Nov 15

Joan Baez: “I Am a Noise”–Anxiety, Trauma/Dissociation

As Kenneth Womack, Salon, has stated, the new documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is “…one of the most intimate and revealing documentaries of its kind. In one sense, it chronicles Baez’s preparations for her final tour; yet at the same time, the film underscores the singer-songwriter’s lifelong search for the truth about the overarching depression that has marked her life.”

But depression is just one aspect of her mental health issues. Her anxiety and panic attacks began in childhood, leading to therapy in her teens. These conditions, moreover, continued to plague her throughout her career.

And that’s not all. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “(T)his intimate and painful documentary… brings us to the brink of a terribly traumatic revelation that it can’t quite bear to spell out.” We get just enough, though, to understand that she has disturbing childhood memories–“though she says she cannot recall definitively whether her father sexually abused her” (Deadline).

What Baez can be clearer about, though, are her experiences of dissociation. Matthew Carey, Deadline: “For the first time, Baez speaks in detail about experiencing multiple personalities, among them someone she describes as ‘Diamond Joan.’ The condition, known clinically as dissociative identity disorder, typically results from long-term trauma in childhood featuring abuse or neglect.”

The following are revealing quotes from recent interviews conducted with Joan Baez.

I. Scott Simon, NPR

“And my sister Mimi just called one day and said, you know, I think something terrible happened in our childhood. Do you want to look into it the way I will in therapy? And eventually I said yes. And we both discovered some very deep trauma from childhood. And we were – our bodies and brains were reacting to that our whole lives without our knowing it because it was all unconscious, subconscious.”

“And I believe with all my heart that he and my mom have no memory of it at all. The mind is an extraordinary thing to have blocking something out if you really don’t want to deal with it. I mean, I had blocked it out for 50 years. And then the journey was really quite something.”

II. Walter Scott, Parade

Regarding her dissociation, or DID: “[Mine] was many splits and each one had a reason for being there—each little entity that’s born is there for a reason—when I was trying to grow up. By recognizing these little entities and then nurturing them, that nurtured a part of me that needed that. I loved all the little people in there and they’ve held me together and taught me a lot.”

Regarding her son, musician Gabriel Harris, age 53: “That’s where this terrible sadness comes in that I wasn’t there for him. I didn’t realize the extent of it until I saw the film and I hear him talking. I salute him for being honest and loving and caring but saying what his truth was about growing up with a mom who basically wasn’t there. A lot of times I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

III. Bobbi Dempsey, AARP  

“First of all, I don’t think the ending in the film really, really shows the amount of peace that I came to. I’m not sure why. But all of that came through deep therapy. I put off deep therapy for half a lifetime. And clearly figured out why: It was too scary to deal with. But no, I don’t have those demons now. Occasionally there’s a little pop-up, but basically, no. Therapy is hard work and it’s a lot of emotional excavation.”

“If somebody [asked] what am I proudest of, I would say getting through that tunnel. It was pretty dark when I entered it, and I entered it on faith. And then by the end I was really back in the light — or in the light, in a way, for the first time.”

Apr 27

“Reasons to Stay Alive”: Matt Haig’s Still Here

The recent news report that deaths from suicide have been on the rise highlights the need for increased prevention efforts. Author Matt Haig hopes his 2015 book Reasons to Stay Alive, based on his young-adult experiences with severe depression and anxiety, is a resource that can help. British novelist Haig, now 40, has learned how to survive.

An excerpt from Haig’s Guardian article called “As Therapy Shows, Words Can Be Medicine” gives some important background to the writing of Reasons to Stay Alive:

On the inside, your head can feel crushed under a raging psychological tsunami, but outwardly you can look like a healthy 24-year-old man. Even when I got a little better, I found that reading and talking about depression could be hard.
But then a trusted friend told me to write about my own experiences, and feeling a now-or-never moment was upon me – 10 books into my career – I did. I imagined writing to myself at 24, when I very nearly tried to solve my life by throwing myself off a cliff…

According to Kirkus Reviews, in Reasons to Stay Alive Haig has written “brief, episodic vignettes, not of a tranquil life but of an existence of unbearable, unsustainable melancholy. Throughout his story, presented in bits frequently less than a page long (e.g., ‘Things you think during your 1,000th panic attack’), the author considers phases he describes in turn as Falling, Landing, Rising, Living, and, finally, simply Being with spells of depression.”

Entertainment Weekly: “…(H)e addresses the guilt and shame that comes with clinical depression—especially for men, who are disproportionately more likely to take their own lives—and the ways its symptoms can be misunderstood and dismissed by even the most well-meaning outsiders. (The 21-item list in a chapter called ‘Things That Have Happened to Me That Have Generated More Sympathy Than Depression’ includes ‘consuming a poisoned prawn,’ ‘breaking a toe,’ and ‘bad Amazon reviews.’)”

On the issue of what helps, “Haig…assesses the efficacy of neuroscience, yoga, St. John’s wort, exercise, pharmaceuticals, silence, talking, walking, running, staying put, and working up the courage to do even the most seemingly mundane of tasks, like visiting the village store. Best for the author were reading, writing, and the frequent dispensing of kindnesses and love. He acknowledges particularly his debt to his then-girlfriend, now-wife.”

Lettie Kennedy, The Guardian: “Medication is discussed briefly; notable by its absence is any discussion of therapy, presumably an avenue Haig did not himself explore. Among the most affecting passages in the book are three ‘Conversations across time’: dramatised exchanges in which ‘Now Me’ reassures ‘Then Me’ that the fire in the brain will burn out and life will once again be full of promise.”

A Few Notable Quotes From Reasons to Stay Alive:

You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.

Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:

Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died.’
Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?
Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you want to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.
Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.
Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.
Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?
Okay. Yes. Yes. Maybe your parachute has failed. But chin up.

The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them. Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind.
Mar 02

“Agorafabulous!”: Comedian Sara Benincasa’s Agoraphobia

I subscribe to the notion that if you can laugh at the shittiest moments in your life, you can transcend them. Sara Benincasa, Agorafabulous!

Stand-up comedian and writer Sara Benincasa has a new book entitled Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroomwhich is about her experiences with panic attacks, agoraphobia, and depression.

Who is Benincasa? LA Weekly notes that she’s “like a crazier Tina Fey.” The Chicago Tribune refers to her as “delightfully loopy.” The Huffington Post says she’s one of their “favorite female comedians.”

Previously, Benincasa has toured in a one-woman show on the same topic, and, as stated on her website, it’s “garnered great reviews at festivals and one-night stands around the country.”

Benincasa points out in a recent blog post that the process of dredging up old stuff in order to write this book led to a relapse of depression with suicidal thoughts. She went back to therapy. She went back on medication. And she relearned “…a few cardinal rules of living with depression: 1.) Eat properly. 2.) Sleep properly. 3.) Take your pills properly. 4.) Repeat as necessary (which means daily, for the rest of your life.)”

Notably, most of the Goodreads reviewers who identified with having agoraphobia found Benincasa relatable and helpful.

Selected Agorafabulous! reviews

Booklist: “Hilarious. . . . With expert pacing, the stand-up comic mixes humor and poignant anecdotes from her teen, college, and young adult life. As her empowering tale makes clear, she survives and thrives (with a little help from family, friends, and Prozac).”

Kirkus Reviews: “…Benincasa recounts her adolescent devolution into a ‘full-on, obsessive, cowering, trembling agoraphobe’ [who] discover[s], by accident, the healing power of stand-up comedy. Fabulously quirky and outrageous.”

Publishers Weekly: “Using humor to help her overcome the anxieties that once dominated her life, Benincasa discovers her gift for comedy and storytelling, and finds tranquility.”