“Another tricky day/Another gently nagging pain/The world seems in a spiral/Life seems such a worthless title.”

This long-haired, shirtless man saved me in high school.

Roger Daltrey was thousands of miles away performing with a major band – The Who. But his words were with me as I faced my parents’ violent fights and breakup, familial addiction and bullying. 

Roger Daltrey singing with the Who in Hamburg, Germany, 1972. (Photo by Heinrich Klaffs)

I acted out early; I’d call it bullying. I wrestled with boys on the playground with minimal provocation. I collaborated with other troubled students. Once, during recess, we scrambled the eye liner and lipstick from several girls’ makeup bags left in the bathroom. Some of us made prank calls. One of the routines was milder, calling people and repeatedly asking, “Who is this?” Others were more disturbing to peers and their parents: We repeatedly called the house of a kid we had a crush on named Jimmy and played a recording of a rock band provocatively saying, “Oh Jimmy.” We did this even if his mother answered!

And I was bullied, too. I was, and am, quirky and absent-minded — thank you, ADHD. On high school ski trips, boys serenaded me with the song “The Freaks Come Out at Night.” I think that was more for getting frisky with a high school boyfriend. I don’t think they were targeting him because, well, boys were cheered, not teased, for such things. 

At this point in my life, there were “black days,” those times when I’d tell my parents, “I hate all my friends.” I never thought of hurting anyone physically (and I should note that statistically people with mental illness are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators). 

I’d later learn that the impulsive behaviors and the general unhappiness I experienced reached the level of multiple diagnoses: bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety on top of the ADHD. The bipolar disorder may have been connected genetically to generations of alcohol abuse. It can be helpful to view your own illness in the frame of your family for clues, and to remember that it’s not your fault. 

Trees rise skyward in Oakland. Sweda Jordan says nature has become a “happy place” for her. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

From Roger to the doctor

“We go down and we come up again,” Roger told me. And for people like me, who like to laugh back at their pain, there was this line: “This is no social crisis, just another tricky day for you.” 

I mean it felt like it was a crisis, and perception is reality. But it also felt like sarcasm, a joke, and I was always up for laughing. “This is you having fun,” the song continued. “Getting burned by the sun.” OK, I’d tell myself, I can get through just this day. I loved sunshine when it came and so I could live with even serious burns. 

Later I heard the lyrics, “If you can’t find a friend, you still got the radio,” sung by Nancy Griffith, and that was a chorus on my loneliest days. Music, movies and many other media have been my best friends. “Just hang on to the band/You can dance while your knowledge is growing.” Yep, that’s Roger, too. I hung on to that band while I moved through life, and I danced. A lot.

“You can’t always get it/When you really want it,” Roger told me. It would have been nice if I’d gotten professional treatment along with Roger’s consolation. But when I was a kid, therapy was uncommon and psychiatrists seemed scary. I knew enough from TV sitcoms to vaguely understand that I had poor mental health – enough to occasionally lobby my mom for a “mental health day” from school. Fortunately she allowed it without question. 

That break from social interaction was freeing. I also used some of the time to catch up on schoolwork; I was always and to this day am frequently behind. Thanks again, ADHD. 

In bursts of adrenaline brought on by deadlines, I produced some of my most creative work lauded by teachers. 

It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I really got the help I needed. 

Jennifer Sweda Jordan is reflected in layers of glass as she stands for a portrait at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Mental health help was inconsistent and has required a lot of seeking and knocking before finding. First I had a doctor who gave me medication that flattened my highs and lows, but kind of flattened everything. I remember zero follow-up on his part. I’d have a good therapist who’d tell me I was done, all better, when I wasn’t. In my 30s, I started seeing counselors consistently. 

Some folks only go through periods of mental illness. Mine’s chronic, though at this point I follow a fairly regimented sleep schedule and take medication. So there are times when I go through months without being troubled by it, but there are many times when I need to add to my daily medication; when yoga is a need, not a luxury; when I have to listen to comedians to break up depression and get out of bed. 

I’ve learned box breathing, which is easy but so effective that Navy Seals use it to destress. (Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale 4, hold 4 and repeat.) So many tools helped me deal with work and financial challenges over the last several years. And I need them, because “mental health days” aren’t as easy to come by now that I am a professional. 

Baking, praying and finding community

I checked myself into psychiatric hospitals twice. For me, the greatest benefit was the lack of pretense. We were all ill. There was no need to explain that I may look OK, but I’m really not. No one was handing us work to do. We watched TV together and baked and played board games while biding our time to see if a new medicine might work. Psych stays are not always that way. I know others have horror stories and I believe them. But for me, at the time, it was exactly what I needed. 

A few other things consistently make me feel better. I’m a person of faith who absolutely believes in — knows from experience — the power of prayer to help. But even today many churches don’t suggest medical help for emotional pain or speak frequently to the experience of mental illness.

A career step helped, too. I split my professional time between media and working in community living group homes with people with intellectual disabilities. One of the main diagnoses of the residents is Down syndrome. Being part of a community of people with far fewer pretenses, not unlike the hospital, is extremely comforting. Frankly, it’s sacred. 

This is a population that frequently has been bullied and abused. They are seven times as likely to be sexually assaulted. About 30% have mental illness. And, too often, they don’t get consistent help. Sometimes the influence of family members, or the scarcity of therapists to serve this population (who may or may not actually speak in full sentences), or money and transit difficulties get in the way. 

I can lobby for them and document what’s going on in hopes that at some point their trickiest days will become fewer. Fortunately, I can podcast the stories of the joys and trials of people with intellectual disabilities. 

And I can bring to this community my personal toolbox: music, movies, dance, exploring nature and lots of laughs. It’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. I stopped drinking because of them. I liked my life and what I was doing with the community too much to risk some alcoholic error. 

Though my work is fulfilling, mental illness does flare when I don’t take breaks or I spend too long away from nature or the comfort of my chosen communities. Sometimes all I need to do is go to a coffee shop and be among humans if I’ve been staying in a darkened room with my laptop too long. 

I’ve been out of the hospital more than I’ve been in it. I go to therapy weekly and I have a good med regimen. I have called the Resolve Crisis Services line and received good advice: “It sounds like you might be isolating yourself.” I go to Al-Anon meetings, a program for family members of alcoholics. This all saves me. Day by day. 

Jennifer Sweda Jordan stands for a portrait outside the Carnegie Museum of Art with Rafael’s Domenech’s Dividing an edge from an ever (Pavilion for Sarduy). (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

So make your playlist. Dance if you’d like. Call a doctor. Insist on good care. Sometimes you might need medication. It’s OK. Seek your community. It might be your family circle, it might be friends. It might be a church that reflects sheer love for you. It might be a coffee shop. It might become your life’s work.

You might just, as Roger said, “Break out and start a fire y’all!” Not a house fire. Please. But catching a fire in your heart that enables you to see the next step clearly and leave a light on for others.

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is the publisher of Unabridged Press and founder of All-Abilities Media.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s healthcare reporting.

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