatly.

A 2012 reissue of the essay, paired with a piece by Woolf’s mother and sometimes-caregiver Julia Stephen, shines further light on Woolf’s experience growing up ill, and how gaining attention and cultivating creativity despite of or perhaps because of bouts of illness played a key role from an early age. Mary Mann insightfully reviews the slim volume for the literary blog Bookslut, explaining that this particular edition includes a much more in-depth history of Stephen’s role in caring for Woolf as well as many others. Mann further notes, “An excellent read for both nurses and patients, this is also a book about mothers and daughters.”

It makes sense, then, that Woolf elaborated the isolation and loneliness of illness in “On Being Ill,” examining how the vulnerability and unknowable nature of disease and affliction can force a sort of child-like reversion in even the most hearty, headstrong adult:

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example; we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretence must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.”

Sometimes, especially when voices have been historically excluded, any volume–meaning both more by measure or tone–offsets an otherwise lopsided, lacking canon. Woolf’s efforts to change that still echo nearly a century later, and still find a home among readers seeking historical perspective on living with a prolonged, mis- or undiagnosed condition.

Woolf as a young woman.

Woolf as a young woman.

Eliot published “On Being Ill” in The Criterion in 1926, and a revised version was republished the same year in Forum magazine under the alternate name, “Illness: An Unexploited Mine.” Soon, more of Woolf’s more lighthearted works followed, including the novels Orlando and The Waves. And in 1929, she wrote her most well-known piece of nonfiction, A Room of One’s Own, a phrase that’s spawned bookstores bearing the name, as well as an entire subset of literary scholarship dedicated to understanding Woolf’s writings and a cottage industry of vaguely feminist tchotchkes and t-shirts.

Woolf eventually succumbed to the depression that had long clouded her life and influenced her work, taking her own life in 1941. Because she turned suffering into more than just fiction, Woolf’s literary legacy has often (and rightly) overshadowed her personal struggles. In “On Being Ill,” she notes:

Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic 
poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions—[Thomas] De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust—literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible and non-existent.

Woolf may not been the only writer leading the charge to change society’s perception of illness, but her part should be recognized and respected for its place in an evolving, evocative canon of writing on health, illness and everything in between.

You can read the full text of “On Being Ill” here.

 

Profiles

A Bird’s Eye View Of Depression

By attaching a time-lapse camera to her ceiling, Leah Miriam Cooper is turning her depression into an animated flip book

Nestled in her two-bedroom walk-up located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Leah Miriam Cooper is prone to staying awake through crisp New England nights. Alone in her living room, Leah uses her personal experiences to forge connections with the outside world through her art. “I know this sounds hokey,” she says, “but my art is my home.”

Leah is a freelance designer, an imager, and a photographer. “I’ve always been creative,” the 27-year-old native of North Kingstown, Rhode Island explains. “When I was five or six, I filled out one of those books that asked what you wanted to be when you grow up. I wrote ‘artist’ and it’s been that way ever since.”

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Photo: Leah Miriam Cooper

Leah navigates life’s changes with her camera in hand. “Since I work in photography, I am always shooting,” the artist explains. “I love the accessibility of digital photography.” Digital also makes sense on a practical level. “The work I do often needs to be in color, but I don’t always have access to color dark rooms.”

Unlike other artists who seek studio space, Leah creates art in her home, especially when depressive episodes strike. For her latest project, Leah secured a point and shoot camera to the ceiling of her living room with a handful of barrettes and hair-ties. Over the course of four months, the camera documented Leah’s life within the scope of her living room. From there, Leah is compiling the images into a flip-book.

Leah creates art in her home, especially when depressive episodes strike.

On her recent project, Leah notes that it is very much still an experiment. “I realized that time lapse work tends to be a time-based form of media and felt that this was the answer for this project,” she explains. “It allows my project to exist as time-based as well as in print, combining the best of two worlds. It’s still an experiment- but it’s important to experiment.”

Thematically, the combination of still images and a flip-book speaks to what is depicted in the photographs. The still images remind viewers of how often we feel stuck in time and unable to escape our space, while viewing them in a flip-book module reinforces the rapid passage of time, and the subsequent blur effect we so often feel when looking back at transitional periods of our lives.

“In my newest series, I felt stuck and isolated and really wanted to show that,” Leah explains. “I felt that staying in the apartment on my computer was somewhat universal, that post grad life often leads to a career limbo where you’re stuck. Of course, what I was going through was heightened by my illness, but I’m hoping others relate to the work.”

“I’m bipolar,” Leah says. “I am generally open about my illness with the world. I believe that part of kicking the stigma is not treating it like it should be shameful.”

I believe that part of kicking the stigma is not treating [depression] like it should be shameful.

Leah, like roughly five million other Americans, lives with bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness that is often stigmatized and stereotyped in the media. For most people, bipolar disorder is categorized by experiencing periods of mania and depression that can range in time from days to months. Bipolar disorder is often characterized by severe shifts in mood, activity level, and energy, though for many patients with bipolar, symptoms vary in relation to factors outside of chemical imbalance, such as stress, relationships, and even the seasons.

Leah is open about her mental illness in both her professional and personal life, but being transparent about an often misunderstood illness isn’t always easy. “I feel like people think that if I’m medicated, go to therapy, and am mildly successful, then the illness is magically cured,” she says.

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Photo: Leah Miriam Cooper

Unfortunately, treating chronic mental health issues is not so simple. Leah resists societal pressure to stay silent about life with a mental illness, and asks for help when she needs it.“Lately I talk it out with people and remind them that I will have bad days and still need support,” she says.

Though Leah is a solo artist, she is happy to have support from those who know her best. “My roommate is one of my main supports,” she explains. “We met in grad school and since he’s an artist he’s been able to give me emotional friend support and art support. I’d say that I turn to him whenever I need help making artistic choices.”

For Leah, the depressive episodes and phases of mania that come with bipolar do not stall her art. Instead, Leah copes with the highs and lows of her illness and the tumultuous nature of life in general by generating art in ways that reflect her life.

Leah, seen from eye-level.

Leah, seen from eye-level.

“I’ve always been very interested in incorporating my own domestic space within my work,” she explains. “I started with my bedroom at my parents house in undergrad. Then my grad school apartment in Baltimore was the center of any work I was creating.”

Now, Leah’s living room is the hub of her work. “I originally thought of doing this project in my bedroom,” she says, “but realized it would be more interesting to take photos in a shared space, especially since I spent more of my time in the living room.”

Leah’s recent work engages notions of the uncanny into everyday life. A small living room, a coffee table, and the people who come in and out of her home. “I’m sort of fascinated by the complications of daily life that we often overlook,” she says. “I turned to this project when I was experiencing a depressive episode after finishing grad school.”

“I’m sort of fascinated by the complications of daily life that we often overlook…”

“I turned to more of a documentary style of photography after focusing on constructed images for the majority of my career. I felt that making images in a new way as well as creating a portrait of an extremely hard time for me would help.”

Living with bipolar disorder has an impact on the themes Leah explores in her art, as well as the practical side of working. “When I’m depressed, I’m much more likely to make work at night, whether that’s editing, coming up with ideas, anything. I tend to mess up my sleeping when I’m depressed and sleep all day,” Leah admits. “I stay up all night and become hypomanic.”

Leah’s moods and energy levels eventually shift, as does her approach to her current project. “When I’m feeling ok, work takes place during the day and is a lot less manic. My actions need to be more thought out and the series itself becomes more concept based.”

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Photo: Leah Miriam Cooper

As an artist, Leah creates her own boundaries about where her work ends and she begins. “I try my best to create work no matter my emotional state, but I do give myself art vacations,” she explains. “I tend to need to reload, especially after a large project.” Self-care is important for any artist when it comes to preventing burn-out, but treating one’s self with forgiveness and recognizing limits is especially prudent when living with a chronic illness.

“My creativity is always around, but a little harder to harness when I’m depressed,” Leah explains. “If I’m feeling a block when I’m depressed I spend a ton of time at museums and galleries til I’m inspired again. I try to stay motivated no matter what.”

Leah’s work largely involves self-portraiture and strong investigations of the self in relation to the world around her. After a traumatic event in the Spring of 2011, Leah became both photographer and subject to document her process of healing and recovery.

Leah's earlier work dealing with her depressive episodes was a lot more violent.

Leah’s earlier work dealing with her depressive episodes was a lot more aggressive.

“When I was still unpacking what happened to me, I did a lot of skin pulling imagesself portraits where I pulled the flesh on my face or my body,” Leah explains. “At the time I didn’t notice how violent they were, but looking back they’re very aggressive.” For Leah, this trauma manifested in her work, and she transitioned from creating art for aesthetic purposes to creating art that is rich in emotion and raw imagery.

Now, Leah describes herself as creative, empathetic, and driven. Though she works through her depressive episodes, Leah also recognizes when she needs to step back from her work. “Working on art always helps me feel productive, which makes me feel better overall. Though, I have taken time off from art to work on myself from time to time. I try to be very self-forgiving when in a rough spot.”

Leah’s work has caught the attention of international reviewers and chic showrooms in New York City alike. Her master’s thesis, titled Projections, too involved domestic settings, as Leah scanned family photos into 35-millimeter slides before projecting them onto her apartment walls. These manipulated images give the sense that her grandparents, long deceased at the time, were in her bedroom or at the dinner table, for instance. As a whole, Leah’s work is at once tender and unsettling, urging viewers to voyeur into her life before taking a step back and investigating their own.

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Photo: Leah Miriam Cooper

In spite of much success with her art, Leah admits that she struggles with imposter’s syndrome. “I’ve always been geared towards creativity,” Leah explains. “But I didn’t feel like I earned the right to call myself an artist until I had my work accepted into a show.” But for Leah, art is not about acclaim and attention from critics; it’s about expression, identity, and forging connections.

For Leah, life doesn’t imitate art life is art. “I’m not my art,” Leah says. “But my art is me.”