When former “American Idol” star Brett Loewenstern was discharged from the Israel Defense Forces on the last day of basic training, the singer had profuse gratitude for the army psychiatrist who broke the news to him.
Having moved to the Jewish state amid media fanfare in 2016, Loewenstern made “aliyah” with a singular dream in mind: to serve in the IDF performing corps, singing and playing guitar for the troops. Alongside this long-held vision, however, the peppery red-head harbored serious doubts about his chances of “making it” abroad.
During that heady summer of 2016, Loewenstern was particularly worried about how he would manage his Bipolar II disorder. Within weeks of landing in Tel Aviv, he found himself surrounded by familiar demons, and without a support system.
“I wasn’t living my life when I moved to Israel,” Loewenstern told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from his Los Angeles apartment, which he has been living in since last year.
Bipolar II disorder is characterized by at least one episode of hypomania, as well as at least one episode of major depression. Hypomania is a sustained period of elevated mood that is not associated with psychosis. Treatment for Bipolar II, including psychotropic medicine, can address some of these symptoms, with the long-term goal of ensuring that patients do not harm themselves.
“Your stability is never guaranteed,” said Loewenstern of what it’s like living with Bipolar II, which he was diagnosed with during college.
After a brief“cloud nine” period in Tel Aviv, Loewenstern found himself in a dark but familiar place. Without the proper medication at hand or a psychiatrist who understood him, the new immigrant spiraled into episodes of mania and depression, he said.
“It was a horrible cycle and one of the hardest years I’ve had to endure,” said Loewenstern, whose initial introduction to Israel was on a Birthright Israel trip in 2012.
A few months before his Birthright trip, Loewenstern made global headlines as one of the top ten contestants on the 2011 season of “American Idol.” During his appearances on the show, he wowed audiences with his scratchy, gospel-like voice — Loewenstern has Amy Winehouse’s image tattooed onto his arm — and his lion-like, flowing hair.
‘I felt very trapped’
Five years after appearing on TV screens everywhere, Loewenstern was struggling to acclimate to life Israel.
While the singer enjoyed living in Tel Aviv, Loewenstern was unable to hold down a job. During a period of two months, he held ten gigs at restaurants and cafes in the Dan region, said the former “Idol” star. When he was not bouncing from job to job, the typically exuberant Loewenstern found himself “sleeping hours upon hours,” as well as trolling the gay apps for early morning sex, he said.
Barely able to support himself financially, and not properly medicated for the first time in years, Loewenstern hit a low-point within weeks of making aliyah.
“I felt very trapped,” said Loewenstern, who earned a degree at Boston’s Berklee College of Music before immigrating to Israel. “I was very insecure about my body and my femininity, and every single day was a struggle. The hyper-masculine nature of Tel Aviv was not easy to handle.”
He adopted a dog for emotional support, but the singer hustled to make ends meet. For example, Loewenstern wound up spending very little on food for himself, but he refused to skimp on caring for his furry companion.
Despite his general malaise, Loewenstern said there were some high points during those initial months in Tel Aviv. During one of them, he performed the US National Anthem at the home of Ambassador Dan Shapiro. However, according to singer, the positive experiences were few and far between.
Of all his work managers during that period, only one was able to cope with Loewenstern’s erratic behavior and panic attacks, he said. The singer’s boss at a Ramat Gan café — he noted — would usually let him go outside for a cigarette during panic attacks.
“You have to have the right support system if you’re moving here [to Israel] from abroad,” said Loewenstern. “It was hard for me to find people who get it.”
Following his turbulent adjustment to life in Tel Aviv, Loewenstern felt confident that joining the IDF would give him needed stability, he said. After all, nearly every media account of his move to the Jewish state had mentioned his desire to perform in the army, so he was keeping a promise of sorts.
To seek advice about the enlistment process, Loewenstern returned to an organization he worked with during a 2013 Onward Israel summer internship: The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. Founded to serve soldiers without parents in the country — including draftees who move to Israel from abroad — the center helps draftees access social, financial and other forms of support.
Unfortunately, said Loewenstern, the staff members he spoke with at the Lone Soldier Center were not equipped to advise him on mental health.
“I was told not to mention that I have Bipolar disorder to anyone in the army,” said Loewenstern.
At the time, being advised to keep quiet about his condition did not perturb the singer. Loewenstern was looking forward to a new chapter in his aliyah journey, and he did not imagine he would be moving back to the States in a matter of weeks.
‘It was about my safety’
Within days of allegedly being told to lie about his mental health, Loewenstern arrived at an IDF base near Beersheba for three weeks of basic training.
“Everyone was so kind to me,” said Loewenstern of the stint. “I had an amazing commander who let me cry and be myself.”
Despite his affection for fellow conscripts and some base officers, Loewenstern found himself “getting to a dark place” in his mind. After three weeks of keeping his disorder a secret, Loewenstern decided to disregard the Lone Soldier Center’s advice.
Walking into the base psychiatrist’s office on the last day of training, Loewenstern said he knew he was about to release a burden.
“I told the psychiatrist I have Bipolar II disorder,” said Loewenstern. “He said to me that if he had known, he would not have let me into the army.”
That same day, Loewenstern left the base and returned to Tel Aviv. Despite the rapid change of fortune, he was not bitter about what took place in the Negev desert.
“Being told to leave was the most amazing thing the army could have done for me. It was about my safety; that’s how I took it,” said Loewenstern, adding that new immigrants have a higher suicide rate than people who have lived in Israel for years.
Still, said Loewenstern, the Lone Soldier Center, as well as other organizations working with immigrants, should “be more up to speed” on mental health issues.
“They wanted the best for me at the [Lone Soldier] center and I had an incredible summer volunteering there during college,” said Loewenstern. “But they have to reexamine how they relate to people who come in with a condition like mine.”
In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Flaster noted the center “expects all soldiers to tell the IDF the truth regarding any pressing physical or mental health issues facing them, and we trust them to have the judgement to report all relevant medical issues, mental or physical, to their commanders and the army’s healthcare professionals in real-time.”
‘I am not ashamed of my disorder’
During the days following his discharge from the army, Loewenstern considered if he should leave Israel. With some prodding from his parents, he decided to return to the US. His financial situation, said Loewenstern, had become dire, and he was forced to purchase his Israeli passport on a credit card.
“I felt like a failure,” said Loewenstern of leaving Israel after less than one year. “It was just painful,” he said, adding he was particularly embarrassed because of the heavy media coverage he had received.
“It was a very dark year in many ways, but I grew up so much and learned how to be my own advocate,” said Loewenstern. “I knew that God was always with me.”
After a few months of recuperating with his parents in their Florida home, Loewenstern was able to reflect more deeply on his experiences in Tel Aviv and Beersheba.
In his assessment, the same disorder that made living in Israel without the proper treatment so difficult for Loewenstern — Bipolar II — was also partly responsible for his decision to move there in the first place.
“That is not something I would have considered or put together while I was living there,” said Loewenstern.
Last year, the former “Idol” star moved to Los Angeles with his guitar and new dog, Malka, or queen. Since then, he’s been performing stand-up comedy and acting in local productions, as well as working with a music manager. Additionally, he’s become an advocate for increased understanding of mental health issues, including by recording Facebook Live videos and working the subject into stage routines.
“I know everyone says this, but I want to be someone who can help even just one person get through what they are going through,” said Loewenstern. “I am not ashamed of my disorder and I want to help others feel the same way.”