Hi! Ji-Youn here. I met Francis through a mutual friend in November 2016. We talked over coffee for 3 hours. I had just publicly launched The Tipping Point and he said he was working on producing some music. Five months later, he showed me the mini-documentary, The Lion, and I bawled my eyes crying. And last week, I got the opportunity to interview him about his story and the film. Enjoy!
This is a beautiful mini-documentary about your mental illness and your passion for music. Why is it called The Lion?
Since childhood, The Lion King has been my favourite movie and I’ve always resonated with Simba. In 2009, I moved to Vancouver after high school for university. I made my first friend while playing basketball with this 35 year-old man named Rafiki, which means friend. I was the Simba to his Rafiki. During university, I coped with the stress of school by playing this Lion King video game on Super Nintendo. I imagined writing a song for every level of this game and that’s how I wrote my first song on the guitar - about The Lion King.
I always come back to the story of Simba - exiled to the elephant graveyard, meeting new friends who he grows up with, and coming back home as an adult, much stronger and wiser. And to be direct - he kills it! I imagine that through my healing, I’m also coming back home, stronger and wiser.
What was the hardest part about your experience with Bipolar Disorder thus far?
It was the blurry line. Hypomanic Francis is very similar to high-functioning Francis. So my family and friends were very confused, constantly trying to analyze me. Some would say I was fine. The doctors would say I wasn’t fine. I could tell that people were trying to get into my head, to try and figure me out and I would try to keep my distance from them.
During my manic episode, I was a residence coordinator at UBC, responsible for and working with a lot of people. Leaving was quite jarring. I realized later how hard it is to get closure, that I may not ever get closure with certain people whom I’ve hurt. I’ve tried reaching out but some never responded. It’s my biggest area of guilt and shame. But for my own sanity, I needed to accept that some things are out of my control.
You were hospitalized for a month during your manic episode. What was that like?
The hospital felt very sterile. The lights were bright, dry, fluorescent and empty. I felt like an illness in a gown. It took 2 weeks for them to let me walk out of the building by myself. As I said in the film, the piano was the one thing that kept me going.
Having gone through that experience, I don’t like being in hospitals. But I’m curious about both preventative measures AND spaces. The emergency rooms and psychiatric facilities are reactive spaces. How can we build safe, preventative spaces? Space affects our health.
In the film, you talk about feeling the need to “get out.” I’ve felt that myself. How did you fight through those thoughts and feelings?
It was the summer after hospitalization when I started having thoughts of suicide and self-harm. Every day, all day, I lay in the living room. I would wake up, waiting to go back to sleep. And I would go back to sleep hoping that I wouldn’t wake up. It was the following spring when I started making plans, giving my stuff away, and speaking in loose, non-committal terms. My first and only attempt was April 26th, 2016. And I woke up in the hospital the next day, April 27th, 2016 - one year since the detainment. In the attempt, some part of me died. Whether it was ego or fear or doubt, I lost something there and gained the rest of myself.
Every morning, I wake up thinking, “Oh, I’m still alive.”
What is one thing you would like to say to people who live with Bipolar Disorder?
I have two things. One: if you want to make any drastic changes to your medication, do it with supervision and let your support group know before you do it. I didn’t know I was susceptible to mania. Before the intense manic episode in January 2015, I was on antidepressants going through a depressive state. This is before I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 1. At the time, I had support from a counselor and a doctor, but I decided to go off the meds cold turkey and I told them afterwards. What I know now is that people who are susceptible to manic episodes need a mood stabilizer to bring the high down.
Two: you can be louder than your illness. It sends thoughts that are self-defeating and crushing, but once you find yourself in all of that mess, you can be louder than it. Like you and I, we now have days that are tied to our past experiences but it’s forward movement. We’re more than a diagnosis.
What does healing look like to you?
At first, the script for the film read “Francis is on the road to recovery.” We replaced it with “Francis is on the path of healing.” To me, recovery has an end. As if I’ve gone off path and recovery is getting back onto the path. But I believe in a healing that is beyond temporary; there’s no end to healing. I prefer to be process-oriented than goal-oriented. Writing music is a part of my healing process. Goals are the byproducts of doing the meaningful thing. I never planned on creating an album; I just wrote what mattered to me at that moment.
What are the top 3 lessons you learned from this experience of mental illness and healing?
In the suicide attempt, I learned that you can die doing anything. So you might as well die doing something that you love. When I woke up, I learned that everything is meaningless and you determine what has meaning to your life.
The best things are worth waiting for and working for. All the work you put in day to day - though it may not be ready for harvest immediately - if you work from the heart consistently, it will pay off.
We’re all reflections of each other. I’m now super intentional and aware of what I reflect back to people. When I was in the hospital, I used to hallucinate and have delusion thoughts. One time, I went to sleep and had a dream. There was this voice that said, “would you like to meet God?” So I said sure! In my dream, I get out of my hospital bed into the hallway, I open this door and walk inside. In real life, I then wake up. And I wake up in the bathroom, staring at the mirror. These days, I don’t think that I’m God. What I do think though is that everyone has untapped agency to change your own world.
So who is The Lions We Are and what is this album?
TLWA is the collective of friends and family with whom I collaborate. It’s constantly growing. Back to the The Lion King story, I’m coming back home and bringing everyone with me. That why it’s called The Lions We Are, not The Lion I Am. There’s more to making music than just the musicians.
The process of writing music has been therapeutic. This album is my way of proving to myself that I can still achieve something. Most of the songs are collaborations and every song is for the person who inspired it. This is also my way of thanking people for helping me on my path of healing. It’s wonderful to work and play with my best friends. The music is fueled by love and the love is fueled by the music.
If you could have anything on a billboard in a large city read by millions of people, what would you write?
You can change YOUR world. Not necessarily THE world, but YOUR world as you know it. And you get to play a part in changing the world.
The “TLWA” Mixtape drops June 28th on Soundcloud!
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length & clarity.
TLWA Cover Art created by: Kimmortal