Let him go, monkey: A glimpse inside the tumultuous world of T. Graham Brown
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” T. Graham Brown’s anguished 2:30 a.m. phone call from a customized tour bus en route to North Carolina suddenly awakened his wife Sheila from a deep sleep at their Nashville home. The country-soul balladeer had uncharacteristically belittled longtime drummer Mike Caputy for supposedly not keeping time during an onstage Planet Hollywood meltdown. The gentle Southern lady comforted her shaken husband as best she could and insisted that he schedule an appointment at the renowned Vanderbilt University Medical Center for testing.
The diagnosis was grim. Brown was bipolar, and his shocking condition had gone undiagnosed for four decades and counting. But there had been warning signs before all hell broke loose during that calamitous early morning in 1998.
Brown’s grandfather had committed suicide. As a teenager, the entertainer experienced difficulty concentrating and sleeping. His mind was always racing. Once he attended college at the University of Georgia in Athens — aka party central — and began fronting a country rock band, liquor and downers including Quaaludes became destructive self-medicating choices.
Even when fame arrived with a monumental bang after the title cut of his 1985 Muscle Shoals-recorded debut album I Tell It Like It Used to Be landed snugly inside the Top Ten, the blue-eyed soul singer retreated to his bedroom, drew the drapes, and curled up in a fetal position until the next tour. Sheila was forced to remove his prized shotguns from the house after severe bouts with depression.
In an exclusive, few and far between interview, Brown’s lovely personal manager tackles her partner’s bipolar disorder head on, offering a promising ray of light for others suffering from the potentially deadly disease. Brown has documented his travails in song, as the raucous rock ’n’ roller “Monkey” candidly demonstrates — “My mind is racing and the monkey knows, I wish my monkey would let me go.”
The Sheila Brown Interview
How did you meet your future husband?
I was born at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. My dad was a career air force pilot, so we traveled all over the U.S. We were stationed in Hawaii for four years and then South Carolina for about seven years.
I grew to love the South, so when I started to look at colleges, I chose one that had a veterinarian program and one that was located in the south — the University of Georgia [UGA] was my first choice.
Tony and I met through a small circle of friends. It was at a Dirk & Tony show in ’75 or ’76 at UGA. Dirk was a friend of Tony’s, so they decided to form a duet and sing “beach” music, which was very popular with the college crowd at the time. Athens is a very musical town, and hearing live music was the thing you did on Friday and Saturday nights.
A few years later in 1978 I happened to see him again when he had his first band, Reo Diamond, a hardcore country group doing covers like Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors.” It was pretty much love at first sight. Actually, a more accurate term might be second sight [laughs].
We were married on November 30, 1980. As it was going to take four more years for me to complete vet school, we decided, “Hey, let’s try this big adventure in Nashville! We’ll go spend a couple of years there, and if we don’t have any luck, we can always come back to Georgia.”
But I think we knew in our hearts that Tony would find what he was looking for and what he was supposed to do in Music City. We moved to Nashville in May 1982 in a little Volkswagen bug along with a red and white 1959 Ford station wagon we called “Ruby”.
After a few years of doing songwriter demos and showcases for executives in the music industry, Tony got his first major label record contract with Capitol Records. We’ve never looked back.
Were there warning signs prior to T. Graham’s diagnosis?
When Tony lived in Athens, his job consisted of singing in bars and clubs, and alcohol was around him constantly. He told me he was always in party mode, looking for a good time all the time as the saying goes.
He was young, living and singing in an infamous party college town. If drinking every day for the purpose of changing how you feel is one of the definitions of an alcoholic, then that was what Tony was becoming.
Back when he was about 14 or 15, he said he began noticing that he couldn’t settle his mind at the end of the day to relax, lie down, and rest as most people do. His thoughts were always racing.
Subsequently, he realized drinking alleviated those symptoms. And when he took drugs, he chose the ones that were downers like Xanax, Quaaludes, and pot because they would relax him, a classic definition of self-medication.
At this time he had no idea, and neither did I, that bipolar disorder was interrupting his life. Although alcohol can be a stimulant, it is much more of a depressant if you drink it to excess.
The bipolar condition is a huge component of why he drank. He told me once that when he was in a manic state, there’s no drug that can touch it. It’s the most euphoric feeling for the person going through it, but it is not for the people around them.
When he would return from the road, he would go into the bedroom, close the drapes until it was completely dark, and curl up on the bed in a fetal position until he went out the next time. He did that for years. I thought it was an alcohol-related thing, and I could not get him to go to a doctor.
And Tony could not distinguish between dreams and reality. When Acme was a small child, Tony would wake up and say, “You can’t take Acme!” I’d respond, “What are you talking about?” And it was all due to a dream.
Did T. Graham contemplate suicide?
Tony’s been on the verge of suicide three times, and it was very frightening. Tony would close himself off in his bedroom, and he’d say, “I don’t know if I can take one more day of this. I feel like life is not worth living, and I need to do something about it.” People suffering from bipolarism think things through so specifically in every minute detail.
Tony also had shotguns since he was a Southern boy, and he used to hunt with his dad. I removed them all, but it was still scary. A lot of times I had to go to work or take Acme somewhere, and Tony would be home alone. But thankfully nothing bad ever happened.
His grandfather, George Washington Brown, committed suicide. We called him Mr. George, and he told me that he couldn’t quiet his mind several times. He would toss and turn all night. It never dawned on me until later that he was bipolar.
What have you learned about bipolar disorder?
Bipolar means a person is real high sometimes — manic state — or they are very low — depressed state. People cycle between the two — it could be as short as a few hours or as long as a couple of months — depending on whether the person has a doctor or is taking medication.
Manic depressives love that high feeling. They can’t sit down or stay still; they love the feeling of euphoria. They think they’re creative and productive and just the most wonderful person in the world.
But they’re not. Their behavior is irrational. They might get something creative accomplished, but it is not a pleasant experience when others are around. Not surprisingly, it was very hard for Tony to tell when he was manic, but other people could tell immediately.
Bipolar people do not want to take medicine. It’s the only disease where your mind tells you not to take it. Your mind is telling you that everyone else is crazy — you’re perfectly fine. When they’re in a manic state, they believe they’re very productive and creative, but they’re also quite destructive. It’s a very strange disease.
A number of musicians and artists had the disorder. Did you know — Handel wrote The Messiah in a very short period of time when he was manic. Vincent Van Gogh suffered from the disease as well as late actresses Patty Duke and Carrie Fisher. To learn more, I recommend a fascinating book by Kay Redfield Jamison called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
When was T. Graham diagnosed?
Tony was diagnosed with the disease when he was in his early forties in 1998. We had done a private show at Planet Hollywood in Nashville. In the middle of the concert, T. became agitated and started saying things about Mike Caputy not keeping the time correctly on drums. First of all, Tony would never say anything like that onstage. He would wait until the show was over to speak with a band member, so it was very out of character for him.
After the show, they all got on the bus to travel to North Carolina for another gig. I didn’t travel much back then with the band, so I wasn’t there. I remember Tony called me around 2:30 in the morning, and he was sobbing hysterically, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” After he said that to me, I told him that once he returned home, we were going to find out what was happening.
What happened when you took T. Graham to Vanderbilt University Medical Center?
The team of doctors did an extensive four-hour examination of him. They determined he was bipolar. Later I talked to his mother, and she said that bipolar disorder was very prevalent in their family, as was alcoholism. It made a lot of sense.
They put Tony on a cocktail of medicine, basically a chemistry experiment. You have to figure out which one in combination works with a particular person and not cause any side effects that will get in your way.
They started him out on Lithium, certainly not as advanced as the drugs you have today. It calmed him down, but as Tony described it, it put him in a black hole. He didn’t wanna write or do anything.
He was able to muster enough and go out on the road, since we had to make a living. He wouldn’t curl up in a ball on the bed like he had been doing before, but he was still staying in his room, isolating himself.
The Vanderbilt doctors didn’t seem very caring. They were very methodical. When he first went in to see the doctor, political correctness started coming into play, and with a psychiatric patient, the laws of privacy.
The doctor called his name, and I got up with him to see the doctor. They stopped me right there, saying I couldn’t even walk down the hall. I blurted out, “But I’m his wife!” Yet it was to no avail. Tony simply couldn’t identify with that doctor.
How did you find your current physician?
About a year later, I was in the kitchen doing dishes. I was also watching a local program called The Noon Show, and my ears perked up when they said, “Coming up next, Dr. Robert Jamison, the bipolar manic-depressive expert of the Southeast.”
Boy, I turned around immediately and paid attention. Here comes this grandfatherly guy, just so sweet and kindly. He said, “When I treat bipolarism, I treat the family, as it’s a family disease. I insist if a person is married, they need to bring their spouse along with them. I talk with them, and I help them understand the disease.”
So I wrote down his number. We weren’t able to see him for about six months, but we’ve been with him ever since. He’s fabulous. We’re so grateful to Dr. Jamison for everything he’s done for us.
He’s a very dear friend of ours, a truly brilliant and compassionate man. He’s a psychiatric pharmacologist. He is so well-versed in medications and does an amazing job. In a mental illness situation, you have to identify with and trust your doctor.
Dr. Jamison insists I come in with Tony. When we get in his office and sit down, he looks at Tony and asks, “Well how are you doing?” Tony replies, “Oh, I’m doing fine.” Then Dr. Jamison turns towards me and says, “How is he really doing?”
One time Tony asked Dr. Jamison, “Can’t you adjust my medicine so I’ll be a little more manic? Not bad, but a little more?” I’m sure Dr. Jamison saw my mouth drop down. He said, “Tony, let me explain something to you. Manic is mean.” Tony looked over at me and went, “Ohh.”
Was it difficult to determine what medications to give T. Graham?
Definitely; we had to keep trying different medicines because not every medicine works for every patient. And sometimes the side effects are horrible and not worth it.
One prescription made Tony’s hair fall out. Another one made his hands shake so terribly he couldn’t hold his fork or microphone. Then one had him forgetting the lyrics to his songs.
You have to eliminate those and try others. It takes a few weeks before the doctors can determine whether they’re working. To be honest, Tony hates these medicines, and that is simply a symptom of the disease.
I have a lot of compassion for Tony because he doesn’t want to take his medicine, but being on the other side of it, I have to explain that he cannot function without it. It took a long time for me to explain that to Tony.
Seroquel is the only sleep medication he can take; it calms a bipolar person’s mind down so they can sleep. It also contains a little anti-depressant. Unfortunately, it’s a weight-gain drug, and that’s why he is heavy.
I didn’t realize this until I began researching it on my computer, but I discovered that every patient gains between 40 and 60 pounds if they take Seroquel. The reason why is due to the medication turning off the center in your brain that lets you know you’re full.
It’s very difficult to lose weight while taking it, but it’s our only option. I hope technology will lead to a better alternative soon.
He can’t take any type of narcotic, due to his addictive tendencies. Ambien and Lunestra are out of the picture, since side effects may lead to suicide. We have to make sure he takes his medicine, because you can’t skip a few days. And I always remind him to be careful to do things that will keep him healthy.
T. Graham Brown: Sheila remains the most wonderful human being that I have ever known. I had a manic episode in the recording studio the other day and they tell me it was a wild ride. But all in all, this medicine is working about right. However, I hate taking it [laughs].
“Wine into Water” and “Monkey” are two songs that deal with T. Graham’s inner struggle.
In fact, Tony was not totally staying away from drinking when he wrote “Wine into Water.” He had tried to quit but had slipped a few times. He entered rehab for a month in Cottonwood, Arizona, at a dual diagnosis center for drinking and bipolarism that I found. But when “Wine into Water” really hit big, that’s when he completely stopped drinking.
Tony wrote “Monkey” [The Next Right Thing, 2003] in about five minutes, and he was manic during the process. If you listen to the words, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. To me, “Monkey” is the “Wine into Water” for the bipolar establishment. He was so happy when he received two family-oriented Image Awards for “Wine into Water” and “Monkey.”
How has T. Graham changed for the better?
He takes a combination of five different medicines for the disease, but he is able to function normally and have a life. Tony is much kinder and able to interact with folks more. Tony still isolates himself more than he should, but he is more even-keeled than he ever was. He just doesn’t realize it.
He’s never been a social person. Now that he can’t drink, it’s like, ‘Why should I go to the party?’ It’s a shame, and I hope he gets over that feeling. When I can get him to go out someplace, he usually has a real good time. He likes to remark, “I don’t ever laugh,” but he does all the time. It’s just one of those things you deal with.
What would you say to families dealing with the disease?
Fifty years ago, an awful lot of people were thrown into mental institutions and forgotten. There was no treatment — other than lithium — and some people were allergic to it. There were no anti-depressants, and folks didn’t discuss their feelings. So they covered it up with alcohol, and before you knew it, you were an alcoholic.
If you’re not on medication or seeing a doctor, absolutely outrageous behavior becomes the norm. People may try to jump off buildings thinking they can fly or rob banks because they have a grandiose vision of, ‘I can do it and not get caught.’
There’s a tremendous amount of suicide in this disease if people don’t receive help. It’s a progressive disease, and the older someone gets, if you don’t do anything about it, it only gets worse.
It’s the 21st century, and I’m one who’s ready to stand up and say, “Hey, having a mental illness is no different than being a diabetic or having heart problems.” There shouldn’t be this stigma that there’s something awful about having a mental illness.
Bipolarism is a journey. Tony will be bipolar until the day he dies, but it is treatable. Tony’s not ashamed of it, but he doesn’t go on and on about it. If someone comes up to Tony after a show and asks about his drinking or bipolarism, Tony is very upfront with them. He hopes his experience will encourage others to seek help.
[Author’s Note: After reading his wife’s uncensored account, Brown emailed me. “I had forgotten how visceral this piece is,” admitted Brown. “It’s very, very hard for me to revisit. No man can run away from himself. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to face. There are some things I wish I could do over. Or better yet — never done at all — especially the things that hurt Sheila, Acme, friends, and family. I have been given the priceless gift of a second chance at doing it right. I have repented and can now start anew on my mission to help and give people hope of a better existence. God is on top of it all, and I’m thankful that He let me live long enough to learn it”].
Drowning in memories with T. Graham Brown, a country song’s best friend [PART ONE]
Former Capitol Records artist T. Graham Brown traces his childhood in rural South Georgia to scoring 15 Top 40 country…
‘I’m not dead, ‘cause I never quit:’ The dirt with country-soul belter T. Graham Brown [PART TWO]
During a no-holds barred, exclusive conversation with versatile singer-songwriter T. Graham Brown, almost every facet…
Cyndi Thomson revisits her perfect sanctuary with rare Tifton benefit performance
If you wonder whatever happened to sultry “What I Really Meant to Say” country balladeer Cyndi Thomson, read this…
‘Someday I’m gonna sing on the Grand Ole Opry:’ Uncovering Connie Smith
The Country Music Hall of Famer and wife of roots rocker Marty Stuart declares how she was discovered at a theme park…
© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email email@example.com and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.