Rebecca & Maurice
Back in the humid, sticky summer days of 2005 in South Carolina, I remember rocking back and forth on an old rickety rocking chair on Call's porch laughing and smiling as he played away on his favorite prized possession, the harmonica.
He was playfully maneuvering around in circles on the white porch of his apartment, just humming away, without a care in the world with the windows wide open allowing the breeze of the hot summer air to soak in.
Call loved that harmonica.
He played all sorts of tunes from sunrise to sunset. He felt happy and full of life with that little wooden instrument in his hand.
As I reminisce about these times, I often wonder if he was able to calm his voices through creative outlets like the harmonica. I know those voices got the best of him sometimes. So it brings a sense of relief knowing that in moments like these, his brain was able to be silent and less restless amid the noise.
I know for Call, these were his happy moments –-- he relished the joy that harmonica gave him, especially during the hard times when his brain wouldn't quiet down.
After Call's passing, I've become incredibly in tune with picking up on and tapping into similar individuals. These are people who I truly believe have a unique and profound gift of creativity and expression. They are able to use their mental illness as a vessel of light for the world to see.
Last month, I flew to New York City to attend a Baaba Maal performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prior to my arrival, I learned a friend's son was currently dealing with schizophrenia and homelessness. Coincidentally, Maurice lived in New York. I got him on the phone before I arrived and as we were chatting, I asked him about the creative outlets he used when his voices were elevated.
"I loved my camera!" Maurice said. "Unfortunately, someone stole it." I could tell he was sad and hurt at the fact.
"Well, let's get together!" I stated. "I'd love to meet you in person."
I met him two days later and we completely hit it off.
We laughed, ate lunch at Central Park and had the best conversation about nature, how he was coping with his voices, managing his life on the streets and what he was doing to support himself.
"I currently work for a man who pays for my food and essentials to live," Maurice explained. "That's how I'm getting by."
As we were chatting, I decided it was time to surprise him with a brand new camera, similar to his old one. He was beside himself and was incredibly appreciative. This made me smile.
"How does the camera help you?" I asked.
"When I hear voices, even the negative ones, I take pictures to distract them. I love telling a story through the eye of a lens," Maurice said smilingly. "It helps with my restless mind."
After we chatted for another hour and I made my way back to the hotel, I couldn't help but think…
Do creative outlets help calm the mind of someone living with schizophrenia?
Both my brother and Maurice had one major thing in common: they loved the aural and the visual. Heightening them through music and photography brought a sense of peace to the suffering they felt at such a deep level.
Historically, some of our most acclaimed artists channeled their mental illness into great art. Beethoven, Mozart and van Gogh, of course, are among the best known ones. But also Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf faced mental breakdowns during their illustrious careers. Contemporary artists who've discussed their challenges openly include James Taylor, Lady Gaga, and Bruce Springsteen. Artwork that brought enlightenment and joy to us, actually serve to comfort the artist and aid as a coping device for them on a personal level. The act of creating has the ability to calm and reset the soul that stands apart from the work itself. In fact, in this tumultuous time of our pandemic crisis, many mental health experts recommend that we engage in some sort of creative work, no matter how simple, as way to cope with our existential threat.
Here's my question to you: do you think a person diagnosed with schizophrenia can quiet the voices they hear through some creative outlet? I feel some can, but certainly not all. I'd love to know your thoughts and experience.
"The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring" by Vincent van Gogh (1884)