My Son Introduces Me To Daniel Johnston While I Struggle With Finding Serenity

(8-13-18) Taking a much needed break this week, but I wanted to share this blog with you, written more than a decade ago. Enjoy!

Praying For Serenity

When my son, Kevin, came over recently to play chess — or should I write to easily defeat me in several chess matches — he arrived carrying a DVD. The title was: The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is a song writer, singer, and an artist who has struggled for years with a severe mental illness.

We watched it together and I was deeply moved. Johnston’s first album recorded on a tape recorder in his parent’s basement contained three haunting songs about his mental disorders.

Not everyone appreciates Johnston’s jarring and, at times, squeaky voice, including my wife, Patti, but Kevin and I found that the rawness of his vocals made the struggles that he described even more poignant. (You can visit Johnston’s webpage here.)

In the DVD about Johnson, the narrator interviews his parents and, at one point, his father describes how he and his son were flying home from a successful concert when Daniel grabbed the controls of the family’s single engine airplane during a psychotic break, causing the airplane to nosedive into the ground.

Fortunately, no one died.

His father begins to cry in the documentary and speaks about his biggest fear. It is what will happen to his son after his parents are gone. The tears welling in his eyes and worry etched on the couple’s faces are very familiar to me because I frequently see this same scene after I give a speech and meet other parents with children who have mental illnesses.

These encounters are reminders of the obvious — that mental illnesses do not only impact the person who becomes sick, but everyone in their families who love them.

Patti gave me a silver necklace when we got married and I wear each day. I find it helpful.

There are two items that hang on it. One is a well-worn cross that she used to clutch when her first husband was in the hospital dying from cancer. She used to hold it and pray.

The other is a smaller piece that she gave me after we had endured an especially horrific experience when Kevin became psychotic and was shot twice with a taser by the police. It is inscribed with words that are credited to Saint Francis of Assisi:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Acceptance is difficult for me. I want to be in charge. I want to fix things. I’ve learned that sometimes you have no choice. You get up, you breath, and you remain thankful for the moment and the people who you love.

Thanks Kevin for being such a wonderful son and introducing me to Daniel Johnston and his music.

Now, would it hurt you to let me win at chess everyone once in a while?



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.