By Joyell Nevins
North Park rocker takes ownership of her mental illness
North Park resident Veronica May is on a mission — to change the stigma surrounding mental illness and bring hope to those who live with mental disorders. Her concerts do more than fill the room with high energy and rock ‘n’ roll sounds; they bring a message of compassion and triumph.
“Once I started seeing the impact of my own vulnerability, it made me want to be more vulnerable,” May declared.
May’s story gives her something to be vulnerable about. At 25 years old, she woke up in an alley in a full delusion, also referred to as a manic episode. Someone called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, where she was checked into the psychiatric ward.
“It was undeniable that something was wrong,” May said.
She was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder. While bipolar 2 leans more towards depression, May said, bipolar 1 refers to a psychotic break and a tendency toward mania. May would walk into a grocery store and think people were trying to kill her. She had episodes where she saw herself as Michael Jackson or Jesus.
“I live in two different worlds,” she explained.
After being hospitalized, May decided to see herself as a victor rather than a victim. She took ownership of her illness and began identifying her own triggers.
“We have these choices — why wouldn’t I choose to do that?” May said. “When it’s time to put the gloves on, I do.”
Part of putting those gloves on was engaging her friends in the fight. May shared signs of looming episodes with people who were focal points in her life and encouraged them to speak up.
“They have permission to say, ‘Hey Veronica, you’re not Jesus,’” May said.
May also started seeking the proper medicine. When she found the right medication, it was a game-changer.
May said there is still a resistance in the mental health community to taking medication for their illness — and she wants to remove that.
“Medicine is not a sign of weakness,” May said. “We take medicine for our heart, for our kidneys. But when it comes to our greatest asset, our mind, we neglect it.”
Music and truth
May has been playing the guitar since 1985. She is also adept with the piano and percussion instruments. A year ago, her life consisted of teaching classes and working in music therapy and doing her own music and a plethora of projects. But then a quote in “The Bell Jar” by Syliva Plath brought her to a startling realization.
Plath was likening her life options to figs in a tree, and wrote, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story … I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
May saw her own projects as those figs — all good things, but so many that they were shriveling up, too. So she “stripped everything away,” and decided to pursue being a solo artist.
“When it comes to following your own passion, it’s more risky,” she said.
But it’s worth it. Because May doesn’t just write music with a catchy hook, she writes music that she can relate to. Music about her own life and conflict. And in her shows, she shares her story of mental illness, both the struggles she’s been through and successes she’s had.
May shares this without shame. She said one of the cultural norms she’s trying to change is being able to talk about mental illness. She noted that people might speak openly about a family member with cancer, but then lower their voice when referencing a loved one with a mental disorder.
But May is honest and unabashed with her own story.
And people respond in kind — she said at every show, people will come up to her afterwards and share their own sagas.
Together, they’re changing the outlook of mental health.
May also writes a “Bipolar Weekly Blog” and is working on a memoir titled “Open Book.” She has compiled her own band of musicians who get it and rock with her: Jeff Berkley, Josh Hermsmeier and Jeff Johnson. She plays both locally and nationally and continues to serve as a mental health advocate.
Become a “Mayniac” and connect with May on her website at veronicamay.com. You can also like or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.