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Long road home: After an extended medical nightmare, David Boone tries to emerge from his bubble

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Two years ago, I ran into David Boone outside his Missoula home and we talked about how his life had fallen apart. The singer-songwriter had been playing local coffee shops, bars and wineries since he was 19. Initially, he wrote songs in the acoustic-folk vein of Jack Johnson, but with a rawer and messier personal-diary feel. In time, he developed a more complex style that evoked Bruce Springsteen, playing emotionally charged tunes with just the right restraint. Between 2008 and 2012, he consistently won second or third place for Best Musician in the Indy’s annual Best of Missoula issue.

What was clear to anyone who got to know him was that he was the kind of musician who wrote songs compulsively. The kind of person who considers nothing else as a career, because nothing else makes sense. He’d had his ups and downs, including struggles with bipolar disorder, but those were few and far between, and mostly entailed mild symptoms. And music always got him through the worst of it. By the time I wrote a story about him in 2012 for the Indy, all of his hard work seemed to be paying off. He had recorded a four-song EP in London with Danton Supple, a producer who worked on albums for acts including Coldplay, Patti Smith, Morrissey and U2. Boone’s EP, which was released under the moniker DAWNS, had the kind of catchy, expansive, pop-infused indie-rock sound you might hear on popular radio stations anywhere in the country.

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But in May 2013, after months of touring to promote the album, Boone had a severe manic episode that landed him in the hospital, and he was put on several medications. He had rarely taken anything for his bipolar condition, and he soon found out that his body didn’t react well to Klonopin, an anti-epileptic drug used to treat panic attacks. He also didn’t react well to stopping the medication: When his doctors took him off the Klonopin, he went into severe withdrawal.

For almost five years since then, Boone, now 37, has struggled with a long list of debilitating symptoms, most of which doctors have been unable to diagnose or alleviate: memory loss, warped vision, the sensation that his skin is on fire and a feeling of emotional disconnect from everyone, even his wife, Stephanie, and his 6-year-old son, Meyers. Boone has been to the Neurobehavioral Medicine Inpatient Unit at Providence Center four times and spent two months in a withdrawal clinic in Arizona. He’s had electroshock therapy. Fillings in his teeth were removed on the off chance that the mercury was making him sick.

With the aggregation and duration of his symptoms has come severe anxiety that’s kept Boone more or less housebound. The musician, once a mainstay on local stages and a touring pro, suddenly couldn’t bear to play in front of a crowd. He could barely play music at all.

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On the curb in front of his house, Boone told me how painful it felt to live in his own skin. He seemed groggy and his speech was blunted, and beneath it all was an air of panic, as if he had just awakened from several years of deep sleep and was desperately trying to re-orient himself to the world. At the time, he had no idea what was happening to his body. His biggest fear was that his hell was going to last forever. He wasn’t sure he could handle that. “You think it gets better someday for me?” he asked.

Breakthrough

Boone grew up in Dogtown, just outside of Seeley Lake, with his dad, William, his mother, Mary, and two brothers and two sisters. Mary didn’t want her kids exposed to rock and roll, David says, so his main contact with music was at Sunday church services, where the family sang hymns. But sometimes, at home, William would sneak David out to his truck to listen to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin cassettes. David got his first guitar when he was 7, but a week later William accidentally crushed it while he and his son were wrestling. Five years later, he got another one — this time an electric guitar with an amp.

“I had a passion for music as soon as I touched the guitar,” Boone says now. “But I went through some very hard things when I was 14 and 15. So it became a coping mechanism, a way to process what was going on in my life.”

Boone’s dark times began when his parents got divorced and everybody moved out of the house. Mary moved to Washington state, his sisters went to live with family friends, and his older brother moved in with a grandmother. Boone’s father moved to a small cabin near the Dogtown house, and Boone and his younger brother slept in a camper in the backyard.

Music continued to buoy him throughout high school, and Boone’s ambition surged. He started a band called Faucet with a few friends. When he heard that Pearl Jam would play Washington-Grizzly Stadium, he tracked down the the band manager’s address in The Musician’s Atlas.

“My buddy and I got this harebrained idea that we would drive to the address and drop a demo off to open for Pearl Jam,” Boone says, laughing. “I actually thought that was a reasonable idea that would come to fruition.”

His friend’s dad drove them to Seattle, where they tracked down the mailbox and deposited the demo. Nothing came of it, of course.

Boone’s middle-school teacher, Clifford Nelson, who had introduced Boone to the music of Bob Dylan and Don McLean, helped record Faucet’s demo. He also set the band up with its first paid gig, at Seeley-Swan High School’s homecoming dance.

The day after the dance, Nelson was murdered in his trailer. The crime has never been solved, and the event, along with his family turmoil, sent Boone over the edge. The following semester, at 16, he dropped out of school. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, hospitalized several times and ended up in the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs for a few months.

Music brought him back. He moved to Missoula, where he lived with friends and in hotels, always with a guitar. “Music was my therapy,” he says. “I let everything that happened to me run through me into my music. That’s how I processed my losses.”

Stephanie met Boone at a show he played with Tom Catmull in 2003 at Break Espresso. She’d never talked to him before, she says, and thought nothing of him at first. But during Catmull’s song “Black Coffee,” where he sings “Black coffee in the morning sure tastes fine with you,” she suddenly saw an image of her and Boone walking down a wedding aisle. “So I was like, ‘Ohhh-kay. I guess I have to ask this dude out.’” They were engaged three weeks later. For 15 years, she’s been his manager, helping promote his music. And drawing on her experience as a professional personal trainer, Stephanie encouraged Boone to stick to a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Symptoms of Boone’s bipolar disorder were, for the most part, kept at bay.

For a while, his songs were steeped in simple devotion to God and a love-conquers-all philosophy (the Indy archives include scathing reviews of Boone’s music, critiquing its earnestness and predictability, but also praising its sincerity and “deeply human resonance”). Over the years, his songwriting has evolved toward more complex narratives. His biggest breakthrough arrived with the 2006 album Hard Enough to Bend. The songs are tender, tragic gems, built in minor keys, punctuated with hopeful glimmers. Some deal in Boone’s nostalgia for his early childhood (playing at the river, hunting in the winter, not needing much money to be happy) and the loss of innocence he experienced later. Others are about fictional characters who seem to reflect Boone’s personal heartbreak and hope. Over the next several years he released more albums. A Tale of Gold was an upbeat rock album, which Boone released in 2007 at a sold-out show at the Wilma. He followed it with 2009’s State of the Union, an angrier album reflecting his disenchantment with politics and society. At the time of State of the Union, he threatened to give up music. He was building a house for his family and he thought maybe a break from music would do him good. “I’m constantly disappointed,” he told me at the time, “and I think it drives my art, but it’s also exhausting.”

But he didn’t stop. He kept writing songs and sent them to the management company 365 Artists, where producer Danton Supple heard them.

“I really liked the music and warmed to Boone straight away,” Supple wrote in an email to the Indy. “He and Steph, with a very young baby, came to London and we recorded and mixed over a couple of months at various studios. They became close friends very quickly.”

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In May 2013, after months of touring to promote an album, musician David Boone had a severe manic episode that landed him in the hospital.

The music Boone recorded with Supple embraced his Americana storytelling sensibilities, but the new songs were more elaborately structured, and were performed with a full band, including Audrey Riley, a session cellist who’s recorded albums with the Smiths and Nick Cave, among others. The Boones came home from London feeling good. Boone worked on side projects (a Honda commercial, for instance) and got ready to push his album into the world.

Boone’s dream was less about being famous than about having the freedom to play when and where he wanted to, without struggle. In fall 2012, Boone, Stephanie and Meyers headed out on tour with a backup band. They had put all their money into hiring high-end promoters across the country to market the DAWNS EP. But out on tour, they were reaping few benefits from the promotion. Scouts didn’t show up to shows as promised. Crowds were thin.

“We had put everything on the line in the pursuit of a dream,” Boone wrote in a recent Facebook post. “We had also put all of our own home equity on the line. In gambling terms, we were going for broke. But it seemed all the stars had aligned, and now was our time and we had to take the leap. Yet as the tour unfolded, a very unsettling feeling continued to grow inside of me.”

Breakdown

For Stephanie Boone, May 9, 2013, started like any other day. She went to work at her fitness studio and Boone stayed at home with 2-year-old Meyers. She imagined that the two of them would spend the morning playing music together, and the afternoon outside. But halfway through the day she got a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. “He hadn’t texted me all day,” she says. “And usually there’d be something from him like, ‘Where are the diapers?’ or ‘What should we have for dinner?’” It didn’t seem like a big enough deal to worry about, though, so she brushed her concern aside. When she got home that evening the house was a mess — toys strewn everywhere, food and dirty dishes all over the kitchen. Boone seemed unusually anxious and distracted.

“It just wasn’t like him to have everything so out of place,” she says.

That night, his behavior became even more erratic. He was paranoid and agitated, she says. He thought there were people whispering to him through the electrical outlets. His speech kept slipping into what sounded like foreign languages. He stayed up all night burning incense and playing his guitar with the window shades pulled down tight.

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After severe withdrawal from Klonopin, Boone has spent the past five years trying to get well with an array of medications.

Even though she’d never witnessed it before, Stephanie understood that Boone was in a manic state. In the morning, she got a friend to watch Meyers and took Boone to Providence Center. In the waiting room, Stephanie says, Boone’s obsessive compulsiveness kicked in and he used an entire bottle of sanitizer on his hands. Still, he was in a deliriously good mood.

“He thought that I was a princess and he was taking me to a ball with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” Stephanie says. “The doctor said most people having a manic episode are focused entirely on themselves, not the people around him. And the doctor said that was a good sign, at least.”

Boone spent two days at Providence, and when he returned home he went to work recording more songs with Supple to make a full-length DAWNS album. But both Stephanie and Boone were wary about the prospect of another episode. Stephanie says doctors told them he should go on medication, and that the 12 years of relative good health he’d had was probably a fluke. They weren’t sure if the doctors were right, but they had Meyers to consider.

“I was so hypervigilant about being better for my son, immediately,” Boone says. “Like, ‘This cannot be happening. I have a child. I am a dad now.’ And so I was way more willing to take medications. We usually would just weather the storm, just me and Steph, with diet and exercise, and we were fine. I wish we had this time, too. It was one perpetual snowball that went the wrong way.”

Boone was put on medications including lithium and seroquel and for the next few months, Stephanie watched as his anxiety seemed to get worse. She decided that they should move to her hometown of Philadelphia for a few months, where she could get support from her family. In October 2013, before they left, Boone’s doctors put him on Klonopin to help him sleep better. But nothing helped.

“It was like the anxiety was growing,” Stephanie says. “That kept getting worse, which was really weird. He never had really bad anxiety before. And then his depression got worse.”

In April 2014, after they returned from Philly, Boone’s doctors weaned him off the Klonopin over the course of seven days. It sent him into severe withdrawal. “He had tunnel-vision, sweating all over, gastrointestinal issues, tinnitus,” Stephanie says. “Then he was just vomiting all over, and that was when I was like, I have to take him in.”

Boone describes the symptoms as unrelenting and agonizing.

“I was in a constant state of fight or flight,” he says. “I experienced crushing depression, paralyzing anxiety and panic, burning sensations through--out my body, severe nerve pain and a list of at least 100 other symptoms I don’t really even want to recount.”

Boone’s most terrifying and debilitating symptom was memory loss. His doctors called it “jamais vu,” the opposite of deja vu, in which patients have an eerie sensation that is often experienced by people with aphasia, amnesia or epilepsy.

“When I go to a familiar place, I know that it should be familiar, but I can’t feel connected to it,” he says.

He couldn’t remember where to put the capo on his guitar, or how to play chords. He couldn’t recall his own songs. He was aware of what he’d lost, and the longer it didn’t come back, the more anxiety it caused. He also found himself re-examining his childhood trauma.

“A lot of what was driving me [in] the years leading up to me crashing was wanting to have the perfect childhood for Meyers,” Boone says. “I remember painting his bedroom two times the week before he was born. But a newborn isn’t going to care about paint colors, you know? I was projecting. When you have such a high bar for yourself because of your own misfortunes as a child, it puts more pressure on you. And when it all falls apart, it’s like my worst nightmare times about a thousand.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, physiological dependence on benzodiazepines, including Klonopin, is “accompanied by a withdrawal syndrome characterized by sleep disturbance, irritability, increased tension and anxiety, panic attacks, hand tremor, sweating, difficulty in concentration, dry wretching and nausea, some weight loss, palpitations, headache, muscular pain and stiffness and a host of perceptual changes.” Withdrawal symptoms usually cease in a few days, weeks or months, depending on other factors. But some people have reported a “protracted withdrawal” that lasts for years. Online forums like benzobuddies.org have documented these cases, which are often dismissed by mainstream doctors. Boone was not only experiencing all of the drug’s withdrawal symptoms, he was experiencing them far past the normal withdrawal window.

A fundraiser for Boone in Missoula helped provide him enough money for in-patient care at a Tucson, Arizona, clinic called Cottonwood that specializes in holistic treatments of benzo withdrawal. The clinicians there told Boone he was one of the worst cases they’d ever seen. The hope was to get him off meds and back into managing his bipolar disorder with a healthy lifestyle. It was a peaceful place, Stephanie recalls, with gardens and waterfalls, and counselors conducted therapy on nature hikes. But at $6,000 a month, the Boones couldn’t afford it for long, so they returned to Missoula. “It was a good experience,” Stephanie says. “But when we got home, he was still on medications and he started going downhill again.” As time passed, Boone’s doctors suggested that the window for withdrawal symptoms had probably closed, and that Boone’s persistent symptoms were probably psychosomatic.

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Before his manic episode, Boone, picture here with his son, Meyers, made an EP with producer Danton Supple and created music videos for the tracks.

Boone’s doctors tried other medications, all of which seemed to bring more side effects than relief. He turned to alternatives: homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, body talk, counseling, EMDR, biofeedback, supplementation.

Ever since his son was a baby, Boone had taken Meyers to Caffe Dolce once a week for hot chocolate. “The joke was going to be that it was like Tuesdays with Morrie, but mine was Thursdays with Meyers,” Boone says. After his Klonopin withdrawal, Boone would sit at the table with Meyers and feel life passing by. He says he began to feel distant from Meyers, as if he was looking at him through thick glass. He knew he loved him, but he couldn’t find an immediate emotional connection to him, and that sensation grew each day until it became normal. Meyers seemed to sense the shift in his father and preferred to cuddle up to Stephanie, which made Boone’s feeling of isolation more pronounced.

“I couldn’t look at pictures of Meyers for three years,” Boone says now. “I turned over every picture Steph framed, because each one represented a beautiful memory that I had missed and I had no way to retrieve. I was perpetually stuck inside a bubble.”

One winter day in 2015, enshrouded in his bubble, Boone and Meyers were driving home from their Thursday date. Boone recalls the sun coming out and a car passing by, windows down, blasting music.

“This guy was just singing at the top of his lungs and Meyers, who was just 3, said, ‘I like the man singing more than I like the song.’ It was like whatever this guy was conveying had more life to it than the song itself,” Boone says. “And for me, that summarized the feeling I had with Meyers.” Boone had to lean on the idea that the love he knew he had for Meyers outweighed the fact that, for the moment, he felt unable to truly feel it.

Not long afterward, Boone starting writing the song “Man in the Car Singing” about his experience with his son: “You, you woke up / screaming from your dreams / it was terrifying to me / was it me or the monster / or were we the same enemy?” And it’s true / sometimes we don’t know why / our love is better than us / our love is more than we can do.”

The song captured Boone’s anxiety. But the fact that he was writing music again also provided evidence that he was finding his way back. He couldn’t see it yet, but people around him were noticing. One morning, Meyers, unprodded, climbed onto his dad’s lap for the first time in two years and wrapped his arms around him.

Bursting the bubble

Before the Klonopin withdrawal, Boone used to write each of his songs in one big rush. It was like they had been brewing in his head, and when they were ready to come out, he’d sit down with his guitar and let them fly. Stephanie jokes that his songs were always born at the most inconvenient times, like when the family was headed out the door for an appointment.

After he found himself in a bubble, songs came to him slowly, and fractured. Sometimes a full verse would present itself. Other times he’d come up with a line before feeling sick again and setting his guitar down for another month.

In May 2017, Boone traveled to a clinic in Seattle where he was diagnosed with severe chronic PTSD. He was told his temporal lobes were underactive, which fed into his experience of “derealization” (losing touch with reality), depersonalization (loss of a connection to self) and memory loss.

“They say it’s a cognitive distortion, or an error in thinking,” Boone says. “But until the brain heals and the body becomes less hypervigilant and fully calms down, that is ultimately your reality.”

The diagnosis didn’t make Boone feel any more certain that he’d get better, but it flipped a switch. In October 2017, I sat with him in his living room as he played some new songs he’d written. He was going to make another album, but he wasn’t sure how. He knew that the only way to make it happen was to tap into his previous ambitiousness and take a shot. He wrote an email to his longtime hero, Missoula resident and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, to see if he would play bass. Ament agreed to collaborate on a handful of tracks. “David’s been consistently active in the [Missoula] music scene,” Ament wrote to the Indy via email. “I really liked the wide range of styles and grooves in his songs. I wanted to give David some different flavors: keys, upright bass and some pick style electric bass, so a bit of everything. The songs I played on demanded [that kind of attention].”

With Ament involved, Boone contacted Danton Supple. It had been four years since they’d talked — a lifetime for Boone. Supple agreed to produce an album, and Boone began sending demo tracks to Supple’s London studio. In August, Supple flew to Missoula, and he and Boone set up a makeshift recording studio in an empty house near Caffe Dolce that a friend of Boone’s was trying to sell.

The new album is called A Bubble to Burst. Besides Ament, it features Pete Wilkinson of Echo and the Bunnymen, and local musicians Tyler Paul and John Sporman. With DAWNS, Supple created layers of sound that gave the songs an almost cinematic feel. For Bubble, he built music around demos that Boone had recorded alone in his living room. The effect is something between the raw emotion of Boone’s early albums and the polish of DAWNS. The music is surprisingly upbeat, but the lyrics directly address the physical and emotional struggles Boone has faced the past five years. On “Man vs. Machine” he sings:

What is this thing called a man?

he was built strong

he can do whatever he can

stand on my head lay on my side

buckle my belt swallow my pride

What if he broke down what if the

tide went too high for him to

swim to the other side

what if they built a better man

made of machine

he can do whatever I can’t …

Last week, Supple finished mixing the 11-track album, which will be released sometime in the next couple of months. Boone has rejoined social media to promote three tracks he’s pre-releasing this week: “Breakdown,” “Something” and “Country Song.”

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Boone’s recovery has included making a new album, which will be released in late spring, and building a studio space to record his music.

“When I heard the new batch of tracks, which were just acoustic and vocal in a room, I was blown away by how beautiful they were,” Supple says. “I immediately wanted to make an album, but this would be a very different direction [than] before. The story of David, Steph and Meyers’ last few years is central to the album’s narrative and its emotion. But it’s not mournful or complaining, which it could quite easily be. It’s full of optimism, love and the joys of a shared journey. David’s whole life path has been one of resilience and a struggle to succeed against the odds — and he has.”

Do what you love

Boone doesn’t see it that way. Not yet. He’s still taking medications, and he still feels lost in a bubble. In January 2018, Boone started posting his saga on Facebook. In five years, he says, aside from doctors, he’d barely talked to more than five people. On March 8, Boone wrote: “Does anyone else feel like the world, and society, and technology and life is just moving so fast now that you can almost sense it expanding you from the inside of your body? Stress and tension and tightness and pressure, causing this internal expansion that we can’t catch up to and there’s no way we can adapt to quickly enough, that we are inextricably tied to, but it is stretching us beyond our capacity. Beyond even our desire to be a part of it anymore.

Or is it just me?”

For the people closest to Boone, the most difficult part of his illness is getting him to see that the next chapter of his story is the one where he bursts the bubble. His therapist at Providence, Emery Jones, likens Boone’s situation to a domestic violence scenario in which the abused can only feel safe when they’re out of danger. And Boone’s body, because he is still being weaned off medications that give him severe side effects, is not out of danger.

“The continuous impact of symptoms makes it so he doesn’t experience his normal self,” Jones says. “I can see his baseline and function are increasing, but he has the perception he’s phenomenally impaired. What has to happen is that he needs a window — a lightening of the symptoms for long enough that he has a felt sense of it resolving.”

In the meantime, Jones helps Boone stay above water as he waits for relief. And the fact that he is recording an album, Jones says, shows how far he’s come. It might be the case that Boone feels that, too. For a long time, he wasn’t sure he wanted this story to be told. Two years ago, he told me: “I want a story that has a happy ending. And I don’t know if mine does.” When he agreed to cooperate for this story, it’s because he knows his new music means something. “I hope from here on forward, I’m able to show up,” he says. “I do think these are some of my best songs, and I don’t fully understand how it happened.”

Boone says A Bubble to Burst is about Meyers and Stephanie and the difficulties of the last five years. It’s about his gratitude for his family and his hope that he can return to himself. “It’s about seeing through what’s not true. It’s about the music industry, mental illness...” He stops himself. “It’s hard for me to describe it all.”

For Boone, the last five years have changed everything, including the vision he once had for himself as an artist. For years, he tried to make it in the music business and now, he says, all he wants is to be back at some Missoula coffee shop or winery, wherever, playing his music for anyone who will listen.

“My mentor, Clifford Nelson, told me 25 years ago that you should do what you do because you love it. And that’s it. I wish I could go back in time and whisper that in my ear. I never needed more than that.”

Arts & Entertainment Editor

Missoula native Erika Fredrickson started writing music reviews for the Indy in 2005 and became the arts editor in 2008. She covers the Missoula arts scene, food policy and local characters. @efredmt on Twitter.

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