Franklin James Cook

Essay Offers Clear Insight into Coping with Mental Illness

In Mental Illness on April 28, 2009 at 2:37 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

In 1999, 21 years after my father died by suicide, I experienced the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever had, including frighteningly clear insight into what it’s like to feel grossly suicidal. I lost 25 pounds and woke up daily, usually somewhere between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., with anxiety that constricted my chest as I watched–in my mind’s eye–depictions of worst-case scenarios unfolding in my life.

I calmed myself by offering what I later came to call “furnace prayers.” I was living with my girlfriend-at-the-time on temporary assignment in an apartment in Oakland, where Broadway meets College Avenue. It was February and very cold every night, and the only source of heat in the apartment was a narrow, vented metal contraption attached to a wall in the living room. The furnace was almost from-floor-to-ceiling tall and lit itself with a flaming whoosh whenever the black knob on the bottom of it was twisted to the right. Each time I awakened, I would get out of bed and go sit cross-legged in front of the furnace to be as meditative as I could be as I suffered the night away. I would always wind up in one version or another of prostrate on the ground, praying that I would not totally freak out (and that my chest would not explode) before it was time for me to shower and get dressed and walk to the Rockridge BART station. That was furnace prayers.

I don’t think I ever would have killed myself (or ever will) even though suicide was in my mind all the time–torturing me, it seemed–and the best I could do was (speaking directly to the force that constantly compelled me to ponder enacting as soon as possible my own death) tell it again and again, “No.” I did not make a plan to kill myself nor come close to doing anything that would lead to my suicide, but when my girlfriend and I went on our day off as tourists to visit the Golden Gate Bridge (which I had never seen up close), I couldn’t get across it. She and I started walking toward the bridge from the parking lot on the Marin County side, and as we walked out to where the bridge’s narrowness and height above the water began to take shape in my visual field, I had to stop and turn around because it felt to me–viscerally–as if I might get sucked over the railing by the destructive force that had been beckoning me for weeks.

The article I’m posting today–Ian Grey’s “The Perfect Prescription: A musician explores the role music has played in treating his mental illness,” from Baltimore City Paper–made me think of that decade-old depressive episode of mine. More precisely, Grey’s memoir made me think of how much I later appreciated the insight I gained into how my father must have felt in the months leading up to his suicide, for “Perfect Prescription” offers the reader an eyewitness view of what it feels like to live with mental illness and, in the end, not only to survive but also to rise above whatever disturbances befall a person as he tries to cope with it.

Grey begins with his initial experience of psychosis …

I was about 14 when I first went crazy. Sitting in the bedroom of my parents’ G.I. Bill house, a bolt of noxious energy exploded around me and the air turned grainy, like reality was suddenly an ugly, 16-mm film. Terrified, I saw the universe beyond my small room as endless and black, occupied only by a malign Presence.

… which was relieved by repeated doses of “Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Ma-Ma-Ma Belle,’ a silly pop rocker but with an essential difference–a huge, super-distorted guitar,” and before it ends, covers the gamut, from Grey’s experiences in therapy and with medication to his musings and research on the nature of mental illness and the curative powers (at least for him) of music.

Grey concludes with an email he received from Petr Janata, an associate professor at UC Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain:

“Music,” he writes, “is free to impact some evolutionary deep networks (limbic system: anterior cingulate and amygdala), while the cortex can appraise the situation and render it safe, thereby giving it overall positive valence.”

I choose to read this as validation. But it doesn’t explain why music has helped me so much, while failing so spectacularly, so tragically with others … who struggled hard with MI in their own ways and lost, and how totally out there I’ve been at various junctures and still survived. For that, I think [musician Tiffany Lee] Brown has the ultimate answer. It’s no good and it isn’t fair but it sounds about right. “We’re very lucky,” she says.

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/ClearInsight .]

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