Bill Bell is a Canadian guitarist based in Toronto who has toured with Jason Mraz and Tom Cochrane.
A few years ago, a 51-year-old Bill Bell found himself in a crisis: the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, which he had embraced since his teens and the excesses which were readily available – alcohol, drugs, sex – suddenly caught up with him and he suffered a nervous breakdown.
“I literally lay on the floor for two months in the dark and basically sold most of my guitars to pay the rent,” Bell remembers. “It felt like my brain just flipped. I wasn’t in control anymore. I started shaking.”
What led to the collapse was an intervention by his daughter Sophia and his ex-wife Tara that made him promise to go cold turkey on his drinking, a habit that had continuously occupied Bell’s life for 30 years.
“Sophia came to me two years ago and she said, ‘Dad, you seem really depressed and you seem sad,’” Bell recalls. “She told Tara that I was drinking a lot, isolating and staying in rather than going out and being social. So, Tara called me, staged an intervention and said that I should go to AA or seek help.
“Frankly, I was really angry about it because I didn’t feel I had a problem. I didn’t see it. I’d been drinking almost my entire life. For the first six months of my sobriety, I did it out of spite, because my daughter asked me to. But in my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just do this for six months and then go back to drinking.’ That was my plan. Just to show them.
“After six months, I had a nervous breakdown, because I wasn’t drinking and suddenly, I had to deal with all the demons of my past.”
Bell eventually found relief through a psychotherapist who had diagnosed him as being “situationally depressed” and helped him unlock prior issues that were long kept buried.
From growing up in a single parent household what he describes as a “terrible” Toronto neighbourhood – he lived under the roof of a “misogynist, alcoholic father” whose main currency was anger until the age of 11 when his Dad left – Bell had turned to a life of petty crime and was arrested at the age of 14.
While Bell avoided jailtime, his 16-year-old brother Dan wasn’t so lucky, and was incarcerated for drug possession.
It was an eye-opening experience for Bill.
“I remember thinking that I wanted to be a musician and play in the U.S. If I had a record, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So, I quit high school and joined the first band I could find. I started touring at 16 and I didn’t even have my Grade 10 education.”
Thrust into a lifestyle of late nights and open vices, Bell took a certain outlook expressed in The Who youth anthem “My Generation” to heart: “Hope I die before I get old.”
“I just assumed that I was going to die in rock ‘n roll lifestyle – that I was going to die at 35,” Bell concedes. “So, I lived my life like a party: I literally drank everything, I did whatever drug I wanted and became a sex addict.
“But through it all, I was always super responsible. I never got arrested for a DUI; I’ve always shown up for work on time. I was a functioning addict.”
He also entered a profession where the stamina one displayed while partying was worn as a badge of honour.
“Back in the heyday, if you could hold your drugs and your liquor, that made you cool,” Bell recalls. “Tom Cochrane used to have a nickname for me – he called me Rasputin – and it’s not that Tom was encouraging me, but when we were all partying, I could basically drink my face off, keep up with everybody, stay up the latest, wake up in the morning and be fresh and still get back to work.
“I always had that energy where I’d be motivated to work, regardless of how much I’d partied.”
Further fueled by the drug addiction death of his brother at the age of 24, Bell remembers one particular bender he’d experienced while on tour with Jason Mraz.
“I have a really good friend of mind, Dalton, who lives in L.A. – and we were allowed to bring friends out on tour if we coordinated it because we usually had an empty bunk on the bus.
“So, I brought Dalton up for about five days when we were touring around Vegas and the Arizona area. He and I drank and partied so much in those five days that I didn’t change my clothes or shower. We stayed up and Dalton had a joke saying that the shirt I was wearing – he’d say, ‘you should just send Shirt up there to do the gig, you know?’ And you almost feel like a pirate in a sense – you’re going out there and you’re kind of smelly – but you’re 20 feet away from the nearest audience member, so you’re living that Keith Richards rock ‘n roll lifestyle.“
Around five years ago, Bell came to a realization.
“I realized that every bad thing that happened to me in life, alcohol was around it, “ notes Bell. “It ruined relationships and prompted my shitty and selfish behavior. What used to be a really fun activity and involved really fun parties turned on me and I started to isolate. Where alcohol used to make me feel better and give me liquid courage and make me a super fun person, all of a sudden it made me depressed and angry and dark.”
He credits his daughter Sophia with giving him the strength to confront his demons.
“My daughter Sophia has always been my Northern Star, my guiding light. I think that’s why I always kept it together – because when I was with her, I was completely responsible. I would always drink – I’d have wine – but I would make her dinner while I was drinking at 5. But I never ever got drunk or sloppy around her, ever – I was always completely responsible.
“I realize now, I was drinking through to avoid my issues.”
Eventually he reached out to close friend Allan Reid, the president of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), who recommended that Bell contact the Unison Benevolent Fund – a non-profit, registered charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services for the Canadian music community – for immediate counselling.
In Unison, Bell found a lifeline.
“Unison got me into therapy and that was great,” he states. “Then I went to my family doctor. Getting into see a therapist in Canada is difficult – there’s a long waiting list. But my doctor got me into see a registered psychotherapist who diagnosed me as being situationally depressed and not clinically depressed. There’s a difference.
“I didn’t realize that I had depression for 30 years, because I partied through it – hiding all my scars; hiding all my pain.”
Bell admits that it took a while for him to find the right therapist.
“I went through about six therapists, because unfortunately, they’re only human,” he explains. “When you’re down, you’re looking for a superhero. I had some therapists literally tell me to get over it, because it was in my past, but they were family therapists, and I learned the difference between family therapists and psychotherapists.
“What I recommend to people is to audition your therapist. You have to be honest with yourself that you’re not looking for them just to appease you and give you answers that you want: you really hope that they’re giving you the answers to help yourself. When you’re ready to learn, the teacher will appear and bring you back to yourself.
“They’re not supposed to solve your problems for you. They’re supposed to give you the tools to solve your own problems.”
To heal, Bell decided to abstain from his profession, selling some of his guitars and radically changed his lifestyle.
“I took everything out of my life that would give me a hit of dopamine.: sugar, meat and sex,” says Bell. “ I lived literally on water and vegetables for the last 18 months, because I wanted to find happiness within me without any external influences.
“That was hard, but what I realize now is that happiness isn’t necessarily the goal – gratitude and contentment are the goals.”
Now Bell encourages men to talk.
“The more conversations I have with men, especially at my age, the term “toxic masculinity” comes up,” Bell says. “We all wear this mask and we don’t allow ourselves to show our emotions.”
“After the ordeal, I would go out and see people and they’d say, “Wow, I had no idea you were going through that.‘ That’s why I say to people now that the best thing you could do is to ask people for help and talk about it.
“I didn’t talk about it because my pride got in the way. “
Now 53, Bill Bell has begun a second career as a mature male model and has started working as a motivational speaker to convince men “that they can change lanes later in life.” After a hiatus from music, he’s also back to performing as a guitarist for Tom Cochrane and Andy Kim and songwriting, rediscovering and reviving his love for the art form.
He’s also started dating again and is finding that life is better – although he’s taking it one day at a time.
“Whenever sadness and loneliness comes, I’ve learned not to panic. Because in the past I’d be like, ‘Have I fallen down that black hole again?’ I’ve realized my dark thoughts are not my reality.
“I’m just so fortunate that in my life I’ve surrounded myself with great people that have lifted me up and I’m still able to make a living at music, which I love, and it’s literally saved my life.”