MUSIC, AND MY MENTAL ILLNESS JOURNEY
I began studying violin at age five. Right away, I identified as a “musician” above all. I practiced with my grandfather, who himself was a retired saxophone player. He had stories about how he was drafted in World War II… He never saw combat, but instead played in a big band stationed in Burma. His band entertained the troops at dinner functions.
Music made me happy, but there was grief too. My father had a temper, and his tirades affected me and my mother. As I grew older, feelings bottled up within me… rage, fear, terror. By age ten, I had crying fits, and was even unable to practice the violin. I’d play the instrument, and within a half hour… tears unbounded. Home with my father felt like an inescapable prison. Playing violin in a room by myself only made me more frightened.
I lost interest in the violin by middle school, so I switched to the viola. Its lower register resonated with my inner sense of melancholy. But after I played the viola for a couple of years, I eventually became too depressed to play the viola too. At fourteen, I was hospitalized for being suicidal. Upon discharge, I requested of my mother:
“I don’t want to play music anymore.”
So I stopped. But a year-and-a-half later, inspiration struck again, and I resumed viola with a new teacher. I auditioned for an esteemed youth orchestra in Manhattan, and received first chair in the viola section. This achievement boosted my ego. By senior year, my viola teacher helped me apply for music conservatories for my Bachelors degree. I chose to study at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Things were optimistic at first. My viola instructor there was an esteemed performer, and I sat second chair in the orchestra. Again, my ego was proud.
At this time, my motivation for being a musician was grounded in my love for competition. “Winning” first chairs in orchestras. Yet my practice sessions were still impeded by my depression. I couldn’t practice as much as I needed to, because still the tears flowed.
At the beginning of sophomore year, a viola concerto competition commenced at the conservatory. My professor advised I not enter, and yet the winner was another sophomore! She won against grad students. I did not take this surprise well.
In reaction, a rageful envy developed. I vowed to myself that I would win the following year’s competition, so as to earn my place. Eighteen months later, I entered, but did not win.
Filled with bitterness, I realized I was not “the best” at school. I started believing there was a magical element that “the best” possessed, that I did not. I then joined a meditation group linked to a guru in India. I thought that meditating would give me magical powers, and then I would become “the best.” After six months, I started to see this “magic” manifest in my life.
Or did I?
I experienced voices in my head, telling me how to practice. I thought this was all “spiritual wisdom”. This influence stayed with me for a full year, as I finished my Bachelors degree and started a Masters. But during my new degree program, the voices became confusing and unbearable. During winter break, I was hospitalized and received a new diagnosis: Schizoaffective disorder.
I finished the rest of the year completely dazed, and then returned home to New York, musical aspirations gone. Playing viola tormented me with tears and voices, and it only seemed to get worse as I got older.
For the years following, schizophrenia still haunted me. Repeated breakdowns prevented me from working, so I went on disability. But there has been much positivity too. I now work full-time as a peer specialist at a mental health agency. At my job, I publicly disclose my mental illness, thereby helping others who also suffer from it.
My life has new meaning now. No longer am I competitive. Now, I fight stigma. I tell my story. There is so much misunderstanding about schizophrenia, and many people fear and even criminalize those afflicted.
I hope one day, I can share my musical gifts with my clients so as to enrich their lives. I cannot do so now, as music is still a painful trigger. But I am optimistic about the future. I have rebuilt my life thus far, and expect to do even more so in the future.