David Ramsden - Saving Them With Kindness
“When people realized I was a musician my life completely changed. To write songs became my big thing. The more I wrote about things in my life, the better I felt.” – David Ramsden
For Toronto club and theatre stage veteran David Ramsden, mental health roadblocks came early, and often. He’s more or less faced them head on.
He survived childhood abuse, teen-age alienation and sexual disorientation to find himself playing piano for his mother institutionalized for psychotic depression on a Peterborough psych ward, to a career in music that has run parallel with years of extensive efforts in the crisis counselling game. He’s been grappling with mental health demons, his own and others’, virtually his whole life.
Along the way he’s helped and delighted a lot of people. Maybe even saved some.
“I didn’t start writing music until 18, and the songs were dreadful,” remembers Ramsden from his home in Toronto. “My mental health was still really at risk at that point. My parents wanted me to see a psychiatrist, and I did see two, even though I really didn’t want to. They wanted to put me on medication and I refused. It was by writing and playing that I just sort of fought my way through it.
“And I still do. When the grayness hits, I can get myself out of it. When the time comes, I can let it go if I really try.”
The world has benefited from his tenacity. As a singer/songwriter, pianist and actor Ramsden has for decades been an across-the-boards favourite of culturally diverse and discerning crowds and professional peers alike. His original songs have been featured in theater, film and television and been choreographed and performed by Robert Desrosiers and the Desrosiers Dance Theatre.
He has contributed vocals to records by the likes of Jane Siberry and The Leslie Spit Treeo, and as a musician has played with everyone from Carole Pope and Holly Cole to Blue Rodeo and Sara MacLachlan. Notable acting roles include such icons as Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton and Milton Acorn. Likely best known is his musical concert series Quiet Please! There's A Lady On Stage, featuring star-studded cards of renowned Canadian female vocalists, which ran for three years at the Cameron House in Toronto, sold out concerts at the Winter Garden Theatre and was broadcast nationally on CBC radio for four live concerts.
His music career, though, was but a glimmer in his eye as his childhood and adolescence unfolded before him like a tragic children’s horror story. His teen years were, consequently, equally emotionally tempestuous. His budding sexuality proved problematic. Generalized anxiety disorder, which can involve myriad debilitating physical symptoms, from which he still suffers today, rumbled in the distance.
“When I was young, I had a really rough time,” he says. “I had been sexually toyed-with by a babysitter and someone else from the age of nine. I became so depressed that by the time I was 12 I started to think I was going to have to kill myself.
“I also realized about that time that I was strongly attracted to men, and that the whole world thought that was wrong. Three years later I was suicidal after a stretch of extreme mental health shit went on. I had bouts of extreme anger. My parents had to call the police on me because I busted up the house. I picked insane fights over nothing.
“I had a very foul temper, and was completely self-harming – burning holes in my arms at 15. I was cutting myself, which didn’t last long because I’m too vain. But by the time I was 16, because I was such a huge reader, I realized that there was a big life out there that was okay. I picked up an early issue of the (LGBTQ mag) Body Politic and learned there are thousands of people like me. I knew then I was gonna be fine.
“It took me five years, but I was able to come out successfully, and music helped me with that too, without doubt.”
It was his dive into music and artistic exploration that bolstered Ramsden through all manner of mental health anguish. He’d begun to write songs, and was studying classical piano with an empathetic teacher. Through his low-level depression, she saw in him a spark and allowed him to take his playing in whatever direction he desired. That freedom proved crucial to both his creative development and his emotional stability.
“Music gave me a much broader range of focus,” he explains. “I was being tormented at school, and I joined the school band. People could see that I could play well and gradually their attitudes toward me changed. Before that I was called a fag in the hallway and had shit thrown at me. I didn’t even go to the cafeteria.
“When people realized I was a musician my life completely changed. To write songs became my big thing. I was really inspired by singer/songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor and Elton John. I would emulate them, and the more I wrote about things in my life, the better I felt.
“Writing enabled me to sort of glide through the negative stuff. It wasn’t that I glossed over it, but I was able to just push it aside because – thanks entirely to the music – it wasn’t big enough to ultimately drag me down. I never had much of a career in mind, to be honest. It’s all been just stuff I’ve wanted to do. That said, music and acting saved me, no matter how you look at it.”
With that in mind, Ramsden felt he ought to put his knowledge and experience to good use. He’d experienced considerable success with music, but still felt inexplicable emptiness and felt he needed more. The first shot was at an experimental artificial indoor city at Front and Cherry, Street City. Homeless lived there. There were riots. Police wouldn’t even come in. From there he moved on to the Gerstein Crisis Centre in Toronto. Over the years he’s helped a lot of folks, because he been there and done that – for a long time.
“Working at the mental health center has helped me too, of course,” he says. “But I believe my personal experience in turn has helped people who are suffering. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to give people an idea of how to get through things. I didn’t study to do this. I have no clinical background. I got hired on life experience and the things I’ve been through myself.
“So I can identify with what they’re going through, no question. A lot of workers don’t share what they’ve been through, but I actually will. We’re not a medical facility, and don't do therapy stuff with people on the phone. But if they talk about panic, I can tell them I go through the same thing and relate to them first-hand and specifically how it can be dealt with.
“And I believe people appreciate it when someone can share that kind of information. I don’t know if we’re even technically supposed to share personal stuff with clients, but if I have experience pertaining to what they’re going through, I definitely will share it with them.
“My main technique is kindness. It is what most people in crisis respond to the most. I think that’s the most important thing. I can’t remember all the times when simple human kindness has kept people from falling off the mental health cliff.”
What he offers to musicians suffering from crippling mental health issues and setbacks is not much removed from what he tells his callers in crisis. He feels it is crucial for people be able to reach deep into themselves for ways to cope with psychological upheaval.
“Focus in on your music, by all means,” he says. “Not the industry. The industry you’ll be working in sucks, there's no doubt about that. And, seriously – what industry? There isn’t one anymore in many ways. But it still can enable you, like it did for me, to explore your inner self.
“That exploration will empower you to overcome at least some of the darkness and depression that you feel you can’t escape. You can! You can work through a lot of stuff on your own, without intervention or any other people. Exploring your artistic side opens up a lot of other things.
“I, for example, never wanted to go on meds. I knew nothing about them and I just decided I was gonna make my own way. Somehow. That's just me. Meds are necessary for so many folks. But I wanted to feel everything that was happening.
"That’s where my songs came from. They are about myself, because I can’t write about anything else.
“And they are definitely what have given me a wonderful life.”