At the height of their fame, The Osmonds were well-known for their happy-go-lucky natures as well as chart-topping hits.
But their millions of fans could never have guessed that behind the famous smiles, lead singer and bassist Merrill was battling depression so severe that as a teenager he came close to taking his own life.
“The depression has been with me for ever,” says Merrill, 66, who was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 30. “I still have bouts of it almost weekly. I can sit and cry all night, which I’ve done many times.
“My last attack was yesterday. I didn’t want to get out of bed and I had
press interviews to do. I tried to cancel them, but my assistant said: ‘Merrill, remember what you have to do in these cases’. So I was able to talk to myself. It took me about an hour and it wasn’t easy, but I got through it.
“I go into a very scary state where I lose perspective. I lose hope, my hands start shaking and I’m not thinking straight – my mind is scrambling. I’m out of control.
“At my worst I can’t speak to people. I want to be by myself. It’s not a pretty sight. You don’t want to be around me, but with medication I’m able to experience a little bit of normality.”
Recalling the day he came close to suicide, Merrill says: “I had a knife and I didn’t want to live because I had no hope. It was a Buck Knife that was in the house. I picked it up and walked out.
“It was a spur of the moment thing and I climbed up to the top of a mountain near my home in Utah. I couldn’t see any light and the feelings of not wanting to live were so prevalent in my mind, there was just darkness.
“The only thing that stopped me taking my life was a miraculous wind that came out of nowhere and almost blew me over. I realised there was something going on that was bigger than me and it startled me to the point where I put the knife down and decided I was going to face my feelings head on.”
Merrill was 16 at the time. Already a huge success on American television with his brothers – but not yet a musical sensation – he didn’t mention the episode to any of them. “Back then depression wasn’t really focused on,” he says. “People hardly spoke about it, so it took a while to process what was going on and I kept quiet.”
A few weeks later he visited a doctor friend who took him to a psychologist who confirmed he was suffering from anxiety and depression. Today he thinks it may have been caused by a combination of genetics – his father George was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Merrill’s siblings Donny and Marie have both experienced depression – and his unconventional upbringing.
“My childhood was run like I was in the military and I was always in the spotlight,” he says. “Before all the fame, as a really young child, I was extremely happy-go-lucky and very mellow. But when I was four we knew we needed to start working really hard. Our Dad was a military sergeant and my brain started to churn with it all.
“The anxiety started when I was about 10 and by 16 depression had really set in. Even though the fame and the popularity was all going on and it was an exciting time, I saw no hope.”
The Osmonds’ career began in 1958. Despite their young ages (Alan was nine, Wayne was seven, Merrill, five and Jay, three), their father took them to auditions and they were quickly spotted by singer Andy Williams who put them on his hit US television show.
In 1971, when Merrill was 18, they landed a record contract and had their first No 1 hit, One Bad Apple. In the early 1970s they were the biggest pop band in the world, yet Merrill’s as yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder was clearly affecting him. The condition is
characterised by severe mood swings, ranging from extreme lows (depression) to extreme highs (mania). The manic phase often includes feeling elated, full of energy and new ideas, and not wanting to sleep.
“I would create songs, I would write new symphonic tunes, I would stay up for days and days writing a pageant,” says Merrill, who co-wrote the group’s biggest hits – including Crazy Horses and Let Me In – during the period.
“There were moments when I would be manic and had it not been for that I would never have accomplished half of the things I did, but after it was all over, I would crash and nobody could help me through that.”
After he was diagnosed, Merrill was told that his serotonin levels were almost zero. He was prescribed Lamotrigine, a mood stabiliser, yet he still experiences bouts of depression almost weekly and anxiety on a daily basis.
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