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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

“More Complex Than A Ross & Rachel Relationship”

Edward Cowdrey is a bipolar rapper who rhymes about loss, pain and time.

As someone who’s struggled with multiple illnesses, including undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder for most of his life, Edward Cowdrey is no stranger to the debilitating effect physical health can have on mental wellbeing.

In and out of school during his childhood, he spent most of grade nine in bed,  and had whooping cough for four months at fourteen.

Cowdrey and his dog, chilling.

“Both me and my older sisters were sick all the time,” he says. “We had abnormal blood results, and all of us had cases of anaphylaxis, where we just stopped breathing for no apparent reason. But no one really put a name on what was wrong.”

Missing months of school at a time meant Eddy struggled to make and maintain friendships.

“Trying to catch up academically was hard enough,” he says. “But by that stage I was depressed, and an awkward teenager. You kind of just drop off the map when you’re not at school.”

In 2003, Eminem and 8 Mile sent the popularity of rap music by white musicians sky-rocketing. The hip hop scene in New Zealand followed suit. And Eddy discovered an unexpected talent for the quick thinking and linguistic skill required to “freestyle.”

“I had two close friends with whom I spent a lot of time rapping,” he recalls. “I entered the school talent show, which was about as cringe-worthy as you can imagine. But after that, I was actually accepted by and connected with people who had never given me the time of day.”

“So I guess early on, rap music became that something  I felt a social connection over. It was a way that a group of friends, or strangers, could connect and share their creative experience.”

Early on, rap music became that something I felt a social connection over.

Eddy’s health eventually meant he quit attending school altogether, and studied at home via correspondence.

“My education became primarily self driven and self taught. I was able to get through a lot of work quickly, and I learned how to teach myself the skills I needed, which came in handy later when I was learning to program.”

It also meant he could devote time to writing and listening to rap music.

“As I got older and my tastes in music grew, the meaning of the music did too. Early on I liked rap mainly for the same reason a 12 year old kid likes anything; because it made me feel cool.”

“As I discovered artists who really opened up my understanding of the music, like MF Doom, Aesop Rock, and Atmosphere, who I still have as major inspirations, rap became more about the creative outlet as well as being a genre of music I just genuinely enjoy. And there’s always a part of me that associates rap and hip hop with that feeling of connection and belonging.”

When he moved out of home at sixteen, Eddy’s mental health took a turn for the worse. He struggled to eat and take care of himself. After a cursory examination, a psychiatrist prescribed him prozac. Bipolar Disorder was never discussed.

 

“People with Bipolar aren’t supposed to be given antidepressants,” says Eddy. “The risk is they boost the mania and so you start acting with less and less caution, while still being really depressed.”

For Eddy, the spiral came to a crashing halt when he landed on the wrong side of the law at seventeen. With the support of his girlfriend, he pulled himself out of the nosedive and started studying programming online. Before a year was up, he was employed as an IT Manager. He also started pushing for answers about his mental health, and finally got the Bipolar diagnosis.

“I felt a mixture of fear and relief,” he says. “Relief because I had a name for what was happening to me, but fear because I had seen what being bipolar had meant for several family members. The diagnosis was late, but looking back I’m grateful that it was still early enough that I was able to get a grasp on a lot of things before I formed unhealthy habits. I started learning to coexist with Bipolar.”

In 2011, Eddy graduated with a diploma in Software and Web Development. He married his partner, had a daughter, and bought a house. The future looked bright.

But late last year, the sickness that had plagued Eddy through his childhood returned with a vengeance.

It began with pain in his back. His right shoulder began to hurt and weaken. His hips and knees ached. His hands and feet felt they were on fire. Extreme fatigue finally bound him to bed, and back into deep depression.

Again, the doctors were stumped. What was causing such a widespread reaction? Why was it happening now?

 

The answer, when it finally came, was just as bizarre as the symptoms. Eddy had Mycoplasma Pneumoniae – a bacterial infection that had triggered a severe auto-immune response and was wreaking havoc throughout his body.

“I was given a twelve-week course of antibiotics,” he says. “But nothing changed. I was taking more and more painkillers. I think I lost about a month to just being on morphine. I have no memories of that time, other than everything hurt.”

He was referred to a rheumatologist for the inflammation in his joints, then a podiatrist for his aching feet, then a musculoskeletal specialist for the pain everywhere else. The list went on.

The rheumatologist was the first to mention inflammatory arthritis. He prescribed steroids and an immune system suppressant.

Three months on, Eddy is still struggling to come to grips with all the symptoms and side effects.

“My life has changed quite drastically, in many ways,” he says. “Before I got sick I would work from the moment I woke up at nine, until three or four in the morning most nights. My focus was, and still is, on making progress in my life and career, and that meant putting in a lot of hours to get there.

 

Now I have to manage the limited resources of energy, health, and comfort, so rather than looking at my day as “how much can I get done in the hours left to me?” it becomes a balancing act, where I need to manage what I have to get done each day with my ability to not be in insurmountable pain as a result.

The biggest and hardest change has been accepting my limitations in terms of “being there.” Sometimes I just straight up can’t be the partner or father I want to be.”

The change has also effected his mental health. The reduced physical capacity, and the long list of medications, put Eddy’s control of his Bipolar Disorder to the test.

“Being bipolar means that pretty much every pain killer has some effect on my stability,” he says. “I’ve been lucky in that for the most part it hasn’t sent me off the deep end, but it does mean I have to be constantly vigilant about the state of my mental and physical health for fear of setting off an episode while trying to manage my pain.”

In a more real sense, being sick is depressing, being unable to do the things you want to do…

“In a more real sense, being sick is depressing, being unable to do the things you want to do, and in my case, many of the things I had learned to do to manage my mental health, have meant that I’ve had to learn new coping techniques and come to grips with the fact that some days you just can’t escape pain.”

One of those coping techniques sent him full circle back to his old love: writing rap music. Writing is something he can manage even on days when the pain and fatigue, and it provides a creative outlet for what he calls “chaos.”

“When I write, it starts as a chaotic free-fall of words, which eventually becomes something of meaning. I’ve found that writing lyrics has always been a way to help me process things, sometimes I don’t even realize that something is weighing on me until I’m halfway through a song and I realize what I’ve actually been writing about.”

He’s hesitant to commit to a future where he can rely on being healthy.  

“Like anyone with a chronic condition, I guess I hope for a full recovery, or at least some kind of cyborg replacement body,” he says.  “Barring that, I want to at least be at a point where I can manage and fully understand what’s going on with me. That’s how I can control it.”

The Good Fight

The Criminologist Who Came Out Of The Closet As Mentally Ill

When Risdon Slate stopped taking his lithium, he ended up in jail. Now, he helps train cops to know the difference between a criminal and a person in crisis.

Risdon Slate knows first hand what can happen when a law-abiding man suffering a mental episode gets handcuffed for behaving strangely in public. He knows this because it happened to him. What he endured in that jail cell–locked up during a manic episode that befuddled police–has fueled Slate’s long campaign to lessen the chances that others with mental illness will needlessly wind up behind bars.

 

Risdon Slate tours the country, helping train law enforcement officials on how to deal compassionately with the mentally ill. Photo: Jamaica Gillmer

“At no point—not when I was arrested, not when I was booked into the jail, not when I stood before that judge—did anyone see that my problem had nothing to do with me being a criminal,” says the 57-year old, who heads up Florida Southern College’s criminology department. “I wasn’t a criminal. No one paid any attention to what was really wrong with me.”

Slate’s one-and-only arrest happened when he was 34. The police were called after he was discovered marching around a makeshift fortress of books that he built in the parking lot of a South Carolina apartment complex. When Slate’s wife told the officers that Slate has bipolar disorder, they let him off with a warning. The warning didn’t take: the next day, Slate–off his meds–was arrested. He had just dived naked into the apartment complex’s pool.  

I wasn’t a criminal. No one paid any attention to what was really wrong with me.

After that run-in with the law, Slate got back on lithium, which helps control his disease to this day. But in a very real way, that incident continues to be a driving force in his life. His tours around the country to train members of the criminal justice system to have a more nuanced view of mental illness.

Right now, the nation’s prisons house more mentally ill people than psychiatric hospitals. That’s partly because many police officers don’t know what to do with a person experiencing a mental episode. Slate advocates a more informed and humane approach, where the mentally ill–particularly those who are nonviolent–are locked up as the last resort, not the first.

Slate poses with some of his “students.” Photo: Jamaica Gillmer

Being open about his own mental illness is central to Slate’s work. Yet, the fact that he is on lithium surprises some of the law-enforcement officials he trains; he doesn’t “look” mentally ill, they’ll say. But Slate is quick to point out that mentally ill people don’t usually appear out-of-place unless they are having a crisis: for example, because they have gone off their meds, or their medication has otherwise stopped working.

In other words, just because a person in crisis is acting strangely doesn’t mean they are a de facto criminal.

“I let officers know they may be the one person that an individual, particularly if it’s their first psychotic break, can look to and hear someone say, ‘There is hope for you. You can make something positive out of this,'” Slate says. “They can be that crucial individual that can get the person to a place where they get medical help, recover, and become productive citizens.”

Just because a person in crisis is acting strangely doesn’t mean they are a de facto criminal.

Slate’s own arrest was triggered by such a crisis.

When he was a 34-year-old parole officer, a new psychiatrist took Slate off the lithium he’d been on for several years. Slate didn’t have bipolar disorder, the psychiatrist argued. Instead, he was merely stressed.

But stopping Slate’s meds cold-turkey had some quick and furious effects. At a South Carolina college’s football game, Slate began hallucinating. On the field, players morphed into kings and knights on a chessboard right before his eyes. By the game’s third quarter, Slate was in full-tilt manic mode. Worried, his wife led him to the stadium parking lot, where she called EMTs: her husband was having an episode.

When they arrived, Slate–fast-tongued and persuasive–countered: his wife was the one in distress, not him. They checked her soaring blood pressure–understandable, Slate says, under the circumstances–and sent the couple on their way.

When he got back to their apartment complex, Slate immediately began building his parking-lot fortress of books. He was arrested the next day.

“Those police back in South Carolina? If they’d had better training, they could have diverted me from lock-up.'” Photo: Jamaica Gillmer

“The rest is history,” Slate says. “This is my spin on it: Getting arrested was God’s way of saying to me, ‘You’ve got to come out of closet about your mental illness. Maybe, that will be your way to help others.’”

He helps himself by rigorously following his regimen of prescribed meds and overall self-care. Being open about his mental illness and how he treats it shows other mentally ill people how they, too, can thrive. It also bolsters his mission to help foster a criminal justice system whose dealings with the mentally ill are understanding and compassionate. Slate’s core expertise and beliefs landed him on the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ board of directors for several years. He was called as an expert witness during the September 2000 congressional hearings on mental health, which, in turn, resulted in funding for the nation’s first mental health treatment courts.

The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that a quarter of those in prison or awaiting trial are mentally ill. Slate believes that number will decrease if police have proper training in mental health issues, as well as access to community-based mental health programs.

“Those police back in South Carolina? If they’d had better training, they could have diverted me from lock-up. They could have told people at the jail that I was mentally ill,” Slate says. Luckily, though, things are getting better. “These days, there are [jails whose intake papers] have a little block to check off: ‘Does this person have signs of mental illness?’ People running things know they need to take a different tack.”

You’ve got to come out of closet about your mental illness. Maybe, that will be your way to help others.

Which isn’t to say some correctional facilities aren’t doing a good job. A handful of states have made major strides on this front, Slate says. But even the best available treatment won’t work if cops don’t know what to look for.

“There are some beautiful, perfect models of what to do out there,” he says. “But they’re perfect models for an imperfect world. That’s one of the reasons this training is so key. But, again, if you don’t have treatment to link people with mental illness to, that model isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

The need for stronger methods of dealing with the mentally ill within the criminal justice system is what compels Slate to continue his work. “Ever since coming out of the closet [as mentally ill], my mission has been to prevent others with mental illness from coming into contact with the criminal justice system,” says Slate.

And if they have to come into contact with that system? Slate hopes he’s made it friendlier to the mentally ill than it was when he got arrested during his own mental breakdown. During an episode, the mentally ill who commit crimes often are totally unaware of what they’re doing. But that doesn’t necessarily make them criminals, Slate says. The criminal justice system should exist to protect victims of all stripes…  including those who are the victims of their own minds turning against them.

Q&As

Inside The Rhyme Sayer’s Brain

Hot on the heels of the international Hey Kirby tour, musician and producer Aesop Rock talks to Folks about his lyrics, latest album, and life-long battle with mental illness

At times impenetrable, at times hilarious, almost always infuriatingly impressive: Aesop Rock, the New York-born rapper is known for his dense and complex songs, A 2014 study named his the largest vocabulary in hop-hop, surpassing 85 other major artists, as well as historic writers including Shakespeare.

With seven studio albums under his belt, Aesop released his latest solo effort The Impossible Kid in April last year. The album confronts mental illness, aging, and includes the tour titled track Hey Kirby, an ode to the cat who helps him deal with depression. It’s considered his most ‘accessible’ work to date.

“I’m not trying to be the lyrical miracle anymore,” he says. “I just want to be a better writer.”

In 2002, the documentary Bazooka Tooth, which shares the name of Aesop’s fourth studio album, first gave a glimpse into the rapper’s life. It was also the first time that he opened up about his struggle with mental health to a wider audience. 

“Emotionally I’ve seen the bottom of the barrel, just based on some the things that have happened to me,” he said. “I set my standards really high and end up stressing myself out to the point where I can’t do anything… I’ve had problems just operating. I’ve had issues with depression.”

He’s more guarded these days, shying away from interviews that approach his personal life, though his music remains as unflinching as ever. 

Following mention of his therapeutic relationship with Kirby, his companion cat, in Folks, the artist agreed to answer a few questions. We caught him on the last night of tour.

 

Looking back through interviews and videos, I can see you’re not necessarily super open about your mental health, though you have a lot of allusions to it in your work. Why is this particular card one you keep close to your chest?

I guess I just try to walk the line.  It’s on my mind constantly, so obviously it works its way into the music in some form or fashion–where I can choose to be as cryptic or forthcoming as I want to be.  At the same time, I’ve had a life long struggle with a lot of this stuff, and it make me feel like less of a human to not have been able to get it sorted by now.  In short–it’s embarrassing.  At the same time, what is there to say? I’m not asked that often about it, and the reality of the answers about those kinds of questions can go on for years.  There’s no easy, quick answer, and it’s never fun to talk about.  Even having people approach and thank me for being somewhat open about some of it–I mean, it’s nice, but ultimately it doesn’t solve my own issues.  I wouldn’t even really know how to describe to people what goes on upstairs for me, so often times it’s easier to steer around it. 

‘Kirby’ was one of the earlier songs you wrote for The Impossible Kid, the track that helped “break the ice.” As an “MD recommended sense of purpose,” how does having this cat around affect your life and wellbeing?

I think she just gave me some sense of purpose day to day.  She needs me to survive, and it feels good to be needed, even though she doesn’t really have a choice. Taking care of something at least gives you a mission for the day, so if all else fails, I still kept this other living creature alive, and maybe that’s worth something. 

 

After ‘Kirby’ and ‘Rings’, ‘Shrunk’, which deals with therapy, is probably my favorite track on The Impossible Kid. I think because I feel like you’re really just trying to have fun with a topic that’s not fun at all. Is the way you feel at therapy akin to the way you feel when fans or critics pull apart your lyrics to look for the deeper meaning?

Not necessarily. I learned very early that nobody will ever interpret these songs in the way that they were intended, at least not 100%.  That’s something you just come to terms with. The relationship I have with my music is mine only. Therapy is it’s own monster.  Some love it, some hate it; I’ve been to more than I can count starting very early in my life. It’s such a crap shoot.  I guess you walk in expecting someone with wisdom and answers. Really it’s just a person who took some classes and read some books.  They can certainly hit you with a nugget of information here and there, but it’s basically a paid set of ears. The entire concept is odd, and it’s pretty easy to find the stuff off-putting.  Obviously it’s all about finding the right person, but that can take years.  Then you have to see if you can afford it, or how often your insurance will allow you to go, etc etc.  There’s so many roadblocks.  Not to mention, when it’s time find someone new, for whatever reason, you then have to go back in and start from square one… again.  The entire process is daunting and difficult and occasionally just humorous. 

I learned very early that nobody will ever interpret these songs in the way that they were intended, at least not 100%.

You’ve said that ‘the impossible kid’ is you, and that that’s something to do with beating yourself up for “struggling to be happy.” Do you think writing the album has helped you come to grips with that?

I was aware of it before writing the album, it’s really been stuff I’ve been aware of for so long I can’t even tell you.  The album just kinda came out how it did.  It wasn’t supposed to be some foray into mental health or anything, but a couple things of that nature were swirling around at the time and made it into the narrative.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything on there that I wasn’t already aware of, and I don’t know it’s the type of stuff I’ll ever come-to-grips with. It’s everyday.  

You’ve said you “avoid social experiences at all costs,” and even the more pointed “fuck the conversation.” How does that marry up with being a public figure, going on tour and using social media? 

Social media is pretty difficult at times. I use it to promote my music and occasionally just let people know I’m out here and alive, working, etc.  I guess it’s essentially part of my job.  I’ve never done Facebook and would probably hop off Twitter and Instagram if I thought I could maintain my work without it. I already don’t follow anyone on Twitter because I just find it all depressing. I use Instagram to look at artwork and skateboarding, nothing really music related. Tour life is something that took me years to get used to, or put a system in place that allows it to happen. I quit my last day job in 2001 and had my first-ever national tour set to rollout about a week after.  I ended up sorta being overwhelmed in the 11th hour, and I skipped out on the whole thing.  That’s my starting point.  Nowadays I can make it work, I keep my tour party small, and I can power through it. I like to shake hands and say thank you to everyone after the show, because I’m truly grateful that I am allowed this job and that people follow my music, but even with that stuff, I sorta have to psyche myself up to go and do it. Maybe since it’s a couple hundred very quick interactions with almost no depth, I can just close my eyes and walk forward.  I don’t have to get close to anyone in those circumstances.  It just a big explosion of surface-level interaction.  

 

I watched the Bazooka Tooth documentary, which is 15 years old now. Do you relate much to it, to the person you were then? You’ve talked a bit about what turning 40 has meant for you. Do you think your work has the same identity and purpose?

I haven’t watched that in a long time. I’m sure I’d relate on some level.  I’ve actually always found it extremely difficult to see what my work even looks like from the outside looking in. I don’t know how it comes off, or where people place it in the musical landscape.  My life is very different than it was 15 years ago, and there are elements of my purpose that evolve and adapt, but some of the foundation is there.  I like to put words together.  I like to piece sounds together. I’ve gone through periods where the music was all about the crew experience, being around people, collaborating and rapping with others.  These days it’s a much more introverted endeavor. I guess maybe that’s how it was too in the very beginning, when you’re just writing alone in your bedroom with no expectations that anyone will even hear the stuff.  Then it turned into a social endeavor, a way to meet others into the same craft. Now I’m back at square one, just seeing what I can do, and attempting to block out the idea that one day these songs may actually get heard.

Do you think there’s much truth or value in the concept of the tortured artist: that people who face tragedy or mental illness make better art or tell better stories?

I think that’s probably true on some level and bullshit on some level.  That’s actually a tough one to answer.  Perhaps feeling pain on any level breeds the kinda introversion that leads to spending a lot of time alone making shit.  But you’d also think that there’s gotta be a way to just be creative without the baggage.  Yeah. I really don’t know.  Most of the musicians I like are insane, so there’s that. 


For me, one of my favorite lines of yours ever is in ‘Homemade Mummy’; “Take the brain out/leave the heart in.” Do you have favorite lines you carry round with you, that you’re particularly proud of or feel meaningful? What are they? 

Sure I guess, it’s hard to kinda think of them off the cuff, and I really only have the most recent stuff logged in my memory.  I like “even his prize horse rides a wolf into battle”, from ‘Tuff.  I kinda like some of the 3rd verse of Shrunk that you mentioned. I always liked “armchair hater, I wouldn’t piss on your coffin, but when I see your picture I draw dicks on it.”  I guess I like the ones that summon up some real imagery, lines that make a picture in your head.  I’d have to listen to the songs to really pull more. 

The Hey Kirby tour’s over now. What’s next for you?

I have a few collaborative projects in the works, but it’s probably a bit early to announce any of them.  Beyond that I’ll be finishing up original music for the feature Infinity Baby right when I get home.  Other than that I just stay working. I never really know what project my days work will go towards, I just chip away and see if I can come up with something cool, a line, a beat, whatever.  Just stay busy. 

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

 

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.”

 

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.

 

Histories

The Duchess Of Depression: “Lithium Saved My Life.”

Always a great actress, Academy Award winner Patty Duke credited proper medication as what gave her the right tools to be a good mom.
Patty Duke at the height of her television fame.

Patty Duke at the height of her television fame.

While it might be a more acceptable or even commonplace diagnosis in the 21st century, in the 1980s, bipolar disorder was still relatively obscure—and definitely misunderstood. For a long time, the condition was labeled “manic depression,” somewhat of a misnomer due to the mood and energy level spikes as well as dips.

Patty Duke, the former child star and celebrated actress, took up the mantle of educating the public about the condition after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1980s. It was a bold move for the popular, award-winning actress but also brought to light how disruptive the disorder could be for even the most successful people if left undiagnosed and untreated.

Born Anna Marie Duke, young Patty seemed destined for stardom from an early age. She debuted on Broadway in 1959 at the spritely age of 12, portraying the heroic young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She went on to play Keller again in the 1962 film adaptation, a performance which won Duke her first Oscar. The Best Actress in a Supporting Role win put the 15-year-old Duke — even then an acting vet with a sizable demo reel, thanks to her earlier role on the soap opera The Brighter Day, as well as repeat commercial roles — in the national limelight. But with her breakout role came breakout pressure.

Duke’s mood swings began manifesting themselves while she starred in the work for which she is best known.  The eponymous Patty Duke Show spanned three seasons, but thanks to a breakneck production speed, it actually produced over 100 episodes before it ended in 1966. In the show, Duke played a dual role of identical cousins with totally different personalities, so as to better emphasize her acting chips. In retrospect, the parallel between the show’s required role and what felt to Duke like a split within her self was striking.

By 1965, late adolescent Duke was taking Valium and drinking heavily. For a time, she became anorexic, plummeting to under 80 pounds. Decades later, she revealed that in addition to her own self-destructive behavior, her guardians were sexually abusing her. She clarified, however, that so much trauma in her young life didn’t necessarily impact her later diagnosis. “I might have been a little off anyway with this sort of a background but [the sexual abuse] really had nothing to do with my mental illness,” Duke told Oprah Winfrey in a 1990 interview.

In 1982, Duke finally found a diagnosis to explain some of her ordeals over the years. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with manic depression, or what we now commonly know as bipolar disorder. Duke wasn’t the first celebrity to receive the diagnosis, but her public announcement and subsequent interviews  followed several other celebrities who did the same, including singer Rosemary Clooney and the late jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. Duke revealed the diagnosis in her 1987 autobiography Call Me Anna, and began speaking out publicly about living with the condition, as well as the emotional roller coaster that can dominate a person’s life if they live with misunderstood and untreated mood disorders.

For those suffering from bipolar disorder, as Duke did, mood stabilizers can help manage the impact of their life-hypomanic states that come to dominate their life. Anti-psychotic and antidepressant drug regimes can also reduce or help alleviate certain symptoms. For Duke, what worked was lithium.

“[Lithium] saved my life and it gave me life,” Duke told People Magazine in 1999. After several overlapping romances and marriages and after having several children, the powerful drug provided her a foundation to finally have a stable family life. Duke also told People, “I was a truly loving mom, but I didn’t have the tools to do the job.” Prior to beginning a lithium regime, “I wasn’t able to make long-term decisions,” she adds.

Patty Duke later in her life credited proper medication as giving her the tools she needed to be a mom.

Patty Duke later in her life credited proper medication as giving her the tools she needed to be a mom.

But she also clarified in an early interview with the Today Show’s Katie Couric that lithium was far from a silver bullet solution. “Lithium [as a treatment] is not the be-all and end-all,” Duke said in a 1992 interview on the morning show. “It doesn’t solve everything. You need to continue to work, some of us, until you sort out the other things and resolve as many as you can.” Duke paired prescription drugs with therapy to continue to understand her diagnosis, and to continue to work on award-winning projects well into the 2000s, including guest appearances on shows such as Glee and in Broadway shows including Wicked.

Duke passed away in early 2016 at age 69, more than 30 years after a diagnosis that set her on a path to advocate and educate. Duke’s son Sean Astin even noted that her advocacy work would be carried on by her survivors through lobbying efforts, public awareness campaigns, and by supporting mental health-related organizations with education and outreach. “Before her passing, before the suffering became too great, we talked about how the core mission of her mental health work might continue beyond her life,” he explained.

“I’ve taken a lot of detours, kind of like a myopic homing pigeon, but I’ve finally made it,” Duke told People in 1999 on finally making peace with her tumultuous past and settling into stable family life. “With my marriage and my children, and with those strangers who come up to me in the supermarket. When they say, ‘I love you,’ I think they mean it. And I get to say it back.”

 

Q&As

Destigmatizing Mental Illness In The Church And Beyond

A feminist priest shares the story of her own bipolar disorder, and gives advice on what the spiritual and unspiritual alike can do to fight mental illness.

An Episcopalian priest shares the story of her own bipolar disorder, and gives advice on what the spiritual and unspiritual alike can do to fight mental illness.

Last year, Katharine Welby, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, began to speak openly on her blog about her long struggle with depression — a condition that remains stigmatized despite being the world’s leading cause of disability. Soon after, a Bishop of the Church of England recommended a book to the Archbishop: Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. Welby was initially skeptical, having been bombarded with suggestions for supporting a child with mental illness. But he ultimately found the book so profound that he wrote the foreword to its second edition, and invited its author to dinner with his family at his 13th century home of Lambeth Palace.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, author of Darkness Is My Only Companion, has struggled with depressionfor years.

Greene-McCreight is a feminist theologian, associate chaplain at the Episcopal Church at Yale, Elm City National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) board member, and mother of two. Darkness is My Only Companion is her poetic and painful account of her struggle with bipolar disorder. Part memoir, part theological reflection, the Archbishop of Canterbury called it “one of the most profound and eye-opening reflections on the grace and love of God, and above all the nature of human relationships, that I have had the pleasure of reading.”

Greene-McCreight looks at mental illness through a theological lens, but her insights transcend creed; even hardened atheists might see something supernatural in her resilience. We spoke with Greene-McCreight about how mental illness affects one’s sense of self, and how meditation and mindfulness can help believers and non-believers alike deal with their depression.

What was it like when you were first diagnosed with bipolar disorder? How did you initially cope with it? 

It was absolutely horrid: for my career, for my studies, for my family. I had two really little kids, and my husband traveled about every other week at the time. I didn’t reach out to enough people, just one or two friends, which was too bad, because you cut yourself off if you don’t reach out. Before I ever went to a psychiatrist, I went to a friend and told him that my mind was playing tricks on me. He said, “You need to get to a doctor right away.” That was the first part, around 1992, when I was diagnosed with postpartum depression, before later being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I started going to therapy and later went to a psychiatric hospital.

That was the first time I was diagnosed, but looking back, there were times in my childhood, young adulthood, and college years during which I was depressed. It’s only now that I recognize what was going on. There were symptoms of depression that I didn’t know to categorize as depression. My parents took me to a medical doctor, but I never went to a psychiatrist. When I was 12, for example, I was sick and missed school for a month, staying in bed. I attributed it to an incident in a pool: people said I’d dived and hit my head, but in fact I hadn’t hit my head. That period of staying in bed happened after the death of a friend of mine. And then later, when I was 17, I again stayed in bed for four weeks . We chocked it up to mononucleosis, but I hadn’t tested positive for mono. It seems to me now that these times [of staying in bed] were depressions. But there was far worse shame then about [seeking help from a psychiatrist].

I initially coped with [the diagnosis] by just keeping as busy as I could. I used my waterskiing analogy: when you’re waterskiing, if the boat slows down, you’ll fall over and sink, but if it goes too fast or hits a wave too hard, you’ll also fall. By keeping the boat going fast enough, I could stay above water. If I slowed down, I felt pain. Over the years, I [developed a support system.]

Many people who struggle with any given diagnosis — but especially a diagnosis of mental illness — can have a hard time separating the illness from their sense of self. There’s often a feeling, when ill, that you are your illness. At this point in your life, how does your diagnosis of bipolar disorder factor into your sense of identity, of who you are? How has this changed over time, and how has your theology affected this understanding of yourself?

That’s a very good question, and a very important question, one that comes up often in my work on the board of NAMI. The answer is always no, we are not defined by our illnesses.

Recently I found myself at a loss for words,  which for me is very odd, when speaking to members of the NAMI council. I was saying how hard it is to have a chronic illness, and one of the men on the council turned to me and said, “But you’re not defined by your illness.” And I said “Well, uh, that’s a good question.” Because a chronic illness doesn’t define us, but obviously it impinges on our lives. There are all sorts of things I cannot do that quote-unquote “normal” people can do. A diagnosis changed my self-perception: Some people just grow up with [mental illness] as part of their identity from time immemorial, but that wasn’t my experience. Mine was of being a very strong, capable person, then all of a sudden I was in this pain and a state where not only could nobody understand it, but it affected how I saw myself and how everyone else saw me once they knew what was up. But I think a lot of people would get angry at me if I said I was defined by my illness, because it’s not politically correct.

The answer is always no, we are not defined by our illnesses.

I recently said something that was really not PC, which was that part of me would rather be in a wheelchair and have a handicap that was visible than have a mental illness. Because then I wouldn’t have to continually be trying to hide it, because my mental illness is hideable. It would be a type of handicap that was socially acceptable. We had a president who was in a wheelchair, for example, and he was incredibly effective. But if you have a mental illness, you’re lumped into a group of people, some of whom commit heinous crimes, some of whom can’t work because they’re so debilitated by their depression or the voices in their head. The idea that I almost wish that I had a broken leg instead is linked to this question about a sense of identity. At one point, in a phase when things were very bad, I said to my psychiatrist, “Who is the real me? How do I know who I am?” And he said to me, “you are you.” That wasn’t the most helpful thing to say, but at least he was trying.

How does the language we use to discuss mental illness affect people’s perceptions of it and the stigma that surrounds it?

We’re always trying to say we want parity. But the problem we run up against is that advocacy agencies that are meant to help, like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the NAMI, in the interest of trying to lessen stigma, often actually [end up increasing stigma with ill-chosen words]. The NIMH decided about a decade ago to move from the language of calling [the mentally ill] “patients” to calling us “consumers.” During a conversation about this with the board of NAMI, I said, “Look, I am a patient. The word ‘patient’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘to suffer.’ I suffer. I am not a consumer–a consumer buys things. I choose the car I consume, the food I consume. I would never ‘consume’ the services of a psychiatrist.” The word ‘consumer’  is so materialistic, so capitalistic. It becomes a little bit of a joke. They don’t call cancer patients “consumers.”

There’s also recently been a movement to stop using the term “mental health” and instead call it “behavioral health.” I’d rather have it be called mental health, because it’s more accurate. We’ve pretty much established the scientific fact that mental illnesses are brain disorders. They’re caused by structures in the brain, synapses malfunctioning in the brain. In that regard, they’re no different from something like kidney disease. But by calling it behavioral health, in an attempt to destigmatize “mental illness” — it implies that, now, if I’m mentally ill, that means my behavior is bad? That seems to me very problematic.

You write a lot about the power of prayer in helping you with your depression. How do you pray? What prayers do you find provide the most solace in your darkest hours?

Greene-McCreight helped the Archbishop of Canterbury understand his daughter’s depression.

I think first I would back up and ask, what is prayer? As I see it, it’s a conversation with God… When I think about how I pray, I think about how was I first taught to pray—with short, easy prayers for specific times and places, like table graces said with my family before a meal. Those were often for little kids. One was, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts for us be blessed.” There were also prayers in church, like the Lord’s Prayer. These are forms of set prayers, which I still use — like in the Book of Common Prayer, which I find very helpful. But it doesn’t always have to do with set prayers. I think prayer is mostly being encouraged to let God know what’s on my mind and in my heart.

For me, the prayers I find provide most solace are often the psalms: Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear” Psalm 139 talks about God knowing me even before I know anything about God, which is a very helpful one for me. A lot of people use Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Psalms about the Lord being our all, and satisfying our appetites, and also the ones that talk about joy — those provide the most solace.

How have attitudes and approaches to mental illness changed in the church in recent years? What still needs to change?

I think we have a long way to go. Trying to get rid of stigma is important, but we need to go farther than that. What we’ve been focusing on in the church is a lot like what [evangelical pastor] Rick Warren and his wife have been doing [after their son committed suicide] — trying to get rid of stigma. Trying to simply say “don’t be afraid of admitting to struggling with mental illness” is great, but it’s reactive—I think we need to be proactive.

Creating beauty and being around beauty is really important.

There are some basic things pastors need to know and do — they have to know the symptoms of mental illness. Some very high percentage of religious people who suffer from mental illness go to their pastor or clergy first for help, but unfortunately, most clergy don’t know anything about this. We need the clergy to be educated about the symptoms, to know how and when to refer parishioners to psychologists or psychiatrists. Our job is important, but it’s not to diagnose and treat people who are mentally ill. It is to stand by them and pray with and for them and treat them with spiritual care, but sometimes pastors think they know more than they do. I think the clergy should have a list of professionals in the community with different types of expertise. And I think the church should do suicide prevention training with clergy. That’s something I’m trying to do in my church.

What do you recommend for non-believers suffering from mental illness? What secularly spiritual practices do you think are most effective? 

Mindfulness meditation is really important. I do it, it’s very helpful. I’d also suggest group therapy — it’s been very helpful to be in a group of people with similar problems. It offers a reality check — they’ll say, “You weren’t like that last week, it’s not true that you always feel this way.” And getting out with other people is very important, which group therapy helps with. Isolation is very bad for any mental illness — whether it’s bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, even anxiety — it’s way bad. Exercise is also very important — probably, number one, actually — but sometimes it’s very hard to do that if you’re depressed. If that’s the case, take an exercise class, which also helps decrease isolation.

Any kind of art-making, even if you’re not an artist, can be therapeutic — splashing watercolors around on paper, dancing, working with clay, pottery, making music. Creating beauty and being around beauty is really important. That’s what the whole religious life is about.

Another one: Volunteering. Giving your time to someone else can be very helpful. It’s a way of practicing the art of compassion, even if you’re not religious.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s books about faith and mental illness can be purchased on Amazon.