Uses Songs and Poetry as Therapy
by Dan Coya
I had a chance to sit down and talk to William Fitzsimmons before his set at the House of Blues in Orlando recently. The venue was packed and the setting seemed ripe for a high-energy rock show, but the patrons attending knew better. This wasn’t a mosh pit crowd. They were here to see and listen to their favorite poets tell their stories with nothing more than an instrument or two, and a voice. These folks didn’t use music to escape their problems — they used music to confront them.
I was at “Heavy and Light: 2012,” presented by To Write Love on Her Arms. TWLOHA, as it’s often called, is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire and invest directly into treatment and recovery. This night, they put together some amazing artists to share their experiences through music and discussion in hopes to inspire and inform.
One of the featured artists was Pittsburgh-born Fitzsimmons. With a master’s degree in counseling from Geneva College in western Pennsylvania, William was a mental health therapist before pursuing music as a full-time career. He was refreshingly open and honest with me, when sharing his own lifelong struggles with depression, which is often reflected in his music. William was sporting an acoustic guitar, a red flannel lumberjack button down shirt, skinny blue jeans and a fantastic beard, which looked to be compensating for a clean bald head.
His music has been featured on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Brothers and Sisters” and MTV’s “Life of Ryan,” and has been given reference in Billboard and Rolling Stone Magazine.Accolades aside, William had a certain warmth and humility during our talk that made the interview feel effortless. Somewhat soft spoken, but extremely deliberate in articulating his thoughts, I had a strong sense of a highly deep and intellectual mind at work, without the slightest sign of arrogance. If Pennsylvania is known for their down to earth folks, William was the poster child.Blindfold Magazine: How much of your background in counseling and also being counseled went into your decision to get involved with TWLOHA?
Fitzsimmons: Yes, that is the main part. However, it’s 50/50. Connecting with people that need help is very attractive, but there’s something that is helpful to yourself, whenever you are a part of something like this. Anytime you are working with other people who are struggling, you are mending yourself at the same time. Everybody needs a little bit of help. Nobody is perfectly well.
Blindfold Magazine: Is it like they say, you learn more when you teach?
Fitzsimmons: It’s true, but I almost feel like I’m cheating, being a part of something like this, because technically I’m helping people but I feel like I’m getting more than my share.
Blindfold Magazine: What life experiences do you have that help you relate to TWLOHA’s mission as well as influence your music?
Fitzsimmons: I’ve lived on both sides of the coin. I have personal history with depression and several other diagnoses. And of course when I was counseling I was working with people with similar challenges. I never escaped that world and I’ve never wanted to but I never could, and when I took up music it was only natural that I continued working with those same ideas.
Blindfold Magazine: Did music become your canvas, in which you could express yourself?
Fitzsimmons: Music is a canvas and music is a therapy, too. And not just to someone with my job history. I think it’s a therapeutic thing for anybody. Who doesn’t listen to music for some type of affective experience? You listen to it because it does something to you. It opens up a part of your mind, a part that likes to stay shut tight. So I use music to open up a part of me and it seems to work in that way to the people. They like my music and opens up a part of them. I’ve been very lucky that the things people share with me are even more intense and more personal, now as a musician, than they were when I was counseling. So I am in a way still doing that work, just through music.
Blindfold Magazine: If you could sit around a campfire with anybody dead or alive, who would that person be and why?
Fitzsimmons: I’d say Nick Drake, who’s my musician hero. He’s an old British folk singer. He was a very depressed person, very melancholy, and made music that was reflective of that. He committed suicide when he was very young. I’ve become a little obsessed with him in the last five to 10 years. I always wanted to tell someone like that, “I’ve been through that same thing, that it can and does get better.” I know it’s a cliché, but I’ve experienced that. Not to make it too real, but I was ready to check out and see the other side of it, to get through it and actually find hope. It’s a real thing.
Blindfold Magazine: If you could say something to him now, what would you say?
Fitzsimmons: I’d say, just wait. Just hang on. You know it’s a simple thing. Depression is a son of a bitch because it takes away the one thing you need to get better and that is that volition. It takes away your will and that’s what you need to stick it out and find a way to get help. Yeah, I would tell him to hold on and wait for something.
Fitzsimmons: It heals some, yeah. Time does heal some wounds, but some you need an SSRI (antidepressant) for. Time can do a lot of good things, too.Blindfold Magazine: Do you believe in using medication to treat mental illness?Fitzsimmons: I personally do, because I do. I’m fine with the debate, because I had a very strict religious upbringing and education with undergrad and then graduate school, where I got my master’s. A lot of it was very anti-psychotropic, but I kind of figured if something helped then it was a good thing and I didn’t really have a problem with it. I think airplanes are cool and we don’t have wings. I’ve seen what they can do and anything that I think helps should be good. But I understand the debate. I understand people having problems with unnatural things.Blindfold Magazine: What is the debate?
Fitzsimmons: Some people think that medication is a miracle and it is. It has saved a lot of people’s lives. Other people think that it is artificial, it’s numbing, it’s fake. Medication is not real. There’s no panacea, there’s nothing that cures everything, but all I can say is what I’ve lived and what I’ve worked with and medication has saved my life. So, how can someone tell me that medication is bad if I’m still here?Another thing is the medication is overprescribed but mental illness is under diagnosis. So you have a lot of people on Valium and Prozac that shouldn’t be, and you have a huge number of people that should be that aren’t, so just because there’s a huge imbalance doesn’t mean we should stop. We just need to balance the equation.
Blindfold Magazine: Is TWLOHA a possible way to accomplish that?
Fitzsimmons: Yeah, and the most important thing is to destigmatize mental illness. There are some problems that are OK to have, but a lot aren’t.
Blindfold Magazine: What kind of advice would you give an 18-year-old William Fitzsimmons?
Fitzsimmons: Better jeans. I think I was wearing white stone wash jeans. I would tell the younger me, you don’t have everything figured out. Everything was so clear when I was 18. The grayer the things have become, the more I can accept things and the more I understand. When I just accept I don’t know anything, I barely know anything at all. That young kid was cock sure about everything, about religion, about sexuality, about politics. At 18, I was like, I got it, I’m good, and I had a lot of wonderful people punch me in the face, metaphorically. They showed me that I was wrong about a lot of stuff.
Blindfold Magazine: What do you hope you and your music contributed to the world when you are gone?
Fitzsimmons: I don’t so much care what people say, but I’m supposed to say that, right? I want people to say I was the awesomest dude ever.
Blindfold Magazine: How about the most awesome beard ever?
Fitzsimmons: Boom! No really, the only thing I’ve ever wanted is for my audience to get a little bit help from my music. I just think it feels the best, no matter what award or accolade I receive, the neatest thing (“neat” is still a cool word, right?) is when someone writes me or approaches me after a show, and they tell me that they got through something difficult and my music actually helped them. That’s incredible and I am still floored when someone says that to me. That is the best thing I can hope for when I’m gone. William went on to have a great set and was a part of an amazing encore, which included all the night’s performers. I could have spent the rest of the night with William, discussing these issues and we still would only scratch the surface.
• To Write Love On Her Arms www.twloha.com • William Fitzsimmons www.williamfitzsimmons.com