Author Craig Lewis Explains Why Punk Rock is a Haven For the Mentally Unstable
Many authors speak in front of live audiences in hopes of selling books. Craig Lewis, however, has a different agenda.
The 40-year-old's lecture Saturday night at TKO Records in Huntington Beach will address issues regarding mental health, but in a way many are unfamiliar with. You see, Lewis -- like Sheena -- is a punk rocker.
To the uninformed, punk rock is nothing more than Sid Vicious shooting dope and (allegedly) killing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, but people actively involved in punk understand the genre is more than a deceased Sex Pistol. The culture's do-it-yourself spirit empowers its followers and allows them to be as expressive and individualistic as they choose. Often, Lewis says, punk's open-door policy welcomes artists, misfits, weirdos and anti-authoritarian types. The scene also becomes a sanctuary for people with mental health issues.
Unfortunately, Lewis -- a certified peer specialist -- says mental health is an issue still not fully addressed in his community, which is why he published Better Days: A Mental Health Recovery Workbook and You're Crazy, a collection of 27 essays by punkers addressing their mental health issues and addiction. It's a sentiment that Lewis understands as he was first placed into a psychiatric home at 14 and later spent a decade getting high. Lewis says he's been drug-and-alcohol -free since 2001 and focuses on having good minutes, good hours and good days, which he attributes to his being "healthy now...for the most part."
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OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): How did you get into punk? Craig Lewis: I have been in the punk scene since 1988. I had heard about punk before 1988 via Another State of Mind, but I didn't know what it was until April 1988 when I was put into a psychiatric hospital and on my first day there I met a woman who was a punk rocker. She let me borrow some tapes and she was really cool to me. I realized the music I was familiar with through Another State of Mind was the music she was letting me borrow for my Walkman.
Is there a connection between punk and mental health that doesn't exist in other genres? I don't know about genres of music, but what I do know is that the punk scene has always been a safe haven for people who are different, unique and troubled, people from tough upbringings and situations that were not ideal, so I think it's been a place where people can go and be accepted even if we're dysfunctional and have all these problems and still be a part of something meaningful. Countless times, people in the punk scene end up self-medicating, drug overdose, reckless death, suicide...it's a community of people who are very dissatisfied with the world and feel like they aren't getting their basic needs met as far as mental health issues.
The mental health system tries to identify us as having psychiatric issues because we're anti-authoritarian. A lot of people in the punk scene are labeled as problems because they don't want to play by the rules. I'm all about not playing by the rules and being who you are. That's great, but the things we do that are problematic for us are nurtured and supported -- drinking, reckless living, getting out of control, getting arrested -- and that doesn't make you happy. The punk scene is missing a dialogue. You can be a punk rocker and you can be healthy and get a handle on the things you are struggling with. How did the book come about? There are people out there who want to tell their stories and want to be understood who have not been able to, so I feel like because those people are out there it's something I can do. And I like doing it. I'm working on a second volume right now.
I was surprised at how the book doesn't include any so-called "famous" punks, but it's still a good read. There were some people who were fairly well-known who didn't finish. The next edition, there will be more well-known people. My intention was to provide an opportunity to be heard. I made the information public and the people who responded were the people who were in the book. I didn't tell people it has to be a happy story or it has to end well. Most of the people talked about their struggle with getting better and what they're doing. Most of the stories have a tinge of "I'm getting better and I'm working my butt off." That's what I wanted to have disseminated...you can still make progress. Just because society has said we're crazy, we still have value as human beings. We're still interesting and unique and we can talk about this stuff, own it and not just be victims.
Did you know any of the writers prior to publishing the book? I knew about eight people before working on it. Most of them I'd never met. I met five people through my talks and the rest were those who responded. There are people from the UK, Scotland, Holland and Austria.
You've been doing these talks for two years. What are the events like? I'm empowered by using vulnerability to connect with people. Not everyone does that because they don't know it can become a source of empowerment. Generally, I have bullet points to tell stories. I speak freely and try to make eye contact as much as possible. I'm not reading off a script or giving a speech. I totally welcome and embrace questions and comments. I like to acknowledge people. I want people to leave feeling like they can do something to help themselves, that they aren't alone. If someone needs to ask for support or needs resources, I totally encourage it.
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