Will Russell is the founder of Lebowski Fest and the former owner of the Why Louisville novelty shops.
But in 2015, in the midst of a very public manic episode and drug relapse, he made a series of decisions that resulted in him losing his home and businesses.
Now, three years later, Russell is in the process of rebuilding his life. Why Louisville is relaunching as “The Marvelous Mystery” and he is starting a mental health nonprofit called the “Everything Will Be OK Project.”
He told me the story:
Funtown Mountain, yes. So, back in 2015, at the beginning of a manic episode, I came up with a very grandiose idea of buying a run-down amusement park in Cave City, Kentucky, right next to Mammoth Cave National Park, called ‘Guntown Mountain.’
This place is like a 25-acre space; it’s got a chairlift that takes you up to this ‘wild west’ town where there’s like a saloon where you can watch a magic show and a can-can show and, you know, they do like a fake shoot-out with cowboys. They even hang somebody because, you know, family fun, right?
I found out this thing at the bottom of the hill is called the ‘Haunted Hotel.’ It’s the oldest walk-through haunted attraction in America that still stands today and I love that place. It’s so cool. It’s like real dark and you walk through and you step on these little planks that buzzers will go off, little air-powered ghouls will pop up. It’s real campy and corny and wonderful and amazing.
So I found out that the ‘Haunted Hotel’ was part of Guntown Mountain. And once I learned that, it was all over. I had to have it. How do I buy this thing?
I announced the opening date of Funtown Mountain two and a half months from that date: ‘June 19, Funtown Mountain, Grand Awesome-ing, Come One, Come All.’
Guess who did not own Guntown Mountain at that time? Me.
I was already manic at that time and the guy who owned it at the time had just bought it for a song, dirt cheap. So this guy, who has a gold tooth — which, by the way, when I was really manic I really wanted to get a gold tooth. Thank heavens I didn’t do that; all my teeth are white-ish now, so that’s fine.
This endeavor was grand and massive and epic and ridiculous. It didn’t make any sense financially. This guy didn’t want to sell it. He said, ‘Yeah, you give me this insane amount of money and you can have it.’ So me being manic, I was like, ‘Oh, deal.’
I set forth to get a loan from the Tourism Department and got a quarter-million dollars, then get another $250,000 loan from another bank. I did a Kickstarter, which was funded. I did various fundraising using my resources, and using my reputation as a business owner and entrepreneur with Lebowski Fest and Why Louisville. People were wanting to work with me, they were like, ‘Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing.’
I was diagnosed back in 1995 after episode one, my first manic episode, where I thought I was an alien and communicating with aliens. I was building antennae out of trash and opening up umbrellas upside-down like E.T. did when he was trying to phone home. It was a very exciting delusion, I loved it. I was excited about going to this utopian planet, but I was hospitalized after that. It resulted in a six-month period of homelessness, seven arrests in four different states during that time.
I ended up walking around with no shoes on. One day, I decided to wrap my feet completely in duct tape and was wearing a garbage bag and thought I was wearing a space outfit. My dad took me to the hospital and I thought, in my delusion, which is where you believe things that are not real are absolutely real, I thought the hospital was a massive spaceship. I was excited to be there.
I get in there, they cut the tape off my feet, they gave a very powerful antipsychotic medication — and it was like putting out a fire. Suddenly, I was sleeping and the delusions began to fade and reality began to set in. It was a long recovery, which included disability, having to piece my life back together.
But during that episode, which was just as severe as 2015, nobody knew who I was, so when I would get arrested, no one would report it in the newspaper.
‘It’s a gift from the illness’
Part of mania is additional energy, additional ambition, additional creativity — which I can access during elevated mood periods.
There’s a difference between full-blown mania and there’s a difference between an elevated mood, so in the early months of the development of that project, I would classify my condition as being an elevated mood. Projects like Lebowski Fest, Why Louisville, The Marvelous Mystery and Everything WIll Be Ok Project, are all created in that state. And it’s a gift for me.
It’s a gift from the illness.
I was very productive, I mean to afford an amusement park and get all that attention, it takes a lot of work and it came very natural to me during that time.
The Media And Funtown Mountain Guy
I’ve had a very interesting relationship with the media over the last 20 years. Lebowski Fest was a media darling. We’ve gotten press in every national outlet you can think of, I mean, it’s been amazing. But Lebowski Fest was very ‘do it yourself,’ shoe-string budget; we have never paid for an ad. We don’t advertise traditionally, so we really relied on the press’ coverage to buoy it, and to promote it, and so wherever we would go, we would get press.
Whether it was Chicago or New York City or Los Angeles or Austin, or wherever.
Even in Louisville, we had quite a bit of support, so you fast-forward to 2015 and here I am, manic, and opening an amusement park. I am doing what I’m used to doing, which is going to the media and saying, ‘Hey, can you help me with this thing?’ This is like a million dollar project, so I’m going to throw everything I got at it and I’m going to get in front of every camera I could get in front of.
Now, my behavior was not good at that time. I was very unpleasant. I was very egotistical. Manic-fueled ego, just narcissist. My posts on social media were very self-aggrandizing and, you know, I created a ‘public figure’ page and all this grandiose just terrible stuff that I go back and am so embarrassed by, but I was basically throwing it all in.
I was rolling the dice like, ‘This is it. I’m building this amusement park. I’m not even going to worry about Why Louisville or Lebowski Fest, moving on.’ I’ve got everything I own — my house is leveraged and everything — it’s all in.
So here I am, and I basically had made this decision. Colonel Sanders, who was a hero of mine, and what he did was he made himself an icon to promote his business. He became a character, in the white suit with the chicken bucket, right? And the secret recipe. So I was like, I’m going to make myself a character and I’m going to be the ‘Funtown Mountain Guy.’
You know, YOLO, here’s my jacket with neon lights on the back and my American flag sunglasses and my American flag fanny-pack.
‘When your mind breaks’
Unfortunately, the most number of eyeballs — the most attention I’ve ever had in my entire life was in 2015. The Funtown Mountain social media blew up. Over 100,000 followers across all the platforms in like three months, and it was hype.
It was just like ‘Check it out! It’s going to be great! Funtown, fun, fun, fun! We’re going to boost Kentucky’s reputation as a tourist attraction and it’s going to be so much fun. This is for my daughter.’ All this, whatever.
So the press was there and they were eating it up, like ‘Yeah! Love it. This guy’s great, what a nut, you know.’ It’s very unfortunate and embarrassing that I had so much coverage, so once I began to use drugs again and use alcohol and stop taking my medicine, I became psychotic.
And a psychotic break is like when your mind breaks, you no longer understand your reality as it is.
I shaved my head, I started to throw paint on my car and throw paint around my house. It just didn’t make any sense what I was doing. I opened up the Why Louisville store one night and spray-painted on the front of it and made a post: ‘Everything is free now, come into the store and help yourself.’
I’m walking around, my head shaved with my guitar and singing to people who don’t want me around and I didn’t understand what was actually happening.
‘The end of the episode’
So, the end of the episode happened September 20, 2015. I was arrested in Horse Cave, Kentucky, under the charge of public intoxication. It was the last day of the episode, so obviously, I was at my very worst and most delusional.
When they’re arresting me, I was talking about this movie I was making, which was not happening, was not a real movie — but in my delusional mind I was making a movie with Jennifer Lawrence. And I was like, ‘You guys want to be in my movie?’
And they were like, ‘I believe that’s a bribe.’ So they charged me with felony bribery, which of course made the papers, and the impression that that gives people is that I’m sitting in my car with like hundred dollar bills sticking out of my wallet. But no, the good part is it kept me in jail for a long time.
I spent almost two weeks in the Hart County jail, where they nicknamed me ‘Funtown’ and got a big kick out the fact that I had palm trees painted on my toenails and that I was blathering on about my movie and whatnot.
So, my family was able to work out a deal where they would release me from Hart County if I agreed to go directly to the Brook for treatment for 30 days. During that time I was given an antipsychotic. It extinguished the episode.
And I slowly began to realize what was going on, and it was terrifying, it was so scary. I think I even let some guy convert me to Jesus during that time, that’s how scared I was.
Basically, you know, all the reality started to come in, and I started to wrap my head around how much trouble I was in. While I was at the Brook, I was getting lawsuits brought to me. I was, you know, the tax people were coming after me. You know, a lot to deal with.
‘The life raft I could cling to’
Obviously the next thing that happened from a mood perspective was a severe depression — profound.
It was not only biochemical from the balance of the mania, but it was situational. I mean, I had to file bankruptcy, immediately shutter the stores, make sure they were auctioned and liquidated. My house was going to be sold to collect a tax debt. Two lawsuits, everything was just falling apart. Couldn’t see my daughter without supervision, which I felt very ashamed of and was very sad about. It was a terrible dynamic and I couldn’t forge a good relationship with her at the time, I did my best.
I’m on six medications trying to beat this depression. I just basically was so embarrassed and so ashamed of my behavior that I stayed in my house and was afraid to walk out the door, literally scared to open that door. Couldn’t do it. My anxiety was intense. I couldn’t go to the grocery store; I was too embarrassed to like buy a coffee because my hand shook so badly, I was afraid to hand the dollar over because I was so shaky.
You know, I slowly went back to meetings, but it took everything I had some days to get out of the house and go to that meeting.
But mostly, I was alone. I wasn’t on social media anymore and I felt disconnected and I felt like everyone hated me because there was a lot of negativity directed at me during that time, which is understandable. My behavior was really bad.
So, I became suicidal and, you know, it got very serious. I did not want to be alive. I did not see a way out and it got very, very dark and, you know, I googled ‘how do you tie a noose’ and I tested the pipe in the ceiling in the office where I was going to hang myself.
Fortunately, I had two people. One is my friend Brian who has experience with depression and I was able to confide in him about my intentions and he was like, ‘You just got to keep going.’ And I didn’t want to keep going, you know, at all. I just kept going.
Then my sponsor, who I actually spoke with this morning, Phil — great guy, very smart, very intuitive. He said something to me that changed everything. He said, ‘If you were to do this, it would affect your daughter. She would blame herself for the rest of her life.’
That put a stop to it right there. I knew that I couldn’t do it. No matter how much pain I was in, that was really irrelevant. So, my daughter was the life raft that I could cling to that stopped me.
I knew deep down the day would come when I would be happy that I made it. I did make it to that day, it just took forever. It was very painful, and it was very sad, and it was dark.
Everything Will Be OK
I just recently founded a nonprofit to help normalize the topic of mental health called ‘Everything Will Be OK Project.’
As I’ve made amends over the last few years, people have been very understanding and their forgiving me went a long way in the long, painful process of forgiving myself. You know, they understood, most of them — not everyone — most understand, this is not who Will is, this was a condition. His behavior was driven by an underlying manic episode and he was acting out of character.
Reasonable people are willing to understand that. There are people out there still that are like, ‘Mental illness isn’t real. It’s a moral failing. It’s whatever.’ And these are the people that I am trying to get to. These are the areas where the stigma is the strongest.
And so, these events are going to be fun.
Like we’ve got a costume parade, ‘The March of the Giant Objects,’ that I haven’t actually announced, but there’s a genre of costume that’s just a giant object — like a ketchup bottle, or a slice of pizza or a milk carton. So I envision hundreds of people marching and then ending up at a party somewhere and it will be fun and it will get press attention and what it does is it let us use the power of the press to drop the term mental health in the press and get it in front of people as many times as possible.
It’s a serious topic, but there is no reason why we can’t do it in an entertaining, fun and interesting way that will get attention, have people participate and let’s use this opportunity that the press has afforded me, use this platform publicly to advocate for mental health.
There are two things that are incredibly dangerous when it comes to mental health, depressions specifically, and that is losing hope and shame.
Those are very destructive, very destructive forces — and I have been there so many times where I have lost hope. ‘It’s not going to get better’ is what I start to believe, and that has never been true, so what I say to people out there is that the way you feel right now is not the way you are going to feel the rest of your life. I guarantee it. Even though you may feel that way, if you keep going, if you just keep going — we’re making a t-shirt that says ‘Just keep going’ — the day will come when you feel better.
You’ll be glad that you made it through.