OHANA HAAS 1999 – 2020

Ohana Haas never felt more alive or optimistic than when she recorded her EP, The Broken.  That musical odyssey had begun, paradoxically, when she was struggling with a profoundly deep depression.  It was then that her psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Ablow, called Christian Josi, his friend and an accomplished music producer, and asked him to listen to her voice.  Josi initially tried to put Dr. Ablow off.  “You might like her music, Keith,” he said, “and I know how much you encourage your patients to follow their dreams, but I have to focus on that one out of ten thousand artists who could really break out.  I’ll listen to one song, but please don’t tell Ohana that I agreed to.  I don’t want to give anyone false hope.”  When Josi listened to one of  Ohana’s songs, however, he couldn’t help but listen to another.  And he says he “saw in those rough takes a beautiful artist who was creating an eloquent portrait of a life that few can or might understand.”  Josi agreed to produce an EP album with Ohana and recruited world class studio musicians to accompany her.  By the end of that arduous, but magical process, he told Ohana that she had won his heart and would win the hearts of many, many listeners.  “You’re that one in ten thousand singers who can go all the way,” he wrote to her.

Tragically, however, Ohana’s days of recording at Pyramid Studios in New York were to be her first and last professional
recording experience.  Her life ended abruptly at age 20.  Ohana’s music, however, lives on.  More and more people are
discovering her rare combination of talent as a singer who wrote and performed many original, profoundly moving songs.

Ohana’s life story is the stuff of movies.  She was born in New York City.  Soon after her birth, her family
moved to the New Jersey suburbs.  It was there that Ohana, who was extremely shy, attended a Montessori school.  She secretly began taking lessons with the school choir’s vocal coach and then, at 11, shocked her parents by not only participating in a school concert, but delivering an incredible solo of  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that brought people in the audience to tears.

Ohana then asked for more advanced lessons with someone who taught operatic singing, a request her parents happily granted.

A little more than a year later, however, Ohana became withdrawn and depressed. Her close friend informed
her mother that the situation had become serious. Ohana had starting self-harming. She was cutting herself, displacing the overwhelming sadness she felt with physical pain.

Many parents resist seeking mental health treatment for their children, but this was never true of
the Haas family. Her mother Sandra, made an appointment with a child therapist the next day. Sandra had no idea what had brought on Ohana’s self-destructive thoughts; she could only guess that it might be the soul-withering comparisons
so many tweens, especially girls, make between their own lives and what they see on social media.

As we now know, Facebook’s internal research found Instagram was having a destructive
effect
in the lives of many teenagers.  “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Ohana’s first bout with depression and self-harming was the beginning of a long journey that would continue throughout Ohana’s adolescence and become ever more horrific. She required inpatient treatment more than thirty times, was placed on dozens of  different medications, received every advanced treatment psychiatry could offer, but still struggled with terrifying symptoms of dissociative identity disorder, an eating disorder and self-harm.

The only real source of relief that Ohana could depend upon was her music. At one of the residential facilities where she stayed not long after the onset of her mental health issues, her doctor noticed that she often picked up one of the guitars
available to patients and played cover songs. Seeing how Ohana struggled with expressing her emotions in therapy, he suggested that she write her own songs to gain self-understanding.  At first this seemed like jumping over the moon to Ohana, but once she sat down with a pen, a notepad and a guitar, she found, as she says in the liner notes to her EP, “everything made
perfect sense. I could feel all the energy of those negative thoughts and feelings flowing out of me into the music I was creating. This quickly became my outlet whenever I needed to safely experience difficult emotions.”  She continued to compose,
at first using the app, Garage Band. Seeing the good this was doing their daughter, her parents helped her set up a studio in their garage, with all the needed equipment. She spent countless hours writing and recording, creating a treasure trove of more than 30 songs currently being mastered, lyrics to dozens more songs, deeply moving artwork and poems currently being organized for
publication.

Whenever she needed another break and returned to a residential mental health facility, she regularly performed for her fellow patients. Sometimes her mother wondered if she asked to go back into hospitals (including the famed McLean Hospital and
Silver Hill Hospital) in order to perform. Her singing made an enormous impression on her fellow patients. To this day the family receives numerous communications from  those who were in the hospital with Ohana and found her singing tremendously helpful in their recovery.

The following two statements are testimonies to how much good Ohana’s musical gifts and her caring presence meant to her fellow patients.

My first day at Silver Hill was so scary. I’d never been to a hospital and they’d taken my
stuffed animal. I was placed with you to sleep at night , and there blossomed our friendship.

We both left stronger than we came in. Since leaving you’ve been an unwavering source of support for me. You are
the epitome of a caring, kind, effervescent soul…Thank you for always being there for me, for everyone. I love you always.

[At the hospital] Hannah and I instantly became friends. Honestly, I could never have gotten through treatment and stayed afloat without her friendship. We were close for a while and she impacted my life greatly, and I owe a lot of my
stability to her. She was the sweetest and most genuine person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and she deserved only the best life. 

Despite her creative outlet, Ohana continued to suffer.  She made attempts on her life several times Her doctors, bewildered by the
increasing complexity of her irrational behavior, began to wonder aloud if she were suffering from psychosis. Could her condition have evolved into schizophrenia?

Ohana began ascribing her suicide attempts and other irrational behavior to “alters.” She did not want to starve herself, disfigure herself further, or commit suicide, but at times an alternative personality would take over and force her to do these things.

She had Dissociative Identity Disorder—what used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder. It was time for what many claim is the very best mental health facility anywhere, McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. McLean seemed like Ohana’s best hope for regaining her health. How could this young woman, a shining light in so many ways, not have a future?

When she turned fifteen, Ohana became a resident of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts for nine
months. McLean is associated with Harvard University and notable for the many famous people who have spent time there. During his own stint at McLean, James Taylor met his friend, “Suzanne,” whose death figures prominently in the first verse of “Fire and Rain.”  Ohana’s stay at McLean, while difficult at the start, saw her make great progress in coping with her
emotions. The program included high school classes and allowed this “girl interrupted” to resume living and maturing. In addition to composing new songs,  she started writing poetry and doing artwork. The cure seemed to have
worked.  It didn’t last, though. Ohana had to return the following year to McLean as she relapsed into anorexia and
bulimia once more.  The next two years were spent mostly at home. Her days and nights flipped as she stayed up all night
singing and writing poetry to ward off her nightmares. At first her mother didn’t understand why she was lying around all day—why she just couldn’t function—until she came to understand Ohana’s nocturnal habits caused by her terror of sleep.

The only thing that had really improved in Ohana’s later teenage years was her ability to communicate directly her periodic need for hospitalization. This limited her self-destructive behavior, to a degree.  During this period, when Ohana wished to return for further treatment McLean Hospital informed the Haas family that the facility no longer believed it could be of any meaningful help
to Ohana. Silver Hill did not have any available beds. Her long time psychiatrist decided that Ohana, in an effort to become more resilient and self-sufficient, should take time to see if she could work on some healing on her own. What seemed Ohana’s best hopes-her places of last resort- in her mind, gave up on her.  Looking for alternatives, the Haas family found Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist known for treating high profile cases and the most severely ill. He was also open to alternative therapies, including the use of the mild psychedelic, ketamine. (Ketamine has now come to be widely accepted as a treatment for severe depression.) He lived not far from McLean Hospital, in the the small city at the top of the North Shore outside of Boston, Newburyport.

Dr. Keith Ablow worked with Ohana through the years 2018 and 2019. He had never seen anyone who had disfigured herself to such a degree through cutting. It shocked him that McLean had essentially thrown up its hands.  At the same time, he
found Hannah extraordinarily engaging. He saw both her fierce intelligence and her prodigious talent. She had, he says, “a sarcastic, combative streak, with a lively sense of humor that tended to be dark. Her empathic and creative abilities gave her insight into other people. She could ‘run the arithmetic,’ so to speak, and decide whether someone made sense or not. She was never rude but didn’t suffer fools gladly. She was definitely a person dancing on the edge.”

She was a “high-wire”  act, but for that very reason someone who commanded and deserved his attention and care.

Dr. Ablow felt it unnecessary to trace or re-trace the genesis and trajectory of Ohana’s mental health issues back to their origin in trauma, brain chemistry, or genetic predispositions. It was clear enough that she was broken. Her personality had fractured to such a degree that the dark elements could commandeer her will and drive her to acute and chronic self-destructive actions. The  question really was: how could he help this person reintegrate and manifest herself?

Dr. Ablow could foresee the narrative of Ohana’s recovery. For one thing, he did not see her
Dissociative Identity Disorder as inexplicable. “It seems reasonable to me,”  Dr. Ablow says, “that if you’re a very sensitive person, and you go through very painful things, and you have certain predispositions genetically, then trying to manage all of your affect in one locale, if you will, emotionally and mentally, isn’t possible. And to survive, you compartmentalize.”

He points out that to a degree we all have multiple personality disorder, in the sense that we have aspects of our personalities that tell us we are unworthy and others that argue we are God’s gift to humanity. Most people with any acquaintance with psychology will have encountered the idea of one’s mind consisting of a “committee” of such voices. For most of us, these committees are cohesive, in the sense that we understand all the different voices that we hear in our heads as having a common source in our self. (Even if that particularly rude one sounds like a dead-ringer for Aunt Sally.)

What happens in Dissociative Identity Disorder is that the person experiences the different aspects of his or her personality as not having a common origin, as lacking cohesion. The normal coping mechanism of compartmentalization becomes a casting
department with its dramatis personae beyond the person’s control. Their destructive emotions assume a persona—a life—of their own, and sometimes several lives.

Dr. Ablow began helping Ohana reintegrate her sense of self through her creativity. That was the place where she both found comfort and the ability to see herself as others’ might. Her music is astonishing, in part, because it provides such an understandable
portrait of what it was like for Ohana to feel the emotions that drove her self-destruction. Her imagination provided a pathway to self-understanding, and ultimately, perhaps, mental health.

Dr. Ablow’s understanding of this, as well as his regard for her talent, led to him setting up the recording sessions out of which came The Broken.  There’s a Romantic notion that creative people are given to madness. That it’s our imaginations that bedevil
us, while sweet reason produces sanity. If this were true, relying on someone’s creativity—their imagination—to lead them to mental health might seem crazy in itself.  Go back and listen to these final lines from the video at the top of “Don’t Give Up On Me.”

I am falling  and drowning in memory

and it’s not over I am reliving it as we speak

And I am sorry  I’m not who you want me to be

But I am trying So please don’t give up on me

So please don’t give up on me.

When Ohana sings, “I’m  not who you want me to be,” she’s voicing a prayer to those who love her from a position of empathy. She understands that her pain has caused them pain and identifies with their disappointment. This is the very opposite of the self-enteredness in which the truly insane become lost within their own mazes of reason. Her imagination, in other words, allowed Ohana to see and potentially value herself as others who loved her did, and so find a path away from the destructive Ohana she saw in the mirror—the one who wouldn’t be satisfied until she made of herself a blood sacrifice.

One day, Dr. Ablow believed, Ohana might step away from her mental anguish and place her faith in
what gave her life meaning: the ability to create music and send it out to others in the world.  Dr. Ablow says: “In the
middle of a torturous mental illness, Ohana Haas showed up like a champ in a studio, and recorded an album with career musicians who found her talent breathtaking. Maybe the energy that’s inherent in that goes on and we can be instruments of it in some form.”

Her mother, Sandra, comments: “If you can take your incredible gifts and your abilities and find a way to harness them in a such a  positive way [as Ohana did in helping her fellow patients and now in her larger audience], yours is a life of infinite value.” 

It’s widely known that Millennials and Gen Z are dealing with an epidemic of mental illness. Ohana Haas’s case might be thought of as so extreme that it has only so much to teach us about the widespread anxiety, depression, and lack of purpose, and sense of self from which these generations suffer. Ohana may have been predisposed to self-destructive behavior in whatever time period she happened to be born. Still, Ohana remains at the extreme end of a continuum upon which most of us find ourselves today. 

Remember back to the onset of Ohana’s illness. It started and rapidly accelerated with her use of social media. Dr. Ablow suggests that the screens in our lives are turning us into two-dimensional characters, attenuating the true sense of self we  gain from close friendships and community. How different are we than the characters we see on our screens? Those we blow away in video games or idolize for their TikTok videos? Citing Marshall McCluhan’s communication theory, Dr. Ablow argues our screens are sucking us into them and transforming us into digital imagery. What does personhood mean in this context?

This led me to think about how so many film, television, and music stars become such miserable, and often, self-destructive people. The roll call of drug overdoes and suicides just off the top of my head would include Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Whitney Houston, River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, etc. etc. Any Warhol famously quipped that soon everyone wold be famous for fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, now almost everyone is famous, to some degree, on a continuous basis.

Here’s what I mean: In the past, only those made famous by traditional mass media had to deal with idealized
images created by PR agents versus the humdrum and often disappointing reality of being themselves. The disparity between the images created for the public and their own private realities could become torturous. Booze and drugs were a
first line of defense. Lethal solutions often followed.  To a degree, everyone at all times has worn a mask—a public face—to shield their privacy and to foreground the more likable aspects of their personality. This had its positive aspects, as the selves we presented to others practiced common decency more often and were more courteous than the darker aspects of our natures may have preferred. We could “keep a stiff upper lip” and still know ourselves to be more emotional, afraid, and imperfect than we chose to show. Genuinely healthy people know what they are feeling and have relationships in which they can let down their guard and be fully themselves. They also know, more or less, who they are, at least within the boundaries of how much a creature with a free will can ever know this.

When the distance increases exponentially between how we present ourselves to the world and our interior reality—when we find ourselves living a “double life” or one even more complicated—disintegration is inevitably at hand. That’s what happens to so many “stars.” Social media have now produced a world in which we are all liable to the star syndrome that’s killed

off many of its supposed beneficiaries. Everyone now has a PR agent—YOU. That fabulous trip you took to Cancun, your chance to have Vince Gill’s arm around you backstage at a recent concert, eating potentially deadly puffer fish sushi
at a kaiseki restaurant in Japan—this is YOUR amazing life, at least as far as we can tell from your social media posts.

You’ve just been divorced? Hey, time for self re-invention! You get to “change the narrative” and extoll the five miles you run everyday with your girlfriend, who is twenty years younger. People actually celebrate now the notion that our identities are as
fluid as our latest selfie. We get to decide, from moment to moment, who we are.  Now that is crazy. When it’s so easy to “make up you life,” how the hell are you supposed to know who you are anymore? 

And if you REALLY don’t like who you are, there’s always fentanyl to help you exit stage left. Ohana Haas remains a unique person; one tragically susceptible to personal disintegration and the destructive behavior that followed. She fought this,  valiantly. It’s a battle we all have to fight now, to some degree. Being authentic is demanding. It also demands resources that our culture largely shuns. This is a theme to which Music & Culture will return again and again, I’m sure. 

 

By the time Covid hit in early 2020, Ohana Haas was no longer under Dr. Keith Ablow’s care, as he was making a transition away from being a practicing psychiatrist. Ohana’s recording sessions in 2019 were a high point. A real future for her was coming into view—one in which even she could believe.  Then, the Covid pandemic quickly stole away many of her coping resources. Ohana was living with her family in New Jersey, but none of her friends in town could come to visit. Her isolation had a devastating effect on her, with her anorexia consuming what little body stores of energy she had left. She was under the care of a physician specializing in eating disorders through Zoom calls. Parts of those sessions were devoted to her weighing herself. Ohana dutifully focused the camera on the scale’s reading, to the doctor’s satisfaction. What she kept out of sight were the dumbbells she was holding.  One night she told her mother she wasn’t feeling well and went up to bed early. This  wasn’t an unusual circumstance, as Ohana’s medications often upset her stomach. Still, to be safe, her mother went up to Ohana’s bedroom every 20 minutes to check on her. 

The first couple of times Ohana seemed to be fine. The third Sandra Haas went upstairs, she found her daughter curled up on the bathroom floor. Ohana had died of heart failure.  The pain had finally broken her, but not before she created a musical legacy that has helped people and will go on doing so. 

[KEITH AND SANDRA – I WANT TO PUT HERE THE BEST RESOURCES YOU KNOW – PHONE LINES, MENTAL HEALTH

NETWORKS< ETC. – FOR PEOPLE WHO MAY BE FEELING SUICIDAL, HAVE OTHER MENTAL
HEALTH ISSUES, OR KNOW PEOPLE WHO DO. WOULD YOU PLEASE MAKE SOME
RECOMMENDATIONS?]

National Suicide
Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

NAMI (National Alliance
on Mental Illness): Teens and Young Adults nami.org Helpline 800-950-6264

NEDA (National Eating
Disorders Association) nationaleatingdisorders.org 800-931-2237

NIMH (National Institue
of Mental Health)  [email protected] 866-615-6464

Pain-2-Power, The Ablow
Center pain-2-power.com 978-462-1125

HHS Resources to Support
Adolescent Mental Health hhs.gov 877-696-6775

Save the Music Foundation
savethemusic.org 212-846-4391

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