Me and my shrinks

Dan Hill on the craziness of families, fame—and therapists

Dan Hill
Me and my shrinks

“Before we can get properly started, there’s something I really need to disclose.” This was my new therapist’s opening gambit in 1999. I leaned back, enjoying the role reversal: the shrink unloading a bombshell on his patient.

“Sure, doctor. What’s up?”

Dr. Tony (not his real name) breathed in dramatically and rolled his leather chair closer.“I’m extremely attracted to your wife,” he confessed, the words tumbling out in one fevered exhalation. “She’s the classiest, most charismatic woman I’ve come across in all my years as a therapist.”

At 53, Dr. Tony was seven years my senior, and appeared vaguely athletic, not unlike an ex-NHLer who’d downed a few too many beers. Exuding a jousting alpha-male presence that verged on self-parody, he was hardly a threat to my marriage. Still, the doctor’s confession left me discombobulated.

So I counterpunched: “Well, one of my best friends recently lost his wife to her freakin’ gynecologist. Are you suggesting you and Bev are about to go down a similar path?”

My attempt at deflective humour failed. Agitated, Dr. Tony removed his glasses, squinted disapprovingly, and asked in a condescending tone, “Do you usually dramatize everything?”

Whoa! I’m paying this guy $300 an hour to hear about his sexual cravings for my wife, and now I’m being dramatic?

Realizing there was little upside in getting into a verbal shootout at five bucks a minute, I murmured, “Just don’t take my wife on as a client, got it?” So far, my teenage son, David, was his main Hill client—that’s how Dr. Tony knew Bev in the first place.

“Very healthy response, Dan.” Slipping into “shrink speak” again, he leaned back in his mini-throne and rolled out of striking distance. Then he threw out another zinger.“One more thing you should know. Your father was one of my professors at university. He was the most inspiring teacher I ever had.”

Oh brother! Would the next hour consist of Tony waxing rhapsodic about my relatives? I thought the point of seeing a shrink was to suck him into my perspective, so he’d agree that everyone in my immediate and distant family was unreasonable, insane, and unfair, with me being the only sane one.

The first half of the session consisted of Tony prattling on about his “high-powered” patients (the usual array of screwed-up corporate presidents, TV producers, and professional athletes). Clearly, he regarded his own status as being inextricably linked to his clients’ career success. It brought to mind an old music biz friend who was Michael Jackson’s personal secretary during his Thriller period. Every Friday after work, five secretaries-to-the-stars met for dinner, their seating arrangement dictated by status: Michael Jackson’s secretary at the head of the table, Liz Taylor’s next, while at the far end was Tom Selleck’s assistant.

As Dr. Tony yammered endlessly, his overweening narcissism left me feeling, by comparison, stable and calm. Was this some kind of newfangled, flip-the-script therapy?

I tuned out for a bit, taking in the expanse of his home office. Tucked into the back wing of his mansion, the room was crammed full of African artifacts, athletic gear, and the usual shelves of psychology textbooks. The drone of Tony’s voice sounded like Muzak—annoying if you listened too closely but insipid enough to turn into white noise. But just as I was tumbling deep into daydream land, he trumpeted, “I prefer the term ‘coach’ to therapist, Dan. Tell me, how does ‘coach’ resonate with you?”

That being the first time in half an hour that Tony had asked a question, I was caught off-guard. “Come again?”

“For your tax records, refer to me as your corporate coach. You’ll get a better writeoff. And let’s face it, that’s what I’m here to do: coach you through life challenges.”

A 10-year-old needs a coach, not a man pushing 50. So why didn’t I just get up and march out? Because there was something transfixing about Dr. Tony’s kookiness. Like witnessing a person acting crazy at an otherwise civilized dinner party, I was waiting for the next “incident.”

“So, what’s going on in your life that you’d like to talk about, Dan?” We were now 34 minutes into the session.

“Well, I have to go to Saskatoon, for the Prairie Music Awards. I’m leading a songwriting seminar, and I’m anxious about—”

“Saskatoon!” Dr. Tony just about leapt out of his chair with enthusiasm. “I have a lover in Saskatoon!”
“Wow, that’s, um, really something,” I mumbled, glancing through the glass doors that separated his office from his living room, where his girlfriend, whom I’d originally mistaken for his daughter, was working on his financial books. (“She’s wild about me,” Tony had confided. “She’ll do anything I ask.”)

I tentatively resumed my confessions: that my father was slowly dying and I’d been drinking myself silly, late at night, locked in my basement recording studio. That I was hooked on sleeping pills and lorazepam, which left me viciously hungover and snapping at people, particularly the more challenging superstars I was writing songs for. That I was running for two hours every morning, to detoxify my body and inflate my crashing spirits, only to spend the rest of the day staggering as though my hamstrings were being prodded by a white-hot knife. And the worst part of all: I was withdrawing from everyone, even my wife and son found me unreachable, as though lost in some swirling, creative, haunted trance.

“You’re in serious trouble,” Dr. Tony concluded when I finished my rambling narrative. His voice gaining volume with each pronouncement, he continued, “Your emotional development stopped once you hit puberty. You’re selfish, spoiled, and entitled. You think the world revolves around you.”

Sheesh, maybe he had been seeing my wife on the side; his words had a nasty ring of familiarity. Whatever happened to the shrink rubbing his chin furtively and musing, “How does that make you feel?”

Shrugging like a surly adolescent, I handed Tony his payment for “enlightening” me, and he confided, “Dan, I have to tell you, I find your life journey absolutely fascinating.”

Not for the last time, I wondered: what’s the line that separates therapists from overpaid voyeurs?

After spending close to half a century with shrinks, I have come to love the various aspects of the “psychiatrist mask”—the affectation of neutrality, the non-response, the telltale professional tics (the fierce scribbling on notepads that builds in urgency as my narrative takes a sexual turn; the patronizing, shrink-patented nod to “go on”; the microsecond pause to absorb one of my carefully calibrated “shrink-tripper stunts”).

And yet the truth is, I’ve found some psychiatrists to be highly effective. Above all, there’s one I consider a near-saint, for she may well have saved my mom’s life.

The murky world of psychiatry and mental illness crashed into my life when I was eight years old. Arriving home from school, I saw my Aunt M. being hoisted into an ambulance, comatose from an overdose of sleeping pills.

It was hard to determine what was scarier: Aunt M. pre-suicide attempt, her primeval sobs rising from some guttural place, or Aunt M. after her 10-day hospital “visit,” medicated into an impenetrable fog. Now, instead of endlessly wailing, she’d dissolve her mammoth frame into Dad’s living-room chair and mouth along to Ella Fitzgerald’s Shiny Stockings for hours. Fifty years later, one queasy memory stands out: my aunt staring through me with half-closed eyes, drool glistening on her double chin, oblivious to the record player needle stuck on the phrase “I guess I’ll have to try, a new, new kind of guy . . . ”

“What happened to Aunt M.?” I asked my dad, breaking the family rule of not talking about her problems.
“The psychiatrist fixed her,” he answered.

Three years later, Mom took ill, seemingly infected with the same tenebrous disease (manic depression, now termed bipolar) that had taken down my poor aunt. Hospitalized, Mom fell under the care of the mysterious and magical Dr. Plum. (Sounds fabricated, but she’s the only therapist here whose real name I use.)

I was now an overly intense 11-year-old, and my view of emotional meltdowns, or “episodes” as they were quaintly termed in our family, had evolved. Not so quick to accept my father’s sweeping summations on everything from mental illness to politics to household etiquette, my rat-a-tat questions were frequently answered by the bearish swipes of his Sonny Listonesque right hand. “Daggum it boy,” Dad would say, white dots fizzing like shooting stars through my brain, “you ask too many questions.”

I calmed myself with the knowledge that Dad’s temper flared and faded as fast as his sudden jabs. Besides, I knew his flashes of anger were caused by a greater concern: what on Earth was happening to our family?

Losing Mom to illness shook me a whole lot more than witnessing my aunt being ambulanced out of our June Cleaver-straight suburb. The thought that my younger siblings and I could grow up in a fractured household, with our mom locked up indefinitely, left me feeling numb during the day and panicked through the night. I clung to my own homemade therapy: endless guitar playing and singing in my bedroom, with the Beatles grinning lopsidedly from crooked posters, silently cheering me on. Frantic for hope after seeing Mom whisked away—with no discussion of when, or if, she’d ever return—I found a sliver in the most unlikely place: the name of her psychiatrist. Dr. Plum. “Plum” sounded so nurturing and kind. Surely she was blessed with extraordinary powers?

Apparently she was. When Mom returned home six weeks later, shaky but definitely on the road to recovery, I asked my father what sparked her return to health.“Three things saved your mother,” Dad confided, his usual booming voice shaking slightly. “Dr. Plum, lithium, and a family who loved her.”

I knew Mom was starting to heal when she slipped in next to me at the kitchen table, just like she used to, while I practised a classical guitar prelude. She sang her improvised melody over the backdrop of my chords, her tiny, lilting voice so pure that I wished the prelude would last forever. I could see her mouth moving in the table’s reflective surface, and I felt safe again. Loved. Complete.

While it’s true that part of Plum’s wizardry came from a potion called lithium—newly available in Canada and not yet available in the States—to this day Mom refers to her with boundless affection. Indeed, she retained Plum as her psychiatrist for 35 years, until the dear doctor died.

So enmeshed was Dr. Plum in the unspoken drama of our family’s survival that I sought her out for therapy when I was 27. I’d recently been dumped by a major American recording label, and it was likely that after six albums and as many adrenalin-laced years of stardom, my career as a pop singer was going, going, gone. I’d effectively lost my job—and job loss, according to the latest research on depression, comes close to topping the list of life-altering downers, ranking as a greater emotional blow than divorce. At an age when most people start finding traction in their careers, I found myself staring (often through a tequila- or substance-induced fog) into my bathroom mirror and seeing a has-been. All the Junos, the Grammy nominations, the gold and platinum records, did nothing to assuage my conviction that I was an out-and-out loser. Could a visit to the legendary Dr. Plum save me from following the nihilistic path of so many B-list celebrities?

She worked out of her handsome North Toronto home in a part of the city swarming with psychiatrists. Her house was dark, discomfitingly quiet, and filled with deeply melancholy artwork. Eerily, her half-dozen paintings seemed to morph into shapes that recalled my recent sombre, disturbing dreams.

What did Plum and I talk about? Not much. Perhaps it was because she was my mom’s shrink; somehow copping to my unsavoury secrets felt like discussing my sex life with my mother. So I stuck to the surface, confessing that I missed running so much—I’d recently torn my Achilles tendon—that I dreamt of cross-country races every night. Plum nodded quizzically, tutted at the bulge creeping over my belt line, and suggested I eat more roughage.

We spent most of our session muttering inanities and blinking at each other, two strangers talking at cross-purposes, our sole connection—my mother—the source of our greatest disconnect.

Woody Allen movies notwithstanding, therapy, in the early eighties, was not exactly a hot conversation starter. Nor was it a favoured activity for dysfunctional couples or suffering individuals. We were still two decades removed from televised scenes of Tony Soprano visiting his sexually repressed therapist (scenes which nevertheless indicated in no uncertain terms that talk therapy amounts to little more than titillation, confessional erotic foreplay).

Today, more than ever, the therapy business is encountering the murmurings of incipient backlash, with questions and criticism coming as much from within the mental health profession as from without.

Psychologist Gary Greenberg’s recent book Manufacturing Depression notes that five different therapists will, more often than not, come up with five different diagnoses when treating the same patient. Greenberg represents a growing number of psychologists who accuse the psychiatric profession, in collusion with major drug corporations, of pathologizing sadness so prescription drugs can be sold as “cures.” (Incredibly, now even shyness is in some quarters considered a deep emotional scar, to be cured by—presto—just the right drug and therapy.)

Greenberg’s crucial question: is depression merely a rational response to an irrational world? In other words, is unhappiness not chemical but existential? Isn’t life, essentially, chock full of what Martin Amis once described as a series of “unavoidable miracles and tragedies,” breakthroughs as well as breakdowns, for which there is no antidote?

Most vexing is that no one, regardless of credentials, has a concise answer to the conundrum of depression. Rather than psychiatrists, writers—for example, William Styron in his gripping and jagged Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness—consistently come closer to deconstructing depression.

Invariably, though, it’s when a noted psychologist or psychiatrist breaks ranks that the message resonates most. For example, a recent article in The New Yorker quotes psychologist Hans Eysenck’s 1952 summary of the merits of psychotherapy: “The more psychotherapy, the smaller the recovery rate.” The same article reports that two decades later, David Rosenhan found that most hospital psychiatrists were unable to distinguish between mentally ill patients and impostors. Half a century after Eysenck’s findings, the debate within psychiatric circles over the efficacy of any one type of therapy remains as confusing and contradictory as ever.

Seven years after my Plum session, I took the plunge again. I was now 35 and, not coincidentally, about to be dropped by a major international record company. To be “fired” in one’s mid-thirties feels a whole lot more soul-crushing than it does at 27. Having penned a few more hit records had left me in better financial shape, but the darkness sweeping through me exerted an even mightier, more claustrophobic grip.

Ten-mile runs lessened the force of my depression, but still the shadows kept creeping back, without any traceable triggers.

However, like many men, I refused to admit that I had a problem. Enter my wife of seven years: “See Dr. Lester or start looking for another place to live.”

Okay, Bev didn’t say it quite like that, but her insistence that I reach out for professional help—fast, as we had a newborn son—was all the more emphatic because she didn’t say “or else.” Rather, her vocal distress and her body language, fists clenched to the point where her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands, made me wish I was deaf and blind as well as emotionally numb.

Dr. Lester had been recommended by our couples therapist, who’d earlier been “commissioned” to help Bev and me cope with my unexpected series of mid-’80s hits. I’d been hitting the road hard, for the better part of three years, and the time apart had been extremely difficult for both of us. My own anecdotal research suggests that most men loathe couples therapy—as I did—whereas most women find it helpful; so after a year of fingernails-on-a-blackboard couples therapy, I was relieved, if not jumping for joy, to be one-on-one with Dr. Lester.

But while Dr. Lester listened patiently as I enumerated the brilliant ways I’d sabotaged my singing career, he soon declared that there was nothing wrong with me, a view he bolstered with quotes from my own songs.
(If a therapist quotes your lyrics back to you, it ain’t therapy, it’s torture.) Based on his 45-minute observation (shrinks spend the remaining 15 minutes summarizing your personality in writing, a frightening prospect for a borderline paranoid such as myself), Lester allowed that I was “self-obsessed” but “in a creative way,” as though my “artistic temperament” was as vaguely charming as it was unfixable. I felt like the patient who’s convinced he has cancer, only to feel strangely cheated when he gets a clean bill of health.

By 1989, I’d navigated through the outlaw world of pop music for two decades. From recording in Hollywood studios—where, at the push of a button, my producers ushered in studio-hands bearing cocaine-packed pepper grinders—to writing hit songs for Mob-owned record companies (the president of one label swaggered into my session with a briefcase bulging with pistols, $100 bills, and enough drugs to keep California wired for a year), I had emerged, if not jaded—or dead, like many of my musical peers—then certainly not naive. After all, there was nothing to sully my Don Mills notions of wholesomeness like watching Rick James strut into the lobby of a Hollywood hotel, snatch up the first girl in a line of 200, and take her up to his room for 10 minutes, only to reappear, mockingly singing a few bars of Sometimes When We Touch with a devilish wink as I lingered, gobsmacked, over my breakfast. This was a ritual he’d repeat till he’d gone through the entire line of groupies.

And yet, despite my “party like a rock star” misadventures, there was one quixotic illusion I couldn’t shake: shrinks as omniscient creatures. Because psychiatry in the late ’80s was such a shrouded profession, it had never occurred to me that shrinks were actually human—flawed, screwed up, inconsistent at best, damaging at worst.

When you boil it all down, psychiatry seems about as scientific as songwriting. Even though the National Institute of Mental Health claims more than 14 million Americans suffer from severe depression each year, identifying physiological evidence of it in the brain is not easy. For mild to moderate mood disorders, there are no reliable tests to distinguish natural mood changes from mental illness. The brains of people complaining of depression often scan similarly to those of hockey players who just lost a game in overtime.

And as the pharmaceutical industry frequently discovers when conducting clinical trials, the same rate of mood improvement can occur whether someone takes an anti-depressant or a placebo. Naturally, the industry publishes only the results that give anti-depressants a clear advantage.

Even some anti-depressants that have proven to be generally effective are replete with odious side-effects, so it can be tricky and time consuming (and if you’re uninsured, crazy expensive) to find the right one. Most people find juggling the right combination of meds a challenge, since individual responses are variable. (This explains why patients—even when diagnosed correctly—can be dangerously over-prescribed.)

As for combining drugs with talk therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps patients interpret events through a positive rather than a negative lens, there’s no guarantee that a mix improves moods. In fact, scores of studies show that for mild to moderate depression, the most effective therapy is frequently intense physical exercise.

I first met Dr. Kundara in 1996 when he was working with my son, David, who was then nine years old. As I filled out myriad pages of questions about his psycho-emotional state, I began to feel, disturbingly, that my own pathologies upstaged David’s by miles. (I would later discover that such epiphanies are common among parents seeking psychiatric help for their children.)

But something beyond mortification struck me when I filled out these endless forms. Many of my most successful musical collaborators displayed remarkably similar eccentricities: difficulties with social interaction, lack of impulse control, severe mood swings, and, by conventional standards, egregiously unacceptable behaviour.

For example, while breakfasting at the staid Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel with a successful American pop songwriter—let’s call her “Betty”—she decided, without alerting me, that it would be fun to see if she could whip the white linen tablecloth off our table in one lightning-quick jerk. One moment I was calmly reaching for my glass of tomato juice, and the next moment rivers of pulpy red fluid were splattered all over the snow-white dress of the bejewelled octogenarian at the next table. Betty and I were promptly thrown out and issued a lifetime ban. My point being, if one of America’s most successful songwriters acted, by conventional standards, wildly out of control, only to be generally regarded (in professional circles, if not by the maître d’ at the Polo Lounge) as merely “eccentric,” where did that leave the legions of non-creative nutbars?

Or the deeply disturbed and, in some cases, emotionally shattered individuals popping up in unusually high numbers in my family tree? Maybe this Dr. Kundara, by treating both David and me, could identify some family pattern that I could systematically deconstruct.

Wrong. Scarcely two sentences had tumbled from my mouth before he barked, “You’re wasting my time!”
“Look at you,” he commanded, pointing his index finger accusingly as his Hungarian accent grew heavier. “You’re talented, wealthy, and doing exactly what you want for a living. What do you have to complain about? I had a patient in here half an hour ago who threatened to murder everyone in the waiting room. There are people out there who are really suffering and need my help. Get out!”

Dr. Kundara’s bedside manner notwithstanding, he may well have had a point: my suffering was not curable, per se. It was part of being human. Furthermore, overachieving was an ingrained Hill family trait, but surely no life-threatening disease. Granted, no matter how many hit songs I rack up, a sensation of utter worthlessness forever nips at my heels. But this sense of dissatisfaction also drives me to achieve. I’m hardly alone here. Most of my songwriting collaborators barely give their multi-million-dollar publishing catalogues a passing thought. They’re too obsessed with the song they’re writing or are about to write. “I feel like a failure ’cause I didn’t write Desperado,” one L.A.-based songwriter told me. This from a lyricist who’s bagged a half-dozen Grammys.

Dr. Kundara’s “get your swollen head out of your ass” speech haunts me to this day.

“You are definitely manic,” my current psychiatrist concluded in the spring of ’09.

“But I don’t experience the lows, so there’s no way I’m bipolar.”

“What I’m saying, Dan, is that you exhibit symptoms of someone on cocaine: overly excited, febrile, with rapid speech, a slight tremor in your right hand.”

I looked down at my right hand. It was shaking. I sat on it.

“Are you engaging in substance abuse?”

“Doctor, I’m from the planet Boring. No drugs, and I stopped drinking a long time ago.” There was a stretch of silence as my psychiatrist jotted something down.

“You walk an emotional tight-wire, and you’re addicted to drama.”

“But drama is my job. I’ve made my living from it.”

“Why do you feel such a need to prove yourself? You come in here, talking of all your accomplishments, all the famous people you’ve worked with—why do you need to impress me so desperately?”

I was starting to hate this guy. He was by far the best shrink I’d seen. And I’d gone through truckloads.
“You have a choice,” my shrink said, manoeuvring his six-foot-four linebacker frame beside me on the couch, a device he used to reinforce a point. Call it instruction through physical intimidation; it reminded me of my father.

I stood up to shift the power dynamic.“What is my choice, doctor?”

“I can give you a pill that will knock out your hyper-intensity, make you appear and feel more normal. But it will reduce your creative output by 50 per cent. And your work won’t carry the same force. The upside is you’ll be a lot calmer, easier to live with.”

Why not just blow out my brains with a shotgun? That should calm me down a bit.

What did happen next is this: certain stressors—knowing that I’d upset a lot people I loved by writing a memoir, I Am My Father’s Son; the pressure of being catapulted back into the media spotlight after 15 years of quasi-obscurity—faded. My manic period eased as the months ticked by, as I got back to writing and recording a new CD in Nashville and stepped away from playing “celebrity.”

Given my family history (we Hills have files as thick as a Bible in certain Toronto hospitals), I’ve discovered time and time again that if you’re seriously ill—bipolar, psychotic, schizophrenic, or depressed to the point where you’re edging toward self-annihilation—you need drugs and professional help, or chances are you’ll self-destruct, possibly taking a few people with you.

But for me, it turns out there’s no form of self-medication that works better than massive creative output, topped off by two hours of exercise a day. Oh, and human connection, of course—writer to writer, brother to brother, husband to wife, parent to child. My experience has been that the best therapy comes from interacting with people I care about. And who care about me.

Last July, I was ferrying from Vancouver Island to Vancouver with my childhood friend John Hadfield, who had just road-managed me through a gruelling yet inspiring CD- and book-promotion tour of Western Canada. I was on deadline to write an article about the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and I was panicked because I hadn’t had time to revisit the book that had galvanized me in junior high school. I had a red-eye flight to Toronto that night and only 24 hours left to nail the article. Reading on the ferry was a bust, due to motion sickness.

“I’ll read to you,” offered John. Before I could say anything—it had been a half-century since anyone had read aloud to me—John snatched the paperback from my grasp. Something about his spontaneous kindness, the southern Ontario twang to his voice, the taste of the sea air as mountains glinted in the distance, and Harper Lee’s mastery of words left me feeling safe, complete, and happy. I was a little boy once more, playing guitar in the kitchen with Mom weaving her lovely singsong melodies through my chord progressions.
One thing was for sure: no drug, no therapy session, no self-help book or TV showcould ever make me feel this happy.

Earlier this year, I Am My Father’s Son came out in paperback, and Intimate, Dan Hill’s first CD in 15 years, was released.