Seeing in the Dark: Actor takes on mental health
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In 1986, Thom Bierdz catapulted into stardom with his role as Philip Chancellor III in the popular daytime drama "The Young and the Restless." The Wisconsin native quickly became a sex symbol, a regular on soap magazines, and won fans around the country and beyond.
Bierdz was in the height of his career when his 19-year-old brother, Troy, murdered their mother, Phyllis, with a baseball bat in their hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Now, more than two decades after the horrific tragedy, Bierdz shares his harsh journey to forgiving his brother in his stunning memoir, "Forgiving Troy."
Bierdz's debut book is brutally honest, emotionally uncensored, and skillfully brings readers into the aftermath of the murder, surviving Hollywood as a gay man, and the perceptions of mental health before the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Curiously," said Bierdz, "Troy's disputed onset of paranoid schizophrenia in his teens was debated by many doctors. My mom tried to get him help by taking Troy to 40 doctors, but most felt he was only faking symptoms of schizophrenia, while only a few believed he actually was schizophrenic. There is no denying he did become schizophrenic and is today."
While many blame Phyllis' death on the Wisconsin court system, as it ignored her multiple pleas for help each time her son threatened to kill her, Bierdz takes a completely different stance. He said, "I do not know how a system can stop killing, since mental 'illness' is so variable. Millions of people threaten to kill others – so how can outsiders really know who will?"
"If you asked me on a spiritual level," continued Bierdz, "do I feel Troy was fated to kill mom, I would say no, that none of us are fated to do anything."
Still, Bierdz does feel that if the ADA had been around when his mom was seeking mental health services for her schizophrenic son, things may have turned out differently. And while Bierdz does feel medication can help, he wants to ensure that people know pills are only one option for some conditions.
"I cannot dispute that the anti-psychotic meds Troy now takes in prison miraculously take away most of his hallucinations and other symptoms. As a man who is over 50, and not on any pills, I cannot deny Ambien did, in fact, help my insomnia previously, and that medicines can help and cure people. But, I feel that is primarily because the patient's mindset believes in a cure pill. We all know placebos have a 30 percent cure rate. My intent is to empower the patient, for them to see they deserve perfect health, and they can attain that in numerous ways, pills being only one option," he said.
Above everything, Bierdz wants people to know that schizophrenics are not necessarily dangerous people and that, statistically, they are less dangerous than people without any mental illness. He does, though, think that people with any type of mental or physical condition would benefit from reducing the stress in their lives and eating whole foods. (He is an especially big supporter of veganism.)
In 2015, Warren Hohmann, from KTLA News in Hollywood, flew to Wisconsin with Bierdz to visit Troy, and captured much of their story through interviews. The clips were later woven into a documentary film also called "Forgiving Troy," which shows how Bierdz and his baby brother rebuilt their relationship.
"Troy and I were experiencing similar anxiety challenges – him in prison, me in the prison of Hollywood, etc.," said Bierdz about the film.
Bierdz still acts occasionally, but now focuses mainly on painting. In fact, he has become Hollywood's favorite realist painter and is in high demand.
"While I do realism for clients, my best stuff is when I spill my brain and do expressionism," said Bierdz.
E-book copies of "Forgiving Troy" may be purchased through all online retailers and paperback copies can be obtained via http://www.thombierdz.com. The documentary may be streamed for free on YouTube.
Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of "Blind: A Memoir" and "Midday Dreams," the spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine – a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.