By Elia Esparza
In 2005, Abel Garcia III was 24 and his singer-songwriter dreams were coming true. College educated, great job, and according to him, “life was good.” But something was happening to him mentally. He was getting feelings that someone was out to kill him. But then it would pass and he was back to normal. He just thought it was a weird incident.
In 2009, Garcia now 28, was playing a lot of music and shows and had met the GRAMMY-nominated multi-platinum producer Ronnie King, who would become his producer. He had also landed a record deal with an independent label. “I felt on top of the world,” he recalled. His music, vocals and style reminds me of Rodriguez (Sixto), the American Folk Musician, whose story Searching for Sugar Man, a film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2013.
Then his life fell apart. Shattered by things happening to his mind and he had no control over it. It was at this time he suffered his first full-blown psychotic episode. And, no his life-threatening mental health crisis had nothing to do with an addiction problem of either booze or drugs. In fact, Garcia had been an excellent student growing up, and a normal and healthy teenager who never got in trouble. He just loved his music.
Six months ago I received an email from Garcia promoting his music and asked if I would listen. Although, I’m no music expert, I do gravitate to certain genres. I found his music soothing—but what I found most compelling was his brief mention of how music saved him after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. His email haunted me but I just couldn’t commit to promising anything. My plate is beyond full. Still for days I kept returning to the email. And after so much time, here we are. Finally, I am able to share this amazing young man’s story.
A House of Blues favorite, Abel Garcia, 33, is a singer-composer and gifted guitar player who has endured a horrible mental illness and will always have to be careful. His story is important because mental illness in the Latino community is one of those dark, closeted subjects that only get dragged out into the light when a loved one or celebrity commits suicide. Mental illness is not a dirty secret to be swept under the rug because certain people are uncomfortable with discussing it. So, Abel, let’s talk!
Elia Esparza: Is it true you heard about us from watching HOLA LA! in Los Angeles?
Abel Garcia: Yes! I love that show. It was a rare fine—a local program that promotes local events, organizations and issues important to English-speaking Latinos. For a performing artist like me, you have no idea how excited I am about your show. I wish CBS2 and KCAL9 would broadcast HOLA LA! more often!
EE: Thank you for the support and for reaching out to us. Tell us briefly about your childhood, parents and siblings.
AG: I was born and raised in Oxnard CA. I come from a really great family. My parents, very supportive, always pushed me to exceed my expectations. I am the oldest of three—younger brother Frank and youngest sister Breanna. Growing up, I was an excellent student and athlete. I was also accepted and nominated by our Congressman to attend West Point and the Air Force Academy, but fell short on the SATs. I come from a middle-class family and very fortunate to still have them and married to this day.
70.6% of individuals with co-occurring bipolar and schizophrenia will attempt suicide in their lifetime.
EE: You were 24 when you experienced the start of what would be one of the most life-altering challenges you had ever encountered. Tell us about how it started for you.
AG: I had no idea something was physically or mentally wrong. I would have these really bad experiences. I suddenly had this fear someone was out to kill me. These thoughts happened on and off for years but would go away on their own. It wasn’t until I was 28 when I really started noticing how much paranoia and hallucinations I was having.
EE: Was this about the time when everything had finally started to go right with your music career?
AG: Yes. I was living in Newport Beach, CA. I had just met one of my producers, Ronnie King [musician, producer, established in the world of Hip Hop and punk]. He is also co-owner of Blue Label Records with Sean Couevas.] But the paranoia started to get worse in the middle of September 2009. I had started to slip into darkness and was living in a full-blown psychotic episode that just wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t sleep because I was having the worst nightmares imaginable. I don’t know how I even managed to go into the studio while in such a psychotic state and actually recorded three songs in two days. No one knew what I was going through. I was so out of touch with reality. I thought I needed an exorcism. I believed my neighbors had put a voodoo curse on me. The schizophrenia was in complete control. Soon I was hearing voices. I thought everyone was out to hurt me. I left my apartment that morning with my dog and just started walking. I didn’t know where to go. I just knew I was safe out in the open. I walked around for hours from Newport Beach to Santa Ana. My then girlfriend found me and took me to the hospital. I refused to speak because I didn’t know whom at the hospital I could trust.
EE: Were you suicidal?
AG: In my psychosis I did say I would take my own life before anyone else would and that was it—I was a 5150 [involuntary psychiatric 72 hours hold] and immediately transferred to a mental hospital. I fought the staff as they tried to give me an injection. I was certain it was my death sentence. Then I woke up and I felt normal again, thinking I had just had one of those weird freak-outs that didn’t go away. I was kept in the mental hospital under an additional 5250 hold, which is an additional 14-day involuntary commitment.
EE: Did drugs or alcohol contribute to your health issues?
AG: No Alcohol or drug use at all. I just happened to be one of the unlucky ones in my family. I rarely drink and do my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle now that I’m 33.
EE: I understand that you got out of the hospital in five days on a Friday and that you went on to perform that weekend?
AG: Yes. That Sunday, I played at the House of Blues in Anaheim. I was on meds so felt almost normal.
EE: Tell us about how your diagnosis finally came to be?
AG: It wasn’t until I had my first follow up doctor’s appointment who suggested to take me off the medication. I felt fine on the meds so I figured, sure why not. Worse decision ever. Within one week it came back but more worse than the previous episode. The doctor medicated me again—different drugs that didn’t work. For months I lived in fear. It wasn’t until I gained 60 pounds that the doctor again changed my medication. By that time I had cut ties with everyone. Changed my phone number. I didn’t even have the motivation to play music. But the new medications worked and within days I noticed I was coming back.
EE: I can’t imagine the horrors of psychosis. Did your schizophrenia come as a result of some traumatic experience or something that is just part of the mystery of mental illness?
AG: It is genetic and runs in my family. My great grandmother had it and a few of my cousins also experience problems as well.
Schizophrenia is a terrible disease. But people with schizophrenia are not terrible people.” — Abel Garcia, III
EE: Would you consider music to be part of your salvation and/or therapy?
AG: If it wasn’t for music I don’t know where I’d be. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology, Law and Society and a minor in History from UC Irvine. I learned to play guitar in college on my own. I would have never imagined I would come so far in music. Music was about the love of being creative. And creativity is the best therapy for any mental illness.
EE: How are you today?
AG: Going five years strong now. All good. The symptoms will always be there. But I have learned to live with it. I always have to do reality checks but I feel it’s made me stronger as a person. I always fear of a relapse but I exercise like I’m supposed to. Take a lot of vitamins and always take my medication. That is key. Stay on your medication, and be honest with people you trust let them know if you are having symptoms.
EE: On a personal level, are you married ? Do you have children?
AG: I am happy and in a committed relationship with a very wonderful woman. I wouldn’t have jumped back in the music business without her inspiration. She believed in me and it was the right choice because I have come so far. I do have a son, Santiago Kai Garcia who is 4 years old. Having him really pushed me to stay on the right track and get my life together.
EE: What do you think you can contribute to others who are performing artists to encourage them not to give up or despair when dealing with mental illness?
AG: Never give up on a dream because you never know how far you can go. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process of success and failure. But we learn and grow as people. This is a tough business and there are no guarantees. But it’s better to try something than nothing regardless of how competitive it gets. If you are living with a mental illness, I’m right there with you. Stay on your meds and keep the dream alive.
EE: A lot is going on politically to disarm the mentally ill. How do you feel about that?
AG: I never believed in guns. Guns kill people and I am a person of peace. In regards to not allowing people diagnosed with mental illness to obtain firearms…I would have to support it. More often than not we can be in the heat of the moment and someone could get hurt. As for myself I am happy I don’t own a gun because we all have moments of despair.
EE: As you advocate for awareness of mental illness, will you continue to use your music to further impact these programs?
AG: I will advocate every chance I get to enhance the education and awareness of mental illness. I will also push for the standard of care be risen. The services we receive are very substandard. From my own experience some times mental health care can be very poor. Always depends on where you live. I would advocate for better legislation that protects and helps the mentally ill.
The police need to be better informed so they stop killing people who just need help.” — Abel Garcia, III
EE: I read that throughout 2013 and 2014 you have been the #1 ranked singer/songwriter artist on Reverbnation for Ventura County, tell us more we may not know about you.
AG: I live in Ojai, California. I write all types of music from Reggae, Folk, Rock and Hip Hop. I’m blessed to work with many talented people in the music industry and have the opportunity to travel to many places. I am Native American Ojibwe descent and Chicano. I am very proud of my heritage and very big on both of my culture’s ideals and ways of life. I am the first to graduate from a university in my family. I am an advocate for mental health and equality for both my heritages. I share my story to help others overcome adversity regardless of the circumstances. Mental illness can happen to anyone at any time during their lives. It is a real disease that demands more focus and attention and the substandard of care has to be addressed.
EE: What are you working on now?
AG: I’m working with co-producers Filiverto Landeros and Ezra Robison on my latest material. Filiverto and Ezra are part of MosHigha Productions who also own the studio I work at. My last two records ‘California Dreaming’ and ‘Let’s Do It Right’, I co-produced with these guys. I am also working on five more new songs produced by Ronnie King. Thank you for this opportunity to share my story and music.
Thank you, Abel for having the courage to talk about your nightmarish experience.
Abel’s story is inspiring and courageous of him to share especially knowing full well the stigmas that come when people do not understand an illness. I hope Abel Garcia’s story sheds light on a topic that has been taboo for far too long.
Listen to Abel Garcia’s Music:
Listen to his music:
Follow Abel Garcia III on Social Media:
His Blog: abelgarciamusic.blogspot.com
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