| This is the 415th story of Our Life Logs |
This is the story of Renee-Louise Carafice, a New Zealand-born experimental-pop songstress, as captured by the team at Our Life Logs. While the following has been written to match the tone and voice of Renee, please note that any discrepancies are creative liberties taken by the writer and agreed upon by the storyteller. Enjoy.
I was born in the outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1981. After my parents split up when I was about two and a half, I sort of bounced back and forth between my dad’s small apartment in Auckland and my mum’s home in the far north island of New Zealand.
I was a very reclusive child and a runaway kid. There was already so much going on inside my head and I couldn’t handle the overload. When I got too disturbed from the noise of people or whatever, I would run from home. Go where it was quiet. Be alone.
Really, I was dealing with undiagnosed mental illness in the best way I could. I couldn’t turn to relationships with others, so instead, I turned inward.
I obsessed over my dad’s collection of folk records, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. It was the only thing I could really connect with. Music was easy to enjoy when life was not. In the confines of my bedroom, I would take old cassette tapes and create songs on them by overlaying my voice over and over. It was sort of a silly (but might I also say, ingenious) way to produce acapella songs. Then, I sort of graduated to little cheap instruments. I had a recorder and a ukulele, and eventually, the guitar.
My dad owned a beautiful classic guitar. It sounded like a dream (to this day, it’s my very favorite guitar ever). He could play a little himself, but nothing more than a few chords. So, I just sort of picked it up by myself. It was liberating. I added it to my little makeshift studio and did all I could with it.
That was my bubble world until I turned 16. Before then, I had no friends my age, no peers, nothing. My parents gave an honest effort, trying to send me to school like a normal 5-year-old kid, but the kids saw me as a puny girl with awkward gestures and a weird obsession with fairies and beat the shit out of me. When there was no inkling of my social anxiety getting any better, I began homeschooling.
But then, as I said, I turned 16, and suddenly, I had a bit of curiosity and confidence. I asked my parents to enroll me in public school. They weren’t so sure I’d make it—I was venturing into a world in which I hadn’t ever participated in. But, I went…and…I loved it.
The population of students was mostly Polynesian or Māori, the native people of New Zealand, and it was in a poor urban area, so it was kind of a tough school. I came in and remained my weirdo self and the kids just loved me. At that age and at that school, being quirky was seen as unique and interesting. I let myself make friends with all sorts of kids. From there, I wanted to hear and be heard. It was a new life.
I did not have an interest in university right away. When I graduated high school, I spent a year busking on the streets with a kooky group of other young city dwellers. Together, we bounced from hostel to couch to living room floors in the fashion and grit that every down-on-their-luck-but-high-on-life folk singer braves. I braved it for a year.
After being hungry and cold got dull, I took a job as a postman, while living in my first tiny rented apartment, and found out that working sucks. After a year, I finally, finally, finally enrolled in university, studying both creative writing and Greek and Roman mythology.
Oh, it was the loveliest experience, as far as my growth and music and creativity was concerned. I was surrounded on all sides by weird, art school kids who made bawdy art and crazy music which we would then all view and talk over and dream and wonder about. It was fabulous. I played shows in dive bars and passed classes and made friends. It was all moving right along. Until it wasn’t.
It was during my second year of university. I was 21 and lived in a flat (which I disliked for no real reason) with other roommates near campus. One day after class, I came home to our flat and couldn’t breathe and began hyperventilating. Just like that. I later came to understand it was a panic attack, but at the time I had no idea that my body was going through a chemical meltdown.
My health declined rapidly from that moment on. I grew sickly. My skin hugged my bones so tightly, drawing attention to my spiked elbows and the dark circles under my eyes. Even with medication for these attacks, my body retreated into a drooling zombie. I dropped out of all my classes. I hid from my friends. I crawled back into my hole. I stopped all my living. I stopped all my wanting to live. My 22nd birthday was coming up and I decided that I didn’t want to see it.
I called my therapist, who was a really nice lady, and confided in her that I wanted to die. I didn’t know that she was legally obligated to call the “Crisis Team,” who were a lot like brutally strict police-doctors. They took me and my mother to their offices and showed me to a room where they were to “assess” my illness.
“What’s wrong. Tell us.” They sounded like barking dogs.
As the all-knowing, rebellious punk-kid, I retorted, “Piss off! I don’t have to talk to you.” It didn’t go over well.
Finally, this severe-looking German lady walked into the room. Her body language and dress made it obvious that she was the boss-lady. She said, “Renee, we are going to take you to the high-security mental institution—“
Before she finished, I dashed out of the room, screaming my mother’s name while the doctors chased me, found me and forced me to take sedatives. From there, the police-doctors took me to Auckland’s Te Whetu Tawera, a mental health institution where I became a ward of the state.
As I entered the cement building, I saw the other residents. I tensed my muscles at their passing. They. They were different than me. They crept around the corners of the ward, muttering soft prayers to themselves. I was not like them. I was not like them.
All the while, I spun through the conversations in my head and in my heart over and over again. How in the hell will I ever get a job with this in my history? What will people think of me? What will I tell my future husband? Will I even have one? Will I even get out of here?
If I hadn’t mentioned, that was how I spent my 22nd birthday. Happy birthday, self.
I was called in for a meeting with the scary German doctor lady who said that I was not showing improvement and that I would need electroshock therapy in order to be well again.
I leapt out of my seat and said, “You listen to me, if you even mention that again, my family and my friends will take this institution down to the ground.”
My body flew out of the meeting room and into my crappy little inmate cell. Something inside had snapped alert.
I said aloud to myself, “Renee, you’re going to brush your hair, you’re going to get out of your pajamas and put proper clothes on, and we are going to fight our way out of here.” That became the goal. To fight my way through that mental health system and to regain freedom for myself. No longer was this a battle that I’d already lost.
A really close family friend of my dad had brought me a notebook on the first day of my stay, knowing that I was a songwriter and a writer. With it, she said, write this down. Take notes. Initially I just passed it off as kind of a corny gesture, but I realize now how powerful this gift was to my liberation—not just from the institution, but from the hollowed-out shell I had been inside.
In the days that followed, I wrote in the flickering fluorescent light of my room. In that notebook, I wrote pages and pages of lyrics. All the while, I observed the other patients whom I had once feared, the ones who had been living in this awful madness for years and years longer than I could imagine.
My heart sort of turned towards them. They weren’t frightening, not any more than I was. They were simply damaged by the world. Really, the divide was not between them and me. It was between the ones that understood, and those who didn’t.
For them, I wrote. I wrote for the fall, Dr. Hitler, the cracks in the walls and the dust on the window sills, and for the people outside who may or may not choose to understand what it is that rattles on in the brains of the distracted and sensitive and hopeless. I wrote in a fury. They became my hospital songs.
• • •
I heard you were thinking of killing yourself over some sixteen-year-old girl, boy, don’t go acting crazy now
No beauty face will be worn for these walls of concrete and cigarettes and night screams
The nurse will slip up and I’ll be gone into the starry oblivion of the outside world
The god in these people is stronger than it is in you—where is the god in you Hitler-woman?
I’m your Bodhisattva in vinyl and leather, and God knows what I’d do for you to get you out of this godforsaken place
Seven days after I had entered the mental institution, I was deemed better and ready for society once more. I walked out of the place in my own clothes, perfectly aware that I was, in fact, not ready to be pushed out into society (I needed more time, but I really didn’t have more time), but I walked away from the building all the same. I had fooled the doctors and nurses while the other patients watched from the doorways of their rooms. And for one moment, it felt cheap.
Then, I heard them.
I turned to see the other patients leaning out of their doorways in genuine celebration for me. There was no malice or jealousy in their awe. Just kindness. With their blessing, my release felt valuable.
And if I had a chance at freedom, then I was going to use it, god damn it.
Time passed, as clumsy as it does, while I lived my life around panic attacks and the effects of medicine. Wake up. Endure cold sweats and sharp stinging breath. Take a pill. Sleep for two hours in the drowsy aftermath. Wake up. Another panic attack. Another pill. Another blackout.
Two years of that. It was a wonder I had the sense to live at all, but I did because of the friends and family who spent time with me in the few hours I could engage in. I had a friend who took me out for car rides, and friends who would take me shopping for groceries. The community around me allowed me to learn how to enter the world again until I was strong enough to pull my sorry limbs up to stand.
In the evenings, for a span of two hours or so when the medicine and the illness let me be, I put all my feeble energy into booking shows, calling studios, recording songs, and exploring the dream that I’d imagined. I began getting steady gigs (which, for me, was like once a month) as an opening act for local artists. More than once I had to cut my time short on stage because of an attack. But, so what, honestly.
There’s a much longer story that details the ins and outs of what came from this crawl. What’s most important is that as it was happening, as the victories and low points ensued, the spirit that I carried was concerned with following, chasing, and ultimately living in hope. It was a far cry from the runaway girl. It was a far cry from the one who buckled under the scribbly pangs of anxiety and dread. I was still fearful, but now I was fearful and fierce. I learned that the two go hand-in-hand.
After submitting a project proposal to the Nestle’s Big Break Competition, I freaking won 25-thousand dollars (again, I’ll save you the details) to record anywhere in the world I wanted, so I chose the analog recording studio in Chicago called Electric Audio. For 10 days, we recorded the break-down-crushing, psych-ward-crooning, ode-to-the-ones-who-are-lost-and-loved album, later titled, Tells You to Fight. I think you know why.
Since then, I made my home in Chicago for about 10 years before settling in Las Vegas in 2016. I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of letters since then from people like me who have been touched by the songs in Tells You to Fight. They want to keep living too after hearing my songs of survival and hope. At one show I held hands with an 80-year-old woman who had lived in a psychiatric institution and we cried together in unity.
Illness exists. Villains exist. But these beasts do not walk alone and they do not compare to life’s defenders. Salvation exists in music and love and hope and in the people who say, “You are not alone.”
• • •
“There is a crack in everything… That’s how the light gets in.”
Renee was born in Auckland New Zealand where she grew up with an undiagnosed mental illness, causing her severe anxiety around other people. For years, she replaced relationships with music, exploring her talents in songwriting, until she was hospitalized from a nervous breakdown in 2003. Renee wrote the lyrics to her debut album, Renee-Louise Carafice Tells You to Fight, during her stay in a mental institution in Auckland. After years of recovery, persistence, and a bit of luck, it was recorded and released in 2008 with Monkey Records.
In 2010, Renee has released more music including the album, I Will Raise a Bird Army, which was reviewed by the New Zealand Music Commission who described it as “starkly beautiful and gently disturbing.” Later, Power Animals was released in 2014 on her own label Bird Army Records. She has also collaborated with the group Yoome in 2008 as well as Seregenti and Polyphonic in 2009.
In 2016, Renee moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where she currently resides with her birds. When Renee isn’t tending to her sweet birds, she is creating music in her bedroom. Full circle, we suppose.
You can listen to the hospital songs mentioned in this story here.
This story first touched our hearts on September 12, 2019.
| Writer: Colleen Walker | With Special Thanks to Renee-Louise Carafice |