interview by Michael McCarthy
I was recently introduced to the powerful music Nominee, who are either a punk or post hardcore band, depending on who you ask. To my ears, there’s even an air of pop punk about their songs, which are as catchy as they are heavy. Aside from the music kicking ass, the lyrics to their new EP, Drag Me Out, are brutally honest about vocalist Chris McLelland’s personal battles with bipolar disorder. Being bipolar myself, I asked his publicist if he might be down for an interview where we’d talk about that as well as the music. Well, he was interested and the interview was one of the most enjoyable – and longest – interviews I’ve ever done. In part one, which I’m posting today, our talk is basically limited to bipolar disorder and how it can effect everything from your every day life and relationships to your creative endeavors as well. In part two, which I’ll be posting early next week, we talk much more about music. That just happened to be the second chunk of the interview, and it naturally felt right to cut it in half just before we started getting in depth about it. So, if you or someone you know is bipolar then chances are you’ll find this first half very interesting. Even if you don’t know someone affected by bipolar disorder, you’ll likely find it intriguing if you’re even remotely interested in mental health.
MM: I understand you’re originally from New Jersey. What part of the State were you from?
CM: I’m from like Southern New Jersey right outside of Philadelphia.
MM: What was your family situation like growing up?
CM: Um, it was weird. Not the best. I mean, not the worst. Kind of like classic broken home parents, just stayed together for the kids so to speak, or they stayed together so their two incomes could help out in raising three children. I was the youngest. So, I mean, it didn’t make it easy, that’s for sure. We actually have some songs that relate directly to that. We put out a split with a band called Dozer earlier last year and one of the songs is called “Perforated” and it’s about that as well. Like I said, it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. They weren’t like physically abusive – they weren’t even verbally abusive towards us. My parents were verbally abusive towards each other, of course, but no one was like physically abusive. My mom was troubled with depression and bipolar. If I could’ve had that insight as a kid to know what it was maybe I would’ve looked at it in a different way. But to me it just kind of looked like they hated each other and I really didn’t understand why.
MM: At what point did you decide to move to Austin?
CM: I was in a band from New Jersey called I Call Fives for a while. I was in that band for like four years and we broke up. I made the decision to leave the band, actually, and very shortly after that the band broke up. And then we were gonna try to start it again, but all the members were at different places in their lives. So, I was just bored with life up there and a friend of mine from Jersey who had moved down to Austin a few years prior just messaged me on Facebook one night when I was working and I’d been at that job that I was at in New Jersey for 12 years almost. I think it was 11 years, almost 12. He messaged me and I was working late and my band had just broken up and the relationship that I was in was really toxic and he was like, hey, my band needs a singer. You should move to Austin. At that point I had never fronted a band before. I’d never just sang for a band. But I just kind of thought about it for a few minutes and I was like, yeah, all right. I told my boss that night, I’m moving to Austin. And he was like, what? He was like, yeah, we’ll see. And then like three weeks later we had signed a lease and I was like, hey, I’m moving to Austin, I’ve gotta go. I think from the moment he asked me until the moment I got down down here it was just a little over two months.
MM: Something similar had happened to me. A friend moved out to Los Angeles and then I ended up moving out there. But I was only there for three years though because – partially because they were not diagnosing me right mental health wise and I also developed fibromyalgia and some nerve damage in my leg, so I moved back to Massachusetts, but I had similarly moved out to LA the way you did with Austin.
CM: Sorry to hear about the fibromyalgia, man. That scares the hell out of me because last night I was up until 7 in the morning because my legs were just aching. I don’t know why. So, that freaks me out. I’m also diabetic, so nerve damage is really common. But you’re in Massachusetts, you said?
CM: One of our members is from New Hampshire but spent time growing up in Massachusetts.
MM: We’re from Northern Mass so we’re always going up to New Hampshire.
CM: Yeah, there you go.
MM: So, what happened that lead to you first being diagnosed or treated for bipolar disorder?
CM: It was when I was a kid. It was when I was 17. It might’ve even been 16 because I don’t think I was driving or anything at the time. But, yeah, I was young. I was in high school and I was dating a girl. I had dated her from eighth grade until the year after we graduated. In my sophomore or junior year of high school it was so hard for me to go to school. It was so hard to be around people. And there were things that I thought were just causing that like problems in that relationship – obviously, it’s a high school relationship. Obviously, in retrospect it wasn’t an important thing that I should’ve really stressed about, but I’d fight with her and I’d worry about stuff all high school kids worry about, like her cheating on me and her dating my friends and typical high school shit and it started getting to me so badly. And one day we had it out really badly in a hallway in our high school and I remember it just being like really embarrassing. I let her have it. I was screaming at her. And my parents were like he’s just an anxious teenager. That’s what most people would think. And then I started telling them about the underlying issues. The fact that the time I would get up to go to school in the morning it felt like someone was wringing my insides out, my anxiety was so bad.
I’d have to pry myself out of bed to go to school and like fake my relationships with my friends because I didn’t want anybody to know. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, that you could slap like a title on what this was. And I would just feel so down and depressed and I’d go to school and I’d be there for one period and I would leave and just go to like a fast food restaurant and just sit in a fast food restaurant until the end of the day then I would go home, just so I wouldn’t be surrounded with people, which you could’ve called it social anxiety but it wasn’t. It wasn’t the interacting that was the hard part. It was just like being around people and seeing people see. I felt like the depression I was feeling was palpable and I didn’t want people to notice that. I just had the hardest time going to school. When I finally told my parents about it, it was after I had that blow up that one day and they decided that I should go to a psychiatrist. I had a suicide attempt in high school in the summer going into my junior year and that’s when they sent me to a psychologist because they started taking seriously what I was trying to convey to them. I didn’t know how to convey it to them. I didn’t think that I was depressed. I didn’t know what everything that was happening was called. So, I went and started seeing a psychologist and he was awesome. He was great. Psychiatrist, actually, I think.
MM: Was it a therapist or someone who prescribes?
CM: I always forget which one is which. I saw a therapist first. I was in therapy before I could see someone who could prescribe something. And then I started getting prescribed mood stabilizers at that point. Antidepressants. Because they’ve gotta find the right cocktail. Not just one medication works for everybody. I think it was lithium, the mood stabilizer I was on in high school. And for like a 16 year old kid it just like made me pretty zonked out.
MM: I’ve been lucky to avoid that one.
CM: That’s not what I take now either. It was after I took those for a couple of months I couldn’t handle the way that I felt. I wasn’t thinking well enough to feel depressed, to feel like that low, low but it would make me feel completely unable. I could not feel good. I could not feel a sense of happiness on that stuff. And at times it was like this is the medication I have to take for this problem so it’s either this or nothing. And the idea simply of taking medication scared me so badly that I started hiding medication from my parents and pretending to take it. And they didn’t handle that well, but they knew that I was nearing the age of 18 and they could only force me to take it for so long. Even at that point, they were good parents. They weren’t shitty parents. They weren’t gonna force me to take medication that was making me feel even worse. So, I stopped taking it and I told them, hey, I understand now what’s going on and I can figure this out and get it under control. And [when] you struggle with bipolar like I do there’s no getting it under control.
MM: Yeah, it’s like managing symptoms.
CM: Yeah. [Laughs] It doesn’t exist. But I found ways to bury it and I did that until about a year ago.
MM: What changed then?
CM: I just kind of had to because I moved down here as a new start, a clean slate, and I was still denying that I even had bipolar disorder. I was like, I can still do this on my own. I was thinking like, the less people that knew about it, the less anxiety I would have. And if I didn’t have anxiety, the less I would feel bipolar. So, I didn’t tell anybody when I got down here about it. And then another one of the members of Nominee, Nate, he’s no longer in the band – he’s in another band called Later Days – he came forward to me about some of the things he was feeling and he just wasn’t feeling himself. And I told him you should go and see a doctor. Like it sounds like some symptoms that I used to have. Symptoms that I still had. I told him that I was bipolar. I think the exact term I used was I used to be. But he went and started getting some help and I saw it kind of working for him.
I was dating a girl here – I’m still with her, we’ve been together like three years now – and she started sensing that something wasn’t entirely correct. And she would see the absolutely outrageous mood swings that I would have and I couldn’t hide it from her anymore. We had a couple blowouts that my mood swings were entirely to blame for. Admitting that it was a mood swing, to her at least. In my mind I was like, shit, I know that we’re fighting because I know that I am faking how I feel. Like when I was feeling low and I had to be forced into as social situation she would notice the difference between then and how I was feeling when I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. When I was on the other polar.
One night after a big blowout I started hinting to the idea that I had some problems with my mental health. It wasn’t like she didn’t notice. She was not obtuse. I told her what had happened eventually. And she was just like, OK, I’m glad you’re communicating with me. Let’s go get you some help. It took probably a year of my saying I would go get help until I actually went back out and started seeing a therapist again and was re-diagnosed with bipolar. It took months to do that. At the time that I was doing that I admitted to myself that I needed to get help. After admitting it to her and admitting it to myself I told the rest of the guys in my band that I was starting to write lyrics about it. I wanted to see if they were comfortable with that because it’s a really sensitive subject. And more than anything, I didn’t want anybody to worry about me. In writing music about it, and telling my friends, and telling my loved ones, I didn’t want anyone to feel any sense of pity. For all intents and purposes, I’m fine. There are people out there who have it so much worse than I do.
MM: Same here.
CM: Not just bipolar. There are people who are just in far worse situations than me. If you don’t feel pity for them, definitely don’t feel pity for me. I’ll be OK and if I’m not OK you’ll totally know it. I’ll say something now that I’ve gotten out of the way of telling people, hey, this is what’s wrong with me and this is part of who I am. Now that I’ve gotten to that level if I’m not feeling OK, if I’m not feeling like I can go to a band practice or whatever, what have you, I can tell them and they’ll understand and that’s such a weight lifted off of my shoulders.
MM: Do you ever have panic attacks?
CM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. A big trigger in actually physically going to get help was the frequency of panic attacks I was having. Like I said, I’m type one diabetic as well –
MM: – That can also cause mood swings, right?
CM: What I sense or what I feel is when my blood sugar is low if I even venture into a depressing stage or thought when my blood sugar is low it’s like a guarantee that I’m gonna have a panic attack. If my blood sugar’s low and I’m at work and I think like, oh, I forgot to do something today. The immediate next thought is oh my God, I’m gonna get fired. And then after that it’s like oh my God I’m gonna have to quit the band. And then after that it’s what is my life? It’s just like that was a huge part of going to the doctor again. And since then I’ve gotten a little bit of a grip on the panic attacks. Not so much on when you go into a low state you might be there for a few days. And the progress that I’ve made is that I come out of those states a little faster than I normally would and then I’m not feeling the panic attacks as frequently. I still have them for sure.
MM: Me, too.
CM: And I still deal with a lot of rage, too. I have really bad anger issues, but getting a grip on it is such a slow, slow process. I don’t think I’ll ever feel one hundred percent OK. It seems so impossible. But as long as I’m doing better – as long as I’m making progress – then that’s OK with me.
MM: With me, I also have back problems and the combination of things I’m on disability, so I’m not as subjected to things as someone else might be. If I had to go work 40 hours a week I’d probably have a heart attack from the pain but I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
CM: On like an emotional level as well as physical?
MM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Because I get mood swings, too, and I just get very, you know, apathetic maybe. Like this is all pointless, that type of thing.
CM: I definitely get that, man. I feel that way weekly at the very least. I think about – because music is so important to me and I’ve been trying to make it a career but it’s always been the most important thing in my life. When I’m in good mental health I’ll be able to say that music is number one and it means the world to me, but when I start to feel apathetic it’s like why am I even writing songs? What is the point? I get to have a couple of good years with this band then we call it quits. I start thinking negatively. More apathetically than negatively. That’s a really, really constant feeling that I have. So, I guess like you said, apathetic is a really good way to describe it.
MM: And it’s weird because on the flip-side of that I can have too much empathy for other people. Like if somebody’s anxious around me that could make me anxious and then I might end up having a panic attack. So, it’s almost like other people’s moods can be really contagious.
MM: So, you’re on medication now?
CM: I am, yeah. I am. Just a mood stabilizer because I’m still in the very, very beginning stages with the doctors that I have. I’ve only been on this mood stabilizer that I’m on for three months. My prescription just actually ran out and it’s the first three months that I’ve had it and I don’t notice a huge difference yet but they say you should give it three to six months to notice a difference. I’m aware that it’s gonna take a lot of trial and error. But I guess it’s knowing that is the first step in fixing the problems. Addressing the problems correctly. That was my mistake the first time around is that I took one medication and didn’t like the way that it felt and was scared to take any others.
MM: That happened to me initially, too. They put me on Paxil and Paxil gave me much more frequent and much more severe panic attacks and I was like, if I’m gonna be having these – I get heart attack scares when I get panic attacks – then if I’m gonna have heart attack scares more often then how am I supposed to be less depressed? At first they just thought that I had serious depression. But then Paxil did poorly and they put me on Prozac and I stayed up for five nights straight. I just could not sleep a wink on that one. So, then they started making other changes. Right now I’m on a cocktail of things and I wonder if they just cancel each other out.
CM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’m more than aware that that’s the direction that I’m headed. That I have to get on a cocktail that I have to take one medication then start to take another medication to deal with the side effects of another then another medication to deal with the side effects of that medication. So, yeah, I’m aware that I’m headed in that direction, too. Which is an awful feeling. But if it helps with feeling so low and negative then I’m all for it. I’m all for it.
MM: It makes it worthwhile when it’s working.
CM: I think so, too. Now I still feel the highs with the lows still. There’s no difference with how high I can feel and how low I can feel. I haven’t noticed a difference in that. But that’s OK to me because, you know, as long as I’m not absolutely manic to the point that I’m blacking out then the highs are OK to me. Because the highs feel so much better knowing that low is there also, you know what I mean? In comparison, I’d rather feel high than depressed.
MM: The manic feeling can be addictive, really. You feel like you’re on top of the world and every creative thought you have when you’re manic you think is the most brilliant thing ever.
CM: I’ve written songs feeling that way and when I’m like settled down I’m like they’re not.
MM: Do you find that writing about these things in these songs helps alleviate things or does it make you focus on them too much sometimes?
CM: It doesn’t help alleviate any of the depression and anxiety I might feel. But thinking about it enough to vocalize it and put it into a song helps me explain it to other people that I’m close with, which is super important. And if I do really, really focus in on the problems that I’m having and I can’t find the words to put them out there then it really does send me down a rabbit hole and I have to learn when I need to just give it up. Because then again I’m not diagnosed OCD but if there’s something I can’t figure out, I need – I need – to figure it out. Like even just little things around the house. Like getting an appliance to work. Or figuring out a wifi issue. It doesn’t matter. Even little things like that. If there’s a problem and I can’t fix it I need to fix it. It’s unquestionable.
MM: I might sleep for five hours then I’ll wake up at some point inevitably and I’ll start thinking about something I need to get done that day, or some problem I have to fix, then I can’t get back to sleep and I’m really tired all day, which makes me really depressed, then I’m obsessing over something, which I may or may not be able to do anything about.
CM: I get that, too. It’s normally right before I fall asleep. I – knock on wood – I haven’t had any sleeping issues. A lot of times when I’m asleep I’ll sleep really heavy. A lot of times too heavily. Like I’ll go to bed at 9 o’clock at night and I’ll get up at 10:30 in the morning. Just like really, really heavily. And a lot of that is that I’m naturally a really stressed person and I know that in my sleep I can escape stress so waking up and going back to regular life is hard for me. And the stress causes depression. When things start piling on and I don’t feel like I can take them anymore I go right straight down into depression. It just like sucker punches me.
MM: Does sleep help combat the depression or do you find that sleeping that much makes it worse?
CM: No, it definitely helps. There’s two things I can do to combat feeling on the low end of the spectrum. Number one, and this is my last ditch effort, is sleep. I’ll have to just – especially if I’m having a panic attack I’ll eat a couple bites of something hearty or sugary – to fix my blood sugar – and then I’ll go lay down. And when your blood sugar is low I get really, really bad confusion. Nothing makes sense. It’s hard to focus. But as long as I can catch it in time I’ll eat something then go to sleep. And if I don’t catch it in time I’ll just go to sleep which is really scary because if I just go to sleep my blood sugar keeps going down and who knows what can happen. But if it’s not a blood sugar situation. If I’m just having a panic attack or I’m just having a bipolar episode I will either go to sleep or before that what I like to do – if I’m in a situation where I can do it – I like to go see a movie by myself. That’s just to sit in a dark room by myself and zone out of where I currently am.
MM: I used to say that I did my best thinking at the cinema, staring at the blank screen before the movie came on. But, of course, they went and ruined it because now you get to the cinema and they’ve got the ads going constantly.
CM: Yeah, that sucks. I worked in a movie theatre for 11 years, and when I got down here I worked at another theatre for a year, so next to music, movies are my life. I’m obsessed. So, to see those ads come in, especially to the theatre I worked back in Jersey – it was an art house – and then they bought into that and it was tasteless. Even for me, it’s not even thinking. It’s actually the opposite. Focusing on anything other than my problems. I love that. But if that doesn’t work, if I come out of the movies still feeling a certain way, I’ll likely go home and go to sleep. Go home and just kind of go about my day and while my girlfriend – my amazing girlfriend – she won’t feel love for me. I’ll become so cold and emotionally switched off. I know that I’m acting a certain way. She’s come to understand what the condition is and she knows that it’s not me. That it’s not something I can control and I don’t love her any less I just need to be left alone. Just kind of turn myself off and just go about my day, and even though I’m not gonna communicate, and I’m not gonna be happy, and I’m not gonna go to the grocery store and I’m not gonna talk, I’m still there and, fortunately, I’ve gotta work to fund being in the band and to pave my way in this limbo of having to work 40 to 50 to 60 hours a week and balance the band. The have to go hand in hand with each other right now. Unfortunately, for me that’s the worst part about bipolar disorder is that regardless of how I’m feeling I’ll work and I know that my best work isn’t gonna get done when I’m feeling a certain way. When I’m feeling depressed I’m not gonna put my best foot forward but I’m still gonna work.
MM: That’s tough.
CM: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s really hard.
MM: I was lucky when I worked with the developmentally disabled population I worked in a lot of group homes and there’s all this downtime where if the individuals aren’t doing anything you can sit down and read or watch TV or do what you want and I could deal with the work aspects knowing that in another hour or whatever I was gonna get paid to do nothing. Plus, the individuals I was serving obviously had it worse than I did. So, that was kind of reassuring, I guess.
CM: I feel like that kind of thing just gives perspective.