Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Age of 27

Sitting in the passenger seat with my headphones plugged in on the second day of a long drive home to Virginia from Maine, I was listening to Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” and scanning for the latest news on my phone. As we drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike, I scanned Twitter and came across the strikingly sad, although not terribly surprising, news that jazz and R&B singer Amy Winehouse had died in her London home.

Initial news reports describe the official cause of death as "unexplained;" the unconfirmed leaks suggest that alcohol, drug use and emphysema may have contributed. Winehouse's struggle with drugs and alcohol had been widely chronicled in the British and American press and the singer's hit song "Rehab" seems, if nothing else, to be autobiographical. Less widely reported, but no less salient, was Winehouse's struggle with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression.

"Amy had battled drink and drugs problems throughout her career," according to the British newspaper, The Sun. "Her hit song, 'Rehab,' which included the lyrics: 'They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no,' echoed her refusal to seek help."

"She acknowledged," the newspaper continued "struggling with eating disorders and told a newspaper that she had been diagnosed as manic depressive but refused to take medication."

Within hours, Twitter was ablaze with posts about the 27-year-old musician that were variations of the question "Why do so many musicians die at 27?"

It seemed fitting that I was listening to “Mercedes Benz,” the last song that Joplin recorded before her heroin induced death at age 27.

After hearing the news about Winehouse, I sent a text message to a friend in New York, ”What’s up with the age 27? Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Kurt Cobain – and now Winehouse.” As I reread my message, another thing struck me – how many of the people I had listed were believed to have suffered from chronic bipolar disorder or depression, and who now would have been viewed as self-medicating their illnesses with substances.

Joplin completed her recording of “Mercedes Benz” on October 1, 1970 and died later that night or the next morning of an overdose of heroin after a night of drinking. Joplin’s death at 27 shocked a music world that was just coming to grips with the death sixteen days earlier of Jimi Hendrix, who was also 27. Hendrix’s use of LSD, amphetamines, marijuana and alcohol were widely noted. His autopsy said that he asphyxiated on his own vomit, with red wine filling his airways. Less than a year later, Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors, was found dead in a bathtub in Paris. An autopsy was not performed, but associates later said that Morrison had taken heroin after a night of drinking. On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer in the band Nirvana, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to authorities. Cobain’s history of drug use and past suicide attempts was well-documented.

The 27 Club, also known as the Forever 27 Club or Club 27, is a name for a group of influential musicians who died at the age of 27. “The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll,” by Eric Segalstad and published in 2008, examines the lives of 34 musicians who died at the age 27. Some of the most prominent members of the 27 Club suffered from drug and alcohol abuse, but many of them also had another connection: confirmed or suspected mood-related mental illnesses.

The connection between creativity and mood disorders has been documented thoroughly, most pervasively in Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” The connection between mood disorders and madness is self-evident. The connection between mood disorders and self-medication with drugs and alcohol is, perhaps, both unappreciated and one of the most important elements to helping prevent many tragedies, among rock stars and many average people you and I have never heard of.

Modern researchers believe that Morrison suffered from bipolar disorder or depression. Joplin has been said to have been afflicted with either bipolar disorder or depression. Cobain’s cousin, a nurse, claimed that Cobain was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child and bipolar disorder as an adult, and noted that two of her uncles had committed suicide with guns. There is no solid evidence that Hendrix suffered from bipolar disorder, but after his manager at the time told him that he sounded like a manic depressive, Hendrix wrote the song “Manic Depression.” The diagnosis of each of these musicians are less than clear, but what is clear is that each suffered from serious mood swings and, mostly, mood disorders that contributed to their abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Much focus has been placed on the loss of talented musical artists to substance abuse, but it seems obvious that the underlying mood swings and disorders that are being self-medicated by drugs and alcohol are the primary culprits.

Winehouse was self-aware of the connection, even if that connection did not lead her to seek treatment. “I do drink a lot,” Winehouse once said in an interview on the British television show, “The Album Chart Show,” according to an ABC News report. “I’m manic depressive, I’m not an alcoholic, which sounds like an alcoholic in denial.”

One factor that probably contributes to the ambiguity of many of these musicians is the fact that bipolar disorder and several other mood disorders tend to emerge in early adulthood.

“Stories of young people suffering through their 20s are not new,” Jennifer L. Tanner, psychologist, writes in an essay. “In the 1970s, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at age 27 as a result of mood disorders and addiction. These incidents four decades ago suggest that mental health problems have been a consistent threat to emerging adults.”

“Since the 1930s, Tanner continues, “psychiatric opinion has been that emerging adulthood is the ‘the age for neuroses.’”

The story of Britney Spears, who has acknowledged having bipolar disorder, is a more recent example. The story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician, in the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind” provides another salient explanation of how talented young people struggle to realize the development of their mental illnesses.

Tanner writes that “we have far to go in learning how we can best help emerging adults access the help that they need.” It is clear to me that one of the key priorities should be educating young adults and those outside of the mental health community on the symptoms of mood disorders and other mental conditions, and the times of life they are most likely to emerge.

My own experience provides my cautionary tale in this regard. I began to suffer the symptoms of bipolar disorder most noticeably, in retrospect, during early adulthood, with it leading to self-medication with drugs and alcohol, and, after much turmoil, a diagnosis eight years ago – at age 27.