The Way of the Voice

Working on my Let’s Play has the potential to help me become more intentional in how I use my voice. Creating an episode is a process that I’d estimate is about 1/4 recording and 3/4 editing, the latter of which involves a significant amount of time listening (and re-listening) to my commentary. It gives me the opportunity to hear my voice as someone else might: without the lower frequencies I’m used to hearing and containing unintentional fluctuations that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

When I said I like the way my voice sounds in my last post, I meant that the absence of the lower frequencies doesn’t bother me. I’ve also learned to speak with a deeper, more adult-sounding voice – well, most of the time. My voice as it’s recorded for the commentary usually sounds like a me I want others to perceive. I consider that to be a rather awesome accomplishment.

As I’ve been listening to my commentary, I’ve come to notice unintentional fluctuations in the volume, energy, pitch, and rhythm of my voice. It tends to get softer and its rhythm more erratic at points that are unscripted, so my focus is diverted to figuring out what I want to say and how to word it. Sometimes the volume – at least as it’s measured by my audio editing software – will be the same, but my voice will sound… smaller, perhaps more child-like. The pitch can be all over the place and too often rises at the end of statements, which drives me crazy because it sounds like I’m constantly asking questions.

I don’t know if others would interpret these fluctuations the same way, but to me they all come together to make it sound like I’m uncertain about what I’m saying, perhaps seeking validation or approval. If I do this in my real-life interactions, people might think I’m incompetent or lack confidence or I’m asking them for help; this might contribute to others (including Wakana) “taking over” and telling me what to do. That’s not how I want to be treated, but it’s how I’m unintentionally asking people to treat me. I need to figure out how I want people to treat me (like an equal? like a competent adult?) and learn to present myself that way.

I’ve tried to mitigate this, with some interesting effects. In one episode I noticed that my request to “please subscribe” sounded like a plea, as though I were desperate for followers. In a later episode I intentionally tried to drag the pitch of my voice downward, in hopes of at least providing some variety. When I listened to the recording I thought I sounded like a bitchy teenager, complete with huffing and rolling my eyes. I immediately deleted both of these atrocities out of their respective episodes. (Thank goodness we can do that!)

I recognize that 1) I’m probably being more critical of myself than others would be of me, 2) I might be looking at myself through depression and/or anxiety goggles, and 3) different people might not even notice these fluctuations, or might interpret them in different ways. Ideally I can ask others for feedback – actually, Wakana would be the perfect person to ask; as a music therapist whose voice is her primary instrument, she is the one most likely to notice the fluctuations in my voice. Perhaps she can teach me to be more intentional in how I use them to communicate.

With and without Wakana’s assistance, I can use my Let’s Play commentary as an opportunity to listen to my voice in a variety of situations:

  • when I’m intentionally trying to convey certain emotions as part of role-playing my character
  • when I’m sharing my thoughts about strategy, the plot, gameplay mechanics, etc. – basically, talking about stuff with a focus on the content of what I’m saying
  • when I’m directly addressing the viewer, e.g. “thanks for watching”

I can also experiment with making my voice sound different and listen to the results. Does intentionally lowering the pitch at the end of sentences help me sound more confident? What happens when I try to put more energy into my voice? When I’m role-playing, do the inflections in my voice accurately express the emotion I’m trying to portray?

Of course, I can’t act my way through life: trying to convince others I’m more capable and worthy than I actually felt is what got me into this mess in the first place. I need to continue the work I’ve been doing with Wakana, which essentially comes down to learning that I have the right to exist and I’m worthy/”good enough” just the way I am. As I do that, the ways I present myself will change, and so will the ways people treat me, and that will help further improve my self-esteem.

Or, maybe the changes in how I present myself aren’t quite keeping up with my changes in self-perception. In other words, I feel more worthy and confident than I convey to others. So, I choose to intentionally improve my ability to communicate my confidence and worthiness, so others will see it and respond accordingly… which will help further improve my self-esteem.

Dr. Jekyll Experiments with Whole Tones

I’m taking a course in piano improvisation for music therapy, which is both really cool and nerve-wracking. We get to go far beyond the conventions of traditional Western music, to explore musical expression more broadly. We’re simultaneously learning to appreciate the emotional effects of intervals (the specific sound created by playing two particular notes simultaneously or consecutively) and developing a working knowledge of “alternative” modes and scales. It’s nerve-wracking because one never knows when one will be called upon to do this brand-new thing in front of the entire class, and I tend to lack confidence in my piano skills.

The solution is, of course, to practice – both to improve my skills and confidence, and to play with all the new toys that are being handed to me each week! I was feeling rather bored yesterday, alone in my messy apartment without Fox to help me focus my energy. I’d already played The Sims 3 for a few hours and wanted to do something different, so I decided to improvise on piano for a while.

I practiced the whole tone scale, which does not have any half-steps and creates a very dream-like feeling. On the piano it can be played by choosing a key to start on (e.g. middle C), then skipping a key between each one you play. There are two basic whole tone scales; you can start and end on any pitch in either of them.

Whole tone scales for piano starting on C-natural and D-flat. Together they use every key within a minor 9th on the piano.

Whole tone scales for piano starting on C-natural and D-flat. Together they use every key  on the piano within a minor 9th.

I started out by just playing the scale that starts on C-natural, first in the right hand and then in the left. My right hand began to try making more creative melodies, while my left searched for some kind of accompaniment (which in my mind means playing at least two notes simultaneously, preferably with a rhythmic pattern). I made the conscious choice to avoid intervals that are considered consonant (peaceful) in Western music, prioritizing dissonance (tension) and sounds that were unfamiliar.

That led my music to become quite harsh, expressing a mix of anxiety and anger that was almost completely nonverbal. I abandoned the whole tone scale and other ways of organizing pitches (specific audible frequencies) into what is conventionally considered music, relying more and more heavily on tone clusters. There were rhythmic elements and patterns in my playing, but no real meter (a way of organizing rhythm). In other words, I was literally banging on the piano with open hands and had very little intentional control over individual fingers. As time went on, the improvisation became increasingly chaotic.

Themes emerged in the music such as a “rumbling” in the lowest register that I sometimes played with both hands, sometimes with the left hand only. The right hand would flee from this dark ominous rumbling and scramble “up” the piano into the high register, where the sequences of pitches I played were rather frantic. I had the mental image of struggling to climb a slippery rocky incline where I couldn’t find a secure grip. The abyss and/or some horrible monster waited below. At times there was a call-and-response structure to the music, in which one hand would play something (while the other hand was silent), then the other would respond with similar rhythmic patterns (while the first hand was silent).

I quickly interpreted the dark ominous rumbling to be the voice I hear when my depression symptoms are at their worst, telling me I’m worthless, alone, etc. The self-destructive urges that at best undermine my short-term goals and at worst tempt me toward suicide. My inner demon, my true mental illness, my internalization of the abuse I’ve experienced, etc. etc. etc. It has no redeeming qualities, yet I allow it to seduce me.

The right hand could only scramble so far up the keyboard before it had nowhere else to go, so it would come back down toward the rumbling, sometimes joining it. There was no rest, no slowing down and organizing, no creating intentional patterns, no stability. I think my attempt to explore beyond Western music became an excuse for avoiding it, thus depriving myself of most if not all of techniques I currently have in my repertoire for restoring stability, calm, and a sense of wholeness (which I should be using music to promote). I was “up the creek without a paddle” – because I’d intentionally left both my paddles at home.

There was a part of my mind that urged caution, reminding me that I was alone with no one to pull me out of the abyss if I needed them to. I was not with Wakana in therapy, where an exploration like this might prove useful – and could be done safely. It urged me not to go too deep, to come back, to be careful and compassionate toward myself.

But another part was fascinated. It wanted to sit back and observe and analyze everything that was happening. It assured my cautious mind that I could handle this, that it would pull me back when necessary. This is the part that’s enabling me to write about my experience like an objective researcher writing a case study. I think it’s the part of the human psyche that finds serial killers so fascinating. – and, admittedly, part of why I study psychology.

I found the whole experience so interesting, I decided to intentionally cause it to happen again so I’d have an audio recording. If only I hadn’t deleted the file when I hit my first obstacle to transferring it from my phone to my computer. I’d really love to hear what I played, and to analyze it…

The title of this post is a reference to the musical Jekyll & Hyde, which is based on the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. In the musical, Dr. Jekyll begins experimenting on himself in order to find a way to remove the evil in his father’s soul. He instead creates Mr. Hyde, an alter-ego who embodies and acts upon all of Jekyll’s “evil” urges – unchecked by morals or concern about his standing in society.

A double exposure image featuring Richard Mansfield as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, taken by Henry Van der Weyde circa 1895. Public domain image downloaded from the Wikipedia Commons.

A double exposure image featuring Richard Mansfield as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, taken by Henry Van der Weyde circa 1895. Public domain image from the Wikipedia Commons.

I’d be tempted to say I write about my “Mr. Hyde” on this blog all the time, but I only disclose part of it. I can admit to suicidal thoughts, habits I know are unhealthy, the temptation to give up on everything, frustration in relationships, anger, guilt, etc. I don’t use this blog to share my thoughts that are racist, wish dishonorable death upon certain politicians, objectify others for my own sexual gratification, devalue other people’s perspectives, etc. To do so would be inappropriate and harmful. I only mention these things now because I believe they are some of the human tendencies Mr. Hyde represents – and we each have our own version of him. We can’t separate him from the “good” part of our psyche, but we can limit his influence on our behavior. Perhaps we can even help him change to be less “evil.”

I think the more important character to examine is Dr. Jekyll, the one who unleashes Mr. Hyde. In the musical his stated intention is to cure his father, who is comatose. He isn’t allowed to experiment on other humans due to the risks involved, so he experiments on himself instead. The song “This is the Moment” reveals that his motivations aren’t really all that altruistic; he’s motivated by pride. He wants to prove himself, to prove “them” wrong. He’s not really being heroic. He’s being reckless.

Watch Robert Cuccioli perform “This is the Moment” on YouTube

Okay, so maybe the first time he transforms into Mr. Hyde it’s an accident. He had no way of knowing that would happen, right? Fine. The problem is that he keeps doing it, over and over, until he loses control. He prioritizes his research over his Self – and the safety of others.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with whole tones. Well I started out by practicing whole tone scales, then trying to improvise with them, but I was reckless. I didn’t do anything to ground myself, like going ahead and using a consonant interval (C and E) or playing one of the ostinati we’d practiced in class. (“Ostinati” is the plural of “ostinato,” a short musical phrase played over and over.) Without a predictable pattern, comforting intervals, something to keep me calm and ordered, I had no protection from the chaos.

Okay, so I banged on the piano for a while and made a lot of noise. It was during the day. Anyone who heard it was probably just a bit annoyed by it, then went on with their lives. I might have been the only one who heard it.

The problem is that I knew it was risky to allow my musical improvisation to become so chaotic, but I did it anyway. I felt unsafe – otherwise I wouldn’t have had thoughts urging caution; it wouldn’t have mattered that I was alone. I knew I was unleashing powerful forces I wasn’t prepared to deal with on my own. But instead of stopping the improvisation and moving on to something safer, I decided to go back, to go deeper into the abyss.

I’ll admit, it was kind of fun to romp around. When I needed to come back, I moved myself more and more toward consonant intervals. I played a G-major chord, regained conscious intentional control over my fingers, and explored tonal music for a while. I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I ended the improvisation, but I thought I was okay.

I wasn’t okay. My mind was in utter chaos. The light was too bright. There were too many colors and sounds. The clutter in my apartment that I can usually block out (or even find comforting) was overwhelming. Every thought splintered into several more. Each word brought on an association: an image or a song. That association would lead to another and another and another… it was all going too fast! I couldn’t focus my energy. I could barely move. All I could do was sit and put my head down and try to find something that wasn’t stimulating.

I texted Banji and told her: “I feel like I’m in the middle of a crowded room with hundreds of conversations going on around me, ten TVs set to different channels and blasting, ten radios also set to different stations and blasting, and there’s no escape!” She replied, “hugs,” and I sent her more texts describing how it had happened. I felt the tension melting away as I did so. Eventually I decided to take a shower, which provided sensations I find comforting (and pleasurable) and that brought me back into my body: in a word, grounding. My mind picked one (or maybe two?) thing(s) to focus on. I was even able to read a chapter of Yalom (The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy) during a Skype homework session with Banji.

I’m going to take it as a learning experience. At first I thought maybe whole tone improvisation was contraindicated (not a good idea) for me, but I think the more important lesson is the importance of grounding. There needs to be some kind of home base that can be referenced at any time and provides the foundation for the music experience.

More importantly, I can’t experiment on myself – no matter how much what I learn might benefit my future clients, or how “fascinating” it is. My safety has to come first; I need to recognize and respect my own boundaries.

Prescription by Dr. Ziya

WARNING: This is a (potentially risky) decision I have made for myself. It does not take the place of medical advice by a qualified mental health professional.

Today I had a conversation with 2 friends that confirmed a few thoughts I’ve been having:

  1. I will not go back to Psychiatrist B under any circumstances.
  2. I need to stop taking my current medications.
  3. Listening to music daily will improve my mood and possibly also my brain’s functioning.
  4. I need to be honest and talk about my disorder more often.

Psychiatrist B didn’t take my thoughts about harming myself and even committing suicide seriously, despite the fact that the drug he was prescribing me can cause such thoughts. He also needed assurance from me that it was worth gaining weight to have the possibility of recovering from a disabling disorder; that my mental health is more important than my appearance! (He also made the typical assumption that fat = ugly, which I have no desire to perpetuate.) As one of my friends put it, there’s a significant risk that if I keep going to this doctor, his problems will have a negative impact on my well-being. It also certainly doesn’t bode well that the “clinic” hasn’t made any attempts to contact me about rescheduling the follow-up appointment I canceled nearly a month ago.

.

long-white-pillsRegarding my medications, the bottom line is: they’re not providing the relief I need. Regardless of whether they’re helping “somewhat,” the fact remains that they are not helping enough. And there’s the possibility that they are causing or contributing to some of my more disturbing symptoms. I haven’t been taking them for the past few days and to be honest it’s been a very rocky road. At this point I’m unsure whether I should hold my ground until they’re completely out of my system – or start taking them again in smaller and smaller doses until it’s safer to stop completely (or I run out). Everyone seems to think it’s better to wean myself off them slowly, but I’m concerned about what might happen if my levels spike again after being so low for the past couple days. It’s also a lot easier to just not take them than to try to figure out what doses would be appropriate and remember to take them regularly.

It’s recently come to my attention that I’ve been doing my readers and the companies that make certain brand-name drugs a disservice. I’ve been taking generic “equivalents” of Zoloft and BuSpar (sertraline HCl and buspirone HCl, respectively); prior to beginning this blog I was taking bupropion in place of Wellbutrin. Anyone reading my blog would think I was taking the brand-name drugs and that they were causing or contributing to the undesirable effects I’ve described. This is most certainly not the case. In Generic Versus Brand: What’s In That Pill? Part 1, Disorderly Chickadee sheds light on how generic formulations of brand-name drugs often are not as effective as the brand-name version; in some cases the difference in functioning one experiences can be “like a brain transplant.”

Most notably, there is a huge difference between Wellbutrin and generic bupropion, enough so that one generic formulation was recalled. It’s not the one I was taking, but it still raises some suspicion that I might have done a lot better if I’d taken actual Wellbutrin instead. I’m also wondering whether brand-name Zoloft and BuSpar would be more effective (and safer!) than the generic sertraline HCl and buspirone HCl I’ve been taking.

.

bob marleyI don’t usually listen to music, unless you count the background stuff in Oblivion – which either alerts me to the presence of enemies or puts me to sleep. Yesterday I had the very pleasant experience of listening to some of the more upbeat tracks on a CD of instrumental Celtic music. The bass and percussion were very grounding and calming, helping me to feel safe … while the foregound instruments were lively and played complex melodies in compound meter.

MeterI had a lot of fun listening to the music, felt calmer and happier, and thought it was having a desirable effect on my brain. It required enough of my attention that there was little to no room left for disturbing thoughts, and it seemed to help organize my brain. My hypothesis is that the regular firing of neurons involved in listening to the music (which are located throughout the brain) may have provided the stimulation, serotonin, dopamine, and information pathways my brain needed to function more effectively. I might need to experiment a bit to figure out how many times per day and for how long I should listen to music, as well as what types of music will provide the best effects … but overall I’m optimistic that listening to music regularly will help – a lot!

.

meep-and-lolz-cropFinally, it felt really good to be honest about what I’ve been struggling with and have my friends accept my reality. They listened and shared their own related experiences, which helped me feel less alone in my struggles. They offered advice – some of which I found helpful – but more importantly demonstrated that they support me in my efforts to take care of myself. “You know you can call any of us any time you need to talk, right?” Yeah, I do; I just need a reminder that there are people who want me to reach out to them in my times of greatest need, when I feel like I’d be doing everyone a favor if I just ceased to exist.

Viola Improvisation 1: Muted

I finally feel like I’m getting my music back. Yesterday I was having a hard time emotionally; I was too exhausted to deal with anything. But I was able to improvise – on piano and then on viola. I recorded all of my improvisations, but the last one (on viola) seems to capture my experience the best. I was able to be very intentional while expressing … well, stuff that’s been bottled up for too long.

I would love to purchase WordPress’s space upgrade in order to be able to post audio files, but in my current situation that would not be financially responsible. So, I ventured forth in search of a free audio hosting service.

I found PodOmatic and posted my first (entirely instrumental) podcast today. You are welcome to listen to my improvisation (mp3), or download it to listen to later. Here is a preview of the podcast:

viola-improv-1-screenshot

Christmas Eve: An Emotional (and functional) Rollercoaster

On Christmas Eve, I awoke knowing I hadn’t gotten enough sleep and determined to claim the last hour or two I required. My fiance got up, got dressed, and tried to wake me gently. Eventually I acquiesced, had breakfast, and took my morning pills (Zoloft, omega-3, vitamin B, and vitamin D).

Then we launched into baking cookies. I did most of the work mixing the ingredients while my fiance cleaned and got some Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas music playing. We worked together to put the cookie dough on the trays and get the trays in and out of the oven in a timely manner.

I was on top of the world through the whole process. Between the music and sharing a favorite holiday tradition with someone I love, I simply could not imagine anything better. And the results of our labor were some of the most delicious, satisfying, euphoria-inducing cookies I have ever had. I couldn’t wait to share them!

I felt like everything was right again and I could stop taking my medication.

Then my fiance took about half the cookies and left to spend the holiday with his family, an arrangement we’d agreed on days earlier. I worked on a project with my best friend over Skype, an endeavor which was fun and satisfying but also more stressful than I think either of us had anticipated. Once we finished, it was time for me to get ready to go.

The plan was for me to spend Christmas Eve with my best friend at her parents’ house, then go to my mom’s that night so I could spend Christmas Day with her. I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of not only getting ready to visit with people, but also having to plan what I would wear for another day or two and put together an overnight bag.

I’m moving back in with my mom in a couple of months, so she had suggested that I bring some things over with me as part of that transition (which is stressful in its own right). Deciding what items I could live without for a couple of months – and packing them so they’d be manageable to carry, along with the other items I was bringing – was just too much for me to handle. I decided pretty quickly to let that one slide; there will be plenty more opportunities for me to go through things and bring some of them to Mom’s.

I showered, then sat down on my bed with my towel draped over me. It’s an organizing tactic that admittedly slows me down, but feels necessary when I’m stressed about going somewhere. My roommate was watching a movie in the other room with the sound so loud it was making the whole apartment vibrate.

I froze. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t tell you what emotion(s) I was feeling.
I was stuck.

All of my energy went into holding my rigid position and taking things in through my senses: I saw the objects within my range of vision, heard the catastrophically loud music and sound effects and walls vibrating, felt the bed under my hips and legs and the towel draped over my shoulders. I was aware of my heartbeat and respiration. That was all I was – that, and a sense that I should be doing something else.

Finally, I got myself to move. I stuck out a leg, suspended it horizontally from the bed, and froze again. My intention had been to get up and start getting dressed, but I became stuck in this new position. My leg shook slightly with the effort of keeping it in place, but I did not move. Waves of fatigue, sadness, and anxiety washed over me.

Eventually, with much effort, I was able to get dressed, put together an overnight bag, remember to bring my viola so my friend and I could play string music together for the first time in seven months, check the weather and decide I should wear my winter boots in case of snow, etc.

I forgot to get gas so I had to drive around in a circle. Then I got boxed in at the gas station. Then when I was about a third of the way to my destination I realized I had forgotten the one Christmas present I’d managed to pick up – my present for my mom. I felt horrible. I was already an hour late for dinner, the weather was getting gross, it was dark, and I was tired. I kept driving toward my friend’s parents’ house, furious with myself for “messing everything up.”

The thought of committing suicide entered my mind, but I fended it off with the conviction that it would be horribly cruel to subject my loved ones to that much sorrow – especially on Christmas Eve.

People were still eating when I arrived at my destination, so I joined their meal and conversation. It was very pleasant. My best friend and I played a few duets, then it was time to exchange presents. I felt awkward receiving presents when I had none to give, but I was happy with the gifts I got and enjoyed seeing the exchanges among family members and friends.

Once the exchange was complete, we went back to making music together, which at least started out as an enjoyable activity. I felt insecure about sight reading, but did my best and had some fun playing Christmas duets.

Unfortunately, I had to stop playing viola before long. I’d fallen back on bad habits, was holding my left wrist in a very awkward position, and had pain shooting down my left arm whenever I moved my fingers. I felt depressed and tired, but my friend was understanding.

We sat down on the couch to listen to some recorded viola music and I fell asleep, occasionally twitching.

Soon after I woke up we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, one of my most favorite movies ever. I love the music and I resonate with the message behind the story: no matter how much pain you have experienced, you can still find love and cheer if you’re open to it.

I sang along to all the songs and felt fantastic!

Visiting with Mom after that was very enjoyable. She didn’t seem angry that I had forgotten her present. I enjoyed opening the presents she had gotten for me and expressing my gratitude for them. Eventually we went to bed, tired but content.

Today Mom and I were late leaving to visit with family, but otherwise had a pleasant Christmas. Yes, I took my medication. My mood – primarily content – was a lot more stable than yesterday. My energy levels fluctuated from moderate to low enough that I had to fight to stay awake. Speaking of which, this entry needs to end because I’m losing my current battle. Good night!