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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Memoirs of my very own madness, Part 1

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Memoirs of my journeys with mental illness across the Commonwealth and beyond, beginning when I was not yet 14…

The summer of 1985 changed my life. I was awarded my first scholarship and attended a Jr. Hi music camp at Mary Baldwin in Staunton, Va. I sang Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and it was the first time I’d been encored as a soloist. It was shyly intoxicating, seeping into my bones by breath’s end.

It was also the first time in my life I felt depression and contemplated suicide. I was a month shy of 14. Perhaps my biggest regret now is waiting until I was 30 to start treatment. The manic-depressive signs didn’t shine less clearly in the intervening 15 years of conservatory training & career launch.

Like so many other artist-performers, I “showed up” when called and “passed” as another “ebullient personality.” (When partnered to a woman, I usually pass as straight, but that’s another memoir).

The stigmas surrounding mental illness were even worse 20-30 years ago, and to “submit” to such therapies then felt tantamount to surrendering one’s autonomy. Also, since my mom was a therapist and I talked to her, that should have been enough, right?!?

Excuses we call reasons are always telling signs.

My psychologist-social worker mother listened patiently over those years to the dramatic narratives of my existential crises and calmly encouraged me to find a professional to talk to. She and other family members thought I might be on the bipolar spectrum, and when I finally sought treatment at the LGBT Center in NYC (as it was then named), I sensed their relief.

Each of the professionals I talked to over the next decade asked if I wanted to see a Psychiatrist and try medication, but I resisted that prudent advice until a series of breakdowns starting the summer of 2011 caused me to reach out early in 2012. I had made a plan to end my life, but first called a local (Roanoke) hotline.

Native Virginians who have traveled around our wonderfully weird and uniquely provincial Commonwealth will be aware of the variety of speech accents. Each region has not only its own stereotypical drawl, but variations within its porous borders. The country club cadence is recognizably different from the twang heard beyond the city lines.

The kind woman who answered the suicide line that day did not have the posh sound of the elite. No, her fabulously “country” intonation was like a splash of fresh water back to consciousness.

Ok, I said to myself, you can pull it together. Call your GP and get referred to another Dr.

10 summers later I'm still in treatment, still adjusting medications and experiencing how other illnesses interact with my brain. The pictures of me above come from galleries in Bucharest and Roanoke, Jan-Feb 2020, on either side of a fainting spell. Those vasovagal syncope episodes have also accompanied me from adolescence, often unprompted.

This is the first in what is intended to be a series of short memoir-essays on aspects of my own journey with mental health illnesses including manic-depression (bipolar disorder) and suicide. It began on my Facebook page, Aug. 13. Please let me know if there are stories you'd like to hear about or share, like life with brain meds, or creativity and the "artistic temperament" of manic-depression...

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