‘I spent many years wondering what the hell happened’
They had been close at school and kept in touch afterwards, but it was when successful musician and writer Kevin Nolan opened up about his mental health struggle to journalist Philip Ryan, that a conversation led to a whole new understanding and awareness.
This opinion piece with writer and musician Kevin Nolan appeared in the Independent.ie, 27.08.18.
Kevin Nolan is faced with a quandary. Since a teenager he has been obsessed with the arts – music, painting, film and literature. There are very few, if any, instruments he can’t play. He is an accomplished artist. He is extremely well read and has been known to dabble in the odd stanza or two. In fact, he has published two books of poetry and released a full-length album, with another just out this summer. The arts are his life.
But, also since his late teens, he has struggled with mental illness. A quite severe mental illness. In his early 20s he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Then, after some years, his doctor, on noticing additional symptoms of bipolar depression, altered his diagnosis to a kind of hybrid of the two, a more rare diagnosis called schizo-affective disorder.
For most of his adult life he has been fighting off a darkness that pulls him into the depths of depression.
At times, reality can become blurred and delusions take over. Then there’s the medicine. With most mental health illnesses, the treatment for the patient can feel as debilitating as the sickness. Kevin is no different. At this moment, psychiatry does not have as full a picture of its particular subject as in other areas of our biology. Kevin has been admitted to St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital 30 times and checked in five times last year alone.
He has been told that his illness will not be cured. It will be with him his entire life. But he won’t let his condition define him.
“Mental illness is my promotional tool, not by design but a door opened in that direction,” Kevin tells me, “I have never been interested in saving the world or being any type of spokesman.”
“I simply would not be here talking to you today if had I not devoted my life to my art instead of my illness”
Kevin had some family problems but who doesn’t? With the benefit of almost 20 years of psychiatric hindsight, Kevin says he was low back then. “From now, looking back, I think it’s perfectly understandable that I would feel the way I did. Your mind is barely grown in your teenage years and the situational mood lows you get from a difficult circumstance are natural reactions,” he said.
Kevin’s new album Absent At The Moment When He Took Up The Most Space is a conceptual retrospective release conceived by Kevin and his long-time collaborator, artist/poet Susanne Wawra. These are 38 recordings made between 1997 and 2005, his music video footage taken from the same period.
Kevin decided to release these recordings in an effort to both map his musical chronology and also re-understand his work in the light of today, applying the musical wisdom he has gained since to the innocence that created it. Nolan has cited Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet when explaining his latest retrospective offering. He understands this release as a reaching out to a past self. For him, these songs are letters from his younger self to his present self, which will most definitely inform his future understandings. The songs were recorded during a period of intense personal upheaval.
If you’re expecting a similar album to his critically-acclaimed Fredrick & The Golden Dawn, you’ll be bitterly disappointed. His debut release was the sound of mania rattling the cage bars it was imprisoned in. Kevin growled in a demonic falsetto over pounding rhythms entwined with soft intricate melodies.
When Kevin sent me his new album, I put off listening to it. I wanted to prepare myself for the experience. But what you get over more than three dozen tracks is a summer soundtrack. The album is the perfect accompaniment to a scorching July afternoon or evening barbecue. Kevin says the styles he touches off for the recording range from “a cappella harmonies to comical ditties, morose melodic folk meditations, rock-pop, jazz and electronica”. However, some of the songs give an insight into how he was feeling at the time.
Around this time Kevin felt suicidal. He didn’t want to be around any more. At one point, he attempted to take his own life in front of me. We were teenagers. I didn’t even realise what was happening at the time but when we discuss it 20 years later it’s hard to believe I could have been so oblivious to the pain a friend was going through.”You were there for the first chapter of this thing,” he says.
“Early on, I had a mission that I was going to do it. I was going to take my life. I was leaving Ireland and I was going to go to France, which sounds very dramatic, but I was going to France and that would be the end of me.”
Thankfully, he never made it to France and began getting help soon after the incident.
After secondary school, we kept in touch but we were not as close as we were as teenagers. I began working and Kevin enrolled in a philosophy degree in Milltown College. He excelled in the course and enjoyed the reading. It informed his art, music and poetry. Throughout this period, Kevin’s mind was learning to understand his condition and make life work around it.
When we were around 21 years old, Kevin and I met for drink. He decided to tell me about his diagnosis. I still had no real understanding of mental health conditions, or what they mean. I knew my friend was telling me something important and wanted my acceptance. It didn’t change the dynamic in our relationship. We still went for pints and chatted about the same things. Sometimes Kevin would cut a night short because he needed to get home and gather his thoughts. He’s spent the best part of two decades learning how to look after himself and he knows what can trigger a low.
Even in the early days he never had any trouble opening up to his friends and family about his condition, but in other aspects of life, it was not quite so easy.
Societal attitudes to mental health are changing but at a slow pace. One aspect of mental health that is rarely spoken about is the sheer shock to the system that a diagnosis can bring. In many cases, people, who suddenly learn they have a life-altering condition, may have added to the stigmatism around mental health before they were diagnosed. Like the majority of the population, they were ignorant and ill-informed, which in itself is understandable – we are all ignorant to some extent in some form or fashion -the point is to be open to that fact. This openness can act to defuse the more negative manifestations of ignorance.
“I went from somebody who knew nothing about mental illness, apart from the ramblings of William Burroughs or wonderfulness of Brian Wilson’s harmonies, to going on to have my own difficulties,” Kevin says.
He adds: “I didn’t just turn into a scholar of mental illness the next day. I spent years wondering what the hell happened. In fact, I’m still here wondering what the hell happened, I am constantly re-understanding my illness by working closely with my consultant.”
From day one of the diagnosis, Kevin’s father Michael has immersed himself in reading material about the condition. “Definitely, my father studied vastly into it and really informed himself to help me. In this way to me, he is an inspiration for understanding. He is a person who was faced with a problem and learned as much as he could about it in order to destigmatise.”
At this point things are looking good for Kevin. In the past few years, his career has thrived. He released a book of poetry with Susanne Wawra, toured his music in Ireland, Glasgow, Montreal and Salt Lake City, and RTE Two recently aired a multi-award winning documentary about his work. His new album was uploaded to all the top music streaming websites on July 26, and he’s already working on his next release.