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From struggle to song

Musicians shared their stories of overcoming mental health issues on Wednesday in an attempt to end the stigma.
Couple Johnny Soloman and Molly Moore of the St. Paul based music group, Communist Daughter, perform at the Whole Music Club in Coffman on Wednesday evening. The campus event, hosted by Boynton Health services, brought musical artists together for a conversation about their music careers as well as their struggles with mental health.
Image by Liam James Doyle
Couple Johnny Soloman and Molly Moore of the St. Paul based music group, Communist Daughter, perform at the Whole Music Club in Coffman on Wednesday evening. The campus event, hosted by Boynton Health services, brought musical artists together for a conversation about their music careers as well as their struggles with mental health.

Adam Levy is having one of the best years of his life.

But his contentment comes at an unusual time. In the past several years, Levy, the lead singer of the Minneapolis-based band the Honeydogs, finished treatment for addiction, and his son, Daniel, committed suicide.

Most people would buckle under such tragedy and hardship. But Levy channeled his pain and used it as motivation to raise awareness surrounding mental health.

“I have energy,” Levy said. “I am present in my children’s [lives] more. I’m more in touch with my own creativity. I’m closer to people and able to find joy in ways I don’t think I ever really could.”

Levy joined Communist Daughter, Astronautalis and Manchita of GRRRL PRTY on Wednesday at Coffman Union to bring awareness to mental health through music. At the event, sponsored by Boynton Health Service, artists shared their experiences, ranging from stories of anxiety to drug addiction in front of an audience of about 40 people.

Claire Monesterio (aka Manchita) from GRRRL PRTY said she struggles with anxiety, OCD and Tourette syndrome. She suppressed her symptoms until she was in college at the University, where she said life stressors became too much to handle.

Monesterio has two tattoos on her wrists in her ex-boyfriend’s handwriting. Though she got them in a depressive moment of emergency, they now serve as words of comfort and motivators when she feels down.

“Grief is really nasty, and I was in a moment where I was either going to cut my wrists open or find a tattoo shop that was open,” Monesterio said. “I caught it in the last 15 minutes of it being open — it was a really lucky thing. …They’re testaments and survival scars to me. …If there’s ever a hard time, there’s always ‘I Love You’ right here.”

Though Monesterio is dark-natured, she also possesses stick-to-it grit and a can-do attitude when it comes to grappling with her ruminations and thought loops.

Many of her family members deal with mental illness as well, and she lost her ex-boyfriend to addiction a few years ago.

“I realized I had control over my own brain, and if I wanted to address this shit, I needed to get in there and take charge,” Monesterio said. “I started doing very basic exposure therapy with myself — once I realized where my triggers were, what was happening and why I would go into panic attacks or tic-fits, I was able to look at it and say, ‘I see you and I’m not judging you anymore.’”

In a 2013 survey, almost 30 percent of University students reported that they’ve received a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime, and more than 14 percent reported that they were diagnosed in the last year.

The best way to raise awareness to mental health issues is through large-scale events that combine education and entertainment like Wednesday’s, said Gary Christenson, the Chief Medical Officer at Boynton Health Service.

“We use the celebrity status of musicians and music to bring people in for the discussion, so they’ll have an entertaining evening of music, as well as an opportunity to hear some insights from people who are admired locally,” he said.

All too often, artists get cast in the role of tortured geniuses, thanks to the belief that great art stems from pain. Wednesday’s event, called “Finding Harmony,” aimed to dispel that myth and erase the stigma associated with mental health issues.

“There’s a cultural framework about that relationship which makes mental illness iconic,” Levy said. “You think of all of these rock stars — Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix. They suffered from addiction, they suffered from mental health issues, and that was what created great art.”

Musicians’ stories

Johnny Solomon, lead singer of Communist Daughter, said he turned to meth for solace after experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

He began drinking as a teen, and as a downward spiral deepened while in college, he turned to the drug for comfort.

And after a series of public meltdowns and nearly losing his band, Solomon realized something had to give.

He entered Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center to treat his alcohol and drug addictions, which also forced him to face his bipolar disorder.

Solomon still refers to himself as an addict — even though he hasn’t relapsed.

He said he had to relearn songwriting for a sober mind, and his life is now defined by contentment and an evenness that he failed to achieve before.

“I had a hard time finding my emotional space because when you’re using drugs, you control how you feel emotionally,” Solomon said. “Now my life is so much better. I couldn’t even picture how I would be here right now if it wasn’t for getting sober. A lot of musicians feel that way.”

Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis, said he doesn’t have a formal mental health diagnosis, but his stress from music-industry burnout resembles anxiety symptoms.

During his lowest point, Bothwell felt unable to take time off from working in order to maintain an edge over similar artists with promising careers. He felt that way during his career’s breakout year and almost derailed further growth.

“When you start out, you’re competitive in a creative way because you don’t have a business,” Bothwell said. “Then the business comes, and you’re competitive in both a creative and a business way. But you have to continually weigh the cost-risk benefit of t¬he whole thing, like, ‘This tour might be great for my business, but is it great for my health?’”

Bothwell said he doesn’t feel the need to get diagnosed or seek help from a therapist, adding that he has a close group of family and friends who help him with his struggles.

“There are people who succeed in tackling their problems by having them diagnosed and labeled, and then there are those who don’t really care,” Bothwell said.

For Levy, addiction arose in order to replicate the highs he had on stage and hearing his music played in public. Drugs and alcohol numbed his symptoms of anxiety and depression, and enhanced the monotonous minutiae of everyday life.

Levy said he came to terms with his anxiety, depression and addiction to set a positive example for his son Daniel.

“I wanted to get well for myself, but I also wanted to have a vantage point where I could talk to Daniel and say, ‘Look, I’ve done this. You can do it, too,’” Levy said. “We can do this together, we can take care of ourselves — it’s not hopeless.”

But Daniel’s future, Levy said, was one he envisioned living in residential care for people with severe mental illnesses.

“It was agonizing,” Levy said. “The last six months of Daniel’s life was his mother and me holding whatever shred of clothing [we could] as he was hanging off the cliff to keep him here. He was so pained over his mental state; there was really no talking him into hope.”

Levy has made peace with his son’s death, and he envisions a more hopeful journey for people struggling with similar issues.

“I would never say the story couldn’t have ended differently because I think it could have,” Levy said.

Finding silver linings

While each of the event’s musicians struggle with different types and intensities of mental illness, they manage them in a healthy manner.

Both Solomon and Monesterio noted the use of medication and its benefits for treating severe mental illness issues. Medication helped Solomon achieve mental balance he said he never experienced before.

“As long as I have people around me and I’m sobering and staying on medication that’s working, I’m happy with life,” Solomon said. “I know there are situations sometimes where medicine stops working, and that scares me.”

Monesterio was a child psychology and English literature student at the University, and she said understanding the roots of mental illnesses often helps deflect the blame from the self and creates the realization that it’s a chemical — not personal — problem.

“Being accountable for your own emotions and accepting emotional regulation as your responsibility is a huge step, once you get more in touch with the functioning of your brain and how shit trickles down,” Monesterio said.

Levy said it’s unhealthy and undesirable to always feel happy.

“Every day there are bumps and bruises, and there’s also really wonderful things that happen,” Levy said. “If it’s all ‘yay,’ then [life] is boredom. There’s got to be a balance of melancholia, anxiety, pain — that’s the human experience. We can’t dull it.”

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