As summer wraps up here in the great white north, I can feel the approaching winter and my own mood changes as I watch the V formation of Canada geese flying over the beautiful tree where my son’s ashes are in part buried. Today is August 24, a month short of the third anniversary of his death. As a tribute to my son, Birdsong features the personal story written by another Canadian musician who shares his great insight and hope in a most heartfelt way.
Matthew Johnston is a role model for us all. He’s an applicant for our Music Fund and is one of many remarkable Canadians who live with mental illness. This demographic, this group of people who live daily with stigma and misconception remain in the shadows. But music is on our side! And straight talk is what we need – through sharing we transform ourselves and others. If you want to share your story or know of a good story for us to write about please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
by Matthew Johnston
“The more I play music, the more I heal, and the more a belief springs up in my heart that there is a purpose to our art.” – Matthew Johnston
I experience schizophreniform disorder. I understand that is frightening to some people, because they have so many misconceptions about it.
After all, the stigma I fight every day is not invisible. It’s more real than the chatter and paranoia that used to infiltrate and take over my mind. But at some point, it became non-beneficial to me to care what other people think. Clinical knowledge aside, most people cannot truly understand serious mental illness until they have experienced it themselves, or watched their loved ones suffer.
And for me, it’s important to be able to say words ‘mental illness’, because I have come to accept that I was in fact sick and have a disease for which there is as yet no cure. It’s complex and complicated, but I believe pathology is real. Yet while there is certainly a badness in the madness, the equally penetrating, unjust madness of society does make it more difficult – but not impossible – to overcome our obstacles.
Happily, music and art are on our side. This divine weapon, I have learned during my journey, remains a medium that can speak about mental illness better than these, or any words. It can heal us. It can acknowledge our existence. It can encourage us to embrace our vulnerability in the midst of pain, chaos, anger and regret. It is our friend in a dark world.
Here’s how I know this. In 2013, at the age of 25, I experienced my first psychotic break. Up to that point, I was a budding musician doing my PhD in sociology on the west coast of Canada. Nothing could have prepared me for the worst and most intense event of my life.
Although I remained on this earth physically, my psychosis was a kind of death. I dropped music for almost three years as I recovered, sought out better doctors and tried to make sense of both the dark and enlightening experiences of my psychosis. I was empty and fragile. I lost my confidence and self-esteem. I met God in my madness, but it was not enough. I was trying to figure out who I was, and who I had become after my mind changed forever.
I survived, barely, because I had just enough family support to live through it – support that was not often present in our reactive, judgemental, and sometimes uncaring mental health system. I know I am one of the lucky ones.
In 2017, while still numb and traumatized, I found the courage to pick up my guitar again. I played and sang to myself about my mental illness. I plucked four-year-old tracks I recorded on the edges of my breakdown and interwove them with songs I wrote during my recovery. I sang to the butterflies in the air, and I poured my heart out into my microphone, not knowing what people would think when I self-published it.
As I crawled deeper into the trauma I had refused to acknowledge for so many years, tears stained the strings of my guitar. My wife gave me the title for the album, ‘Out of my mind and back in again’. It was not her first or last gift to me in the twilight of sickness, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and terror. She is my guardian angel whose bright wings reflect the love I have for her that will never die.
A few people I know listened to my album. A few even gave it a ‘like’. A few online trolls trashed it. And that’s about it. But it remains the greatest work of art I have ever made, and I know somewhere in heaven its chorus is being sung, just like the work that helped inspire it.
From Matthew Good’s experiences with bipolarity, to Daniel Johnston’s accounts of schizophrenia, I know that I am not alone in trying to bring to this world a message of music – I have been pushed in this direction from the beginning.
Like a lot of artists out there, I have made music mostly for myself. This is a reality in an industry where so few people want to listen to raw, poorly recorded, emotional, fringe music. I have listened to my own work more than anyone else. But the more I play, the more I heal, and the more a belief springs up in my heart that there is a purpose to our art beyond likes, plays, and money. It’s about extending our hand of peace and reality to others, so that they know what our lives stand for, and how they are meaningful.
Not all of our stories end in tragedy. I eventually finished my doctorate at Carleton University. I now teach there as an adjunct professor, and I am doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Concordia University. I turned my mental health experiences into a dissertation, which explores how mental health patients resist elements of the mental health system in Canada, by interviewing others who saw and felt light and darkness in their madness.
The more I come out as mad, the more I meet others with equally vibrant lives. I know we are at war with stigma, our treatment options are often band-aids rather than cures, and our mental health systems have a long way to go in making us feel safe and loved.
We are still the group in the shadows. Living with mental illness is neither accepted nor understood by many segments of our society. But underneath this pain lies a movement I want to be a part of, and through Birdsong and other initiatives like it, I believe it will grow.
That’s why I hope my message can help lift up the voices and legacies of the fallen birds who I believe carry on the flames of hope that artists who have experienced mental illness latch onto in their suffering. They will not have died in vain.
As I read about David Martin’s story in the Ottawa Citizen, I know now R.D. Laing’s Bird Of Paradise has taken flight. Let it echo throughout the world and let this foundation be blessed, bringing us closer together in the deep stillness of struggle.
But not of defeat, because we are not alone.