National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Taking Exit 5150 on the 101

Eric Victorino / Photo: Eric Belladonna

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

He’d been to the bridge.

His hands had held the slatted metal railing guarding the edge.

A railing the same international orange color as the cables and towers that reached above him; the same vermilion hue that has become synonymous with the sumptuous hunk of asphalt and metal connecting the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County.

This is where I’m going to be January 3, he thought.

Thirty four years—to the day—after his birth, this is where he’d be, standing on the boundary of the Golden Gate Bridge looking listlessly out across the San Francisco Bay.

On January 3, 2012, his now perfunctory thoughts on the bridge would be his last.

As a musician, Eric Victorino had assumed his thoughts were normal, it was just who he was. The continuous struggle and overflowing feelings of sadness and pain were typical. It’s just what it means to be an artist, he thought.

It didn’t matter that his band The Limousines was fast gaining fame, not only garnering attention in the San Francisco area but across the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t matter that thousands of adoring fans came to listen to shows or that he had a beautiful wife and wonderful friends. The thoughts he had were inescapable and would become his end.

But Eric never made it back to the bridge on January 3. More than six months since his pre-determined day of his death had passed, Eric is still here, recently returned from a tour in Europe supporting the internationally renowned band The Sounds. He’s here (still playing badminton in his back yard—in his underwear).

Thoughts of depression have haunted Eric as long as he can recall. “I can think back to being 10 years old and feeling completely overwhelmed, this kind of impending doom feeling of the world’s just too big,” he says. “But it wasn’t until last December [2011] when things”—as he puts it repeatedly—“started to tailspin.”

Episodes of depression could no longer be pushed out by a pen, it would take something stronger.

Sometimes you end up looking for the easiest way out for everybody else except for yourself.

Nights became drowned in pints of amber and shaken tumblers. Handfuls of Xanax, Klonopin, Valium or any other alphabet-laden drug handed to him served as canapés for evenings where the pièce de résistance was a wanton disregard for life.

“I kind of hoped it would kill me and then hope that people would just think it was an accident. Then no one would feel guilty and no one would feel like they had to blame themselves for something I did,” he says. “It would simply be, ‘Wow, what a horrible accident that was.’ Sometimes you end up looking for the easiest way out for everybody else except for yourself.”

But his body mutinied and threw itself into a vomiting fit—one that doctors believe saved his life.

While it was his visceral reaction that may have saved his life and kept his plan for January 3 on schedule, it was a misinterpretation that may have ultimately saved him from making it to the bridge. The following night, Eric had merely gone to the bathroom when his wife, Sarah, began pounding on the door; the echo of her sobs and screams pleading with him.

“E,” she screamed as she pounded on the door, “EEEE!” She was hitting the door so forcefully that a thin fissure started forming down the center of the door with each crash of her fists.

He got up from the toilet and swung the door open. Why was she screaming? He was simply going to the bathroom.

“Who died?” he asked “What’s going on?”

“I thought you were killing yourself!” she cried.

His first reaction: That’s funny. I wouldn’t do that. Not in the house.

“That was the worst thing. It wasn’t, ‘How silly of you to think I was killing myself.’ It was that I was going to do it the house,” he recalls.

But eventually his wife’s pleas persuaded him to at least consider getting help. The following morning he ended up at the Adult Psychiatry Department at Kaiser in Santa Clara, Calif. With Sarah still with him, a doctor soon came and began to ask questions: gathering basic medical information, asking about his history with mental illness, planning what to do, asking about what had happened the night before, the doctor’s mellifluous voice convincing Eric to be more forthcoming with his answers.

Then the all-important question came, the one that would determine what steps were taken next: “Eric, will you be safe alone?”

It was a simple question. He either did or he didn’t. And if he didn’t, he could lie. Make it those two weeks to January 3.

Eric Victorino / Photo: Eric Belladonna

“I really wanted to say yes,” he remembers. He could go through with his plan. Succeed. All he had to do was say yes. Yes doctor, I just had a minor breakdown, but I feel all right, he could say. I’ll be okay by myself tomorrow. But that’s not what he said; he didn’t say anything.

“I wish I could take credit for being brave and saying that I needed help, but I didn’t. I just started crying. I was just so broken,” Eric remembers.

Taking his cries as a response, he was 5150’d (fifty-one-fifty’d)—slang for an involuntary psychiatric hold. Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code states that when any person, as a result of mental disorder poses a danger to his or her self, they may be taken into custody and placed in a facility for a 72-hour treatment and evaluation.

So for three days he was held at a crisis stabilization center. Seventy-two hours he was watched, tested and examined. But in those three days he gained something he hadn’t received in his nearly quarter of a century off-and-on therapy. He got an answer: bipolar disorder. He was officially diagnosed.

Receiving that diagnosis wasn’t easy. It made it real. The results from the 500 question diagnostic test may have let him know exactly what he was dealing with, but it labeled him.

There was the stigma and negative connotations with the illness that he knew, and the general understanding of what a mental illness was, but he didn’t know what it really meant—what the hell it meant to be bipolar.

He started researching, scouring the Internet for any piece of information to help him define himself. What did mania really mean? What was “officially” considered a depression? Was it permanent?

“Getting that diagnosis was hard. It still is. Sometime it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. But, you know, sometimes just knowing that it’s there and understanding that it won’t ever completely go away can help you manage it,” Eric says. “You can learn techniques to see something coming and recognize it.”

His brush with suicide and subsequent diagnosis caused him to think back to a book of poetry he wrote in 2009, Trading Shadows for Sunshine. For Eric, poetry is an outlet for handling his struggles. Writing for the Limousines isn’t the same, Eric explains. When he’s writing for his band, he’s making a pop song; he doesn’t feel he can make as many allusions or include complex ideas that have to think about in order to understand. In short: it has to be something light and fun that they can sing along to.

Eric and his wife, Sarah / Photo: Kayvon Saidat

Looking back he noticed that much of the writing was in third and second person—there weren’t very many I’s. As a consequence he didn’t feel like the book read honestly. He felt like he was trying to hide behind his words. But a funny, and possibly lucky, thing happened. The original publisher had gone out of business and he didn’t have the files. All he had was the book itself.

“I had to retype everything word by word. But in the process, I completely trashed the old version. I only kept a quarter of the original poems,” Eric says. As a result, when it was re-released, he retitled the book Trading Sunshine for Shadows.

The seminal piece of the collection, and the one he feels most strongly about, is “Bridges,” in which he recounts the night and morning surrounding his involuntary commitment.

Receiving the diagnosis was just the beginning. He still had to learn to live with his illness, which now had a name, and how to manage it. Doing so would not be easy. The life of a musician isn’t the most conducive for one with bipolar disorder. The clichés—late nights spent partying, heavy drinking and the opportunity for drugs and incessant invitations for sex from strangers—they’re all real, and they mix as well with bipolar disorder as oil does with water.

Eric, along with Giovanni Giusti, the other half of the duo who make up The Limousines, were to set out on a spring tour with The Sounds, less than three weeks after being released from the hospital, a tour half way around the world in Europe potentially without any supports that he may desperately need.

On the one hand, Eric actually finds being on tour beneficial. It creates a routine. You know where you have to be and when you have to be there. You have brand new cities that need to be discovered.

“It keeps you busy,” says Eric. “But the big problem touring when you have bipolar disorder is that your sleep patterns get all messed up.”

And then you get home and it’s like stepping off one of those moving sidewalks at the airport at a hundred miles per hour. You’re right back to picking dog shit off the ground and cleaning dishes.

Especially in a place like Amsterdam whose manna is its nightlife and where clubs don’t even think about opening before 11 p.m.

“Other people can stay up till four in the morning and drink and party and the next day the biggest worry they have is a hangover. But for me, if I disrupt my sleep pattern badly enough I can just go off into a tailspin.”

Even though he understands the negative consequences of drinking heavily and taking drugs, the temptation is still there, a temptation that has almost become an addiction.

“Being on tour with a pocketful of Xanax is a horrible thing,” says Eric, “If they're around, I’ll just eat them up.”

For someone living with a mental illness, that can be even more damaging. Pills that might very well be helpful on their own for someone else might work counter to Eric’s personal symptoms, especially when a rainbow assortment is consumed together.

The urge to take them stems from the desire to disappear. “It’s a way to be gone. Popping pills and drinking they satisfy that. They satisfy the urge to get out of here, whether here is alive or simply the chair I’m sitting in.”

To help curb that craving and handle the drastic life change that would result from the weeks touring European cities, Sarah came along. The doctors really insisted, Eric tells, without her they thought trying to travel would be a horrible idea. She would be able serve as an intermediary between the highs and the lows and try to keep Eric in stable state.

It wasn’t just the possibility of substances that Sarah would have to be on the lookout for that could lead Eric back into a suicidal state it was also simply the act of performing.

“When you’re on tour and playing every single night and you’re getting all this love and attention from people, the rush is like jumping out of an airplane. It’s just this huge adrenaline rush you get for an hour on stage and then you get to spend the rest of night talking to all these people about how wonderful you are and they just want to take a picture with you and shake your hand and tell you that that you're awesome.

“And then you get home and it’s like stepping off one of those moving sidewalks at the airport at a hundred miles per hour. You’re right back to picking dog shit off the ground and cleaning dishes,” Eric says. “It’s absolute hell.”

While the rush that comes from performing can keep Eric up, it doesn’t always have to be so grand. As he describes in his poem “Post Office Box,” it can be something inconsequential that puts you in or pulls you out of the dark.

“Even if it’s just a phone bill, it’s you seeing your name on a piece of paper and knowing that you’re living a life. You just need a little validation; you just want to know you exist,” he says.

So how do you get back that rush? How do you satiate that need? For Eric at least, it’s through boxing. Although not your prototypical jock growing up, physical activity has proved extremely beneficial. He decided on boxing because he was told from his doctors that he needed to find something that he couldn’t potentially make money from—so no art. No music, no drawing, no writing. It had to be something that he did simply because he enjoyed it.

“It could be pulling weeds in the garden or riding your bike but something you’re never going to go pro at,” he says, “but you have to find something you love.”

He doesn’t get quite the same feeling as playing on stage in front a thousand people—which is pretty understandable—but for Eric it’s the next best thing.

This past month Eric held a reading from his re-released collection of poems. Reading back through them is painful, he attests, even if right now he isn’t thinking about taking his own life. The poems brings back vivid memories of knowing that his death was a certain thing, to know for a fact that he was going to jump.

This isn’t the first time he’s discussed his bouts with depression and mental illness. Leading up to his hospitalization he had actually candidly spoken about his thoughts of suicide, to friends and to strangers. With strangers, it was often easier.

“I think it’s because you don’t get the push back of talking about your feelings to someone you’re intimate with or someone who your good friends with,” Eric recalls, “It’s a one sided story, a monologue. I’m telling him or her how I feel and a lot of times they’ll just listen.”

But with a friend? “They would slap me in the face and say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Even if it’s just a phone bill, it’s you seeing your name on a piece of paper and knowing that you’re living a life. You just need a little validation; you just want to know you exist.

Some people simply didn’t understand. “I had to really explain to them, I had to say, ‘Look, when you have a bad day, you’re able to get over it, you’re able to look at the things in your life that are great and it can inspire you and you’ll snap out of your problem. You’re capable of snapping out of it. I’m not. And I need a little extra time to work through my moods, my problems.’”

Even so, some close friends, who he thought would comprehend his experience, didn’t. He lost one friendship when a friend accused him of boasting about suicide.

However, many were very supportive. Something that Eric believes is vital, “The safety net that they can be for you is huge, for whatever you need, even if it’s simply a hug or a quick conversation.”

It took nearly five months after his diagnosis to really come forward and begin publically talking about his illness. But after coming forward, his reason for talking about his struggles changed. It wasn’t about just about getting help for himself anymore, it was about helping others.

It started simply enough: a post on Facebook. A post that said that he had been 5150’d and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The positive responses he received were overwhelming: people simply offering their support, people coming forward about their own illness or individuals saying that it had helped start a conversation about mental illness in their home. That’s what convinced him to republish and rewrite Trading Sunshine for Shadows; it was the understanding that he could be a voice that could help people struggling with mental illness.

“If coming out helps one person who maybe has felt depressed or has been diagnosed, then all the trouble of being open is worth it,” he says. “One person might hear my story and start enough conversations in their lifetime to save a life. It could cause a ripple effect.”