Transmuting Psychosis into Artistic Inspiration

This post today will resemble more of a personal journal entry.  But there will be an overarching point to take away from…


Let me confide in you one of my greatest challenges regarding psychosis.  In January of 2011, I was employed at a private school in Brooklyn (which had a spiritual foundation), as a classroom music teacher.  I gave classes to scores of rowdy children, and became increasingly tired at their lack of cooperation.  The philosophy of the school also was a burden, because I was expected to treat each child like a little pearl of specialness.  It was exhausting.

My boss at the time criticized my classroom behavioral management skills, and at one point sent me to a training program.  But it was all in vain.  Not that I was beyond help… but rather, I had been doing my absolute best, and that was not good enough.

Halfway through the year, my boss gave me a meditation practice to do, in order to “ground me.”  When preparing myself mentally to do this, I then developed a psychotic notion: I suddenly believed myself to be the reincarnation of Beethoven.  I also then fixated on a male staff member, fancying him to be my soulmate… the “Immortal Beloved” from Beethoven’s famed letters to an unknown soulmate.

I then believed that I had a karmic duty, to unite myself to this soul mate so that we could enter Nirvana, achieve Enlightenment.  I broke down further, and eventually ended up in the hospital.  I was let go from the job, and was reduced to Square Zero, yet again.

I’ve come a long way since then.  I now can work full time, without losing my job.  However… this weekend proved challenging again, regarding Mr. Beethoven.  This past Friday afternoon, I was playing away at my violin, enjoying the process of improving my skill on pieces… Beethoven Violin Sonata Op. 12, No. 1, the Spring Sonata (Op. 12, No. 5), and then some Mendelssohn Violin concerto.  My motor skills have improved, so it was nice to utilize them.

Even though I eventually started thinking of Beethoven, I explored trying to channel those thoughts into my music making.  Maybe, I could channel the psychosis into my playing, maybe transmuting it into inspiration.  In conservatory, I was often told, “Play that part playfully,” or “Come up with a story.”  These suggestions meant bollocks to me, but now I figure, maybe… when I play this passage, I can imagine a memory of Beethoven’s, where he is looking at his fancied love twirling on a dance floor in a lilac poofy dress.  The music would then communicate the happiness in his heart.

But is it dangerous for me to delve deeper into these experiences?  Will I get lost in a false reality, as I fear?  I must tread lightly and tenderly in this explorative quest.  It may not work out in the end, and I must make sure that I do not destroy myself in this process.  My mother remarked today, that it is likely that the sound of the violin under my ear prompts a chemical change in my brain that is distressing.  I agree.  I often get psychotic delusions when I play the instrument, and also I have experiences where it seems as if my violin/viola is talking to me, giving me messages.

Regarding this past weekend, I had some bad backlash after my practice session.  I ventured out to do some Karaoke with friends, and ran into an acquaintance of mine from when I attended music college to get a teaching certificate.  The friend then invited me to play a curious piece written by Beethoven for viola and guitar.  Beethoven incidentally was a violist, and he wrote the piece for a woman who was a guitarist, so that they could play together.

You see the quandary here.

I’ve had many of these “coincidental” experiences over the years.  With all the religious types crawling around these days, many believe that “all things happen for a reason.”  Yet this believe is pure poison in my veins.  What meaning could this invitation have for me?  Only a destructive one.  The man was nice enough in his offer, but the damage was done.  I sat at the bar watching muted sports games, sang a bit, went home.  I overate before bed, due to stress (lentil soup and sweet potatoes).

The next day (today), I woke up after the sun had set, and my body and mind were shaking.  I did some chores with my mom, rationally motivating myself to remain active instead of simply wadding myself into my bed in fetal position.  But I had a pained look on my face, I was ranting about peer specialist political actions and fighting stigma, and my body was shaking.  Upstairs, I popped an Ativan, and drank the lemon water.  Lemon water has truly become my medicine.  I began to normalize again.

What is the meaning of this?  Was I triggered by practicing violin?  The guitarist’s invitation?  Overeating?  Probably a mixture of it all.

I want to play violin again.  Somehow, some way.  But I don’t know if it’s possible anymore.  I want to try though.  I want to get so strong, that I can play violin and collaborate with friends.  I have another friend, a pianist, who I LOVE to meet for reading sessions.  I’d like to try Mozart violin sonatas, etc.

I love classical music terribly, and the notion of giving it up to preserve my mental health saddens me.  It’s a battle, it’s a war, but now… I’m strong.  I’m strong because I know about the peer movement, and about the recovery model.  I’m strong, because I know that my illness is not a death sentence.  I am empowered by my friends who believe in me.  Who support me.

Maybe one day, Beethoven can simply be a wellspring for imagination and inspiration.  But… it is one step back, two steps forward.  And maybe each step will take a week, a month… it is nothing to be rushed.


Faults in Mentoring-Style Instruction in Classical Music and Fitness

Recently, I have been reevaluating my past to find some meaning in why I am the way I am today.  I was quite sick mentally back then.  Childhood fears morphed into depression, which evolved into modest paranoia, which then became full-blown schizophrenia.  I had to bow out from the professional world for several years, while I licked my wounds in unproductive ways.  Random one-night stands.  Standing for hours in abandoned train stations, falling asleep on trains, losing valuable items on the subway.  Walking through dangerous neighborhoods at the crack of dawn.  Of course, these were all social situations where I was hanging out with friends and friendly strangers beforehand, but the commutes home?  Inconceivable.

But the worst of my mental tortures were not in bars or random bedrooms.  The most frightening rooms I’ve entered have been musician studios and rehearsal spaces.

When I attended music conservatory during my college years, I encountered many accomplished musicians, hailing from all corners of the world except for Africa.  I was assigned to a single viola professor, from whom I would receive private lessons once a week.  This was the apex of my musical education.  I was expected to practice for hours in order to prepare for these sessions, and then receive constructive criticism and feedback on how to improve.  I’d practice again, and return, etc.  Washing machine ritual.

It was frustrating.  As a person passionate about music, it was more than just a trade or vocation for me.  It was my religion.  My way of life.  When I went to my lessons with my professor, I wasn’t just looking for musical feedback.  I was looking for mentorship.  I was looking for therapy.  Comfort.  A person who could guide me on how to live my life.  I admit, I worshipped one teacher like a guru.  I was not well during that time though.

A big flaw in classical music education is that… it’s an archaic system.  Basically, the best of performers teach the best performing students, in a sort of “do it my way” style.  They’ll play something on their instrument, and then say, “Do it like this.”  When asked “why?” or “how?” they either get testy and something like, “Because I’m experienced and you’re not,” or they will butcher the English language in an attempt to respond.  But in my experience, musicians are incapable of communicating via language.  Music is their language.

Thereby rendering them useless as anything to be learned from.

I’ve always been a creature of words.  I always ask “why?” as well.  So when my professors would get mentally tired with my “whys?” I became mentally backed up.  I lost respect for them.  I realized I couldn’t emulate them as paragons of life.  So… then what was the point of my respecting them as musicians?

It’s a tricky tale.

Elite classical musicianship is frustrating, and I want to write a book about it.  I don’t know where to start though.  So many complaints in my head, swimming around.  Part of these complaints are specific to the classical world.  But others are just criticisms of society’s approach to teaching in general.

About three and a half years ago, I weighed my heaviest, and I started my journey in weight loss.  Since then, I have made many friends who have given me invaluable advice freely, which has led to me changing my lifestyle to facilitate athleticism and good eating.  The best coaches I’ve had are those who “taught me to fish.”  Two specific women especially… I had dozens and dozens of questions, which they answered… and now I have learned so much.  I’m even self motivated to work out at home multiple times a week.

And then… there are less helpful people.

I find that so often, in fitness, there are people who are experts, and then offer their service as motivators.  Some are motivating, but others are intimidating.  Like Jillian Michaels, etc.  They act like drill sergeants to intimidate a person into getting fat… fit, whatever.  They make out like fitness is something impossible, and then cause the person to think that they desperately need the coach to succeed.  It’s such a dysfunctional scam.  And psychologically unhealthy.

Likewise, classical music education has its own dysfunctions.  Which are also psychologically unhealthy.

I want to further investigate this.  I think that there can be a new model of education developed, which can create a more inviting atmosphere for the student.  An environment which will cause the student to transform psychologically, from a blank, inert canvas into a questioning being.  Because… people grow and learn when they are curious.  This is a natural state for children.  As educators, people need to activate this in their students.  Because when a student asks questions out of sheer curiosity, they then learn the lessons they need to learn.  And then… they will develop into their own beings, and they will gravitate to what works for them.  Such teaching can really nurture individuality.  Right now, our schools serve as cookie cutter factories.

And also, if students can be self-directed in their questioning, they will grow into innovators.  Nurturers.  Researchers.  We’d get a lot done, and much faster.

And yet, learning does not happen overnight.  One thing I’ve noticed in both fitness and classical music, is that some people are branded as “talented,” or “better students” or “genetically favored.”  And these people are easier to work with, because they progress faster.  The problem is, their accelerated growth is compared to the average person, who progresses more slowly.  Teachers without infinite patience then exercise favoritism, offering more love and nourishment to the better students, who then flower and thrive, while the supposed-weaker students do not.  It is what it is.

I am not saying that this is wrong.  And the answer is CERTAINLY not to make things equal.  Absolutely not.  I think the answer is in… an attitude shift.  Teachers have to stop thinking that overnight change is the only way students can demonstrate that they are learning.  Take me as an example.  I learned things in college that I was unable to execute, mostly due to mental illness.  Or… maybe I didn’t reproduce things in the way they wanted, because I was modifying their advice to be compatible with everything else I have learned in my past.  Teachers have to realize that they cannot change their students.  They can only influence.  They have to realize that change does not happen overnight, and then not penalize students for not doing so.

Teachers are not experts in everything.  They need to realize that, even though they have their cushy jobs and resumes, they need to still learn how to teach.

Writing about this makes me feel more empowered, and less paralyzed.  I hope that, one day, I can help people become better teachers.  That is a big long-term wish of mine.