Admitting there is a problem, whether it is with addiction, mental illness or something less severe, is typically the hardest step for those afflicted.
“We all have to do that. We all have to set our egos aside and say, ‘I need help,’” said Jason DeShaw, who lives with bipolar I disorder.
“I was so far from admitting that I had a problem,” he said.
DeShaw, a well-known country singer and a Montana native, will play a concert at 7 p.m. in the Carroll College Campus Center tonight.
The concert is cooperatively hosted by the college and the Helena branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and will provide a platform for DeShaw to weave his personal battle against mental illness into his musical performance.
“I share my story of recovery and hope,” he said. “And what my journey has been with serious mental illness, the bipolar, and also the addiction, the alcoholism recovery.”
DeShaw grew up on a farming ranch in Plentywood and began writing music at a young age.
“I’d be driving the tractor for 15 hours a day, and you’ve got a lot of time to think,” he said.
He began singing during his senior year of high school, and his parents bought him a guitar for Christmas when he went away to pursue his bachelor’s degree in business from Carroll.
After graduation, DeShaw began to tour around the states singing country music, inspired by his role model and favorite musician, Johnny Cash.
But the glamorous lifestyle took a dark turn during a 2010 tour of Canada.
“I went manic,” he said. “My mind and body was going so fast, it was like a freight train trying to come out of me, and I was trying to slow it down with Canadian rye.
“Things looked pretty good from the outside,” he said.
“I was drinking plenty. It was not only part of the (musician) culture, but I was in the early stages of alcoholism,” DeShaw said.
The incident landed DeShaw in the psych ward of a Canadian hospital, but he was released shortly thereafter with no diagnosis.
A few days later, he was drinking again and ended up in an emergency room in North Dakota.
As a result, he was enrolled in an alcohol addiction recovery program where psychiatric tests showed he was, “way manic.”
“I went on meds,” he said, and hasn’t been off them since.
Now, DeShaw is sharing his story through his music. He’s worked closely with NAMI Helena to arrange tonight’s concert and is excited, albeit nervous, for the event.
Gary Mihelish, president of NAMI Helena, has known DeShaw most of his life and after a brief period where they lost touch, was thrilled to rekindle his friendship with him and bring him back to his alma mater to perform.
“I’ve known Jason since he was 17 years old,” he said. “He’s somebody I remember the most.
“It just happened that I met his significant other, and we got back in touch with each other,” Mihelish said. “I’ve probably been working with Jason for the last year and a half or two years in how to support him in his mental illness and how to support him in his music.”
He said DeShaw is a great role model for those suffering with mental illness, especially in Montana where the stigma associated with it is particularly bad.
“He’s a cowboy, and he’s confronting his mental illness,” he said.
Mihelish said NAMI typically works with Carroll to put on two events each year — one in the fall and one in the spring — to bring speakers to the college to address mental illness. DeShaw’s performance will be a particularly special one, he said.
“We’ve been talking about it for a number of years, and Jason just wasn’t ready, but he’s ready now,” he said.
“This is a big deal for Jason tomorrow night, because he’s basically outing himself,” Mihelish said Wednesday. “He’s going to tell his story and lay himself bare in front of however many people that show up.”
Mihelish said DeShaw was recently named the recipient of the Lionel Aldridge Champions Award, “given to people who live with mental illness who do duty above and beyond … to advocate for people who live with a mental illness and who live with a mental illness themselves.”
He will receive the award in December in Washington, D.C., Mihelish said.
Despite the honor, DeShaw said he just wants to make sure others suffering from mental illness know they are not alone.
“I think that’s a journey I’m still on, trying to truly love myself,” he said.
At the General Mercantile coffee shop on Wednseday, DeShaw — clad in cowboy boots, jeans and a brown tweed blazer over a floral western shirt — sang an original song he titled “Sedona.”
He hopes the words of that song and others intermingled with his anecdotes about his journey with mental illness will inspire hope in audience members Thursday.
“If all the hell I’ve been through can be justified by helping one human being, then that’s worth my life,” he said.