Singing for Sanity: Musician Jason DeShaw’s Journey of Advocacy
Jason DeShaw twitched before the monotone of white walls. Collar askew, pale features pinched, brown hair mussed from his habit of pulling at it when he was deep in thought, he was disheveled, irritable and overly restless.
It was August 2010, and it looked, he would later recall, like the end of the world. In his mirror, DeShaw watched himself process the panic. He entered an almost unconscious state, rapidly processing the tide of information before him and calculating the best escape route.
Except now there wasn’t one.
He was a patient at a Billings psychiatric center. Twenty-nine at the time, DeShaw, a musician on the rise, had been on tour in Saskatchewan when he found himself crippled by a nervous, frantic energy, and, without understanding what was happening to him, he tried to extinguish the conflagration inside his body by drinking it into submission.
“It was like a freight train inside of me that was trying to get out,” recalls DeShaw. “I used alcohol to slow down the freight train and tame the rapid thoughts. There is a misconception that people with bipolar disorder somehow like to chase the mania. That is not true for myself, and I know that is not true for others. True mania is not peaceful and is not fun. It is very uncomfortable, frantic, and intense. It is a rapid cycling of energy.”
The concert promoter notified Jason’s family. Within a day Jason and his closest friend were leading a second car driven by Jason’s parents, cruising more than 400 miles to the psychiatric ward in Billings. Jason shut his eyes to filter out the summer sun, while his legs and head buzzed in a loud manner for which he had no explanation, no sensible context.
The whole uproar seemed fundamentally bizarre to him. He had always been levelheaded, smart. There was no known family history of mental illness. But he was writhing in pain, his body aching with energy.
“I had my friend stop in Miles City and pull off the road to get a bottle of whiskey,” says DeShaw. “I slowly nursed the bottle and passed out. I thought I would die if I didn’t slow down the mania.”
DeShaw awoke to a line of questions from the psychiatric intake nurse. He was too tired to be embarrassed, too buzzed to cooperate.
“Do you hear voices in your head?” she asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“What does he say?”
“I hear the train a-comin’ and it’s rollin’ round the bend…”
After admission, DeShaw laughed and cracked jokes with two friendly male orderlies.
“It’s hard to get a man down when he is manic,” recalls DeShaw. Five days later, the psychosis subsided. The young man then came across as straightforward, affable, sensible – a victim of the event.
“I could act okay enough to get released,” says DeShaw today. “I wasn’t committed against my will.”
As soon as he was released, DeShaw worked a deadly cocktail of mental illness and alcohol. He would be hospitalized three more times over the next several weeks. At his sloppiest, he registered .34 blood alcohol content, more than four times the limit for drunk-driving charges. Soon, he had a diagnosis: Bipolar 1 disorder. His mania was more than an operational tic; he’d been wired differently since birth.
From Farm Boy to Famous
Born in Plentywood, Montana in 1981, Jason DeShaw never felt like an outsider or found it hard to connect with other kids. Raised by two loving parents, Lyle and Bernie, in farm country, he was born the second of five brothers, none of whom have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, though it tends to run in families.
DeShaw says he liked the heavy, greasy victuals of the farmhouse kitchen. He liked country sounds and country smells. He liked getting up early in the morning to the tune of crowing on the hillside.
His father Lyle, a devout Catholic, “spent a lot of time behind the scenes helping people,” recalls DeShaw.
“Dad is the kind of guy who’d open doors for others. He is a servant of God.
"There were always people telling me what a great man and hard worker he was. People thought I automatically had it easy," DeShaw recalls, "They thought I’d automatically be a good kid. I tried to prove them wrong a time or two.”
His mother Bernie owned an insurance agency specializing in crop coverage and stayed at home raising the average brood of healthy, spirited boys. One of Jason’s earliest memories is of the three eldest boys sharing lap space in a family rocking chair while a Siamese cat snuggled behind his mother’s neck.
It was at Carroll College, his freshman year, when DeShaw turned to the guitar – his folks gave him one for Christmas – and he found a place where he belonged. Though a few friends gently ribbed him about this new career path, he rose early and worked at least 12 hours a day learning and practicing chords.
“I drove my neighbors nuts,” recalls DeShaw. Before long he was making his way, performing in Europe and across North America and recording five albums, starting in 2003.
DeShaw chalked up his curious spurts of adrenaline to normal human nature and blamed his bouts of low self-esteem and withered self-confidence to just bad moods. It amused him as a spectacle, and there were times when he would let that spectacle run on, even help it on. There were other times when he wished he could haul it up and pack it away with a sharp command.
He noticed his episodes becoming more explosive. He drank prodigiously to tone down the inferno. Long periods of hopelessness followed. Then came the frantic episode in Saskatchewan, followed by multiple hospitalizations and the diagnoses.
DeShaw returned to music as a way to come to grips with and share the details of his struggle; putting the face and twang of a self-described “Montana cowboy” on mental illness could be a measure toward reducing stigma and gaining acceptance for the afflicted.
He says he saw the universal language of music as an effective way to merge mental-health awareness and melody without taking people too far down.
“The music keeps them feeling safe and okay and it elevates them.” DeShaw says.
Montana leads the nation in per-capita suicide, and many victims are mentally ill.
“I have an illness that occurs in a different part of the body. The brain is just another organ in the body, like the heart. When someone has a heart attack, people don’t turn their back; no one whispers behind their back about them being weak or speaks about them in harsh tones. People probably bring you flowers when you have a heart attack. I ain’t ever had anyone bring me a casserole or a balloon for mental illness.”
DeShaw’s illness spurred a creative rebirth. He started writing songs that captured some of his struggles, attempting to frame the issue as universal. His song, “Crazy Town,” expresses the dreamlike moments he’s had in his search for meaning:
I’ve been called crazy in a world
that’s not quite sane.
A Beacon of Light
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) noted DeShaw’s advocacy work and in September 2014, he was honored during the national convention in Washington, D.C. DeShaw was awarded the Lionel Aldridge Champion Award and praised for “exhibiting courage and leadership” as he deals with mental illness.
“Mental illness has made me a better human being,” DeShaw told the audience.
Since 2015 DeShaw has partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield for an annual Montana tour. It features DeShaw speaking, performing music, and listening empathetically.
“Jason is a beacon of light in the dark world of mental illness,” says John Doran, director of public relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana. “Mental illness and suicide are all too real in America, and there is no better message of hope than from Jason.“
“It both drains the cup and fills it,” says DeShaw. “After one show, I had five people come up to me who had lost someone to suicide. You can’t just passively listen to something of that nature. You have to commit your eyes, your attention and your soul. I’ve been humbled to have been put on this journey of advocacy.”
One summer DeShaw performed a free concert in Turner, MT, another small town that lost a teenager to suicide. When the boy’s mother called Jason to ask if he would participate in a memorial walk and address the community, he unhesitatingly answered yes.
“There are less than 100 people in Turner,” says DeShaw. “But there were 300 people who walked for 12 hours, from Hogeland to Turner, in 89-degree heat. There was a full gymnasium. I had the chance to speak four words: “It’s not your fault.”
“To see rural Montana talking about these issues and reaching out to one another with love – that’s progress. Sometimes it’s just an ounce of hope that saves people.”
After DeShaw performed at an eastern Montana high school a few years ago, the school counselor informed him that he had inspired a number of students to request help.
“He said, ‘Since you were here, I’ve seen a flood of students,’” says DeShaw. “He told me that some of kids had said, ‘if he can talk about his depression, then I can talk about mine.’ And this was from kids we didn’t know were suffering. I just provided the connection that allowed them to realize that they are good enough to be saved and that their own beauty is enough to fight for.”
Indeed, hope is what weaves together the fabric of DeShaw’s existence – collective hope and his own. Self-hope is his doctrine, his cold truth every day.
One evening lately, DeShaw sat firmly in the saddle of a wrought-iron patio chair in the backyard of his Helena home, one of his favorite spaces.
“I’ve just celebrated two years, two years of sobriety. 732 days.” This declaration is tempered by the reality that inexplicable biochemical changes continue to wreak personal havoc.
Just a few weeks earlier, he had been scheduled to take part in a NAMI Walk. Before he even rolled out of bed, he was paralyzed with suicidal feelings. “My first thought I had when I woke up was that I wished I hadn’t at all. I didn’t feel like living. I had to battle those impulses – lighting bolts that hit here and there – all day.”
Bipolar condition is every bit as physical as it is mental – throbbing bones and the accompanying anxiety so disabling “that it feels like you’ve lost your soul,” he says.
“The worse thing about depression is that it can last one day or six months,” says DeShaw. “The shitty part is not knowing how long it is going to last. You don’t know if winter is coming or if it’s just a cold snap.”
“It is a dangerous time when the pain starts to exceed hope,” he says. “In high school, I had appendicitis. It burst. I had gangrene in my peritoneal cavity, and they hospitalized me for days. That intense pain doesn’t even compare to the pain of surviving depression. There is hope, even though sometimes I can’t see it.”
On a charcoal gray late summer morning at Firetower, a coffee shop in Helena, Jason is recovering from a liver issue that hospitalized him recently. Though he looks paler and more on edge than usual, he opts for the deliberate language of a survivor, filling the blank spaces in his story with affirmations about blessings and opportunities and growth. He uses the word “struggle” more than once, and twice, he cryptically alludes to “being okay, knowing that he can go at any time.”
“It was the over-the-counter medication that smoked me,” DeShaw recalls. “It has not been a fun ride. But blessings can come out of the struggle. I once had a friend who told me that the gift is in the wound. I am who I am today because of the suffering. Writing is expressing. And it’s invigorating and healing to do so.”
—By Brain D’Ambrosio
Learn more about Jason DeShaw