Mental Illness as a Musician, Part 5

As someone who fluctuates between anxiety and depression, sometimes having both simultaneously, I oftentimes find myself “cycling” between moods.  I used to be unable to recognize that I was “cycling”, but I am very aware of it nowadays.  It is a particular part in my cycling, racing thoughts, that I wish to address here.

It is invigorating to both think quickly, and to use that to accomplish tasks and find solutions.  However, having racing thoughts is much different than thinking quickly.  Thinking quickly is driving a car on a highway.  Racing thought is driving an 18-wheeler with 3 wheels missing, overloaded, barrelling down a mountain at 100 miles an hour, with no brakes, in the middle of a blizzard.  You can go fast, but you will crash, and there will be damage.

I used to think of racing thoughts as part of my creativity.  In fact, when my mental illness was setting in as a teenager, my psychologist and I wondered (and worried) if my mental illness is also the source of my creativity (and if defeating it would deafen my creativity).  I have found that while my mental illness has created experiences that aid my creativity, the healthier I am (and the farther I am from my mental illness), the more creative I am.

Racing thoughts do not constitute any part of my creativity.  Even my racing moments to jot down the latest earworm in my mind are not racing thoughts.  Racing thoughts never take a break.  Racing thoughts do not allow for time away from a project.  Racing thoughts do not allow for space, clarity, distance, and a shift in perspective.

I have found this out by experimenting.  You can perform a similar experiment, to see how your thoughts may impede your creative process (or life).

At your next existential creative (and/or life) crisis, so to speak, try thinking of a solution even though one is not coming to you.  Obsess about it.  Focus all your thinking power on it.  Go through life for the time being with that in the forefront of your mind, and do not be mindful; live obsessed with it.

Then, after a half day or so without a solution, take a break.  Walk away from it.  Focus on something else.  Become mindful of life again.  Don’t try to not think about it–it is impossible to “not think” about something.  Instead, think about something else.  Focus on life, and in turn do not focus on the problem.

You may think snippets of your problem.  Acknowledge them, but do not feed or dismiss them.  They will pass.  You will slowly attain clarity, and may get closer to a solution, but do not worry about finding a solution.  Instead, focus on life.

After a day or more, you may return to the problem.  It may happen upon you at random to think about the problem, or you may purposefully direct your attention to it.  Regardless, I guarantee that your mind has done work while you were focused on life.  You will be more informed, have a better perspective, and most likely be closer to a solution (or have found a solution) by focusing on other things in life, as compared to obsessing about it 24/7.

How does this apply to music?  We as musicians are constantly trying to get better for fear of judgment; to schedule our time in the “gigging” lifestyle to make things work time-wise and financially; to constantly be everything to every one of our students.  To avoid racing thoughts, to avoid careening down a mountain, to get out of the loop of obsession and obtain a clear perspective, focus on life.  Focus on something else.  Trust that the brain is an amazing organ, and will be working on the problem for you in the background.  Take a break from worrying by focusing on the present, on something you are doing right now.  Your brain will give you clarity once you have put enough distance between you and the issue.  No matter if you are unsatisfied with a performance, feeling judged by your teacher, puzzled with which note comes next in a composition, frustrated that your mix just isn’t “popping”, or are anxious that your students will not all be ready for an upcoming recital: do something else.  You are an amazing person, and your brain is amazing too.  It will take care of helping you with the issue; you do not need to obsess about it.

Happy composing, and driving on the highway.  The back roads are nice, too.


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