Singing the Blues

It used to make me unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve learned how to make feeling work for me… I don’t know, I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”  — Janis Joplin

I watched a documentary about Janis Joplin last evening, called Little Girl Blue.  It ripped my heart out in many ways. Hers is a story of that combination of spirit, guts, insecurity, and an insatiable quest to be loved by everyone that can be so difficult to manage in the face of mental illness. Her voice is recognizable by anyone who ever lived during the 60s and 70s, and the years that followed that era. Who hasn’t heard Take Another Piece of My Heart?

Love or hate Joplin’s music, one can’t help but be saddened by the story of her life. It seems she was picked on a great deal during her school years growing up in Texas, mostly for her appearance, but also because she was different from the other kids. The angst of not fitting in and searching for a place to belong is what ultimately drove her to head to California and propelled her into what would become a brilliant but short-lived career.  She found her voice singing the blues, letting out all of her emotions. Indeed, she was bursting at the seams with a multitude of pent-up emotions. Her music tells the story well.

I could relate to Joplin’s quote about emotions, “It used to make me unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn’t know what to do with it. But now I’ve learned how to make feeling work for me… I don’t know, I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”  — Janis Joplin

Dealing with intense feelings is a hallmark struggle that many people with mental illness face on a daily basis, and we often fall into the trap of seeking any way possible to express or suppress emotions that can be quite overwhelming. Even when we find a way to channel our feelings through art, music, sports, writing, career, or religion, if we are not careful, positive things in our lives can quickly shift to obsessions that rob us of our ability to feel or notice anything. Drugs, food, alcohol, compulsive behaviors are other ways to cope with what we don’t understand about ourselves, and they can quickly lead our vulnerable psyches down the path of self-destruction.

Janis, like my daughter, left home at an early age and discovered she had wonderful talent. She, like my daughter, lacked the maturity and tools to adequately deal with the stress that came with a life so quickly propelled into success. By 27 Janis had died of a heroin overdose after months of being sober. I can understand how this happened, having struggled with an eating disorder until I was about that age. I watched my daughter struggle with the same thing while she was away from home excelling and failing at the same time.

Both my daughter and I were fortunate to be able to slow down enough to get the help we needed and jump onto the path of recovery sooner rather than too late. I managed to make it through those tough years by pouring all of myself wholeheartedly into activities that would support my recovery. My motivation was becoming a mother and knowing the devastation that untreated mental illness can cause. I witnessed it first-hand as my mother spent decades refusing help for her paranoid schizophrenia. My daughter who is 30 now, also accepted the help she needed and worked at it. She is 30 now, living away from home doing what she loves, and while she has good days and bad days, I know she has the tools and resources to get through the tough times.

How sad that Janis ran out of time before she was able to find the tools and support that could have helped her stay afloat and deal with all those strong emotions that she so desperately tried to embrace and understand. How sad that treatment options were so limited at that time.

Now we have many  more resources at our fingertips, and yet our mental healthcare system cannot adequately deal with the needs of so many who need it. Millions of people have trouble gaining access to mental healthcare because of financial or accessibility barriers. Many others are being placed on long waiting lists and/or going weeks and months before being able to receive treatment and medications that could help. Many others refuse to admit their struggles for fear of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness. Much more research needs to be conducted to find answers that will lead to better treatment options.

Let no life lost to mental illness be in vain. Let’s keep pushing for better and more treatment options!

 

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