We lost a beloved friend this month, and the world lost a brilliant musical genius. Gilbert Michael Herrera ended his life on Saturday night, July 6, after a long and painful struggle with crippling depression and anxiety. He has been our best friend; his smile and quirky humor was always a joy. I ( and many others) had the honor of singing with him over many years, and his guitar playing was unique and brilliant; singing jazz with him was always blissful. He took the time to transpose all my songs into the perfect keys for me to sound my best, something most musicians have a hard time with, and he did so effortlessly. We worked out a version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” that I still feel is the best I’ve heard; his unique chords and timing worked so well with my phrasing. I am sad that I do not have it recorded.
Gil was raised in Ventura. He went to UC Santa Cruz and then the school of music at the U of Oregon. He played on cruise ships and in musicals. Always an eclectic, he excelled at classical, baroque, and Latin music, as well as Great American Songbook, jazz, blues, Beatles, and even holiday songs. He was a big Grateful Dead fan, traveled around to their shows, and collected their memorabilia. And whatever he played, he did so flawlessly and with a unique style. I am sure I speak for everyone who played or sang along with him when I say that it was a treat. His sense of humor was wonderful — one time we had a gig on April Fools’ Day, and we had a blast corrupting lyrics on several songs to see if anyone was really paying attention (i.e., “My Funky Valentine” and lots more!), and they were. When he played, people listened.
And Gilbert listened. He genuinely cared about what you were thinking or feeling. When he asked, “How are you?” he meant it and really listened as you told him. He was always trying new things, whether going on Sierra Club hikes or exploring different religious and spiritual traditions, or learning yoga. I honestly never heard him say an unkind word about anyone, ever. If he had any issues with anyone, he would always approach it in a humorous and kind way. We could all learn from his approach. I never saw him angry, but I did see him sad.
His decline started last year when he suffered a deep emotional setback. His life started spiraling out of control. He had massive student loans, collection letters, and medical bills. He lost his job due to depression. He didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, had panic attacks, and didn’t show up for gigs. He had several different doctors, who gave him several different medications, resulting in a Molotov cocktail sure to cause further harm. And many of his medications warned of possible suicidal ideations. Sleepwalking due to them, in his kitchen one night, he burned his hand on the stove, waking just in time.
He became obsessed with the scar, in addition to everything else, even though it was small. He called several times a day, at all hours, until we finally had to set some limits. We begged him to get help, real help with one good doctor who would truly take the time to really help him. (He saw so many he called them “Doctor du jour.”)
He had several therapists who declined to see him after one visit. He felt like a pariah, and the Suicide Prevention Hotline did nothing more than call the cops. County Mental Health Services kept him waiting for months for an “assessment” and let him go without doing anything. Repeatedly. Even after his second attempt at overdosing, the hospital released him the next day.
The system failed Gilbert Herrera, and he was too afraid of being “locked up” to be truly honest and to push for help. Unfortunately when someone (like me) calls the Suicide Prevention Hotline, they in turn just send the Sheriff’s deputies out. Anyone with any empathy looking at Gilbert could have felt there was something very wrong, yet no one was willing to delve a bit deeper. Perhaps because he did not have insurance?
My partner and I no longer live in Santa Barbara; we moved to Northern California in April. It is ironic because humble Nevada County is a mecca for the arts of every kind, and I had hoped to get Gilbert to visit and play up here, knowing he would love it here. The other irony is that this small area is also home to one of only two peer counseling programs for the mentally ill in the U.S. (The other is in Oregon.) SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center is a community-sponsored nonprofit, open at no charge to people facing challenges to their mental health. (In 2005, community supporters and Nevada County Behavioral Health decided to use state income from the Mental Health Services Act to cover Spirit Center’s basic operating expenses.) Trained peer counselors offer acceptance, support, education, and advocacy, supporting people as they identify their path to recovery and empower themselves to achieve their personal goals.
SPIRIT supplements its expenses with musical concerts. I had so hoped to get Gilbert there, where he could talk with others who have made it through to the brighter side. Mental health officials, please take note! This mode of treatment is working miracles. People don’t feel stigmatized; they feel heard, understood, and respected.
For those he chose to confide in, the last months were hellish. He would call and say the same things every time, and we would say, “Please, please, get help,” make suggestions, and know that he wouldn’t take them. The two times he was hospitalized, we all felt such relief, only to have our hopes dashed when they sent him home. And then I would feel angry at him for not taking help. And angry at myself for feeling angry … I felt like we were all going insane right along with him. Every conversation was a two-way broken record. The Gil that we knew was a shadow of himself.
Then came the final blow; the stress of ambulances, paramedics, and cops pounding on his door at odd hours earned him an eviction notice. Gil was in complete denial and kept saying, “I just can’t believe it,” over and over. He stayed in bed and turned down other places and ideas. We were very worried as it got closer to July 1, his moving date. He begged for a few more days, and his landlords complied. My last conversation with him was Friday. He simply said that he had no hope of ever feeling better. He saw nothing but darkness at the end of the tunnel.
More than 150 people attended his memorial last Tuesday. I wish he could have known how many loved him and that he could have felt comfortable in reaching out to more of them. We all make our own choices, ultimately. But he is so missed. For me, and many others, some magic left this world with him.
I hope he is at peace, making beautiful music, somewhere over the rainbow.