2018-01-01 / Spotlight News

Singer and songwriter Judy Collins recalls life’s illusions

By Dayna Harpster

Judy Collins spoke at NAMI Collier’s recent Hope Shines event. Judy Collins spoke at NAMI Collier’s recent Hope Shines event. She didn’t speak of it publicly until decades later. But since childhood, a sadness born of mental illness has been a struggle for singer and songwriter Judy Collins. Now approaching 80, she addresses the subject often, including last month at Grey Oaks Country Club for nearly 300 people at a fundraising lunch sponsored by the Collier County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A classical piano prodigy, Collins switched to folk music in her teens and found a voice that resonated in the cultural sea change of the 1960s and ’70s. Perhaps best known for her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now”— for which the singer won a Grammy Award in 1969 – Collins grew up with mental illness in her family, lived with it herself and watched as it decimated the lives of others.

She opened her talk at the NAMI lunch by “getting this out of the way,” singing a few lines of “Both Sides Now.” If in the late 1960s she first could sing, “It’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all,” she sees today through the lens of maturity. “I don’t know what anybody really knows now,” she said in an interview with Spotlight before her speech.

She talks today about what has “kept me on the planet,” through her father’s alcoholism as well as her own addiction, depression and eating disorder, and the suicide of her only child. She kept hundreds of journals, which are now housed in the Library of Congress. She wrote 10 books, including “Sanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength,” about her son Clark’s death in 1992 and “Cravings: How I Conquered Food” in 2017. And of course she wrote songs.

In retrospect, her first recording’s title, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow” in 1961, may have been prophetic.

Now decades sober, she is a testament to survival – a productive and engaged kind. She has recently released the recording “Everybody Knows” with Stephen Stills. The two were romantically involved as Stills was gaining fame with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Collins was the inspiration for Stills’ iconic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

Art, in the form of music, always carried her through, she told the Naples audience. That and therapy.

Therapy entered her life briefly at age 14, when “terribly upset with my father, I decided to take all the pills in the house,” she said. “If we had had guns in the house, I wouldn’t be around.” It would be years before she began talk therapy in earnest, since she learned from her family that suicide attempts and alcoholism were supposed to be secrets.

There were no secrets in her speech, though. In a nod to the current national discussion of sexual harassment, Collins shared her own #metoo moments consisting of three incidents of assault beginning at age 11.

By 19, she said, she knew she was an alcoholic. “I had the Irish virus,” she said with a smile. “By age 23, I knew I needed therapy for depression.” Ironically – or perhaps not, the more science discovers about the nature of mental illness – Collins was already successful at that point, having signed a major recording contract. “And then unfortunately, I found a few therapists who thought it was a good idea to have a few drinks.”

She was sober for 14 years when her son died – and he had been sober for seven. “At that time, things had never looked better on the outside,” Collins said. She and her son had families and careers that sustained them. But the inside obviously was another matter.

She found groups to attend, a therapist to talk to, and surrounded herself with friends. She dedicated herself to staying fit, physically and mentally. And in the years since that tragedy, she has clung to an optimism that she encourages others to share. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says often.

“You never really put these things behind you,” she told her luncheon audience. “But suddenly you’ll be at a party, and you’ll hear a voice in the room, and that voice is laughter, and you’ll realize it’s you.”

Collins then sang a verse of “Amazing Grace,” and left the podium.

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