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The Music of Mental Illness by Dan Victor
It was 1999. I was laying in bed drunk, stoned and miserably depressed. I had lost my will to live, exhausted from the extreme effort it took to function. I just wanted to give up. In a desperate moment, I asked God to give me a reason to live. I didn’t have any religion, so I didn’t expect a response, but I did get an answer. Music. It just popped in my head. I was a musician, so it made sense, but it gave me some purpose. It became my higher power. That was when I was 24 living in Philadelphia. I took it as a sign to make changes.
I moved cross country to San Diego, believing it to be seasonal depression and to pursue a career in music. I was riding high, drove the entire way in 4 days. When I got to the sunny paradise, my troubles followed me. I was arguing with friends and even more isolated and depressed than ever. I couldn’t enjoy the seemingly endless summer. I realized there was something wrong. I went to my first psychiatrist. It was my first step on a long journey to seek a diagnosis that finally came 5 years later. Bipolar Disorder.
During those first 5 years, I struggled with substance abuse that has lasted most of my life, a self medication when the many medications I was tested with didn’t seem to help. Nothing felt quite right. But I continued to make art and music. Creating had been a constant while I endured what felt like I was being experimented on. I came to understand the stigma of mental illness, the lack of understanding some medical professionals possess, the ridicule of family asking why I can’t just snap out of it. I just did my best and it was all I could ask of myself.
Even after my diagnosis and the mood stabilizer, that seemed to work with my lifestyle, it was work to stay balanced. I got to enjoy a life I felt I had missed out on in my 20’s, but I kept drinking and using drugs and didn’t want to go to therapy. It would eventually take its toll. But all the while I had been playing in bands, writing music, took part in numerous art scenes in Brooklyn, performing all over the Lower East Side. I was surviving for music, but it wasn’t enough.
I became the Editor in Chief of Popdust, a pop culture website, interviewed artists and musicians on a live stream show I produced and directed, and was a guest on the News. As my success grew, so did my addiction. I was on a manic wave that lasted over a year. I eventually lost my job, my friends, family and sanity as a result of not taking my illness seriously. Again, I was exhausted. It was twenty years later.
In April 2019, I wanted to commit suicide. The impulse had never been so strong. I made an angry post on Facebook about my brother abandoning me. The regret was so intense, I thought I had ruined any chance of a relationship with him. I had no one to call. I stopped talking to my parents, believing they were all out to get me.
So I dialled 911 and begged them to admit me into a mental ward of Beth Israel, where my bipolar support group met. I had no health insurance and lacked the ability to take care of myself. I waited 17 hours in the psychiatric ER, during which I was punched by another patient. A doctor eventually came over and asked if I was ready to go home and mentioned I didn’t have health insurance. I said loudly, “Are you refusing to treat me because I don’t have health insurance?” They found me a bed soon after that.
While the story doesn’t end there, and my struggle with addiction would continue after a relapse, I began a new chapter of my journey of healing. While I was in-patient, I realized I needed to advocate for myself. The other patients needed help too, because the doctors and nurses couldn’t understand some of our needs. During my stay, I felt the healing power of music once more. A therapist was able to let me play a guitar, while under supervision. I cried while I played my song Hideaway, I had written about self-isolation and shared a song with an elderly woman who sang the Blues. It lifted our spirits, feeling hope, like our suffering had purpose. When we have a reason for living, a personal connection to something greater than ourselves, to something that connects us, it makes the struggle worth it.
At the end of 2020, I’m over nine months clean, still making music, and advocate for mental health through my website DanVictorDoes.com, sharing the healing power of art and music to manage mental distress. My story is not over because I decided my struggle gives me more than it takes. I remain grateful for the experience to understand myself better and I’m excited to see what gifts life has yet to offer.
Check out Dan’s Music here that is his creative approach to managing mental health: https://danvictordoes.com/category/mental-chillness/
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