Saturday, January 4, 2014

Interview with Craig Lewis: "Punk Rock, Mental Illness, and Recovery"

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in four adults experiences mental illness in a given year. Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States. More than 90% of those who die by suicide had one or more mental illnesses.

When confronted with these facts, it's pretty easy to see just how much of an impact mental illness has on people. Mental Illness occurs in people from all backgrounds and is often impacted by genetics, though outside factors have a strong bearing on mental illness as well. 

It's also really tricky to pin down. A lot of this results from a sort of stigma against mental illness, or maybe more of a fear that one is "crazy" if one deals with mental illness. Many people with mental illness become proficient at hiding it, though that often is a negative reaction as well. It's like you often hear when someone commits suicide. "I had no idea they were feeling like that." It's just about the saddest thing I can think of. There are a lot of ways to get help for mental illness from psychiatric help to therapeutic help. In my opinion, the best way for mental illness to stop being a silent killer is to be more open about it and have an open dialogue.

As a person suffering from depression and panic disorder, I try to be open with my struggle for people to feel like they have an outlet if they know me. That said, I have no certification or even education about how to help people with mental illness, which is where people like Craig Lewis come in.

Craig is a peer specialist from Massachusetts who has suffered from trauma and mental illness for most of his life. He has gone through "a living hell," and come out through the other side of it. In the mid 2000s, he sought help and has been climbing the rungs of wellness through the present. Over the last several years, Craig has begun giving a talk titled "Punk Rock, Mental Illness, and Recovery," through the New England area all the way down to Richmond and as North as Canada. Craig has made it his life mission to help people dealing with trauma, mental illness, and addiction. In addition, he has recently published a mental illness recovery handbook called "Better Days: A Mental Health Recovery Handbook," which can be learned about HERE. I have a copy myself and it has helped me especially with finding worth, which can be an often constant struggle for people with mental illness. The book focuses on introspection as well as reinforcing ways to transcend conflict, something everyone can work on.

I got in contact with Craig after hearing about his talk and knowing that the topic was important to me. Craig is a huge inspiration to me and is doing incredible things. He will be touring and talking through the country this year and hopes to go abroad. For those in the Boston area, Craig will be giving a talk in a few weeks, which you can check out HERE.

Without further ado, Craig Lewis!

Jordan: So tell me a little about how mental illness has affected you and how you decided that it was something you wanted to help other people with.

Craig: Okay, when I was a young child I was put on medication and in and out of therapists’ and psychiatrists’ doors. I was hospitalized at age fourteen. I lived in group homes for three and a half years during my adolescence. I spent much of the time between when I graduated high school and left the group homes in 1991 through the mid to late 2000s often very unhealthy, unstable, due to the drugs I was put on. I wasn’t staying employed. I was experiencing trauma upon trauma living in highly-destructive living situations with people who weren’t very supportive as to what I needed to be healthy and well. Ultimately, I hit rock bottom and faced the ultimatum of either going forward with life or not being on this earth anymore. Out of desperation I found a therapist and began meeting with her regularly. I’ve been with her for seven years. She’s a wonderful wonderful woman who really helped validate me and let me know that the things I was dealing with were legitimate and I had trauma. A lot of what I had to deal with was real, but I had value. After meeting with the therapist in 2005, I sought out vocational counseling and ended up finding a program called the Consumer Provider program where people with mental illness were taught to become Peer Counselors. Due to the program being accredited, I earned a human services certificate from a local community college. It was wonderful because I never in a million years thought that I would have any sort of post high school education. I then continued my education in peer services and became a Peer Services Specialist, which enabled me to do the work I do now, which is as a person whose experiences can help people like me learn ways to manage their difficulties and their struggles. I also ended up getting my associate’s degree and recently graduated with a degree in Human Services. 

Craig: For a while I worked in a group home, but it wasn’t a really good fit as I had spent a lot of time there when I was an adolescent. That program ultimately shut down to budget issues. It will be four years in february when I will celebrate having worked for four years with people who have mental illness, trauma, and addictions. To be honest, this work really chose me. I was at a crossroads in the mid 2000s. Either I could go forward or do nothing. I’m really happy to have been able to eventually get a better handle on things. It was much less something that I chose. I never would have thought I would be a counselor one day.

Jordan: That’s so awesome. So awesome. That makes me really happy. While we’re talking about the genesis of the modern Craig Lewis, if you will, how did you get into punk rock.

Craig: I was a teenager in the late 80s. If you recall the movie “Another State of Mind,” back in the 80s it was played on repeat on the tv. We had cable when I was a kid and I just was always watching this video. It was certainly interesting. I was interested in music from all over the world. I didn’t really differentiate between hardcore or metal, but the underground thing interested me. I got my first copy of Maximum Rock n’ Roll in March of 1988 not really knowing what it was. Later I was put into a mental hospital and there was a punk rocker there. She looked very punk rock and she let me borrow some tapes. Back then it was on a walkman. She let me borrow Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks. I fell in love with the music right away. I thought that it was exciting and represented my struggle, even though at that point I didn’t really know who I was or what was going on. Life was very scary. Punk rock sort of gave an identity. You looked a little outrageous, but it reflected what was going on. I felt very powerless and was at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents. But the thought came that if I dress more like her, then I can piss people off, which gives me a little more power. I needed to a bit of a rebel because life was so miserable. Punk rock liberated me, but I wasn’t a full out punk rocker until a few years later. I didn’t get to go to a show for a couple years, but I got to listen to the tapes and radio where they sometimes played. Interestingly, in my second group home there were four other punk rockers, skinheads, and we were often listening to Cock Sparrer and the Subhumans.

Jordan: Did you ever keep in contact with the woman who introduced you to punk?

Craig: We lost contact after she left the hospital, but I spoke in Worcester, MA earlier this year and I so wanted to connect with her and let her know that punk rock has really kept me alive. I found her online and it was amazing. I sent her a message and wanted to assert that I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I wanted to let her know I was doing better and was going to speak about my experiences and punk rock. She didn’t respond to me. I think maybe it brought up some bad memories and I haven’t written to her since because clearly she didn’t want to revisit those times in her life.

Jordan: So you’ve been going around and giving this talk “Punk Rock, Mental Illness and Recovery” for a while. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see you, but what Sean [Ragon] told me about you - he said it was pretty important to him and I think it’s super important. Can you tell me a little bit about that since I haven’t seen or heard it?

Craig: Yes, first let me tell you that I’m planning on coming to Chicago by the summer as well as much of the rest of the midwest. I’m very excited about it. It’s a funny story how it came about. Most of my adult life people knew me as an unstable, crazy person. People would call me crazy and I don’t like that word, but the reality is that for much of my life I was publicly unhealthy and I had said and done a lot of things. I had pushed people away and a painful reality. It’s hurtful but I know why it happened now. As I started seeing my way to wellness, people were a bit skeptical. People didn’t believe I could be a contributor to society. It’s a process getting people to think that I can be a positive thing now. The only way to convince people, or even assert my honesty was to openly and publicly go through the process. I had an opportunity to do an interview with Maximum Rock n Roll about basically my life in mental illness and punk rock, which was a wonderful opportunity to show that I was changing my life. I’m sure people were surprised. Even today, some people won’t give me a chance. That’s unfortunate, but I’m okay with it. I’ve worked really hard to change the perception of Craig Lewis and I’ve done it the hard way, which is how I do most things to be honest. I have to earn respect and willingness to give me a chance.

Craig: January of 2012 or so…actually maybe it was the end of 2011, some punk rockers were having vegan potlucks and I had heard that at one of their potlucks had a guy named Chris I knew through the punk scene who - it’s kind of awesome - he’s an alien and UFO expert and he appears on those history channel shows about extraterrestrial life. He was giving a presentation at one of his potlucks on that topic. I asked if I could speak at the potluck about Punk Rock, Mental Illness and Recovery, so I had about ten days to write my presentation and it was my first time doing it. I was shaking, but it was empowering! People responded and I said to myself that I needed to do that more. When I spoke, many more people spoke up and didn’t realize that I had been struggling with these issues. And other people talked about their own issues to. So I said “I’m gonna do this! I’m gonna do whatever is necessary in the punk scene to help with mental health.” Unfortunately, in the punk scene, you’re told “Oh, you have a problem, take a drink. Oh, you feel bad? let’s smash stuff. Let’s not get help.” And that really contributed to my suffering all those years. I knew that I could make a difference and help my peers. So after that first presentation in Cambridge, I decided I’d do it in NYC. And a lot of people came out and I work with them on projects now too.

Craig: So I’ve been doing it. I’ve been all over New England and I’m going to Los Angeles and the Bay Area this year. I think I’m going to go international with it. I’ve been able to make it empowering, inspiring, and a motivating force. It’s not always punk rockers anymore. It’s people who work in the health industry and people in the mental illness area. For me, in my life, I think the reason I survived is to make people suffer less.

Jordan: Last question I have about recovery stuff is that I wanted to know more about your book Better Days. I was just flipping through my copy and it’s really awesome. More than anything, it’s a great reminder of things going well. The thing that I’ve taken away the most is finding worth in yourself. So it’s definitely made an impact on me.

Craig: Discovering your self worth. The things you experience are valid and legitimate. Until we can get a handle on our responses to things, all this stuff has to impact our lives and we need to know how they impact us. We’re facing experiences everyday and if we get a better handle on those things, than we can certainly experience more stability, more peace in our daily lives. We do have within ourselves the ability to control and manage how we do things. We all know that when we let ourselves go, when we have no filter, it’s often destructive to our lives. For me, I ended up getting arrested, and relationships ended. All revolving around unnecessary conflict. I actually got kicked out of school once by not knowing how to manage myself.

Craig: Better Days came about from the Consumer Provider Program. As part of getting my certificate, I needed to do a three hundred hour internship and I worked at a rehabilitation center and I had to “leave something behind.” I needed to start something like a group or a project that people could have after I finished. A legacy of sorts. I came up with the idea of doing a support group and called it “Better Days.” People came and it went really well and I kept doing it. I realized that writing and talking a curriculum was very healing to me. What brought me down? What impacted me? That internship came to an end, but at another program, I kept having support groups that had a lot of good results.

Craig: I developed dozens of worksheets and text similar to the book that you have. I realized that I had a body of work and I knew that I needed to put it into a book. Now it’s being used in several places. The sales of the book are growing and I’m having a great time helping. Better Days the recovery workbook gives me worth, meaning, and purpose especially in my wellness and recovery. I’m glad it’s been good for you too.

Jordan: It’s been great. I have really bad anxiety and depression and I have a lot of coping techniques, but they eventually sort of become systems. Sometimes they lose a bit of the personal edge when they are systems that are used a lot. When I was reading your book and going through everything, it made me focus on thinking through stuff. It made me look into my life - what is the purpose of your suffering. I was thinking “oh my, gosh, I’ve never thought of it like that.” It was a foreign thought. This is interesting stuff. At the bare minimum, it’s great to know yourself more.

Craig: Awesome, that’s what the book’s about. How do you want to do things? How did you do things in the past? Did it work? Did it not work? How do you want to do things in the future? Just like you described, you dig deeper within yourself and try to answer the question how do I want to be. You figure out what works for yourself. How can you do things differently? How can I work for change? You use the workbook and then you’re faced with a situation that may have knocked you out of commission for a week or finish in conflict. So then you have the written memory for yourself. You can look and check what your options are and what works. Even when you’re dealing with negativity, it is a positive reminder of how things can go.

Craig: All of these are based off personal experience, like the chapter “Biting Your Tongue”…

Jordan: I loved that one!

Craig: Yeah, that’s my favorite one too. You find yourself in a situation where you can engage in an argument, but maybe that isn’t the best way to go about it. You might think “hold on, I feel really awful, I want to strike, but I know if I do that, even if I’m in the right, I may damage myself and bring myself to anxiety or trauma and feel like crap if I do. Is this going to be helpful? Can I transcend the moment without hurting your life.” It’s one of my favorite ones and whenever I give a presentation, I say something about biting your tongue. It’s so crucially important to my personal life and it reduces destruction to my personal life. I will add though, Jordan, that I’m a very imperfect and flawed person as we all are. And even though I wrote this book on recovery, I still make mistakes and I will always make mistakes. I may be well-equipped to make decisions, but I still make mistakes. When that happens, though, I try to take those experiences and incorporate them into the engine. What can I learn from these things? That’s how I trained my brain to think. I’ve tried to use the Better Days approach in my daily life to increase my wellness habits.

Jordan: So have you found that you’ve become a happier person since going through everything?

Craig: I’ll tell you. I am a happy person. Every day I feel pretty crushing anxiety and I feel pain, My life has been very traumatic and I’m often reminded of things that set me off. Thankfully, I’m very aware of what goes on and how my brain works. Often something will and I’ll realize how it’s impacting what I feel. My coping skills can help me feel better. I do often succeed at doing that, but I fail sometimes too.

Craig and his cat Max!
Craig: To answer your question, I’m much better. Better Days is basically the process of how I got better. I do have my moments. I do have my struggle. Every day is a struggle without a doubt, but I’m learning how to manage and get through stuff. Those situations that come up that are considered unfortunate can become examples of how to be more helpful and happy.

Craig: I’ve been through hell. There’s a lot more of my experiences that we haven’t talked about here and that’s fine, but I have gone through a living hell in life as many have and I have learned without any hesitation that I am grateful for my experiences. Without every experience, I wouldn’t be who I am today. They were necessary for me. I embrace it all. Life’s not perfect. Life’s difficult, but I embrace that struggle and I try to come out the other end better than when I went in. If I can find value in a struggle and allow myself to grow, the feeling of contentment from transcending a moment of crisis is incredible. That’s how I do it. That’s how I feel that wellness or satisfaction from growing through those situations. I try to suggest to people with whom I speak trying to find ways to improve.

Jordan: That’s inspring! Those are all the mental illness questions I have. The next question is purely selfish, as I’m always looking for new stuff to hear. What have you been listening to lately?

Craig: Haha. great. One of my favorite labels is from France. I can send you a link, but it’s called  Tian An Men 89 Records. He travels the worlds and does relief work. When he’s at these countries, he finds these bands from places like India that just excite me. I’ve been listening to a comp LP from India called “Disenfranchising India” with punk bands. A lot of these bands have been influenced by grunge too. I also got a comp called “Chaos in Morocco.” I’ve been loving that.

Craig: I also really like Diana Ross and a band from the UK called Burnt Cross who are an anarchy-punk band that I like a lot. 

Craig: I do a fanzine and write about bands from around the world. I’m obsessed with bands from around the world. The only country in South America that I don’t have music from is French Guiana. That tells you a little about how interested I am into international music. I find so much excitement in new music. I’m in love with punk rock, metal, hardcore. I can’t live without music. I have tons and tons of music and it’s one of the things that’s kept me alive.

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