1899 Shouting into a dented microphone
Scream Therapy: A Punk Journey Through Mental Health
by Jason Schreurs
Powell River: Flex Your Head Press, 2023
$25 / 9781738921409
Reviewed by Catherine Owen
I almost met Jason Schreurs in 2012 when he was in Kamloops at a journalism conference and I was there to do what? A poetry reading, visit an ex’s parents. For some reason, we missed each other and so, for however long, only remained Facebook friends, though I don’t recall catching any of the manic content of status updates that he notes marked some of his prior highs. Scream Therapy is unlike any other book written about mental health I’ve ever read and I’ve read many, having been fascinated in the past by such artistic, unstable characters as the painters Adolf Wölfli and Egon Schiele, and the photographer Francesca Woodman, along with my own family history of obsessive-compulsive disorders that I recount in an essay for the anthology Hidden Lives. The cover of Scream Therapy, with its massive, bashed-up mic image, the patch cord knotted into a mad heart, prepares you (a bit) for the wham-bam of the content within, accounts of mania and depression from both Schreurs and a range of his interview subjects he chatted with on his revolutionary podcast, interspersed with narrations of a nine-show tour with his improv noise act Punk Jams in the summer of 2018 (along with trips to Florida for Fest over the course of a decade), just a few months before his bi-polar diagnosis.
Brilliantly, paragraphs divided by tiny microphone graphics and lines from punk lyrics preface his deeper discussions of mental health stats and data as he delves into the experiences of other punk musicians who are attempting to come to terms with, and surmount, their own internal rises and falls. Although I spent many years in the metal scene and haven’t gone to punk shows as often (though frequenting The Cobalt they were hard to miss), the ethos is familiar: one forms a liminal family, one’s freakishness in normalized society is celebrated in the hardcore music scene, shows are frequently about extreme intensity, visual chaos and putting oneself at risk for an immersion experience, and many musicians struggle with personal traumas that can lead to self-destructive manifestations (both main players in my long-term band, INHUMAN, are dead, one of a drug addiction and the other recently shot to death).
Schreurs is relentlessly honest. After beginning the book with Punk Jams’ final show and its damaging then revelatory repercussions, he truly opens with a chapter called ‘Monsters’ that details early scenes of sexual abuse: “I’m yanked up from the pine needles. I’m bent over, wiping a sticky mess with my hands – dripping off my bum…I’m only six…or maybe seven.” He then launches into demonstrations of dissociation from such trauma as evidenced by his laudable yet terrifying ability to completely lose a connection with any need for safety as he performs at gigs, wearing costumes that look like “a bomb went off at a garage sale” (he’s superb at similes) and hurling himself around the venue, hitting “unholy wail[s],” going “airborne” into the pit, slapping his “butt cheeks,” and releasing an “arsenal of packing tape” at Show 7 on Quadra Island where they play with the legendary DOA (Joe Keithley was my neighbour growing up in Burnaby). Schreurs traces his early years as a skater, to his marriage, a stressful job as a newspaper editor and the arrival of four kids, to his later breakdown and realization that this wasn’t the life for him. Finding the punk scene for Schreurs in high school meant the discovery of a deep community and it is this band of loving misfits that assists him to continue to survive, endure the loss of a stable family and a societally-acknowledged job, to truly address his mental health horrors and find connections through the podcast, the support group, the festivals and the shows.
With the interviews in the book, Schreurs can enlarge experiences of mental health breakdowns, expound on diagnoses from bipolar to borderline, and include other perspectives on how music makes community and punk saves lives. In a repartee with Lee Willingham, a professor in Waterloo, he pinpoints a more scholarly perspective on the “energy of the music that draws people into punk…[gives] them hope, [gives] them identity,” while Buzz Osbourne of the band The Melvins agrees that many musicians “always had some kind of issue, mentally.” He also talks to many women who’ve undergone abuse, several of whom have become counsellors and utilized hardcore music to connect to their clients, a unique approach in a world that considers such music “angry” when in fact, it assists young people especially to “process and regulate emotion.”
Crucially, Schreurs is also honest about his social media addiction. As Gabor Mate elaborates in his key text In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, it’s not only drugs that people can become hooked on but food, shopping, and even attention. The effect can be the same as the brain gets wired on dopamine from the hits of momentary purchases or internet likes. Whether it’s promotion of events or manic beliefs that Schreurs is suddenly “the all-knowing protector of [his] cyber-connected chain [whose] mission is to take down everyone on Facebook who makes racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic comments,” the result is insomnia, instability, obsession, and detachment from reality, all of which have negative repercussions on his mental health and his relationship with his new wife, Megan (who features regularly as an admirable supporter!)
Schreurs addresses the necessity of medication as a “stability baseline,” the power of being a facilitator for a bipolar support group, how “with diagnosis comes stigma,” and how to transcend this shame to better facilitate recovery, and offers up a panoply of symbols and images for the vicious cycle of mania and depression, the latter being depicted as a “bowling ball in the gut” or a “gross and flavorless” navel orange that just yesterday seemed “crisp and juicy.” He also deals with the effects of age on his playing and performing as he nears 50, the changes that occur in endurance and priority. All super important stuff and again, not anything I’ve seen dealt with so directly before.
However my favorite parts are the delectably abject descriptions of the shows he plays in 2018 on that final tour of butt-crack towns like Port Alberni, “a pulp-mill-spewing, big-trucked, dirty-jeans-wearing….shithole.” Hard core venues are often in decrepit parts of town and in various states of disrepair and Schreurs describes them with gloomy gusto from their “upholstery…stained from bottomless vodka cranberries” to the crash pad connected to it where “mould stains on the ceiling above the bed creep closer in Rorschach patterns.” In the whole book there are only a few typos and mostly of the homophonic nature, such as cords for chords or reign for rein as Schreurs is an attentive writer (despite his self-professed ADD!). When the book ends with his new stability since his diagnosis four years ago, as he learns to hold to the necessity of routine and to accept that mental health is a process, even an adventure, one cheers for the tenacity of the Punk Screamer who has so powerfully plunged in the river of himself and come up “invigorated, transformed in the moment.”
Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by Adrienne Fitzpatrick, Connie Kuhns, Hilary Peach, John Armstrong and Jason Schneider for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster