Interview with Craig Lewis, Author of Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook

I’d like to start off by saying I really respect what you’re doing – openly talking about punk rock (and, I’m going out on a limb and saying alternative culture, in general) and mental health help and recovery.  I know that I had some horrible experiences seeking help for panic attacks and other issues, and spending an entire session being questioned about why I had dyed hair or a nose ring or wore certain clothing – which was not why I was there.  Do you find a lot of people have that experience with therapy?

Thank you very much for your interest and support, Rachael. I have indeed experienced the kind of difficulties and assumptions that you describe in this question. I think it is quite distressing that in this day and age, people who are seeking out help with their problems continue to be treated as if there is something wrong with them due to the way they dress and present themselves. Certainly, there are some people whose appearance can give off clues that they are not doing well. However, as a punk rocker who is interested in self-improvement, this is an unwelcome approach on behalf of the provider. I do think this is something that happens quite often as people, including providers, can be judgmental. Many people have different values and ideas about individuality and expression and how a person from the punk rock community expresses themselves through their appearance is something that I believe should generally be embraced. Something I feel strongly about is that punk rockers, who are often anti-authoritarians, are not by default, sick or mentally ill due to their beliefs about the world and how they dress and look. Being an anti-authoritarian is not a mental illness and having a nose ring, dyed hair and/or a spiky jacket does not mean that something is “wrong” with a person.

You’re releasing a book soon – tell us about it. How did it come to be?  What are your hopes for the book?

Yes this is true. However I actually have two books on the way. The first book is Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook, which is a self-help book for people, including people with mental health struggles and any other people who are interested in improving the quality of their life, interactions and relationships with others. This book came about after a few years of facilitating Better Days as a psycho-educational support group at different mental health programs that I have worked and volunteered at. The under-the-radar approach that I have designed with Better Days has been very successful in helping many people who have attended the groups improve their quality of life, which is wonderful. The idea for putting it out in book form came about when I realized I already had the bulk of the work done and that with some editing, time and effort, the curriculum from the support group could easily become a workbook for individual or group use. The book will be available in about 4 weeks or sooner and it is the beginning of July 2013 now. My hope for this book is to help other people live happier, healthier and more stable lives.

I have a second book that I am currently working on which is called You’re Crazy and this book compiles firsthand accounts of people from the punk scene who live with mental illness and/or addictions. The response to this concept has been huge and Volume 1 should be out within a few months from now. I already have a long list of people who are interested in contributing their stories to Volume 2 and I think that there are many people out there who will want to contribute their stories in the future and that the book will have many subsequent volumes compiled and printed. My hope for this book is to help destroy the stigma of mental illness and addictions in the punk scene and in the world at large, to spread the message of recovery to our peers, to inspire and empower our peers to continue fighting for a happier and healthier life and to give people a chance to tell their stories, which have often been shrouded in silence and shame, so that they can be and feel better understood by their peers, friends and society.

Having been in therapy myself, I often wonder how therapists and counselors are able to separate themselves from the clients at the end of the day.  How do you deal with some of the things that you hear from clients that are difficult to listen to?

This question of yours is right on point. This is something that is difficult to manage and there are many days that I go home thinking about what (“my guys”) my clients are experiencing in their lives. I am aware of the suffering, despair and dissatisfaction experienced by some of my clients and as a peer worker, at times, I strongly empathize with them and also feel their hurt. I try to focus on knowing that I am doing the best I can to help the people I work with and that we are making progress in making things better for them in their lives. My work involves a great deal of empathy and support as I personally can relate to a lot of the suffering that I am hearing about. A great thing is that my clients are aware that I have had similar experiences so when I meet with them and we discuss how to learn coping skills and how to better manage their lives and how they interact and communicate with others and how they get their needs met: they know that I am talking from personal experience. This helps them see that we can and do get better and as I am open about the dreadful quality of life that I once lived, they can see that there is indeed hope that things can improve in their lives also. Doing this work is cathartic for me as well and I am constantly in awe of how hard my guys work toward living happier and healthier lives and for me to know that I am having a helpful and healing impact upon them makes doing this work and living my life, more manageable and this keeps me going back to work each new day in order to continue to help others while as a side benefit, also continuing to heal myself.

What do you think society as a whole, but also the punk subculture, could do to help remove some of the stigma from seeking mental health care?

Both as a subculture and as a society as a whole, we need to talk with each other about mental health and wellness. The more we talk about our struggles and how to transcend our struggles, the more people will feel comfortable speaking up. In the punk scene there exists a stigma against getting certain types of help with our mental health struggles. People often base their ideas about getting mental health care as a result of their individual experience or as a protest against the pharmaceutical industry, which I can understand, to a certain degree. My philosophy is that the best thing we can do is talk openly about mental health and support our peers in getting all the information necessary to make an informed decision about what type of help to get. In our community, there is so much silence and shame about getting help and certain people push their values and beliefs about mental health care on others; potentially people that are hurting tremendously. We need to change this harmful process by supporting our peers to make an informed decision regarding what is right for them. I should point out here that I am not pro-meds or anti-meds, I am pro wellness, happiness and stability. Let’s steer  our peers, friends and family toward getting better and not discourage them from getting help as this is extremely harmful and dangerous.

Our current political climate seems to be rallying against “mental illness” as a reaction to violent acts such as the shootings in Newtown, CT.  What are your thoughts on that, and how do you think we could productively address mental health care in the United States?

I think that in our society, not recognizing that things are a complete and total mess is a sickness. I think that people who recognize […] how unhealthy our society has become are actually (the ones who are) healthy. Unfortunately, the people who see things most clearly are often the people who are labeled ‘mentally ill’ and as a result are discredited. Our society does a great job of destroying people and making them feel isolated, worthless and uncared for. This is what I think is fueling these terrible and violent actions at the hands of the ‘mentally ill’. I think that if we stopped to smell the flowers for a second and realize that there is a lot about our world that is dreadful, that we perhaps might all realize that we have so much in common with each other and we can support each other while making the world a gentler, more supportive and loving place. I also think that as long as we are labeling people who are different as mentally ill and not embracing the good that they have to contribute to our society; that we will see no end to the violence and no end to the stigma and blame. We need to change the conversation from blaming and scapegoating towards making a societal shift as an effort to be inclusive to all and include maintaining one’s mental health and wellness as an integral part of growing up and going through the educational system.

In addition to all your work with mental health and the punk scene, you have also been in bands.  Tell us a little about being in bands and how that shaped your life.                              

I have been in many bands. The most well known was Melee and I also played in Keep Laughing and Weapons Grade and a few others. Playing in a band was a way for me to express myself and process all the intense feelings and thoughts I was having in a way that allowed me to have social connections, which was crucial for me in staying alive during some of my worst years and experiences. I have been able to travel the United States several times touring and also got to play in Canada and Mexico. I was a hard person to be in a band with all of those years as I was mostly unstable and very dysfunctional. Tours were particularly difficult for me as the touring lifestyle was not conducive to mental wellness. I am grateful for having been able to play in so many bands and play so many shows and tour and record as I had very little else of substance and meaning and purpose in my life so playing in bands gave me a little bit of what I needed to be a more whole person. I am grateful for all of my experiences in playing in bands and touring as those experiences ultimately resulted in me figuring out how to live a much happier, healthier and more stable life today.

What would you say to someone struggling with mental health issues and does not know how to talk about it with their friends and families?

I would recommend to them to seek out peer support. All around the country right now there are peer support organizations that can provide support from people who get it and know about these sorts of struggles. Perhaps if they found some people with whom they shared commonality, they could work on learning how to talk about it with their friends and families. I would suggest doing a Google search for peer support in your area and see what comes up. It might be surprising to find out that there is something good going on in your area that you could be a part of. If you cannot find anything that can help you in your area, then perhaps work on creating a support network of some sort that includes sharing with other people, peers, who have lived experience with mental health issues.

What advice do you have to “the scene”, in general, for being more understanding of   people who are struggling with, and surviving, their mental issues?

Be a good friend. Be supportive. Offer your assistance in finding out about what services are available that can help. Exercise with them. Do not encourage them to drink alcohol (which in the punk scene, suggesting drinking is one of the most common responses to one stating that they feel depressed) as this is one of the worst things you can do for them. If your friend is stuck on negativity, help redirect the conversation toward something less charged. Speak up for your friends if other people are not being nice to them. Don’t look the other way when people are abusing each other. Remember that there are always more explanations as to why people do what they do than you have any idea. Don’t call each other “crazy.” Don’t tell them that they are weak for taking medication. Encourage them to take good care of themselves. Respect them when they say they need to stay home and rest as this is them telling you what they need. Don’t gossip about them. Allow them to “save face” if they are taking responsibility for something they may have said or done and do so in the context that these are experiences with which to grow and learn new and more helpful ways of dealing with their struggles. Invite your friends out for healthy activities, going to the movies, coffee, dinner, a museum, etc. There are endless ways to be helpful to those struggling with mental health issues and here I have given some ideas and food for thought on the topic as well some generally helpful ways to form your perspective on the situations that you experience with your friends who are struggling.

I also realized I am struggling with words – “mental issues” sounds so wrong.  And I know you have mentioned a disdain for language such as “(s)he is bipolar” as opposed to “(s)he has cancer.”  How do we get past defining people by their diagnosis?                                                                                                                                

One thing that I know is that having a mental health condition is only one very small part of being a human being. We are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, cousins, students, teachers, musicians, artists, athletes, florists, cat lovers, dog lovers, chefs, carpenters, roadies, coffee snobs, travelers, kite fliers, astronauts, plumbers, rock climbers, actors, postal workers, zoologists, writers, firefighters, counselors, nurses, doctors, boxers, EMT’s, punk rockers, dog walkers, dog washers, tattoo artists, tattooed people, farmers, bus drivers, bus riders, community organizers, activists, and the list goes on endlessly. If we all are some of these things or something similar, and we also have a mental health condition, why do we define people only by their mental health condition or diagnosis? We all have multiple roles in our lives and in how we identify ourselves. Certainly when we know that one can be a boyfriend, son, father, student, musician, cat lover, traveler, boxer, dog walker, bus rider AND have a mental health condition, then we don’t know that person solely as “bipolar” – we know them as dad, the singer of a band, a successful athlete, a tough as nails boxer, a person committed to taking public transportation whenever possible, etc…. My point is made.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

There are so many gems however one sticks out in my mind. A guy named Joe once said to me “The punk scene will always disappoint you, yet a good record will always be a good record”. This has been a crucial way for me to deal with the social issues and problems that I have experienced as part of the punk scene. I have been able to make a bit of peace with myself and the punk scene by adhering to Joe’s philosophy. The sadly ironic thing is that Joe and I are not friends at all anymore. Unfortunately, when hell was breaking loose in my life several years ago and I was living with terrible and abusive people, he sided with the abusers. Sadly, so many people sided with abusive and nasty people who lied about anything and everything and treated me like human waste. This is a horrendously painful reality for me. I saw Joe a few months ago and called out his name. He saw me and ignored me. A total shun. It hurt me deeply in my heart and still does. Thankfully, I know that the punk scene will always disappoint me (as it did in this situation) and a good record will always be a good record (as it certainly is).

Because this is getting a little heavy, let’s talk about you!  What’s your favorite food?  And what restaurant would you recommend to anyone who was visiting Boston for the first time?

Yay!!! My favorite food would have to be the famous Chilean sandwich the “Chacarero”!!! There are a couple places to get it in Boston. There is the trendy sub-par ‘Chacarero’ restaurant in downtown Boston which I strongly recommend that all of you reading this avoid!! The best place by far is ‘La Mamma’ located at 190A Brighton Ave, Allston, MA. La Mamma is the absolute chacarero king of Boston and must be experienced (tasted) to be believed. If anyone reading this is coming to Boston, get in touch so we can go get a chacarero. La Mamma also makes their own spicy salsa that goes perfectly with an extremely delicious and tasty chacarero! It’s the best I tell you, the best!!!

What are your favorite bands of all time?

My favorite bands of all time include the following: Born Against, Petrograd, Ex Humans, Bad Religion, Dr. Know, Angelic Upstarts, Rupture, Marjinal, Гражданская Оборона (Grazhdanskaya Oborona), D.P.A., Kaaos, Restos De Tragedia, Narcosis, Juventud Crasa, RKL, Psycho, Avaricious, Naked Raygun, Hard Skin, Rashit, Selkkaus, Weeshirt, Discordia, Agnostic Front, The Dicks, Extreme Noise Terror, Generic, Red Union and Resist, to name a few. The list goes on forever. I also love The Beatles, The Supremes, Bruce Springsteen, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest, Metallica, Guns and Roses, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and Elvis Presley.

Please add anything else that you would like to add here, including upcoming tour dates, links to your Web site, and information on how to buy your book.

I would like to thank you, Rachael, for doing this interview with me.  I thought your questions were great and many of them really got me thinking. I believe wholeheartedly that people like me/us can and do get better. We can live good, happy and stable lives. I do not have any current upcoming tour dates however hopefully I will go on the road again before the end of this year.

I encourage people to check out my website, WWW.PUNKSINRECOVERY.COM where you can find out more about me and my activities.

I would love to share a link for ordering my books however those links have not been established yet. Better Days is at the printer and should be available sometime in July. Once I have that link I will send it to you to hopefully be posted with this interview. I encourage anyone who is interested in self-improvement to check out Better Days. The book works and I believe in it 100%.

I can be reached at [email protected] and I hope to hear from all of you.


This interview has been edited for length.