Podcast
Mental Note

49 - Finding Your Own Voice with Vollie McKenzie

By Vollie McKenzie

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Picture this: a warm July breeze stirs my hair as I sit on the back porch. My toddler, illuminated by moonlight and the twinkle of fireflies, gently spins in circles, hands waving in the air as she moves to the strumming of a guitar mixed with the call of cicadas in the trees. It’s the sort of moment that feels infinitely removed from the typical noise of daily life. Here, there are no email alerts, traffic jams, or checklists. Only laughter and contentment.

So, at the start of this new year, I’m asking, “how do I get more of these moments and less of the hamster wheel? How can I stop living on other people’s terms and tune in to my inner voice?” To explore these questions, I can think of no one better than the strummer of the guitar from that moonlit summer night - my friend and 71-year-old neighbor - Vollie McKenzie.

Vollie is a man of many outlets. He spent over 40 years as a mental health professional, plays tennis daily, and is a known performer in the Southeast. He also has a recovery journey of his own that includes life-long struggles with anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia.

I invited him on the podcast to talk about the process of finding his own voice and how that intersects with his mental health journey. Along the way, Vollie will sing and play pivotal songs to guide the narrative.

Transcript

Ellie Pike:
Hello friends and welcome to the first days of 2022. To start the year, I wanted to focus on what's possible once you found a good rhythm with your mental health. So today we're talking about finding your own voice. To kick off that conversation, I couldn't think of anyone better than my friend and neighbor, Vollie McKenzie.

Vollie McKenzie:
I'm Vollie McKenzie. I Live here in West Nashville, North Carolina. I'm retired and worked in community mental health for over 40 years. I play tennis almost every day and play the guitar every day, and who could ask for anything more.

Ellie Pike:
I've gotten to know Vollie over the past few years, chatting on walks through the neighborhood and sitting on the porch, listening to him play songs for my daughter. With each encounter, I'd walk away with a negative inspiration and hope.

Ellie Pike:
So to begin this New Year together, I sat down with Vollie plus his ever present guitar to talk about how the intersection of his musical and mental health journey helped him find his own voice. From Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center, you are listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.

Ellie Pike:
So I'm excited for today's episode because we are here interviewing you in your living room and it feels really natural. You're sitting here with your guitar and we're just sharing stories. This episode is really going to be something that highlights how we all are on a journey to find our own voice and our own story. Some of my favorite times are just having conversations with you, where you share your story and you pick up your guitar and you just play something that means, or a way that you share that story through music.

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah, yeah.

Ellie Pike:
So can you tell me a little bit about when you are a teenager and kind of part of your mental health story as it evolved?

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah. I was just remembering that at the time, of course, I didn't know there was such a thing as OCD. But my first recollection of what would turn out to be OCD kind of symptoms was when I was 15. One of the things I remember was I went through a phase. Maybe it lasted a year, maybe less than a year, but it seemed like an eternity. When I would come home from school every day at 3:00 and get off the bus, go in the house and vacuum our home, our house, and dust everything in the house, all these little things had to be straightened and dusted and everything had to be in order.

Vollie McKenzie:
But I look back and I realize that was excessive on my part, but it was I think trying to order a chaotic life, an emotionally chaotic life in some ways. It's maybe one of the reasons I've always loved one of my favorite Beach Boy Brian Wilson songs is In My Room, where he talks about... It's just a beautiful song about where you can go in your room and close the door and everything's okay.

Ellie Pike:
So it sounds like that was a way that you were creating safety for yourself in a chaotic, anxious world, even if you didn't have the words for it.

Vollie McKenzie:
No, that's right, exactly.

Vollie McKenzie:
So I think that was sort of the first indication as I look back that when I got in college, it got more serious. I was struggling with my faith and the underpinning of my life I grew up with that as a given and all of a sudden it was not a given and it was scary. With that sort of brain chemistry, shuffling and backdrop, developed body dysmorphia where I look in the mirror one day and held up a second mirror and saw my profile. I'd never done this before, but I look in the mirror and I see this profile of my head and it doesn't look like what I thought it looked like and fear gripped me. I don't like that.

Vollie McKenzie:
Instead of just relaxing with it, it seized. I seized on that fear. What became just a little insecurity eventually, I wouldn't even have to have a second mirror. I would just look straight in the mirror and see this monster head and it was a nightmare. It's almost psychotic because you literally see something that's not there.

Ellie Pike:
Right. So other people were looking at you and seeing a very normal-sized head. But when you looked in the mirror, you literally saw something that wasn't there, but you thought it was.

Vollie McKenzie:
I thought it was.

Ellie Pike:
So you felt like your brain was probably out of control.

Vollie McKenzie:
Well, there was a part of me that knew something wasn't right, but still it was so real and it was very hard. I don't know how long it was before I could even mention it to anyone. It was embarrassing and then when I did mention it to someone, they didn't know what to do with that. So I was alone with it and it was the first thing I would think about when I wake up every morning. I'd go to the mirror and see if it was still there and try to fix it and it was the last thing I thought about.

Vollie McKenzie:
I don't know how I got through the next 6, 8, 10 months before I finally got to talk with somebody, an uncle of mine who was a psychologist. I started spending a lot of time with him. He was the first person who kind of knew to not try to give me any quick, easy answers, but just listen and that in itself was therapeutic. To have somebody else knew what was going on with me, that was therapeutic and they cared about me.

Ellie Pike:
It sounds like having someone who really heard you was so key in your journey with the anxiety and the depression and also the body dysmorphia.

Vollie McKenzie:
Right.

Ellie Pike:
But then also feeling heard and having someone help you encounter and name what was happening sounds like it was really important.

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah, and accept you.

Ellie Pike:
Yeah, yeah.

Vollie McKenzie:
They heard you. They know about it. They know what you're thinking and how you feel about it and what you think, but they also accept you and care about you.

Ellie Pike:
Vollie, what was your journey like to learning acceptance? Of course, it's a journey, it doesn't happen overnight. But can you tell me a little bit about it?

Vollie McKenzie:
Well, I think it took a while. It took a while for me to be able to totally relax with the body dysmorphia, but even just getting to a point where I wasn't totally preoccupied with it and I didn't get up every day and run to the mirror.

Ellie Pike:
That's a big success.

Vollie McKenzie:
That was a big success.

Ellie Pike:
Yeah.

Vollie McKenzie:
So I was able to kind of get back to some normalcy. By this time, I was a senior in college and I started playing the guitar and became obsessed with the guitar, not obsessed with the shape of my head. One of the formulas for OCD is find another obsession and that's a little healthier.

Vollie McKenzie:
Later on, years later, I was sitting in my office. I went to school after college, went to graduate school, got a degree in counseling and was a counselor at a mental health clinic. I was sitting in my office supposed to be working and I noticed this picture on the wall that was hanging crooked. It had been crooked for weeks or months, just wasn't straight, and I hadn't bothered to move it or straighten it. I thought, "Well, here's a song," because there was a time in my life where that would have to be straight.

Vollie McKenzie:
Let's see, I don't remember which key is in. Crooked picture on the wall, let's see if I can do it.

Vollie McKenzie:
(singing)

Ellie Pike:
Oh, that's so fun, Vollie. Thank you.

Vollie McKenzie:
But I made a mistake, it wasn't perfect. Just like the picture on the wall.

Ellie Pike:
We're going to keep it just like the way it is. Well, so you learned how to play guitar in your early 20s and you moved on with your life. As you became a counselor, you did your own personal development. You also became more of a musician.

Vollie McKenzie:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ellie Pike:
Can you tell me a little bit about that journey of like how you were finding your voice and how you started to find your niche with music?

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah. So much of how we learn from even childhood is we're mirroring our parents. You learn how to walk, how to talk, how to laugh so much, so you're copying. Well, you do the same thing in music. You learn to emulate the people that you like that you're drawn to. So I was trying to sound like James Taylor. I tried to learn exactly the way James Taylor played Something, and that was fun because that's how you learn. But then at some point I think if you have, I don't know some creativity or self-expression needs, at some point you stop just trying to sound like somebody that you're enamored with and try to find your own expression.

Vollie McKenzie:
An example of that would, I like to sing Hank Williams. But I don't sound like Hank Williams, I don't think.

Ellie Pike:
Well, let me hear.

Vollie McKenzie:
Let's see. One of my favorite Hank songs is this.

Vollie McKenzie:
(singing).

Vollie McKenzie:
I don't think Hank did it that way.

Ellie Pike:
I don't think so either and I like Hank. But I really love the Vollie version, too. So I'm wondering what it feels like to you when you're able to bring your own soul into the music you play or as you kind of discover your own journey in life. What does it feel like to find your own way?

Vollie McKenzie:
Well, it blows my mind to think that of all the millions, millions of people, there's no one exactly like yourself or ourselves. I don't think it's ever happened, even identical twins. So, and I mean, I'm not saying you need to get carried away with how unique you are, but it's still a biological truth. There's no one like you. So why would you look at yourself in the mirror and think you need to look like somebody? It's part of being learning to be yourself and finding your own voice.

Vollie McKenzie:
So yeah, it feels good. It feels good to sing a song and not feel like you're trying to just sound like someone else, but you're expressing something because it's coming from inside yourself. That's where soulfulness and soulful music is. I think it's in some deep expression.

Ellie Pike:
Vollie, I appreciate the way that you can bring words to life through music and just hearing how your journey through acceptance. Then from imitation to really accepting yourself and owning your uniqueness has really transformed through the years and I love the expression that you bring to it through music. Have you started to write your own music? Are there any songs that you really think express from the heart, something that you really feel authentically?

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah, sure, sure. I wrote a song here recently that feels that way to me. So this is a love song and what I discovered in my life and in writing this song is that it's, boy, it's hard to use the word love for a lot of us. It reminds me of the Paul Simon's song. I think he wrote a song called Something So Good was the name of the song. But he said the line he used was, "Some people never say those words I love you. It's not their style to be so bold. Some people never say those words I love you, but like a child they're longing to be told." It was a beautiful way of putting it. We're scared to use it, but we all love to hear it.

Vollie McKenzie:
So anyway, I wrote a song where I used it and it scares me to sing it.

Ellie Pike:
Well, I think the word that comes to mind for me is vulnerable. You talk about it feels bold. It feels a little scary. But a lot of us, you're right.

Vollie McKenzie:
Vulnerable is thank you, thank you. What's the name of this song? Let's see.

Ellie Pike:
You do have a name.

Vollie McKenzie:
Three little words.

Vollie McKenzie:
(singing)

Ellie Pike:
Oh, that's so beautiful.

Vollie McKenzie:
Thank you. Yeah, that was fun. That's been fun to write. So there you have it.

Ellie Pike:
Well, one thing I know is that we've all had a lot more time alone and on our own since the pandemic started. I remember one time you telling me that that has been a major change for you. You went from playing a lot of shows and having more of a social life to being at home, sitting with yourself. What stands out to me about you telling me that once is that you said, "No matter how old I am, I'm still on this journey of learning myself and learning how to express myself." It's beautiful that that song came out of it.

Vollie McKenzie:
Yeah, yeah. I used to gig a lot, play bars and clubs. I couldn't do that and I realized I didn't really miss it all that much that I enjoyed more, getting a pot of coffee coming in here in the morning, sitting for two or three hours and learning, discovering the guitar in a way that I hadn't since I was 18 years old, just being, learning how to do things that you didn't think you could do. That was kind of more fun than just beating, beating those songs out there that you've been playing for years.

Vollie McKenzie:
I know COVID was very stressful for a lot of people and one of the luxuries of being retired, you have the luxury of sitting home and slowing down and being reflective. Not everybody can do that and I certainly have not. I've been in places in my life when I couldn't do it like I wanted to. But if you're doing something creative, that's important time to have.

Ellie Pike:
As this is such a reflective time thinking upon what we want from 2022. Do you have any words of hope or inspiration for those of us who maybe have trouble sitting and reflecting?

Vollie McKenzie:
Ooh, some of my favorite time is waking up early in the morning, rested. Before the rest of my brain wakes up, I'm in this sweet little place in my mind and in my brain where I'm more generous. I'm more aware and more creative, all the above, all the good things. I was talking to one of my neighbors and she said, "I do that, but not when I wake up. I do it by taking walks. When I'm walking out in nature, I have those kind of moments of clarity."

Vollie McKenzie:
So whatever it does, for some people it's reading, reading a good book. It's developing a relationship with yourself. It can happen for me, it's music. For some people, it's taking a walk. So I'd say make sure you do it one way or another if you can. I know some people's lives are very hectic and busy. You're raising two kids, when do you find time for that?

Ellie Pike:
Oh, it's hard. I mean, really, I was just thinking that I'm grateful for the space that you've created for me today. Because it has felt so hectic that for me, self-reflection even comes in relationship with others and being able to connect and just take a moment like this conversation, to feel inspired and to feel like I can learn from others.

Vollie McKenzie:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I'm 71 years old and I feel like I'm still discovering. You can still learn your whole life. Stay open, so yeah, and music helps with that. But for other people, it could be something totally different.

Ellie Pike:
Well, I think you just named some words that I'm going to hold closely for 2022. Stay open really hits me and so I'm going to take that with me from this conversation. I just want to say thank you so much for sharing your beautiful, beautiful music as well as your beautiful experience and story. I'm wondering if you can close this out with Happy Trails To You.

Vollie McKenzie:
Ooh. This is Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. They had a great hit with this.

Vollie McKenzie:
(singing)

Ellie Pike:
Mental Note Podcast is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. If you'd like to talk to a trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you, please call them at (877) 850-7199. Or if you're looking for a free virtual mental health or eating disorder support group, sign up at eatingrecovery.com and pathlightbh.com. If you like our show, sign up for our e-newsletter and learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It helps others find our podcast.

Ellie Pike:
Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, and directed and edited by Sam Pike. Until next time.

Presented by

Vollie McKenzie

Vollie McKenzie is a retired community mental health counselor, living in Asheville NC. Born in 1950 he grew up in a mill village in the small town of Winnsboro, SC. He grew up surrounded by a loving…