Jill Janus’ New Beginning

Heavy metal singer copes with mental and physical illness.

Posted Sep 17, 2015

“The dark, the dark,

The darkness falls on you.

The dark, the dark,

The darkness swallows you.”

“The Dark” by Huntress

Jill Janus, used with permission
Source: Jill Janus, used with permission

Jill Janus is perhaps best known as the incendiary lead singer of the progressive thrash metal group Huntress. For years, Huntress, which Janus describes as an “occult” band, has combined its intense sound with themes of fantasy to convey the band’s message.

All the while, however, Janus was confronting the all-too-real experience of not only mental illness, in the form of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and alcoholism, but also physical illness in the form of cancer.

She has bravely chosen to share her story and message that one can recover from illness, and have a “new beginning.”

Janus has received several diagnoses over the years. The first she recalls was bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by a persistently elevated or irritated mood that lasts for at least a week. Many people with bipolar disorder describe the experience as a surge of energy that seems to have no origin. During this time, people can often become very grandiose, feel like they are racing and get involved in either highly productive activities or destructive activities, such as spending sprees or other risky behaviors.

Janus described when she first noticed changes during adolescence. “At the age of 14, my family noticed a shift in my moods,” she told me. “I was very active as a performer, had a strong sense of purpose and was almost too self-confident. I developed a superiority complex and started having fist fights at school, mostly with boys. The violence was explosive. Then I’d sink into depression. I experienced rapid cycling between the two modes.”

“I attempted suicide for the first time at the age of 16 with a pair of scissors. I was getting mandatory counseling at school but didn’t see a psychiatrist until I was 20. I was then diagnosed manic-depressive and participated in a medical study at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.”

Janus also describes psychotic symptoms, and was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and then later schizophrenia. Both schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder are characterized by “psychotic” symptoms, which could include hallucinations — that is, having sensory experiences that are assessed as not “real” or as delusional. One major difference between the diagnoses is that schizoaffective disorder includes a combination of psychotic symptoms and mood symptoms such as mania, whereas schizophrenia is diagnosed based on the presence of psychotic symptoms alone.

Janus describes the aspects of her experience that were diagnosed as psychotic. “I’ve always seen and heard things others couldn’t. Many visions or dreams would manifest into reality, which my family and friends described as my ‘psychic ability,’” she explained. “This caused more drama at school, being called a ‘freak’ and getting beaten up. When I was 17, the visions and encounters with ‘other-worldly creatures’ was almost a daily occurrence.”

One of the ways that Janus’ mental illness manifested was that she created different “characters” or “identities” and was eventually diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. Dissociative identity disorder is characterized as having two or more distinct personality states. People often forget parts of their life as they cannot recall experiences from one personality state when they are in a distinct, separate personality state. 

Janus described these different “characters” this way: “As a child, I had a very active imagination and would pretend to be characters I created. This seems normal for a kid, but then I started seeing these characters and they’d take over my body. It felt like [the way] being possessed looks like in the movies. I could shed it easily as a child, but when I hit my 20s, it became very difficult to shake it.”

“I spent 10 years as ‘Penelope Tuesday,’ the persona I initially created to conceal my true identity as I worked the NYC nightlife scene,” she said. “I cannot remember much of my life during those years, except through stories from my friends and family. I was manic, fiercely ambitious and slept very little. I was not drinking or abusing drugs during my time in New York,” she said.

“My family became very worried and moved me home to get help after discovering I had breast-augmentation surgery. But I wasn’t aware that I had done this until a few weeks later when I snapped back to reality and saw I had breast implants. It was terrifying. I spent time at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York, and was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder).”

Mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be devastating with high levels of suffering, loss of functioning and even loss of life as a result of suicide. But Janus described two additional and complicating factors.

The first was her experience of the stigma of mental illness. Research suggests that many people hold biases against people with mental illness and that this bias begins at a young age. Children will often refer to other kids as “crazy” or “weird” and these terms are commonly used throughout adulthood as well.

Furthermore, the bias often includes the belief that people with mental illness are dangerous. This belief is perpetuated by media stories that sensationalize mental illness or assume that mental illness underlies violent behavior. The bias is not limited to the population at large. Research suggests that health care professionals and even mental health professionals carry bias against people with mental illness.

Janus feels that one of the reasons she developed these distinct identities was that she experienced the stigma of mental illness and she did not want people to think that she was “crazy” or “weird.” Janus’ experience unfortunately is not unique. In 1999, the surgeon general labeled stigma as the biggest barrier to people seeking out care for mental illness.

Janus explained how the bias manifested in her youth: “I was embarrassed about being perceived as ‘crazy.’ As a kid I was made to feel bad or was bullied for being different. As a child, I would make up things about myself to avoid seeming odd. This coping tactic got more intense after college and then I felt other personalities taking hold,” she said. “I used an alias for most of my life, keeping who I really was hidden. Only now am I capable of letting go of my various identities, but it’s still painful to feel vulnerable.”

Yet at the same time, Janus was aware that her divergent experiences — some of which may have been from mental illness, but others not — contributed to her increased creativity. There has long been debate regarding the perception of the “tortured artists,” that mental illness and creativity somehow go hand-in-hand. 

She thinks that her mental illness improves her creativity. “Absolutely, on so many levels. I hear and see things ‘normal’ people can’t possibly comprehend. When I write lyrics, I go into a trance and it’s like I receive messages from another realm. I understand this could be looked upon as a product of mental illness, yet there’s so much ‘real’ magic I’ve seen and felt in my life that others can also confirm,” she said. “Huntress is an occult metal band. For me, beyond insanity is clarity. I tap into esoteric concepts for my songwriting. I work at a pace much faster than most people, when fueled by bipolar mania. I’m relentless when I write music, record or tour. It’s helpful only if you can control the destruction it brings.”

Janus described how things became particularly problematic for her when she was then diagnosed with cancer. While suffering from either mental illness or physical illness alone can be difficult, the combination of the two can often be experienced as devastating and insurmountable. Janus describes how her despair, in combination with alcohol use, resulted in a suicide attempt.

“When I was diagnosed with Stage 1 uterine cancer earlier this year, I had a very hard time keeping my life together. I was recording my third album, ‘Static,’ with Huntress, and I fell back into drinking heavily. I’m an alcoholic, so this got ugly fast,” she said. “My boyfriend, Blake, called 911 twice, once for a suicide attempt in April. Then I was given an ultimatum: stop drinking, get health insurance, get on meds or he leaves me and the band breaks up. I spent a few days soul-searching and feeling the pain I caused my family.”

Janus felt that she began to turn a corner as she committed not only to living but also to living in a healthy way. “I started seeing a psychiatrist, started taking Lamictal and Seroquel, which stabilized me. It wasn’t easy. I messed up a few more times, getting drunk, because I was scared about having a hysterectomy. But there’s no other way to deal with cancer except fighting back aggressively. I became a warrior. I ended the pity party and grew up, do or die.”

As time went on, Janus was able to find treatments that were effective in managing her mood and psychotic symptoms. Janus says the combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy has been effective for her. Cognitive-behavioral therapy often includes examining how one’s thoughts and behaviors may influence emotions and well-being, and how modifying thoughts and behaviors can improve clinical outcomes.

While medication is often considered the first-line treatment for both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, research has demonstrated that the combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication improves outcomes.

“I was prescribed a new combination of medications in April 2015. This new approach has given me the stability that I’ve been struggling to achieve for 20 years. I take 100 mg of Lamictal in the morning and 25 mg of Seroquel before bed,” she said. “Something remarkable occurred two weeks after beginning this med combo. I was in the car with my boyfriend, he was driving, and all of a sudden I felt a light bulb turn on in the back left side of my brain.

As Janus began to feel better, she also felt more connected to and empathic towards others. “I had never felt empathy and have spent years with a deep disdain for humanity. All of a sudden, I had this epiphany about my connection to people and said, ‘I understand empathy, Blake!’ I felt human for the first time in my life. That sounds strange, but it was like I finally felt comfortable in my skin. That was a trip!”

In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy, Janus has been taking a holistic approach that includes the use of vitamins and dietary supplements. “Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great tool to gain self-control and avoid bad situations — mostly violent outbursts. I also began exercising at a gym this year, which is amazing for my moods.  And I changed my diet with the help of a naturopath. He prescribed supplements, which include L-Theanine, pure fish oil, homeopathic remedies, Pulsatilla 1M and Sepia 1M. I also use tincture to ease anxiety in my ‘danger zone’ between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., a mixture of equal parts Melissa officinalis, Scutellaria and Kalmerite glycerite.”

And Janus has found that her music has been influential in her coping. Janus’ experience is supported by research that shows that music therapy improves clinical outcomes among individuals with mental illness, including schizophrenia and mood disorders.

“Music saved my life. My mother says I was singing before I could speak. I knew my purpose as soon as I could talk. It was always music. I relate to the mathematics behind music, it soothes my brain and helps me cope with my various disorders,” she said. “By the time I was 10, I was performing in operas and musicals. My vocal range developed quickly. I was using four octaves by 13. The discipline and focus was beyond my years. But I’ve never had much patience for people. I was always one step ahead. Music is the only way I ever knew how to cope.”

Janus has also found that being active and busy helps her feel more balanced.   “One additional means of coping is having a day job. I work part time as a medical assistant for naturopathic doctors when I’m not touring. I love my little job. It keeps me balanced. They’re very understanding of my situation and have become family. Having a support system is amazing,” she said.

As Janus continues in her recovery, she can reflect on how her journey may have been made easier by reducing the stigma of mental illness. “I believe people need to quit it with the taboo and be honest. Stop being afraid to confront what’s really going on. We’ve all known a ‘crazy person,’ but neglected to look at their behavior on a deeper level and get them help,” she said. “Growing up, my bipolar disorder was heartbreaking to my mother. I could tell she was embarrassed and she’d try to avoid public outbursts with me. I’ve hurt the people I love the most.”

“If schools and the government put more effort into educating people about mental illness, detecting it and being compassionate about it, we could beat the stigma. And in my opinion, America could cut back on all the gun violence we’ve been seeing over the recent years. It all begins and ends with the brain.”

Janus has seen changes, though, as she has experienced much less stigma as an adult when sharing her story. “Though I just shared my mental health issues publicly, I haven’t experienced direct discrimination for being mentally ill, only support. But I’m happy to be known as eccentric, as it has worked for me as an artist.”

She has a message for others out there who are struggling with mental and physical illness. And it starts with encouraging them to hang on.

“Desire to live. Everything else will fall into place because then you want to feel better. That’s easier said than done and it’s a lot of work. Nothing is easy and I struggle every day to keep going. I had to find help, but didn’t know where to start."

“I ended up walking into a county hospital and saying I was suicidal. They placed me on a 5150 hold and social workers helped me get health insurance. That step was extreme, but I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t give up because I had desire to live.”

“Help is out there, more than ever before. The vultures can wait.”

And she is optimistic about her future. “I’ve been very focused on my well-being and there’s only so much I can do. I can tell my story and hope that it’s helpful to others who are struggling.”

“I just celebrated my 40th birthday on September 2. I’m looking at 40 like a new beginning, cancer-free and hopeful for the future.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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