The Importance of Hugs: My Son Writes About Camaraderie Among ‘Hiding In Plain Sight” Participants Who Told Their Stories

Erik and Chris Ewers with fellow film participants, including Kevin, show tattoos.

(6-29-22) Part Two of Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness. the Ken Burns documentary shown this week on PBS stations, opened with me describing one of my first encounters with a psychiatrist after my son, Kevin, had a psychotic break while in college. The doctor’s warnings about his future were so bleak that I was devastated. Kevin laughed at them.

The highs and lows during Kevin’s six year journey to recovery are featured in this film by Erik and Christopher Loren Ewers. Most of the other young people interviewed in this brave documentary met face-to-face for the first time at a White House screening but the real celebration for them came this week in Billings, Montana. That’s where therapist Kee Dunning, who offers comforting and invaluable advice in the film, practices. She arranged a two night event at a local theater where standing room only crowds watched the documentary and asked cast members questions.

Here’s Kevin’s report about what happened.

Report from Billings Premier: Redemption and Friendships

By Kevin Earley

I am in awe to be included in the company of the courageous individuals whom I shared space with in the documentary and finally met in person in Billings, Montana during the past few days.

I was first interviewed by the Ewers brothers in what seems like ages ago.  I believe it was about three years ago, but it seems so much longer.  I have watched several of the preliminary edits of the film about mental illness they have been laboring over.  I contributed artwork, paintings, music, comics and a huge swath of my soul I poured into the making of the film.  I, along with many other brave individuals, left it all on the field during the making of this project.  I am honored that the filmmakers did our stories beyond justice.

It kinda felt like destiny meeting these people in person, like kindred spirits whom I have known before in another lifetime, like deja vu greeting them in person after watching so many iterations of the film.  I learned so much about myself by meeting them.

A Redemptive Rush

A big part of mental illness is shame, feeling unworthy or not accepted.  By being embraced by a community, even for all my faults and darkest chapters of my journey, I felt a redemptive rush of exhilaration.  It was like meeting people who “get it” because the have the same scars, some literal, some metaphorical and some spiritual, that I have.  They get it because they have been through similar experiences and paths.

A big part of the journey was giving and receiving hugs.  Hugs are more than a way to greet one another, they are the literal pressing of two hearts against each other’s chest.  The synching of heartbeats, a primal response to let you know you are not alone.  Our host Kee Dunning was wonderful, letting us know we are worthy of love and we are loved, and she gave me the best hug I had ever had and was a great host.

Every night after the screenings, we gathered for karaoke at a local bar in Billings, the crystal lounge.  Karaoke would be an apt metaphor for what we were all doing.  Not everyone can sing well, some notes are off key, some of the timing is off beat, but gathered in community, we each sang our songs, being vulnerable and pouring our hearts out through the power of lyrics and melody, and we were in a supportive space where peers would encourage us and sing along with us.

We decided late on the first night, after belting out Frank Sinatra and billy Joel lyrics, that we wanted to get tattoos to mark the occasion of the film’s premiere.  Chris and I decided on tattoos with the films title, Hiding in plain sight, while Billie, Yanerry, Morgan and Erik all decided on tattoos with the title of the second episode, Resilience.  During the whirlwind of activity related to the screening, we were luckily able to find a tattoo shop willing to take us all in, a mere two hours before we  were due to report to the theatre.  Pictured is a photo of all of us showing off our new ink.

A tattoo is a permanent marking on the body and it commemorates the occasion, location and company of the people and time spent together.  Just as it is forever branded on my skin, I will never be able to forget this moment, with my new family, bonded by the temporary pain of a tattoo and strengthened by the finality of the tattoo’s enduring beauty.

I came to Billings to share my story of recovery, redemption and resilience. I left in awe of the new friend and family I met.  Myself being one of the older people in a film on youth, I can’t wait to see what these remarkable human beings will undoubtedly achieve when they get older, for they are al wise beyond their years.

Thank you!

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.