Mental Illness as a Musician, Part 4

We tend to think that, as humans, we get addicted to physical things: drugs, sex, gambling, money, fighting, etc.  Yet, I haven’t heard anyone talking about addiction to thought–addiction to thinking.

Thought, creativity, and rational inquiry are amazing, world-changing things.  So much good has come as a result of the use of them in positive, constructive ways.

Yet, as musicians (and others) with mental illness, we can not only be in the “black pit of despair” I have referenced elsewhere, but we can become addicted to feeling down, to thinking in loops, to pity and despair.  This addiction to thought can trap us, enslave us, dominate us, and we enjoy it.

At some point its power is only through addiction itself; at some point it no longer gives us pleasure.

And, no, I am not saying “it is only in your head” , “you enjoy being sick”, or “just snap out of it–don’t overthink it”.  What I am saying is that we take refuge in some of our thoughts, and this can get out of control.

It is not easy to get out of the tar of addiction to thought.  But, here are some simple steps to help.

  1. If you’re home and stuck in thought, do 3 sets of planks for as long as you can hold it.  10 seconds each set, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 3 minutes, it’s all great.  Plank until the agony of the burn/muscle use overwhelms your mind.  This can help free your mind from the repetitive loops, makes you sweat a bit to physically get your body to assist your mind, and generates a bit of endorphins.
  2. Walk around the block with a dog.  It can be a neighbor’s dog.  Pay attention to the dog.  Do not take your attention off the walk and the dog.  Notice what they sniff, on what they mark their territory,  how they pull the leash, and be sure to pick up their poop.  Focus on the walk.  If you find your mind slipping into rumination, gently return your focus to the walk.  Breathe in the air and enjoy.
  3. If you have other animals and it is time for their nap, walk, litter cleaning, cage cleaning, feeding time: take care of them.  Focus on providing your animal(s) the best care you can for the 10-15 minutes you may be spending to keep them healthy.  If they need a nap and want to cuddle, let them interrupt your thoughts and bask in the nap.
  4. Get outdoors.  Go meet with people.  If you have few or no friends, that’s fine.  Stay away from bars, but do something that can be public, even if you’re a bystander the whole time.  Laugh with a gathering of people, even if you don’t know them.  You don’t have to spend money to do this.
  5. Become aware of the loop.  Get into the habit of looking at yourself from the third person–a birds-eye view.  In other words, observe yourself.  Notice when you are becoming overly pensive.  Recognize that you are slipping into rumination.  Then, gently guide yourself towards something else.
  6. Practice some scales.
  7. Drink a glass of water, paying attention to the liquid flowing from the glass, to your mouth, to your stomach.  Feel the cold glass in your hand as you return it to the counter-top or table.
  8. Listen to a new piece of music on SoundCloud or YouTube.
  9. Clean your workspace/practice area.
  10. Clean your instrument.
  11. Listen to a song on the radio and try to solfege it out, sing it, or memorize the lyrics.

The key is to recognize you are slipping into addiction to thinking, take that energy, and direct it elsewhere.  Don’t drink, go on social media, drive when lost in the haze, or do anything hazardous (eg. throwing things, breaking things, self-harm, etc.).  The goal is to become real and connected to the world.  Life sucks, and it is good to use thought to make it better.  But, none of us can afford to live life trapped in thought.

I often turn to animals when I am lost in thought; they always are so mindful of the present.  When they eat, they eat.  When they sleep, they sleep.  When they love, they love.  They do as their instinct tells them to, switching gears as necessary but always being present.  As a reminder to myself, I leave you with composer cat (Summer Lis Luciano), in her typical napping pose on my lap post-work.  How lucky I am to have her.



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