Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sean Costello’s Life

The following is a guest post from another Mama! Her name is Deborah Costello Smith and this is her story about her talented son who struggled with bipolar disorder.

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Sean Costello died on the eve of his 29th birthday. Anyone who knew Sean knows that he didn’t want to die; he just wanted to be able to rest.  As a child, Sean was beautiful (the word that people would use when they saw him), quick, funny and easy going, but he was also extremely, disablingly shy. He lacked a self-confidence that most never saw, nor could understand because of his achievements and talents. Generally, he only showed that to me, his mother. He had absolutely horrible handwriting, and couldn’t look you in the eye when he told you his name. Nonetheless, he was comfortable in certain situations: home, with his grandparents, and with children his age, and in costume, or on stage. He was usually the creator of play situations that drew the neighborhood to our back yard… the Renaissance, war, etc. For each of these scenarios, there was an authentic costume and complex roles. A day with Sean was never boring.

At home, he could be a different child, easily frustrated with multiple homework tasks, especially math. He understood it and could do it, but he would get visibly upset when facing a page of problems. He wrote stories and poems that went to county wide contests and that were well beyond his years (usually funny), but he often used a computer to turn them in… they would otherwise be illegible. He was often sick and complained that he had no friends in school. People who saw him on the playground witnessed a happy kid in the throes of play. The thing is, he always felt different.

The classic Sean story was a middle school field trip. He asked me to chaperone, but told me to “act like the other Moms. Act a little depressed!” My Northeastern ways were embarrassing to him in contrast to milder Southern ways. On the bus, he said “See Mom. See what I put up with.”  The kids were singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. He was listening to Bob Dylan (whom I cannot to this day understand). The thing is Sean was different. Different in ways that were wonderful, but totally confusing to him. Depression, panic attacks, difficulties with sleep, frustration with certain subjects and occasional outbreaks of exaggerated anger, all challenged the family.  

Sean went on to become a renown Blues musician with international recognition for his talent, and a universally recognized humility and generosity. He was not diagnosed as being Bipolar Type II until the year before he died, despite 16 years of mental health consultation and treatment. Sean learned to manage his challenges by self-medicating, something easy to do in the world of music and common to bipolar disorder. There are some morals to his story… (1) being and thinking uniquely is often a gift to the world and not something to be ashamed of. Sean learned to be proud of his uniqueness; (2) being different comes with a price in a child’s world, where differences are often discouraged in a classroom and possibly mocked by other children (Sean found his place in a performing arts school); (3) the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is too often missed with severe consequences; and (4) families become exhausted trying to support the child whom they love, but who has moods that seem to have no cause.

Sean was blessed with a talent that allowed him acceptance of others and a way to express himself that circumvented his shyness. On stage, he transformed. He found a way to be comfortable with the guitar as a form of protection, a costume that was a shield for his insecurities. He lived a life of success, adventure, love and passion. All of those things are possible with Bipolar Disorder. For sure, his moods gave him access to emotions that resonated with his audiences and served as a vehicle of release for him. Yet, he lived with anxiety, panic attacks, depression and concomitant addictions. The story could have a different ending with early diagnosis and effective treatment. If The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research realizes its mission, other children will live with hope, as they understand the way that their “differentness” can be a gift and that extremes of moods can be controlled. Families will be armed with knowledge and support. The other Seans of the world will be able to have a long and healthy future.

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Listen to Sean’s Music:

Show your love and support by leaving your comments to Deborah below!


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. Your son was an amazing and beautiful person.

    My 12-yr-old daughter is bipolar and is currently having an extremely difficult time. We worry about her constantly -- how she will function, her future, etc. She is also a talented musician, though her voice is her instrument. When she sings, everything melts away and she is OK.

  2. This is a beautiful post. I do hope his story educates everyone about bi-polar disorder and that it could be a great gift indeed.

  3. Wow, what beautiful music! He was very talented.

  4. Self medicating and early death are one of my biggest fears for my son. Hugs to you and our beautiful son.

  5. Sean was without doubt one of the greatest genuine blues artists of all time. His death is a absolute tradegy not just for his nearest and dearest but for everyone who was so moved when hearing him perform his wonderful heartfelt music.

  6. Sean was a true blues musician, his playing and singing came from his soul and could be felt, he was one of the greatest blues musicians of our time

  7. Deb: found this post while remembering Sean today. Your writing is exquisite and really captured Sean and his challenges. Love to all today and always.

  8. I met Sean a number of times when he played at the keypalace theater in Redkey Indiana , near my home. After I saw him perform there the first time I ran out and bought an epiphone 56 goldtop I was so inspired by Sean.
    The next time he came to Redkey I showed up early with my goldtop and asked Sean if he would sign my guitar . He ask if this was guitar I was having a bunch of musicians sign. I told him no just you . Then he told me his signature didn't look real good . He was very hesitant . H e couldn't understand why id want him to sign my guitar . I explained how seeing him play had been the reason I bought the guitar . He finally agreed to sign it on the back of the hesdstock . I think of him often and I still cant get my head wrapped around his passing . He has made a huge impact on me and he is sadly missed . Todd Bost Hartford City IN.

    1. What a beautiful story, thank you so much for sharing it with us, it made me smile.