Life of Ups and Downs

Published by: Shuang "Valerie" Chen / Northwestern University, Editorial Journalism | 5-Feb-2019
Chicago-based improv musician Dave Asher, diagnosed with bipolar disease, talks about his music journey. Music and improvisation have always played an important part in Asher's personal discovery and healing. Film and edit by Shuang "Valerie" Chen. Music by Dave Asher & Higherwave.
Address: Chicago/United States
Amsterdam, Netherland. This is the place that changed Dave Asher's life. Dreaming of being a comedian and performer, Asher, with a drama degree, signed a six-month contract and headed abroad. But this young man from Champaign, Illinois, didn't know he would end up being across the Atlantic for about five years. The city changed his career passion as well as he developed a love of music and improvisation.

In addition to the addiction to music, Dave got hooked by drugs, which were, unlike the United States, legal in Netherland 15 years ago. Being creative and productive, Dave was able to work from day to night without sleeping. When his friends and co-workers believed Dave was in a manic or psychotic episode, he was in total denial.

"I felt like I was alive and was happy, had greater understanding of life and all these things. But my friends from the outside felt like I was behaving erratically and bizarrely and essentially manic or sick mentally ill."

Asher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006, after three years of psychotic behavior and multiple hospitalizations. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, problems with mental health are very common in the United States, with an estimated 50 percent of all Americans diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. Mental illnesses, such as depression, are the third-most-common cause of hospitalization in the United States for those aged 18 to 44 years old.

A study published this year by the State of Mental Health in America reported that 18 percent of adults in the United States have a mental-health condition, which means over 43 million people are in struggle.

"A diagnosis like that was hard for me to accept that it was not necessarily a judgment on my character. It's something that I think a lot of other people with mental health concerns continue to struggle with," Asher said.

"A lot of people who are suffering from mental health issues that have been quiet for years because of the stigma associated with it," said Kadijat Alaka, recovery manager of Chicago affiliate of National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Mental illnesses are portrayed negatively in this country, and in other countries as well. Trying to educate people, trying to reduce stigma, when it comes to mental health, has been something that we've been working really hard," Alaka said.

Music and improvisation have always played an important part in Asher's personal discovery and healing. He started to share with his friends on Facebook his experiences around hospitalizations and recovery.

"There was a period in my life when I was denying that I had a problem then there was a period of my time when I was ashamed of it and hiding it and then this last time I said, well, I'm just gonna own it."

"It doesn't make you weak, I think it actually makes you a stronger person if you can say 'something's not right with me, and I really need to get some help.' I just hope more people will do it," said Alaka.

However, most Americans lack access to mental healthcare services, according to the SMHA report. 56 percent of American adults with a mental illness did not receive treatment.

Alaka said the government doesn't give enough funding for mental-health resources, "and there are not enough bills that are passed in favor of mental-health treatment."

Some of the best songs Asher has written have been when he was in a manic state. But some of the best life choices he has made was when he has been in a state of recovery.

"To be able to have the full human experience on a degree of I had a place of health feels really terrific," Asher said.

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