Monday, August 18, 2014

The D Word

Several days before the shocking death of Robin Williams, an old friend posted a "confession" on Facebook that read, in part:
"I've been lying to people for 40 years, and I'm just tired of lying. As recently as this morning, I've told people I had a stomach ache or the flu when the truth is I've had severe clinical depression since I was 20 years old. The kind where you want to kill yourself . The kind where you're ready to do ANYTHING to stop the pain.Yes, I tried to kill myself. I've been hospitalized three times. I've taken almost every kind of anti-depressant known to man. It has hurt my relationships, my career, my sanity, everything in my life. So many people say suicide is "selfish," but they don't understand that depression makes you crazy and people who commit suicide are not in their "right mind." By now, I know I'm not going to kill myself , because I can push those thoughts aside, but it's not easy. It's a real fight...a real struggle. Being able to talk about it helps. YOU HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT AND GET TREATMENT OR IT WILL KILL YOU!"

I never knew and commended him for speaking out, and then watched in astonishment as his brief remarks were shared over 100 times and garnered 500-plus comments, mostly from others who had experienced some form of severe depression- like me. I was diagnosed with clinical depression with an anxiety disorder in 1987, and I have "managed" my illness with anti-depressant medication for nearly thirty years. I expect to be on medication for the rest of my days, but I don't mind, since they saved my life. "Depression" is different than "clinical depression." No one in this life remains untouched by tragedy or loss and it is natural to experience pain or grief. These periods of intense sadness, sometimes with the help of an anti-depressant, ultimately grow easier to bear while the memories still linger. Clinical depression is a disease caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and needs to be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Unfortunately, the prescriptions for psychiatric medicine come flying off the pads of any doctor holding a pen with the name "Prozac" printed on it, and patients are left to fend for themselves, deprived of crucial counseling.

"It" started for me when I was nineteen and grew chronic because of my cynicism toward psychiatry. Instead, I turned to my friends and asked if anyone else was experiencing these feelings of despair until I believed that it was only me and stopped talking about it. I thought that this was my lot in life and probably something I deserved. I rationalized my darkness by believing that there was some nobility in suffering that I would one day understand if I could only endure. I put on a cheerful face although my personal joy was gone, and nobody seemed to notice. As an entertainer, I was able to perform for large crowds, then go home and not come out again until the next gig. There were groceries to buy, so I shopped at 2:00am, when the store was empty, rather than run the risk of abandoning my cart in a store full of people and running for the nearest exit. I couldn't eat in a fast-food restaurant without feeling rage at other people who seemed to be managing their lives while I was in inner turmoil. Then came the questions, "why me?" and "what did I do wrong to end up here?" I have seen the destruction suicide had caused in the past and would never take my own life out of concern for my loved ones and my belief in karma, but I thought about it. I would never have recognized my obsessive introspection as an illness had I not seen my symptoms listed in the self-help book of a British psychologist. It took me sixteen years of tightly-controlled mania before seeking professional help.

Imbalanced brain chemistry messes with your "fight or flight" response. Under the most ordinary circumstances, your brain suddenly tells you that you are in danger when in reality you are not. This is what causes "panic attacks," because of the confusion and anxiety. Soon, you avoid those places where an attack occurred to preclude the risk of another. Sadness is a precursor to life, but clinical depression manifests itself in physical ways- among them a tightness in the chest accompanied by a rapid heartbeat. The muscle around the heart becomes sore over time causing chest pains. In my everyday interactions, I suffered head-to-toe soaking sweats, often needing to towel off after a simple discussion. My greatest fear was having to deal with auto mechanics. If there's a Latin word for that phobia, I don't know it. Globus is a condition often described as a "lump in the throat," but depressives feel a constriction, accompanied by dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. And then there are the headaches. All types of headaches- migraine, cluster, light sensitive, tension. After a self-induced, terror-ridden trip on the interstate, my skull ached so unbearably, I'd take a fistful of Excedrin and lie in the dark, praying for sleep. Insomnia, that's one more thing. These are side-effects of an illness. If you recognize them, get help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, and if you can't do that, talk with a councilor or adviser.  In the past, health insurance companies were unwilling to cover mental illness. Now they must.

I was fortunate to find an experienced doctor who put me through a battery of psychological tests called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI.  He then read an intricate description of my mental state that was so accurate I thought he'd been reading my journal. The medication was hardly as advanced as today's, and I was told that it might be a month before I felt a difference. But within a week, as if by magic, the gloom began to lift like a wet, heavy cloak from my shoulders. I could talk to people and look them in the eye again. It was as if my real self had been returned to me. I was never secretive about my illness because I wanted to shout it out to the world about this miracle. I can now live my life unburdened by depression, but I know it's always there. I can still feel it sometimes but understand that, like the weather, it will pass. Without daily medication, I could never have worked a normal job, or written a column, or gotten married, or even something so simple as go on a trip. Some depressives take refuge in reading. I recommend "The Floating Opera," by John Barth. It can prevent a gloomy mood from turning into something more serious. I hesitate to admit it as a sedentary person, but vigorous exercise also helps. Although it may be hard, talk to somebody. An estimated twenty million Americans suffer from depression. You are not, nor have ever been, alone.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I Feel Good

There are a couple of new music-related movies in release, one of which I've seen and the other I intend to. The film version of Jersey Boys is going to have to go a long way to match the brilliance of the the play and its cast that came to the Orpheum in 2010. So we put that one off for a bit. But I was lucky enough to see the new James Brown biographical film Get On Up, and without stepping on the toes of the Flyer's music critic, may I just say- "GOOD GAWD!" Readers of these posts know that Christmas in my house is also James Brown Memorial Day when we put fresh batteries in the Walgreen's dancing James Brown animatron and listen to him sing "I Feel Good." Chadwick Boseman as James Brown was so incredible, he reminded me of the first time I saw the real James Brown at the North Hall of the old Ellis Auditorium in 1964. I had previously purchased the album James Brown: Live at the Apollo, put it on the turntable, and my head exploded. You can imagine my anticipation in seeing him live. I had good seats up front and was among the few Caucasoids in attendance. In the Jim Crow south, it was exhilarating to see an African-American entertainer perform for an all-black audience, and what made James Brown unique was his uncompromising blackness. Whenever someone says to me in reference to the bad old days, "I was the only white face in the place," I like to reply, "That's funny, I didn't see you there."

The opening acts were done, the house lights went down and the announcer said, "Are you ready for startime?" The crowd screamed in response. The words "Here he is, the hardest working man in show business: James Brown AND the Famous Flames," had barely left his mouth when I was slammed to the floor by what felt like a grand piano landing on my back. The audience was screaming, I was on all fours feeling for my glasses on the grimy floor, and a woman weighing at least 300 pounds was looming over me saying, "I'm sorry honey." In her enthusiasm for "Mr. Dynamite," she had leaped up and fallen on top of me, knocking me to my knees. She helped me up and was most apologetic as I tried to gather myself. Later in the evening, she became my dance partner. When my focus returned, I saw the Apollo LP performed in its entirety, including a whip-sharp band that never stopped and the signature "cape" routine, where James made at least seven returns to the microphone, drenched with sweat. When the band broke into "Night Train" the crowd went berserk until the Flames and James had finally danced into the night and the lights came on. When I looked around, thousands of people were still sitting stunned in their seats, exhausted like me. I can honestly say that it was the best show I have ever seen. I never got over it. He must have had the same effect on a lot of guys like me because after appearing in Knoxville the following year, suddenly every white college boy in the south was trying to slide across the dance floor on one leg.

The last time I saw Mr. Brown perform was at the opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas in 1986. The place was jammed when my old compadre and Hard Rock founder Isaac Tigrett grabbed my arm and said, "Come with me." The thing with Isaac is that you don't ask why, you just try and keep up. I was sidetracked for two seconds saying hello to some friends and saw Isaac disappear between two swinging doors. When I caught up, a beefy security guard stopped me. Despite all my protestations and heavy name-dropping, I realized this guy was not going to allow me to pass, so I made my way up to a spiral-staircase leading to the second floor, then stepped carelessly and broke my foot. The fleeting thought of "lawsuit" crossed my mind until I realized my own culpability in the situation. Hours later, when I was seated on the patio with my leg elevated, Isaac reappeared and said, "Where were you?" When I began to explain, he interrupted me with a laugh and said, "You just missed getting high with James Brown." Which is the perfect segue into my next fable concerning Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, those Jersey Boys.

In my waning college years in Knoxville, when the football team still wore leather helmets, I was in a psychedelic/country/soul band called Rich Mountain Tower. Our manager informed us that he was bringing some local promoters to a campus club to hear us play, but by the last set, they were no-shows. To kill time, we broke into Canned Heat's "Fried Hockey Boogie," a twenty minute song where everyone with an instrument takes a solo. The promoters arrived right in the middle of the drummer's turn. To my baffled amazement, they booked us to open for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, provided we play "Fried Hockey Boogie." The final night was at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis where I gathered with some old friends for a post-gig soiree in our rooms at the old Downtowner Motel, across from the Peabody. Our "after party" was in high gear when there was a loud knock on the door. The room was cloudy with marijuana smoke and this was 1970, so the door was only opened very gingerly. Our manager announced, "I brought someone to see you," and there stood Frankie Valli in a full-length, ranch mink coat, still wearing his stage makeup, his hair immaculate. I'd been a fan since "Sherry Baby," so I admit to being a little star-struck. Valli took a seat on the bed and chatted, very casually, with the assembled hippies. When the inevitable joint came around, and he took a hit and turned to pass it to me, the thought did occur that I was smoking dope with FRANKIE FREAKING VALLI! He stayed and talked music with us until the morning hours. Neither before or since, have I seen a major artist act so cordially to his anonymous opening act. I'll never forget Frankie Valli's kindness and perpetual "hipness." James Brown might have called him "Superbad."