(This was written on 11/30/16, for posting on 12/1/16.)
I would like to write on a rather personal topic tonight. I have a mood disorder, an amalgamation of mental illness that is best described on a spectrum (i.e. there is a spectrum of mood disorders, and I am somewhere on that spectrum, with my own special blend of mental illness). For me, it is a mix of anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, and interrupting and racing thoughts.
Some days are harder than others, and today was a very hard day. I am sure everyone has hard days, and so I don’t want to trivialize or diminish, in any way, anyone else’s troubles by talking about mine. I also don’t want to start a pity party; this is an account of my life as a musician with mental illness, and that is how it is. There is nothing to bemoan.
A musician’s work is constantly evaluated and judged, and so it is easy to tie one’s happiness with one’s work. And, even when one tries one’s best and things don’t work out, it is easy to blame oneself. Perfectionism also runs rampant in musical circles, as only the best of the best survive. These issues were the center of my day today. Here are the lessons that I had to unlearn from my musical training, in order to survive today (accompanied by screenshots of some of my pieces, for added emphasis):
- You don’t have to have everything organized for something to be successful. Over time, I had learned that the most micromanaged, painstakingly ordered systems are the ones that succeed. I had to let go over perfectionism in organization in order to be messy.
This may seem counterintuitive to say; I mean, aren’t all musicians disorganized, messy wrecks who never can keep it together? What I am saying is that in my personal experience, those who rise to the top either are super organized, or have someone to keep them super organized. I am messy during creation, but never in the final product (even when I create messy-sounding music, it is carefully thought through). Today I gave myself permission to be messy.
- As a musician, we are taught to save face, to not show weakness, to perform as best we can. I internalized this performative habit and turned it into a lifestyle, not showing weakness as often as I could keep up the facade. I even wouldn’t allow myself to show this side to myself, including in private. Today I have taken a big step towards being more authentic to myself. I gave myself permission to feel like shit. I feel more real and I am embracing the fact of feeling bad. This thought was inconceivable to me years ago. This revelation has actually already made me more resilient in today’s struggles, and I look forward to feeling like shit in the future, knowing that it is there to teach me something, soothe me, help me process life, and deal with disappointment, loss, and failure.
- Place the blame where it belongs. Today I learned that my actions cannot prevent bad things from happening, and that I place the blame on myself too often, which is in most cases where it does not belong. In blaming myself, I took on the burden of fixing things that should be fixed by other people. The only way my actions can mitigate bad things from happening is by apportioning the right blame to the right people, and holding them accountable. That means that if I do screw up, I have to hold myself to it, but only for what I screwed up, and only in proportion to the magnitude of my error. People can take me calling them out; they are adults. It is time to let them know that they have screwed up, instead of blaming myself for everything.
This is not a sob session. This is not being a pansy. This is not decrying musical culture. These lessons are not learned by every musician, and are unique to me and the specific training, teachers, and experiences I have had. The experiences of others will certainly differ. But for me, I learned much today. And instead of feeling like my mental illness was returning in full fire, I felt the truth of these lessons. I say “felt” instead of “understood” because I always knew these things, but never was able to let them get into the core of who I am. Today I took the first of many steps towards learning these things, and I know it will take much repetition and reinforcing (practices that musical training has imbued in me, to good results) to fully take in these lessons.
Thanks for reading,