Collins spoke about that pain with astonishing candor a week ago Sunday at the Haverford School. She was the featured attraction of the Blue Gene Gala, which benefits the Minding Your Mind Foundation. Founded by Steven and Amy Erlbaum and headquartered in Ardmore, the foundation, through in-school assemblies, encourages young people suffering from mental illness - depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts - to talk about it and seek help.
Collins is 72, and her lush mane is appropriately white, but her figure, which benefits from regular sessions on a treadmill, is slender and girlish. Her voice has lost none of its power and haunting appeal, and she delighted and amazed the audience when she performed such favorites as "Both Sides, Now," "Send in the Clowns," "Amazing Grace," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
But it was her rambling account of her struggle with mental illness that was most affecting. She spoke of her charming and talented father, host of a radio show, who spent his life battling the demon alcohol.
"He had no idea it was an illness," Collins said. "He never missed a day of work. He was the model to which we all had to climb. We didn't need help. We could deal with our troubles ourselves. We had to get on with the show, no matter what."
She spoke of her own addictions, her suicide attempt at 14, her facial cutting and bulimia, her own battle with alcohol. At the peak of her career, "all kinds of extraordinary things were happening to me, and I was dying and I had no idea . . .. I kept drinking, year after year after year, getting sicker and sicker and sicker, but nothing showed on the outside."
In 1978, when her drinking became so severe that it hampered her ability to perform, she quit and has been sober ever since, a declaration that was warmly applauded by the audience.
"Having suffered from depression my whole life, this is what the drinking was all about," Collins said. "I was probably medicating that depression, which had brought me to the suicide attempt in the first place."
Her "worst nightmare" was yet to come. In 1992, her son and only child, Clark Taylor, took his life at 33 after a long bout with depression and substance abuse. That plunged her into an abyss of unspeakable grief.
"There's nothing like losing somebody to suicide who is your nearest and dearest," Collins said.
She was vague about how she managed to cope.
"I don't take any mood-altering drugs or antidepressants, uppers, downers, opiates, et cetera. I do not believe that drugs are the solution to all our problems," she proclaimed.
She derives strength from her 33-year marriage ("I think that's pretty good for a hippie," she quipped), exercising five days a week, and continuing to create (a new album, a new biography, and a children's book). But she also implied that her quest for answers to the mystery of her personality - a quest that has included multiple therapists, self-help books, encounter groups, est, gurus, and yoga - would probably go on forever.
"Life is depressing," Collins said. "Camus was right when he said it's the number-one philosophical question in one's life: To stay or not to stay, and under what conditions do you stay, and how do you manage to sail through this Earth, which is both heavenly and terrible for many of us."
Sadly, the young are no exception, which is why an organization such as Minding Your Mind is so necessary and valuable. Strung along the wall of the stairway leading to the room where guests dined were heartbreaking "secrets" divulged by local teens:
"I've tried to kill myself three times. No one knows or notices. I wonder if they will."
"I have accepted that I am and always will be a failure. You were right, Dad."
"I have everything anyone could ever want, but I hate myself and feel empty all the time."
By speaking so honestly about her family history, Collins drove home the point that there's a heritable component to anxiety and depression, said Christine Berrettini, Minding Your Mind's executive director.
"She helped convey our message about the importance of talking about it," Berrettini said, "that you're not alone and that it can happen to anyone. There is treatment out there, there is help, there is hope."
Information about Minding Your Mind is at www.mindingyourmind.org.
After 34 years, I am leaving The Inquirer, but happily I will continue writing this column, which will appear every other week. Please keep offering your ideas and suggestions. Contact me at email@example.com. You can read my recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.