She stood on a podium in the middle of a stage in a suburban Philadelphia mega-church building, this musical legend with cloud-like hair billowing above her beautiful, life-etched face and beaming signature blue eyes. Enwrapped in a jewel-tone purple skirt, among her first words that greeted the anticipatory audience were, “OK, let’s get this out of the way.” Then she regaled the room with her hit recording “Both Sides, Now.”
Judy Collins has been a fixture on the world musical stage for the past 50 years, with 31 albums, top-10 hits, and Grammy awards to her name. On this night, she was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for a mental health center called the Penn Foundation, which has been serving the community since 1955. Although many were there to hear her sing, just as many attended to receive the poignant message of her book Sanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength.
Raising Awareness of Depression, Addiction and Suicide
Collins referenced the recent death of Robin Williams, which she said was “a terrible blow,” but which she said opened necessary doors. “People talk about (suicide) now” in ways they didn’t before.
What called her to write the book was a series of events that began for her as the daughter “raised with humor, music, and alcoholism.” Although “there was depression in my family, there was joy in the chaos.” She described her father, blind since age 4, as a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality who would be “sobbing at 3 a.m. in despair by a night of drinking,” and go to work the next day. Even though her mother would lock up the alcohol, he would always find it. Her family was in denial because he was “functional” and had a radio show on which Judy would sing.
Judy carried on the family tradition of addiction and depression. At one point, she said, suicide felt like the only way out. Throughout her illustrious career, substances were near-constant companions. “There is a darkness and solitude in mental illness,” she said, that sometimes can’t be overcome. She acknowledged an eating disorder that began in her 20s. She said some of the doctors who had treated her “thought I couldn’t possibly be alcoholic since I was so successful. Alcoholism functions as mental illness.”
At one point, she developed a vocal cord hemangioma that impeded her singing and required surgery. The night before the procedure, she drank vodka. She now realizes she could have died as a result.
Addiction Recovery and a “New Day”
Fortunately, she was able to overcome her addictions as a result of intervention, a rehab stay, and long-term outpatient treatment with competent therapists. She celebrates 36 years of sobriety and says she is aware: “I am allergic to alcohol. It sets up a compulsion in my body. One thing I know about drinking is that if we don’t drink, we can’t get drunk.”
Collins said that “10 percent of the population in the U.S. is alcoholics, and only 2 percent get treatment.” She added, “The community suffers or gets well together.” She said now she “hangs with the winners.”
An event that took her to the depths of despair was the 1992 suicide her 33-year-old son Clark began drinking before he was a teenager. Drinking blossomed into heroin addiction and drug dealing. He eventually entered treatment and, according to Collins, was able to maintain sobriety for seven years before a relapse led to the act that ended his life. He left behind a daughter, now 26, who Collins proudly proclaimed is “two years clean of heroin herself.” Collins’ 11-month-old great-grandson is “being raised by a sober mother.”
When her son died, Collins was prepared to give up her career. But her dear friend Joan Rivers talked her out of it, telling Collins if she gave up, she wouldn’t heal. Prior to Rivers’ death, she and Collins were planning on touring and performing together.
Collins said she became aware that, “If you’re a devoted alcoholic, suicide is on your dance card. I knew if I drank again, I would take my life.”
She found that, “It’s a terrible thing to be a suicide survivor, and there is a gift in these deaths. No suicide dies in vain.” What’s helped her recover has been writing, grief groups, therapy, and talking about her feelings. She encouraged people to “talk about it as much and as long as you want.”
Collins closed the evening with a magnificent rendering of Amazing Grace. More than a thousand voices joined in as the room echoed with her encouragement “Every time the sun comes up, it’s a new day.”