In a new interview with Esquire, the legendary singer, who’s wrapping up his one-man show on Broadway next month, talks a lot about growing up the son of a paranoid schizophrenic. Springsteen, 69, also gets candid about his breakdowns — the first in 1982 and another in 2009 — and how he keeps his mental health in line.
Springsteen’s relationship with his father, Doug Springsteen, cast a shadow on him for much of his life. The star got some answers late in his dad’s life, when he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, before dying in 1998. His father never told Bruce that he loved him and often sat brooding in silence in their family home. While his father’s diagnosis explained much that Springsteen had not understood, it also made him worry for his own mental health and his family’s.
“I have come close enough to [mental illness] where I know I am not completely well myself,” Springsteen revealed to the magazine. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of it over the years, and I’m on a variety of medications that keep me on an even keel; otherwise I can swing rather dramatically and … just … the wheels can come off a little bit. So we have to watch, in our family. I have to watch my kids, and I’ve been lucky there. It ran in my family going way before my dad.”
Springsteen talked about his first breakdown when he was 32. It was the time he released Nebraska (much was about his troubled upbringing) when he was road-tripping with a friend from New Jersey to L.A. On a late summer night, they drove through a Texas town where a fair was taking place. A band was playing, couples were dancing, kids were running around, and The Boss — from his car — watched the happy scene and cracked. He still doesn’t know what it was about that exact place and time that so affected him.
“All I do know is as we age, the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier … much heavier,” he said. “With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher. … Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.”
He said the breakdown led him to therapy — and it transformed his life. Not long after this, as he and his wife, songstress Patti Scialfa, were expecting their first child together, Springsteen’s dad came to visit and they had a ground-breaking moment. “You’ve been very good to us. And I wasn’t very good to you,” he recalled his dad saying. (In Springsteen’s show, he called this “the greatest moment in my life, with my dad.”)
In Springsteen’s book, he wrote about a second breakdown soon after turning 60 that lasted three years, which he described as an “agitated depression.” He told Esquire that he never contemplated suicide then or at any other point in his life. However, “I once felt bad enough to say, ‘I don’t know if I can live like this.’ It was like … I once got into some sort of box where I couldn’t figure my way out and where the feelings were so overwhelmingly uncomfortable.” He had “no inner peace whatsoever.”
While he wasn’t hospitalized, maybe he should have been. “All I remember was feeling really badly and calling for help,” he said. “I might have gotten close to that and for brief, brief periods of time. It lasted for — I don’t know. Looking back on it now, I can’t say. Was it a couple weeks? Was it a month? Was it longer? But it was a very bad spell, and it just came. … And it came out of the roots that I came out of, particularly on my father’s side, where I had to cop to the fact that I also had things inside me that could lead me to pretty bad places.”
Springsteen said he never tried to take his life during his weakest moments (protesting, “No, no, no”). Then the interviewer brought up Anthony Bourdain, asking if Springsteen could understand how his suicide could have happened.
“Well, I had a very, very close friend who committed suicide,” Springsteen replied. “He was like an older son to me. I mentored him. And he got very, very ill. So, ultimately, it always remains a mystery — those last moments. I always say, Well, somebody was in a bad place, and they just got caught out in the rain. Another night, another way, someone else there … it might not have happened. They were ill, and they got caught out in the rain. … I don’t know anyone who’s ever explained satisfactorily the moments that lead up to someone taking that action. So can I understand how that happens? Yes. I think I felt just enough despair myself to — pain gets too great, confusion gets too great, and that’s your out. But I don’t have any great insight into it, and in truth, I’ve never met someone who has.”
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