During a hospitalization, an entrepreneur with bipolar disorder discovers how music can create a shared community and a way forward in difficult times.
As a touring musician in my 20s, I enjoyed many wonderful times. But as I look back, it’s actually a sing-along in a mental health clinic that to this day is the most impactful and memorable performance of my life.
The incoherent days prior to my involuntary commitment in 2013 culminated on what otherwise would have been a typical Sunday morning in Los Angeles. After valiant attempts to walk nearly 60 miles from my girlfriend’s home to my parents’ home, I was escorted by an emergency response team to a hospital and then the mental health clinic in Santa Clarita, California.
In the clinic, I felt aimlessly shuffled from one nurse to another, with the occasional comfort of an eye-to-eye exchange. The doctor who made morning visits seemed to offer a bit of empathy, but mostly it was music and a support network that got me through there—as they’ve done during other difficult times in subsequent years.
During my time in the clinic, I would spend hours in my room poring over lyrics scribbled on the back of that day’s lunch menu. With a brain filled with ideas from every angle, the incessant flow of inspiration and thoughts had to come out somewhere. Music has time and time again provided that outlet.
Creative exploration seemed to be a cure for others around me in the clinic as well, and began to breed a sense of shared community. One day as I sat at the piano in the common room, a woman sat beside me and tried to fumble her way through a few of the chords and melodies I was trying out. As the notes reverberated, not only did her face light up with a sense of joy I had never seen in her before, but at the same time her imperfect pitch and vocal honesty were the exact touch the song needed.
The following afternoon in the courtyard as a few patients lit their cigarettes and others shot hoops, I slowly reached for the guitar. As soon as my fingers struck the first chord, everyone knew the tune and started to join in—soon the whole group erupted in song. That afternoon there was no distinction between the entrepreneur with bipolar, the homeless drug addict, or the bank clerk struggling with depression. There were just eight voices singing together as loud as we could, melting the world away. The lyrics to “Love Is What I Got” by Sublime could not have rung more true, as music and a loving community in that moment seemed the only cure we needed.
Even now, years later in New York City, I find it cathartic to play open mikes and jam on street corners with jazz musicians—any form of expression to channel my manic tendencies. In California, I learned a sense of community can come in various forms when it comes to music. I learned that mental health conditions can be debilitating, but they can also be an incredible source of creativity, empathy, and connection.
At times it may be difficult to remain optimistic with a bipolar diagnosis, but glimpses of hope exist if you keep your eyes and ears open. Earlier this year a co-worker boldly left his role leading global investments for our nonprofit to pursue his passion for more creative endeavors. In his exit speech he explained his ongoing struggle with his mental health, and how his decision to leave was tied into doing something more “authentic to himself” – leveraging the positive aspects of his condition rather than getting overwhelmed by its difficulties. Instead of judgment, he was met by a room filled with tears, hugs, and, most importantly, new perspective.
Printed as “On My Mind: The sound of hope”, Winter 2019
Chris Bullard has worked professionally both as a musician and in business. After graduating University of Southern California in 2009, Chris toured the country nationally in a folk rock band, and also performed as a studio musician for larger pop artists. Aside from musical pursuits, Chris has also worked on the start-up team for several clean-tech start-ups, growing one Los Angeles-based company to over 100 employees in just 3 years. After attaining his MBA from Fordham University, Chris now currently works at Acumen, a non-profit impact investing fund that invests in private enterprises that serve the poor, primarily in developing countries.
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