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For two local women whose lives were touched by bipolar disorder, the art of raising money helps them cope with loss

  • Becky Kinhan and Karina Kelley sit for a portrait on the Kimball-Jenkins Estate in Concord. Both women lost siblings who suffered from bipolar disorder and are now raising money and awareness with an art exhibit and a special screening at Red River Theatres. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Becky Kinhan talks about her late sister Jen Johnson at the Kimball Jenkins Estate in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Karina Kelley talks about her late brother Mario Giordano at the Kimball Jenkins Estate in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016, before a gallery reception of Giordano’s paintings. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Becky Kinhan and Karina Kelley sit for a portrait on the Kimball Jenkins Estate in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. Both women lost siblings who suffered from bipolar disorders. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Karina Kelley talks about her late brother Mario Giordano at the Kimball Jenkins Estate in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016, before a gallery reception of Giordano’s paintings. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Becky Kinhan talks about her late sister Jen Johnson and the need for mental illness services while at the Kimball Jenkins Estate in Concord on Sept. 29, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Courtesy—

  • One of sister Becky Kinhan’s favorite photos of Jen Johnson, on the ferry to Monhegan Island in Maine. Johnson, who lived with bipolar disorder, died in an alcohol-related accident two years ago. She was 37. BELOW: Karina Kelley with her brother Mario in an undated photo. Courtesy photos

Published: 10/4/2016 12:00:55 AM
Modified: 10/4/2016 12:00:23 AM

Neither Becky Kinhan nor Karina Kelley saw it coming, the sting from an unseen, unforgiving enemy known as bipolar disorder.

They’ve each lost a sibling, both of whom were immersed in the arts, to an incident related to the mental illness. That’s why it’s no surprise they’re raising money for NAMI – New Hampshire’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness – through local arts programs they produced.

Maybe that will help push others to much-needed drastic measures.

Kinhan’s sister, Jen Johnson, died in an alcohol-related accident two years ago at her Portsmouth home. She was 37. Kelley’s brother, Mario Giordano, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound 19 months ago at his Concord home. It was his 26th birthday.

“We did everything we could over the years, but it wasn’t enough,” Kinhan, the communications director for New Hampshire Humanities, said last week.

“I think it was easy to assume he was doing good because on the outside it looked like he was,” added Kelley, who works in marketing. “Even if we asked, I don’t know if he would have told us the pain he was in.”

Last week, Kelley, who lives in Concord, hosted an art exhibit at the Kimball-Jenkins Estate. Giordano’s paintings lined the walls, some showing self portraits, one with a hard, troubled gaze.

For Kinhan, her efforts are invested in a documentary she’s bringing to Red River Theatres on Wednesday called Pack Up Your Sorrows. It’s the story of singer and poet Meg Hutchinson and her fight against bipolar. She’ll be at the screening Wednesday, part of a post-viewing panel discussion.

While their names together sound like a singing duo, Kelley and Kinhan are using their voices to reach people, hoping, perhaps, to make a difference. They know, however, there is no proven recipe for detecting a bipolar-related plunge in a loved one, as victims often are good at hiding their pain.

Essentially, the two women know, bipolar disorder pushed Johnson to the floor, causing a fatal blow to her head, and it aimed the gun toward Giordano.

Kelley and Kinhan cried when recalling details from those two awful days, but, through their tears, they managed to paint pictures of two artists who had lots to give. They watched their siblings reach their potential, painting, sculpting, writing poetry, creating. They laughed at their humor and marveled at their independent spirits.

Then they saw them wilt like faded flowers, each petal dropping to the ground as bipolar disorder tightened its grip.

“She was a brilliant artist, a poet, the funniest person I’ve ever known,” was how Kinhan described Johnson. “She was so alive and inventive with her creativity.”

To which Kelley said: “Mario was a lot like your sister. He was funky and he’d find funky things and turn them into art. And if something was broken, he could fix it. He could fix anything.”

Kelley and Kinhan became friends about five years ago, through their love of art and their connections to the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. Only later did they learn about the deeper bond they shared, the one about loss, the one about pain.

Their stories run parallel in specific areas. They never saw the deaths coming, despite histories of mental illness.

Kelley saw warning signs eight years ago, when Giordano tried to kill himself with a dose of antifreeze. He sought help, however, and had his stomach pumped before the stuff could take his life. He moved into Kelley’s home afterward to regroup.

“He seemed okay,” Kelley said. “He started college, studying art. I thought he was doing really well. He had a girlfriend. He had a job.”

From there, Giordano’s potential seemed limitless. He earned money reproducing engine parts, and was part of a team working to build a 1955 Porsche 550 Spider, the same car James Dean was driving when he crashed and died. He biked alone to Nashville and grew a handle-bar mustache.

In recent times, Kelley said her brother spoke of buying a house with his girlfriend, having kids, expanding his artwork. But, unbeknownst to the family, desperate feelings had started to penetrate his psyche.

In the days leading up to his suicide, Kelley learned from his girlfriend that Giordano had sought help from mental health professionals, who did not return his calls. She saw that as an indictment on the state’s health care system.

“He reached out to psychiatrists and no one called him back,” Kelley said. “So even when he gets over the hump and reaches out, sometimes it doesn’t matter.”

As for her brother’s death, Kelley said, “Maybe I should have asked him more questions. In the back of my mind, I was always worried, but I was totally blind-sided.”

So was Kinhan, despite her sister’s 2012 diagnosis. Before then, Johnson fought mood swings, rising to euphoria and plunging into depression. She drank, a self-medicating process.

“Looking back, (drinking) was her trying to control this, but it was too much for her to handle,” Kinhan said. “It was a relief when she was diagnosed.”

Johnson got married, made people laugh and brought different hair styles to the table – long, short, spiked, bald.

Meanwhile, she wrote poems and painted. She changed her medication because she wanted children. In December 2014 her mind began to race and she drank heavily to slow it down. She went to a Portsmouth psychiatric unit for several days but was released while still off balance.

Kinhan, like Kelley, chalked it up to failures in our health care system.

“They would pretty much put her out on the sidewalk,” Kinhan said. “She didn’t have health insurance.”

Johnson, fighting demons her whole life and in emotional turmoil, drank at home shortly after leaving the hospital. She lost her balance, hit her head and died from the wound.

Later, Kinhan’s father saw Hutchinson’s film, the one about the musician fighting bipolar disorder. He told Kinhan to see it because Hutchinson reminded him of his late daughter. Kinhan did more than see it; she persuaded Hutchinson to come here, show it and talk about it.

Kinhan has no idea who, if anyone, Wednesday’s screening will help. She knows, however, that she and Kelley are supporting NAMI.

Maybe that will help.

“Even if it means just one family doesn’t have to go through this horror,” Kinhan said, “that will make a difference.”


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