Early yesterday morning the first installment of an interview about veteran country artist T. Graham Brown’s struggle with bipolar disorder appeared in this column. Visit it here in case you missed it.
The extraordinary song interpreter gained legions of devoted fans with songs including “Drowning In Memories,” “Darlene,” and “If You Could Only See Me Now,” to name but a few that were mainstays on the country charts during the late ’80s.
Many of his fans may not be aware that Brown suffers from bipolar disorder, a disease which remained undetected until the singer’s mid-’40s. In a unique interview concluded below, his lovely wife, Sheila, explains how the disease has affected her husband and their family.
Revealing topics include what happened after Brown had an onstage meltdown, how difficult it can be to locate the correct doctor, determining what medicine will best alleviate the disease (many had severe side effects), two songs that her husband wrote which deal with his struggles, his current lifestyle, and her advice to other families affected by bipolarism.
The Sheila Brown Interview, Part Two (Conclusion)
What happened when you took T. Graham to Vanderbilt University Medical Center?
The team of doctors did an extensive four-hour examination of him. They determined he was bipolar. Later I talked to his mother, and she said that bipolar disorder was very prevalent in their family, as was alcoholism. It made a lot of sense.
They put Tony on a cocktail of medicine, basically a chemistry experiment. You have to figure out which one in combination works with a particular person and not cause any side effects that will get in your way.
They started him out on Lithium, certainly not as advanced as the drugs you have today. It calmed him down, but as Tony described it, it put him in a black hole. He didn’t wanna write or do anything.
He was able to muster enough and go out on the road, since we had to make a living. He wouldn’t curl up in a ball on the bed like he had been doing before, but he was still staying in his room, isolating himself.
The Vanderbilt doctors didn’t seem very caring. They were very methodical. When he first went in to see the doctor, political correctness started coming into play, and with a psychiatric patient, the laws of privacy.
The doctor called his name, and I got up with him to see the doctor. They stopped me right there, saying I couldn’t even walk down the hall. I blurted out, “But I’m his wife!” Yet it was to no avail. Tony simply couldn’t identify with that doctor.
How did you find your current physician?
About a year later, I was in the kitchen doing dishes. I was also watching a local program called The Noon Show, and my ears perked up when they said, “Coming up next, Dr. Robert Jamison, the bipolar manic-depressive expert of the Southeast.”
Boy, I turned around immediately and paid attention. Here comes this grandfatherly guy, just so sweet and kindly. He said, “When I treat bipolarism, I treat the family, as it’s a family disease. I insist if a person is married, they need to bring their spouse along with them. I talk with them, and I help them understand the disease.”
So I wrote down his number. We weren’t able to see him for about six months, but we’ve been with him ever since. He’s fabulous. We’re so grateful to Dr. Jamison for everything he’s done for us.
He’s a very dear friend of ours, a truly brilliant and compassionate man. He’s a psychiatric pharmacologist. He is so well-versed in medications and does an amazing job. In a mental illness situation, you have to identify with and trust your doctor.
Dr. Jamison insists I come in with Tony. When we get in his office and sit down, he looks at Tony and asks, “Well how are you doing?” Tony replies, “Oh, I’m doing fine.” Then Dr. Jamison turns towards me and says, “How is he really doing?”
One time Tony asked Dr. Jamison, “Can’t you adjust my medicine so I’ll be a little more manic? Not bad, but a little more?” I’m sure Dr. Jamison saw my mouth drop down. He said, “Tony, let me explain something to you. Manic is mean.” Tony looked over at me and went, “Ohh.”
Was it difficult to determine what medications to give T. Graham?
Definitely; we had to keep trying different medicines because not every medicine works for every patient. And sometimes the side effects are horrible and not worth it.
One prescription made Tony’s hair fall out. Another one made his hands shake so terribly he couldn’t hold his fork or microphone. Then one had him forgetting the lyrics to his songs.
You have to eliminate those and try others. It takes a few weeks before the doctors can determine whether they’re working. To be honest, Tony hates these medicines, and that is simply a symptom of the disease.
I have a lot of compassion for Tony because he doesn’t want to take his medicine, but being on the other side of it, I have to explain that he cannot function without it. It took a long time for me to explain that to Tony.
Seroquel is the only sleep medication he can take; it calms a bipolar person’s mind down so they can sleep. It also contains a little anti-depressant. Unfortunately, it’s a weight-gain drug, and that’s why he is heavy.
I didn’t realize this until I began researching it on my computer, but I discovered that every patient gains between 40 and 60 pounds if they take Seroquel. The reason why is due to the medication turning off the center in your brain that lets you know you’re full.
It’s very difficult to lose weight while taking it, but it’s our only option. I hope technology will lead to a better alternative soon.
He can’t take any type of narcotic, due to his addictive tendencies. Ambien and Lunestra are out of the picture, since side effects may lead to suicide. We have to make sure he takes his medicine, because you can’t skip a few days. And I always remind him to be careful to do things that will keep him healthy.
T. Graham Brown: Sheila remains the most wonderful human being that I have ever known. I had a manic episode in the recording studio the other day and they tell me it was a wild ride. But all in all, this medicine is working about right. However, I hate taking it [laughs].
“Wine into Water” and “Monkey” are two songs that deal with T. Graham’s inner struggle.
In fact, Tony was not totally staying away from drinking when he wrote “Wine into Water.” He had tried to quit but had slipped a few times. He entered rehab for a month in Cottonwood, Ariz., at a dual diagnosis center for drinking and bipolarism that I found. But when “Wine into Water” really hit big, that’s when he completely stopped drinking.
Tony wrote “Monkey” [The Next Right Thing, 2003] in about five minutes, and he was manic during the process. If you listen to the words, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
To me, “Monkey” is the “Wine into Water” for the bipolar establishment. He was so happy when he received two Image Awards (a family-oriented values award), first for “Wine into Water,” and then one for “Monkey.”
How has T. Graham changed for the better?
He takes a combination of five different medicines for the disease, but he is able to function normally and have a life. Tony is much kinder and able to interact with folks more. Tony still isolates himself more than he should, but he is more even-keeled than he ever was. He just doesn’t realize it.
He’s never been a social person. Now that he can’t drink, it’s like, ‘Why should I go to the party?’ It’s a shame, and I hope he gets over that feeling. When I can get him to go out someplace, he usually has a real good time. He likes to remark, “I don’t ever laugh,” but he does all the time. It’s just one of those things you deal with.
What would you say to families dealing with the disease?
Fifty years ago, an awful lot of people were thrown into mental institutions and forgotten. There was no treatment – other than lithium – and some people were allergic to it. There were no anti-depressants, and folks didn’t discuss their feelings. So they covered it up with alcohol, and before you knew it, you were an alcoholic.
If you’re not on medication or seeing a doctor, absolutely outrageous behavior becomes the norm. People may try to jump off buildings thinking they can fly or rob banks because they have a grandiose vision of, ‘I can do it and not get caught.’
There’s a tremendous amount of suicide in this disease if people don’t receive help. It’s a progressive disease, and the older someone gets, if you don’t do anything about it, it only gets worse.
It’s the 21st century, and I’m one who’s ready to stand up and say, “Hey, having a mental illness is no different than being a diabetic or having heart problems.” There shouldn’t be this stigma that there’s something awful about having a mental illness.
Bipolarism is a journey. Tony will be bipolar until the day he dies, but it is treatable. Tony’s not ashamed of it, but he doesn’t go on and on about it. If someone comes up to Tony after a show and asks about his drinking or bipolarism, Tony is very upfront with them. He hopes his experience will encourage others to seek help.
[Author’s Note: After reading Sheila’s account, T. Graham emailed the following remarks to this writer…”I had forgotten how visceral this piece is. It’s very, very hard for me to revisit. No man can run away from himself. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to face. There are some things I wish that could do over, or better yet, never had done at all. Especially the things that hurt Sheila, Acme, friends, and family. I have been given the priceless gift of a second chance at doing it right. I have repented and can now start anew on my mission to help and give people hope of a better existence. God is on top of it all, and I’m thankful that he let me live long enough to learn it”].
The Complete T. Graham Brown Interview: Links
- Part One: “Running ‘Til Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground…”
- Two: “The Capitol Years, a Lost Decade, and “Wine Into Water”
- Three: “T. Graham on Country Radio, Record Labels, Royalties & Songwriting”
- Four: “New Recordings, Steve Cropper and Garth Brooks”
- Five: “I’m Not Dead, ‘Cause I Never Quit: The Dirt with Soulful Singer…”
- Six: “T. Graham’s Battle with Bipolar Disorder: His Wife Speaks”
- Seven: “When Everyone Else Is Completely Mad: How T. Graham Brown Lives with Bipolarism”
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2011. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without first contacting the author.