What It’s Like to Write Music When You Think You’re Going Insane

Johnny Solomon’s (Communist Daughter) undiagnosed bipolar disorder drove him to the brink and back.

I started writing songs when I was nineteen. Long before I was diagnosed with the mental illness that nearly killed me, long before I started self-medicating with speed and liters of vodka, long before I saw my first hallucination and long before those hallucinations became commonplace to me.

Through the years, my mental illness and addiction have wound their way into my music so much that I wouldn’t be able to separate them if I tried. I remember reading the poet Louise Glück years ago. Knowing she struggled with anorexia, I saw that when she used the word “hunger,” it meant something much more significant and heavy than what I could understand. I can only assume that there are things in my songs that many people have to reach for to really grasp. Maybe reading a little bit about my descent into madness will help people understand my songs, maybe it won’t. I’ve told doctors and friends and family about the experience, but I have never really committed it to paper.

When I say ‘hallucination,’ it’s for the reader’s benefit. For me, it was real.

The first hallucination I had would end up being the most common one for me. When I say “hallucination,” it’s for the reader’s benefit. For me, it was real; what I saw was as permanent and understandable as the table in front of me. Anyway, the first time I saw something that wasn’t really there was late one night while I was staring at the ceiling. I was probably twenty-five at the time. I distinctly remember watching a spider the size of my hand slowly crawl across the ceiling, plain as day in the light spilling in from a street lamp. I watched it as it crossed the room to stop above my head. I decided I should probably turn on some lights and do something about it, but by the time I did, it was gone. This was before I had even turned to heavy drugs, but I’m sure I was drinking; all I remember is feeling wild. In retrospect, I have no idea why I wasn’t panicking; I can only assume that most of my brain knew it wasn’t real.

Over the years, spiders became more and more frequent visitors. While recording music, I was visited by spiders in the periphery of my vision all the time, and as I got less and less sleep, they would drift into my line of sight — from giant spiders on desks and ceilings to hundreds of tiny spiders crawling across the computer screen. One night, I sat up watching wave after wave of spiders made out of blue electricity wash over my room. Thousands of tiny spiders made of light crashing over everything. I knew I was in serious trouble. I had the thought that maybe I was dying, but I laid back to enjoy it while I could.

I would rewrite sections of songs over and over and over again for days and weeks.

By my late twenties, I was losing track of nights. I would start playing a song at 1 a.m., only to look up and see that it was light outside and feel my hand cramping. I would rewrite sections of songs over and over and over again for days and weeks. I would play a guitar line for hours on end until it suddenly felt right enough to move on. As I was writing the song “Oceans” (which eventually made it onto Communist Daughter’s first release, Soundtrack to the End, in 2010), I spent about eight hours one night repeating the first four chords. I remember my fingertips feeling so bruised that it hurt to touch anything for days. But I knew I had to keep playing it until it felt right. The title song of our first record was the result of three weeks of playing the same thing over and over and over again until it sounded correct. Conversely, songs on that album such as “Speed of Sound” and “Not the Kid” were written at once in bursts of productivity.

By the time I was recording those songs, I had crossed the line into a place I knew wasn’t normal. Depending on how much sleep I got or how much I focused, I could keep most of the strange thoughts and visions at bay. On more than one occasion, though, I lost track of reality and let some things slip to those around me. Molly, the other singer in the band (and now my wife), heard me talk about spiders early on. But I didn’t let her know about the spider that I was sure lived in my nose. I attempted to break my nose to get it out the night before we played an in-studio at 89.3 The Current. You can find a YouTube video of how rough I looked; I think I even talked about breaking my nose in the interview. It’s difficult to remember exactly how I justified it. I was always slipping in and out of delusion easily enough that I probably didn’t really believe one thing or the other. It was all fluid. It was reality, though, and only confusing if I tried to tell people about it.

My memory is real; it happened for real in my world, but suddenly it sounded very, very crazy.

I assumed that my cracking up was a combination of drugs and lack of sleep, and I had started to accept that I would die sometime in the next few years — or the next few months. My guess might not have been that far off, I discovered, when I was hospitalized for eight days with severe pancreatitis. Despite spending most of that time hallucinating, I was in high spirits, as I was in the midst of a pretty significant manic episode. My main issue with my stay was that I was next to the oncology ward, and I had to ask the doctors to stop allowing people to use the bathroom in my room. When they asked me who was using it (since no one actually was), I had to explain to them that hospitals, and oncology wards in particular, house memories of all the lives that have ended there, and those memories live on in faceless people that continue to live long after their bodies have died. Those memories kept using my bathroom, so I couldn’t get any sleep.

Molly reminds me that it was one of these times when she saw me struggle with the incongruent aspects of my reality versus what I realized was true. Halfway through explaining it, I started to doubt what I was saying, because it sounded pretty far-fetched. My memory is real; it happened for real in my world, but suddenly it sounded very, very crazy.

When I got out of the hospital, I continued to record songs at a frantic pace. I was starting to lose track of tempo and sonic space. I couldn’t figure out what speed songs were. I would record versions all over the map and I would try to fit as much sound into them as I could. Dead space needed to be filled with reverb on reverb and choirs and even just noises. It’s still very much something I feel compelled to do.

A month or two after leaving the hospital, I flew to California on what I hoped would be a tour, but ended up being more of a disappearing act as I canceled shows and I dropped out of contact with everyone. A friend found me by paying my phone bill and tracking my calls. I think he flew out to make sure I was alive. I remember telling him how glad I was to see him because the shadows kept trying to get into my hotel room by pushing in the air conditioner. Thoughts like this were starting to be commonplace, and I would wake up after some sleep and be crushed with the shame of knowing I hadn’t made any sense. I started to see that this was something much deeper, and much darker, and I started to lose faith that I would fit in to normal society again.

In December of 2010, I wrote my last song as an active addict and unmedicated bipolar musician.

With some convincing from friends and family, I flew home to Minnesota and attempted to dry out in a cabin — but after only one day I couldn’t handle it, so I ended up walking up to a squad car to tell the cops I was seeing things. They took me to the nearest mental hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. They held me there for seventy-two hours, but after coming down from another manic episode, I checked out against the doctors’ advice. I was convinced I could deal with everything after I joined the band for CMJ 2010 in New York. By this point, good decisions weren’t even on my radar. After a flurry of shows, I ended up trying to fire the band via text message from the backseat of the van. And, at my request, they left me at a roadside motel in the middle of Wisconsin. By the next morning, I was out of money and calling friends to see who would drive the four hours to pick me up. There weren’t many friends left.

In December of 2010, I wrote my last song as an active addict and unmedicated bipolar musician. I thought it was the last song I would ever write. I wrote and recorded “Don’t Remember Me” and sent it to Molly. (Eventually that song would end up on our 2012 EP Lions & Lambs.) I asked the band to join me for one more show if I promised to get help and cancel our remaining shows. We played Minneapolis’ most famous club, First Avenue, and I assumed it was the end of the life and career I knew. Effectively, I was homeless, and I no longer had a functioning future in music. So that night, from the backstage of the club made famous by Prince’s Purple Rain, I called Hazelden Treatment Center, a rehab center about an hour north of the Twin Cities. I begged them to let me in to treatment, and the next day Molly drove me up to a place tucked away in pine trees and snow where I spent months finding my way back. I was diagnosed right away as bipolar and put on medication that eventually started to work after three months of intensive treatment.

It’s good for the fans to read about my struggle, but it’s only a part of what Communist Daughter is now.

It took more than a year for my brain to heal, and to this day I know there will always be damage. I’ve been on the same medication since 2011; I’ve only had to up the dose once. So I have high hopes for a normal life, even if it is touched by a bit of madness. I’ve made it far enough that I can write and record a new album, and, on October 21, 2016, we’ll put out The Cracks that Built the Wall. I don’t care if it succeeds or fails, because it took everything to get back here, and success or failure has a much deeper meaning now.

It’s good for the fans to read about my struggle, but it’s only a part of what Communist Daughter is now. Maybe I’m like the poet Louise Glück, and there is something heavier attached to certain words and chords on this record, but to me this was just reality — whether it was a little slippery at times is not as important as where that reality is now. Luckily, I’m surrounded by this band that knew me then, that carried me through that time, that came back and built something different with me after I got back to the real world — and I know that if I slip and fall away again, I am surrounded by the people that can go with me and bring me back.

Johnny Solomon of Communist Daughter was a fixture in the tight-knit Twin Cities music scene. Forming the angular indie pop band Friends Like These and touring extensively, he received critical praise from far-flung sources that looked like the beginning of a promising career. The rising success masked his struggle with addiction and mental health problems, and quickly eclipsed his career, landing him in jail and treatment facilities across the country. Now, the band is back with a new record, The Cracks that Built the Wall, out October 2016.