Each week, I ask a guest to choose five physical objects that have been significant in their life, and we learn about their lives from the stories around those objects. This week’s guest is well-known in Louisville, not only for what he created, but for how he lost almost everything.
Will Russell founded Lebowski Fest, a yearly celebration of the Coen Brothers’ movie “The Big Lebowski,” that spread nationwide. He owned two stores, Why Louisville, that sold t-shirts and other work made by local artists. Then he got a big, ambitious idea — around the same time that his mental health started to falter. After a very public meltdown that included several arrests and a declaration of bankruptcy, Russell is ready to talk about his experience — what got him there in the first place, and what got him through. Listen to our conversation in the player above.
On a visit to the Mystery Hole in West Virginia:
“It was this amazing, mind-blowing thing that just really captured my imagination. I just loved it. It was so weird, and so wonderful and so different. From that moment forward, I was obsessed with roadside attractions. There was just something about stumbling upon this place in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of West Virginia that really just captured my interest.”
When his ambitions for the Funtown Mountain theme park became delusions:
“As my mania became more and more intense, I began to lose my grip on reality. Part of mania is thinking nothing can hurt you, and so I felt invincible at one point. And so I thought, ‘you know what? I don’t need to listen to my doctors anymore.’ I had been under the care of a great psychiatrist for 20 years, I had been in recovery and stayed sober for almost 20 years at that time. The one thing I did every day, without fail, was I took my medicine. I knew from my experience from my first episode 20 years ago that if I did not take my medicine, things got really bad for me. But at that time, I was still on my medicine — I’d stopped listening to my doctor’s recommendation, and he was like, ‘you need to increase it,’ and I was like, ‘eh, no, I’m too busy, not gonna do that.’ So the mania was already causing me to make bad decisions.”
On life lessons he’s learned from The Dude, the main character of “The Big Lebowski”:
“The Dude is a go-with-the-flow kinda guy. He’s really into taking it easy, he is into letting go of problems and not worrying about things, and acknowledging that life goes on. So there’s a little bit of that philosophy in me. There’s a line in the movie that says, ‘Strikes and gutters, ups and downs.’ That’s very apropos for my life, because I have had some strikes and I’ve had some gutters, I have had some serious ups and some serious downs. But, like they say, can’t be worried about that s—, life goes on, let’s go bowling.”
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