Finding ‘Health’ in Mental Illness

Finding ‘Health’ in Mental Illness
Adrian’s parents
Last year during Covid, a project came across my desk that I decided to take on because the issue touched my life personally, and I am pretty well convinced it may touch your life at some time, in some way, too. I was asked to create a new piece using a technique I developed called “Orchestral Journalism” to help some people suffering with mental illness. Orchestral journalism was considered a new art form by The California Arts Council years ago when I developed a multi-media work called “The Tension of Opposites.” Simply put, orchestral journalism is the use of pre-recorded testimonies and sounds from individuals and their surroundings, woven together with instruments to form a fabric of music that focuses on a specific issue. The question is, can we still use truth in storytelling to help people understand the world we live in? I call this new project that was put in front of me, “The Runner.” During the COVID pandemic, my old friend Joe fell into career problems, then money problems, marital problems, then despair. Ultimately, he thought he would find the answer in a bottle of pills and some Jack Daniels. His son found him on the living room couch the next morning with an empty pill canister and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels strewn on the floor. The situation was upsetting for the son, but especially disturbing for the spouse as her first husband committed suicide and she ultimately filed for divorce. No one knows the long term ramifications the boy will suffer from witnessing his father’s suicide attempt. Ironically, the father, Joe, witnessed his own mother’s suicide at around the same age his son witnessed his attempt. I tried very much to be empathetic toward my friend but in fact, I was actually upset with him. What was he thinking? Did he think about the mental and emotional damage he could cause his son? Did Joe realize he was continuing a very dark and disturbing generational cycle of dysfunction? I am not a doctor, a therapist, or a psychiatrist. I am not qualified to offer any advice on the subject of mental health. Although, I do have a fair amount of direct experience living with people who suffer from mental health issues within my own family. In telling this story, it is my hope that maybe people will learn to have more empathy toward mental health issues, and perhaps those who are in crisis might reach out for help, especially men, who seem to struggle to seek help or discuss their mental health issues more so than women. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD and substance abuse are just as common among men as women; the thing is, men don’t talk about it. I come from a large family with a history of mental illness and suicide. My uncle killed himself after fighting in Iwo Jima during WWII. My mother was an alcoholic. I have one older sister with bipolar disorder, a younger sister who has dual diagnosis depression and addiction, and one autistic brother, another brother and myself, living in a family full of untreated mental health issues. My family story is filled with crazy stories of family members acting out mental health issues and creating environments where “toxic stress” was the norm. There is a staggering statistic I always remember that I picked up while helping my sibling through rehab at Scripps Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in California, and then while working with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health: “An estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older, about 1 in 4 adults, suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time.” Suicide ought to be the most avoidable cause of death, and yet the statistics are shocking. According to the World Heath Organization’s latest estimates, it is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Every year, more people die as a result of suicide than HIV, malaria or breast cancer, or war or homicide. One in 100 deaths is caused by suicide. Orchestral Journalism starts with interviews. While my friend Joe could not cope with being interviewed because he was still in the middle of the storm, through him, I met another person who suffered through a similar experience to his. This person learned to cope with his mental illness over years in the most interesting ways. Meet “The Runner”, Adrian Lacey, a BBC journalist/presenter, male, late 50s, and a running enthusiast. Coincidentally, like my friend Joe, Adrian lost his mother to suicide at the age of 15. When I interviewed him, he spoke movingly about that seminal event in his life, including how he found his mother’s body after returning from school one day. He also opened up about his related bipolar disorder (then called manic depression) diagnosed in his teens, following an apparent overdose he suffered while home from college.
Adrian, The Runner, co-produces a review podcast called “The Comedy Slab” and is currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel.
At the time, because his mania was so severe, filled at its worst with paranoia and delusion, hallucinations and hysteria, Adrian was institutionalized for close to a year. He described his mind “...being so mangled that time felt like it was literally going backwards. Leading up to the suicide attempt, I would swing from one despair to being high as a kite. Deep melancholy and isolation, the most nasty, insidious part of depression. I became more sensitive to stress. I lost my marriage. During my attempt, the self-loathing was so high that I have no memory of thinking about anyone else.”

“No memory of thinking about anyone else.” Those words struck me and are worth repeating because I think they offered a possible answer to my question about my friend Joe not thinking about the consequences his suicide attempt would have on his son. Adrian, literally, had no memory of thinking about how his actions could affect others around him. The reality is losing complete perspective on a grand scale, a common characteristic of depression and suicide.

Adrian continued: “The logic or illogic of depression is to isolate you. It isolates you from all family and friends. Depression is you in your own head.” It reminds me of when the South African theologian Desmond Tutu spoke about Heaven and Hell existing inside a person’s mind.

In the institution, Adrian was put on the same medication his mother used to kill herself. What I tell you is taken from Adrian’s direct testimony. In many cases, medication is certainly an appropriate step to take when battling mental Illness. Filled with a sense of dread, Adrian made the conscious decision to come off medication under the close advice of his physician. Over time, they worked together to taper his medication down to nothing. Ultimately, Adrian “grew out” of the bipolar disorder.

“Luckily, my friends didn’t give up on me,” he said and stressed the importance of social engagement. Like the Beatles song, “I get by with a little help from….” The main takeaway here is people need each other. Ssometimes it is good to be reminded that human beings are social creatures.

Adrian credits his progress largely due to his conscious two-pronged attack on his long-term depression and anxiety: physical exercise, including running, and therapy. He acknowledges that, for him, depression is a lifelong condition he needs to manage: “I am not healed, but there is healing,” he says.

Surprisingly, he tells us, “I didn’t realize how much difference exercise could affect my mood. To then bring to that the framework of the various therapies I have been given over the years—that has been my salvation and my way forward. I’m a runner. I run.”

Running and swimming routines became a regular part of his life, as well as leading a very fulfilling and productive life working in broadcast and podcast production. In addition, Adrian tells us about another healer in his bag of remedies: music. “I love music. It’s a great reason to be alive. It lifts the soul. It lifts my spirit, whatever that is. It’s been very healing to be involved in a local choir because there are the twin wonders of music itself which is uplifting. I consider it one of my antidepressants, seeing and hearing music. And then being involved with people and having a laugh, and indeed going to the pub after a rehearsal. For me, laughter is therapy. There is no better feeling than a big belly laugh that goes right through me, almost like the healing rivers of warmth.”

Adrian’s story is incredibly inspiring. Here is a man who suffered major trauma as a boy with the suicide of his mother, then overcame bipolarity and manic depression, and eventually came off medication to lead a happy and fulfilling life. He tamed his demons using tools like therapy, exercise and the arts to bring balance to his chaotic world.
When I ask myself why I took this project on, I now know it’s because I like to be inspired by people who overcome adversity.
THE RUNNER — After being chosen to appear at over a dozen film festivals and as a finalist for Best Documentary Short at various film festivals, and winning multiple awards for Best Music, The Runner has been officially picked up for distribution. It is now airing on the Roku channel’s Film Star Max in the Documentary category.

“I have also been getting online messages from people who have watched the film and then picked up the phone to get some help with either their own depression and suicidal thoughts or to help a friend, so we really could not ask for more,” says Ferraro. “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!”

SCHOOLHOUSE SCOOP

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