Music: The Final Frontier of My Mental Illness

I have something heavy weighing on my heart… my brain… everything.  And there is no short way to explain what is happening to me… what has happened to me for years.

If it could be one sentence, it would be:

“Music destroys me.”

How can it be, though?  Isn’t music something enjoyed by billions of people?  Isn’t music considered to be soothing, healing, energizing, and overall positive?  I understand how people object to negative lyrics influencing people, but… this is not what I’m talking about.

For me, there is something about music that destroys my brain.  I have no idea what it is exactly.  Maybe it is the experience of how I hear music.  Especially acoustic, unamplified music.  It makes no sense… but I need to make sense of it.  Because, if I investigate my mental illness under a microscope, trying to understand it… THIS is the nucleus of the matter.  THIS is the root.  THIS is the seed of where it all began.  Is it?

My father was abusive before I started playing music.  Granted.  I had a shitty art teacher in kindergarten who demanded that we color in the lines.  Granted.  But… when I started classical violin lessons in the first grade, just before I turned 6… something happened.

I loved music.  So fiercely, that I considered all other music to be evil.  I shunned it from my life, and devoted myself to studying only classical.  I was unable to even comprehend non-classical music.  It felt like baby music.  The chords structures, too simple, had no memorable characteristics for me to grasp.  Melodies too, monotonous, lacking floridity… forgettable.  And lyrics?  Unintelligible.  Nor did I care what anyone had to “say.”  For me, music was MUSIC.  Sound.  Harmony.

And protection.  Music shielded me from the evils of the world.  Music shielded me from social pressures.  Or did it?  Classical music… it always made me feel like a loser.  Beyond normalcy.  I was constantly paranoid.  I feared that everyone around me… all the kids… if they knew I liked classical music, they’d hate me forever.  HATE me.  HATE me.  My fear… no one really knew about how deep it ran in me.  But it did.  Every time I was forced to listen to pop music, I’d turn up my nose and say it was stupid.

Why?   Why was I so … elitist?  Why?

I remember… I always sat in the passenger seat of the car while my mother drove.  Just the 2 of us.  I’d ask her to put on WQXR, the public radio classical music station in New York City.  The strains of violins and orchestras would feel like home.  But it was a SECRET.  For example, sometimes, we’d drive in at Wendy’s and order salads or whatever.  We’d drive up, and I’d frantically say, “Turn it off, turn it off turnitoff!!!”  She did, of course.  I guess it didn’t seem very noticeable to her, my fear.  But I was so afraid that I would be caught listening to classical music.  SO afraid.

Being a musician… was my identity I guess.  Weekly private lessons.  Group music lessons, string orchestra and music theory on the weekends.  It was like this solidly for the first 5 years of my studies.

I guess a part of my musical identity… a BIG part of it… was the presence of my grandfather.  He was a nice enough kind of person.  He himself was a thorough musician.  As a young man, he played clarinet, and had also began studies at Juilliard as a pianist when reaching college age.  Finances during the Depression forced him to drop out though, and so he worked as a bookkeeper and played big band gigs on the weekends.  During World War II, he played clarinet in a band that entertained the troops.  He was a musician through and through.

When I came around, he was retired, but he still played his tenor sax every day.  I remember, when I’d come home from school to my grandma’s, eating my cookies and milk… his strains came from the bedroom.  I remember his rusted music stand that would only extend so far, so stiff it was.  As a kid, this was my musical heritage, as I understood it.  Grandpa, and then his brother and father both, musicians.  My grandmother’s brother, a pianist.  My mother’s brother, a former pianist and oboist.  But he gave it up after high school, because he was a very nervous guy who got stage fright.

For me, music was my identity.  After cookies, I’d sit on the floor and put the Suzuki violin tape in, and sit in front of the little radio, listening to it play.  I’d just stare at the radio I guess.  Maybe I’d read along with the music.  But mostly I’d just stare at the radio.  The sound had shape and form to it I guess.  It resonated in my head as such, that it would occupy my attention 100%.

This was my identity.

My grandfather would urge me to practice a few minutes a day, and I did fine enough.  The tunes were easy, I got by.  I would advance to the next song each week at my lessons, and I felt accomplished.

But I hated his presence at my group lessons.

I remember, on the weekends, me and the other kids in my program at the local community college.  We’d stand at the front of the room, the teacher playing songs with us, the accompanist banging away supportively… and my grandfather in the background, just staring.  He felt like this ghostly shadow that never would go away.  As I got older… 9, 10 years old… he was still there.

And it sucked.  After one class, there was a break, during which the other kids would leave their violin cases with their moms, and then run around outside, playing.  My grandfather never let me play with the kids though.  During lunch hour, we’d find an empty classroom, and then we’d just sit down, silently.  I’d munch on a sandwich.  No conversation.  I never really had any conversations with him.  There was nothing to talk about.  And not once did I ever play with the kids.  As we got older, they’d still chat with one another, friendly-like.  But me?  I didn’t know them at all.  We’d never had any conversations, me as an equal.  I was always a silent bystander.

I guess… now, these days, when I listen to music… this is what I feel.  Fear.  Isolation.  Abuse.  Really… could I call it abusive, if one prevents a child from playing with other children?

I think this is the main reason why I fear music so much.  It represents a BARRIER.  A thick, impenetrable wall between me and the world.  Music, it is that tower in which I, the princess, am stuck.  Forever.

Music, and its place in my mind, has destroyed me over the years.  In my “tween” years, I started experiencing extreme depression when I played music.  Tears, sadness.  ISOLATION.  The violin, I knew, was something that made me different.  Practicing in rooms by myself… I felt like that kid in the classroom with my sandwich… all alone.  Not even allowed to enjoy myself.

I tried to divert the pain by switching to the viola.  It required less practicing, so I survived a bit longer.  But by the 9th grade, I collapsed.  I had my first mental breakdown, and upon leaving the hospital, I begged my mother to let me quit music.  “Why would you want to stop something you’re good at?”  She didn’t understand… I didn’t understand.  But she let me.

Later on, I started viola again, and then got into conservatory for college.  I studied.  I practiced as best as I could.  But still, the grief and pain always crept back in in the practice room.  The pain… it was so vast, beyond what I could understand as a young adult.  Eventually, I tried to heal this pain with meditation… spirituality.  I thought that if I found peace in my spirit, this pain would end, and I would be a super star musician as I wanted.  I joined a meditation practice that had a branch in my college, and eventually took a trip to India to meditate with the guru.

But instead of peace, I only got schizophrenia.  Now, instead of sadness in the practice room, I had messages.  Nothing audible that one could call “voices…” but certainly, words, sentences, messages that were not mine.  At the time, I chalked it up to spiritual wisdom, or experience at least, and so I cherished these voices.  The voices… they told me how to practice, as if it were a kind of yoga.  I began to love violin technique… or the “posture” and “physical setup” of playing the violin.

It descended into madness eventually, and I was hospitalized again.  This time, it was schizoaffective disorder, and I had to drop out of a masters program.  Music had destroyed my mind.

That’s what it feels like.  It feels like MUSIC DESTROYS MY MIND.

My uncle often says that my mother “ruined” me with music.  That my mental illness is due to my musical studies.  My mother says this is impossible.  But is it?

Maybe.  After leaving college, I stopped playing for a year.  Then, I started teaching violin lessons, which I enjoyed, so I went back to school to become a public school music teacher.  Halfway through, I took a job teaching music at a private school… and then I had a breakdown where I thought I was the reincarnation of Beethoven.  So I quit.  My life fell to pieces again.  Again… MUSIC was the fault.  Too much music.  Too much sound.  Too MUCH.

I taught privately still, after losing that job and leaving music ed. school.  But that all ended when I descended into further madness, this time thinking I was the Antichrist.  I was hospitalized for 3 months solid, and I lost all my students.  After leaving, I was in rehab programs for the rest of the year, and then in January 2014, I reinvented myself by going to classes to become a peer specialist.

For the first time, music has NOT been the focus of my life.  And for the first time, I’M FUCKING HEALTHY.

I’ve been thinking now… perhaps I can make a few extra bucks as a music teacher.  I went to a local music school, and applied to start giving lessons.  On Saturdays, I go there now… I finished 2 weeks so far.

But I don’t know if I can keep going on.  Symptoms are sort of… returning?  NO ONE UNDERSTANDS.  NO ONE.  No one understands what happens in my head, if I start to define myself as a musician.  I start to feel pressures in my head… my forehead, my sinuses, the top angles of my skull… it feels as if someone is pressing on them.  My ears start to feel clogged.  And I feel a sense of dissociated fear.  It feels like prison.  It feels like madness.

Why?  Why is it that, a gift I have… is USELESS to me?  I am an incredibly talented musician.  I have a passion for violin technique… or I feel like I SHOULD.  But maybe I just don’t.  Maybe I DON’T like music, and this stuff that I experience, the mental illness “backlash” … maybe that’s just my body’s way of telling me that I don’t like music.

Everyone experiences schizophrenia differently.  But for me… I feel like there is the desire in my heart, and basic “common sense” … and then there is the illness.  And the illness says NO.  It tells me…

“No, you can’t play music.  I won’t let you.”

“Why do you want to listen to music?  You’ve heard all the chords and interesting chord changes for years, and there’s nothing left worth hearing.”

“Don’t listen.  It’s noise.  Akin to a bug buzzing.”

Is this voice me?  So many people would tell me that it is not.  This negativity could never be me.  We should always try to “reason” our way into positive thinking, I guess.

But… if music destroys me so much… why?

I’m trying to understand this right now.  Because… I want to make extra money as a musician.  And I want to contribute my gift to help others.

[This entry is long… eek!]

I have been able to circumvent my disgust for classical music by becoming a songwriter.  After the breakdown where I thought I was Beethoven, and after quitting my school teaching aspirations, I tried my hand at songwriting, and attended dozens and dozens and dozens of open mic nights.  Four years later, I’m now a mature songwriter, and am able to now facilitate a music/songwriting class with my clients at work.

It’s funny, I love brainstorming songs with clients.  I feel like… music actually serves a purpose.  One time, we were writing a song about bullying.  As we brainstormed the lyrics, we got into discussions on what bullying was about.  Other times, I’ve been just encouraging clients to come up with ideas.  They might sing a bar or 2, and then I turn it into something that we can build further on.

Someone suggested to me that I become a “music therapist.”  But then that would require a fucking masters degree and school and debt and shit that I just… don’t need.  Not that I don’t need a masters.  But I don’t need the formal shit to tell me how I’m going to use music therapeutically.  Because I have MY way, that works.  I know it works, because I try things with clients, and then I improve my methods.  My personal style, now developing, is one that is being developed in the ACTUAL FIELD.

I don’t know what’s happening to me at the moment.  Always, there are ups and downs, triumphs and slumps.  I just had an eating slump, and a house cleaning triumph.  Now I’m trying to initiate an eating triumph, and now I have a fucking music slump.  My mind feels INFECTED again.

Is this the beginning of my demise?  Will music destroy me again?  Or maybe… maybe I’m approaching this evil demon, but now I’m strong enough.  Because now, I’m a mental health professional.  I’ve learned about the peer specialist movement.  I’ve learned about wellness and recovery, and how to use tools like the Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  (WRAP)  And I’ve surrounded myself with mental health professionals, and clients, and everyone of these people serves to educate me, and make my life meaningful.

Whatever pain music has caused me… it is useful to me now.  It is not “tragedy” or “waste,” because now, all my shit now makes me armed and ready to help others in mental crisis.

Maybe… maybe now, I’m approaching the queen bee of my illness.  The hive.  The mother ship.  Will the illness fight back?  Will I have to cower in fear of my illness, avoiding music because it is outside of my control?  Or will I prove triumphant?


One thought on “Music: The Final Frontier of My Mental Illness

  1. I’m a firm believer that it is impossible to revert to one’s old self after learning so many skills. I too sometimes worry about slipping back into daily panic attacks, but I’ve learned too many useful skills that it would be impossible for my brain to not kick into action when the bad thoughts arrive.

    I think whatever feelings you have because of music can be transformed and used for the music. Many musicians have used pain and suffering in their craft and it has produced some of the finest works of all time. Don’t run from it because you could be missing a golden opportunity to create magic.

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