BY: Sam Curtis
I recently watched a program on TVONE called Unsung. This particular episode featured the troubled life of Phyllis Hyman. This well done Bio has caused me to reminicse about my first Phyllis Hyman experience. I was in New York on business and had completed my business the evening before. Since my travel day would be a Friday, and the flight would not have permitted me to spend any considerable time in the office, I decided to spend the weekend in the big apple. Part of my morning relaxation on this particular day included watching Good Morning America (“GMA”). These were the pre remote control days so the channel remained the same. Airing immediately after GMA was a show that gave you a summary of the weekend happenings. I had already planned to go to a place called the Cookery to see Alberta Hunter and was on my way to the shower when my eyes glimpse the presence of Gregory Hines, Judith Jameson and a tall slim beautiful sister. I had never seen any of these folks before. The slender sister’s name was Phyllis Hyman, and she along with Hines and Jameson was promoting the opening of a Broadway show they were appearing in called Sophisticated Ladies. Phyllis broke out in the Ellington song “I Got It Bad and That ain’t Good”. I was mesmerized by her voice. All I knew is that I wanted to hear it again, so I definitely would be making a trip back to New York to see this show. A month later I returned, got tickets for the show and I was blown away. I could not get enough of Phyllis Hyman. I went to the mall to buy any and all recordings by this woman. I still have my LPs.
Some ten years later I got the chance to meet this woman in Washington D C’s Blues Alley. Arriving early, I patiently waited at the bar for her first show to start. Thanks to a friend I had VIP priviledges. Ms. Hyman came out to the bar were I was sitting. Although she was guarded in her approach, she acknowledge my presence and we exchange some small talk. Later on, we had a nice conversation after she found out I shared the hometown of her father. At the time I was not aware of this fact. Her eyes lit up with excitement. The conversation was delightful, and the show was the icing on the cake for a memorable evening at Blues Alley. I was still Hymanized.
A few years later, I had a young 19 year old working in my office for the summer who was a Phyllis Hyman fanatic. On this particular evening she was scheduled to see Phyllis Hyman perform. I shared with her my memorable evening at Blues Alley. She was so excited. The next day all she could talk about was Phyllis Hyman. She too could not get enough of Ms. Hyman. Not only did she own every recording of Ms. Hyman, but she knew all the lyrics.
On the night of June 30, 1995, I received an emergency voice page from my young impressionable employee asking frantically that I call her right away. Before I could ask, she dropped the terrible news on me. Phyllis Hyman had committed suicide. I spent most of the night on the phone consoling her, for she had been severely fractured by Phyllis’ intentional death.
I could not satisfactorily explain why the ever so talented Phyllis Hyman had taken her own life. One of the reasons is because I really did not know until the recent TVONE Bio.
Apparently, Phyllis Hyman suffered from bi-polar disorder. Also known as manic depression, bi-polar disorder is a biological disorder which impacts the functioning of the brain’s pleasure center. A chemical imbalance causes the brain to experience unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function. The mood swings are more severe than the normal ups and downs of everyday life. While in a manic or upbeat mood, the illness can bring extreme pleasure,resulting in excessive behavior. However on the down swing, the illness which is sadly misunderstood by the general public can cause unendurable suffering, thus prompting suicide.
Bi-opolar disorder can be treated with mood stabilizing medication and psycotherapy. Although they have several different types of mood stabilizers, lithium was the first drug approved by the food and drug adminstration for treatment of the illness.
Phyllis had been diagnosed with the illness and was being treated with lithium. Like so many other bipolar sufferers, the medication left her in a zombie state of mind. This state of mind interferred with her creativity as a mesmerizing song stylist. This was something that Phyllis Hyman or any other creative mind found intolerable. Eventually she self medicated on alcohol and cocaine. Her inabilty to submit to the proper treatment for creative reasons coupled with the everyday demands of the entertainment business led to her June 30, 1995 demise.
Now some thirteen years after her untimely death, many who knew and loved her including my 19 year old employee are left wondering what could we have done to prevent the tragedy. We can’t bring Phyllis back. Although many have tried, we can’t bring back the mezmerising impact of a Phyllis Hyman song. We can’t recapture the long lost Hymanizing rapture. We can however, end our ignorance about mental illness and learn more about bipolar disorder. By treating mental illness as an illness and not a stigma we will be in a position to know what to look and listen for when people suffering from the illness reaches out to us for help. Embracing mental illness as an illness and not stigma will also free the suffers to reach out for help. We all are subject to the influence of mental illness in some form.
Recently, a young teen diagnosed with bi-polar disorder reached out to an Internet audience for help. Instead of receiving a helping hand, he was met with a dare. Police found Abraham Biggs Jr. dead in his father’s bed, 12 hours after he first declared on the Web site for bodybuilders that he planned to take his own life. He took a fatal drug overdose in front of the Internet audience. Although some viewers contacted the Web site to notify police, authorities did not reach his house in time.
Radio personality Tom Joyner had a better result, when a caller by the name of Steve called and reach out to the morning talk show for help. At first they were dismissive asking the young man to stop joking and directing him to talk to his preacher. Joyner and his radio crew eventually realized that they were dealing with a serious problem when Steve informed them that he did not think he would make it through the morning. A discombobulated Joyner was able to contact life coach Iyanla Vanzant who assisted the young man on the air by asking questions, listening to his problems and permitting him to resolve his difficulty by talking it out.
It is often said that no one wants to listen to your problems. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to listen. For Phyllis’ sake as well as many others who have ended their lives as a result of mental illness, let’s take the stigma out of mental illness and treat it for exactly what it is, an illness. Let’s put an end to our ignorance so we can see and hear the warning signs and save a life. Stop the rain. Stop the pain.