Last Thursday at the 11th Annual Adam Jeffrey Katz Memorial Conversation, Child Mind Institute president Harold Koplewicz sat down for a frank, raucous, and emotional conversation with country superstar and advocate-at-large Naomi Judd. While Judd joked that she couldn’t be serious “for more than three minutes” and enjoyed a comfortable rapport with the hundreds in attendance, her intertwined stories of tragedy, resilience, and success in life and on the stage certainly struck a chord.
Judd’s tale of perseverance seems extraordinary, particularly if you haven’t experienced her charisma in person. Growing up in rural Kentucky, she told Dr. Koplewicz, she was molested at an early age by a family member. Then her beloved brother was diagnosed with cancer. While her parents were away seeking treatment for him, she was date raped and became pregnant. Her brother soon died, and while her dysfunctional family said almost nothing about his illness and death, the disgraced Naomi was ordered out of the house. She made a desperate marriage, had her daughter Wynonna, and four years later, still in her early twenties, Judd had another daughter—Ashley—and was on her way to California.
Fast-forward eight years and Judd is back in Appalachia, a single mom trying to make ends meet as a registered nurse and manage one of her daughters—Wynnona—who was unruly. Music enters their lives—and changes it forever. She bought Wynonna a guitar as an outlet for her abundant energy, and soon the two were making the rounds as a duo—the Judds. And not long after that, they were a country sensation, ruling the eighties with their hits, propelled by Wynonna’s vocals and Naomi’s songwriting chops.
And then it was over (for a while). After struggling with mystery ailments and the side effects of medications for years, Judd was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1990 and essentially given a death sentence. She’s still here, she was happy to say, and her triumph over the disease is inspiring. But her struggles with the mental illnesses that came with it—multiple anxiety disorders, major depression—have been more difficult to leave behind. She described her harrowing first panic attack shortly after her hepatitis diagnosis. It was on a tour bus, and she thought she might be dying. She recalled attempting to shock herself out of it by pressing her bare chest to the cold window. Passing truckers, she said, might have “stories” to tell.
Proudly, Judd said she has been 15 years without a panic attack. Depression, however, is another story. She told Dr. Koplewicz and the audience that she is in the midst of a major episode. Still, she has hope. She said that once she has her medications in order—with a helpful consult from Child Mind Institute psychiatrists—she has a new mission to lend her voice to: mental health. Addressing the Katz Lecture audience, she threw her arms open. “You are my people,” she said.
One missing story here is Ashley, and her mother was brought to tears when Dr. Koplewicz asked her about how difficult it is to give proper attention to one child when the other is so boisterous, even disruptive. Ashley has publically described her less-than-perfect childhood and her very real struggles with bipolar disorder. Naomi said “at age 21 we noticed an overnight amp in her personality.” But what about before that, Dr. Koplewicz wondered. “You always grease the squeaky wheel,” Judd replied. “I was so consumed with survival.” But parents can do more. Of teens, she said, “People always say ‘They need a good talking to.’ I’ve never agreed with that. A kid needs a good listening to.”
Whatever the trials and tribulations of the past, the Judds are apparently a resilient and loving family. They all live in the same Tennessee valley—Pleasant Valley.
Summing up, Judd had a message for the audience about mental illness. “It’s not a weakness. It’s not a way out. It’s organic and it’s real.” What does she think about people who continue to judge and stigmatize kids, parents, and families because of psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression? “What about the shame?” Dr. Koplewicz asked.
“Shame on them,” was Judd’s reply.