Living… for fun and profit?

Long story short, I wasn’t able to enroll in composition lessons this semester after all. I was upset for a while, but then I started thinking about what I could do. Maybe I could find a private instructor elsewhere, for example. Someone not tied to an academic schedule. Who might be willing to do, say, 6 lessons over the next month and a half, ending by Yule, for a fair price. So I could make some progress between now and next semester. I sent the composition program coordinator an email updating him on the situation and requesting a referral – 5 days ago. Nada.

So I decided to go all-in.

I’ve brainstormed a business plan for being an independent composer / content creator – drawing on what I’ve learned from the EP, actually (I’ve been enjoying my role in that, by the way). What platforms do I want to be on? What do I want and need for a professional website? How do I copyright my music? Do I want to let people use my music in their works, and with what stipulations? (Generally speaking I have no problem with individuals as long as they credit me – tbh I’ll be honored! – though I do need to make money somehow. I just don’t want corporations profiting off my work without my consent.) What should my Patreon reward levels be? Etc. There’s still a lot that needs to be worked out, a ton that I need to learn, but it feels good to be moving in that direction. People have been super supportive. And Fox even agreed to be my webmaster!

Which so far has been good for our relationship, as we get to talk about and plan something that’s meaningful to both of us. I’m a bit torn between relying on his skills as a web developer to create something custom but without the bells and whistles of, say WordPress… and going with a platform that will let me post and edit all my own content directly with fancy widgets and SEO tools and all that, but with limits on how much I can customize the precise look and feel. (None of the themes I’ve seen quite fit.) The thought occurs that if Fox is managing the website for me I will have more time to focus on composing. He’s willing to learn new skills to accommodate my needs. And I think WordPress costs money, whereas Fox is willing to do this for… well, we share whatever money we make. Plus he’ll be able to include my site in his portfolio. Win-win!

So far I have the possibility of composing for the EP, though I need to meet with my friend (the CEO) to work out details. Ron’s running for public office, so ze asked me to compose the music for zir campaign video(s). And another friend (jokingly?) said he might need me to help him come up with a song. So I already have multiple potential projects that I’ll be able to point to as examples of people using my work. But none of them are in progress yet.

After a while brainstorming – and struggling to focus on, you know, actually composing – I now have a specific project in progress. It’s an arrangement or orchestration of a traditional Christmas song, but I’m writing my own… I’ve been calling it a ‘countermelody,’ not sure if that’s the correct term… to weave with it. My goal is to have it ready by December. Ideally I’ll be able to post it and a couple other songs, so folks looking for holiday music will find my channel. Maybe they’ll share and subscribe, possibly even support me on Patreon? I dunno, right now it feels like a bit much to ask, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Right? Everyone’s gotta start somewhere.

And where I am feels absolutely amazing! I’ve been brainstorming like crazy. found a piano score online. orchestrated it for strings. experimented with different sounds. put all the instruments I like the timbre of in one score omg I hope I can narrow that down! scribbled all over the front and back of a page in my giant sketchpad, sorting out the feel I want. figured out what steps I need to take. came up with what I want the structure and story to be. suddenly sang a gorgeous 2 minute countermelody! which I interrupted notating to write this post. Because I want to shout it from the rooftops: I feel fantastic!

It’s kinda like being in love, only better, because it’s not focused or dependent on someone else. I feel fully alive, in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. Alive and whole and powerful and happy. This deep wonderful contentment. Like everything’s right – in my personal bubble at least. I don’t mean to discount what’s been going on in the world, but right now I’m writing about me. My internal state of being is one of joy and creativity!

About 7 weeks ago I wrote about putting my portfolio together for that initial application to the composition program:

It felt so good starting with something I was already proud of, seeing how I could make it better, carefully patiently meticulously caressing it like a sculptor working with wet clay, and then the magic when it sounds right… oh, by the gods, to do that for a living…

That would be living…

and I ended the post with:

If composing is my idea of living then I should live, and have fun with it.

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing! and I love it!

To Live…

I reached out to the graduate music composition program at my school about 3 weeks ago. They asked me to email my portfolio and said we need to schedule an interview, during which they’ll test my theory and aural skills. I took about a week and a half to prepare my portfolio, which unfortunately meant that the fall semester was already starting by the time I emailed it. Until recently I was still hopeful that I might be able to make the transfer in time to start taking classes, and I was getting very anxious about it.

On Tuesday I let go of starting this semester, mostly because Wednesday marked the end of the add/drop period. That helps somewhat: I actually prefer the idea of starting in the spring and not having to rush. It would be rather stressful to jump into graduate courses after missing the first meeting or two, especially since 1) I’ll be getting used to a new approach to music, new professors and new classmates and 2) it’s been a couple years, I’m feeling a bit rusty…

I’m still anxious about whether I’ll be accepted, though (reading into the lack of response and lack of indication that they’ve listened to my recordings, which I’d posted online, and which were produced by my notation software – will they judge me for that?) and second-guessing my decision (I have literally 2 requirements left to finish the music therapy degree, but I actively don’t want to do them, but it seems irresponsible not to… and even more irresponsible to incur more student debt when I haven’t earned any income in, gods, almost a decade…)

If I’m not careful I start going down the what-if spiral and getting depressed. What if this doesn’t work out? What if I don’t have what it takes? What if I can never find gainful employment? Etc… I’ve started a new game of Skyrim, in part because I love the game but also to distract myself from existential dread (well that’s a bit melodramatic) worrying about something I can’t control. (Thought occurs that studying theory and practicing my aural skills would be a good use of my time, but I’ve been having trouble getting myself to do it… I want to know I’ve passed this first hurtle and scheduled the interview first…)

Speaking of not having control over things, I’m still kinda feeling things out with the entrepreneurial project (EP) I’ve mentioned a couple times. I thought I was going to be one of the people in charge but 1) I feel a bit out of my league 2) I feel very out of the loop and 3) my friend is calling all the shots (which I can’t really complain about since he’s the one who’s actually gotten it off the ground). We’ve butt heads a few times – especially when stuff got posted that can be interpreted in ways I’m uncomfortable with – and I thought I was supposed to be an editor but people don’t seem to respect or appreciate my input and I don’t know whether they consider me a valuable member of the team or a pain in the ass and it’s agitating my anxiety and depression.

It doesn’t help that helping Banji move followed by over a week of basically composing full time+ to prepare my portfolio essentially derailed my level of involvement and status in the EP.

Part of me is saying I should run now, but another part of me keeps hoping it will get better (and doesn’t want to miss out on the profits, should they happen… eventually). And part of me actually does enjoy doing this – especially certain aspects of it – and the people seem pretty cool… when we agree on things…

Maybe once we’re in our office and have x y z set up and I can focus on q and…

I dunno, I’m kinda worried this might end up being like the Green Party all over again. Complete with serious ideological disagreements about how to handle something we’re all passionate about causing me to question what I thought/hope were/are meaningful friendships. Or maybe my appraisal of the friendship isn’t what matters, it’s whether it can survive these disagreements. My friend has gone from “I want you to be my business partner and keep everything on track” to “if you want to be part of the board all you have to do is invest capital…”

He’s known from the beginning that I don’t have capital – I’m investing my time, energy, and talents… that’s “appreciated” but somehow less meaningful? I dunno I respect that actually putting money into this is a big deal – and very necessary for success – but money isn’t everything. It on its own shouldn’t give one person more authority than another person earns through their labor – and we’re all putting in a lot of unpaid labor. (So basically I think we all should be the board, unless someone doesn’t want to be on it, but that’s not in line with the laws governing the type of company he decided to make – they require at least some “liquid” investment to be on the board… does “liquid” by any chance include blood, sweat, and tears?)

Ugh. Why do I do this to myself? (Because the alternative is either living in fantasy or working a job you hate… and there’s drama everywhere at least have it be drama you’re passionate about…)

I. don’t. know.

I do know that the week and a half I spent preparing my composition portfolio was amazing! I got to revisit and rework pieces I wrote back in college and the years since, going through the creative process. A lot of them were in a program that outputs midi, meaning low audio quality and inaccurate feedback regarding things like relative dynamics (to oversimplify, volume). I copied my compositions into another program that uses samples from live musicians playing real-world instruments, made some major edits to most of them (including re-orchestrating one) wrote some new material for some if not most of them, and playing with dynamics… oh, wow, that was a trip! It felt so good starting with something I was already proud of, seeing how I could make it better, carefully patiently meticulously caressing it like a sculptor working with wet clay, and then the magic when it sounds right… oh, by the gods, to do that for a living…

That would be living…

The only thing is, I need to have some kind of snack food by my desk (or wherever I’m composing) so I don’t starve. And I should really watch my caffeine intake, and make sure I sleep decent hours. I learned the hard way that the extra energy and high and creative fervor isn’t sustainable, and the crash sucks…

If I switch programs I’ll basically be restarting my degree: I only have like 3 classes that I’m fairly certain will transfer over. And I’ll have to take another version of research methods and learn a new writing/citation style. And it’ll probably take at least 3-4 semesters to graduate, no idea how much money but almost definitely adding significantly to the student debt my mother has been amazingly wonderful about paying down for me.

On the plus side, the ‘big bad requirement’ that could possibly pose a barrier to graduating is that I’m required to have one of my compositions performed… you mean have my dream come true!!!

And then there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to make money doing it.

But oh, to do it… I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything this badly.

One thing the EP and composing have in common is that they both point to online content creation. The EP involves it directly, while composing probably doesn’t require it but the program coordinators did ask me to post my recordings online and send them links, rather than emailing audio files… It got me thinking about composing and recording the compositions however I can and posting them online and who knows? with things like Patreon maybe that’s all I’ll need to make enough money to live on. and/or I might get commissions. and/or someone might want to hire me for a longer-term project and/or…

I dunno, somehow the depressive what-if spirals are easier to maintain. Like I have to actively stop myself from going down them, whereas with the positive/hopeful ones I think “woah I’m getting ahead of myself” and just… stop.

“This is all wishful thinking. Go get a day job.”
“In what? My B.A. is in music and psychology…”
“Something soul crushing like everyone else.”
“That would probably kill me…”

And besides, ‘everyone else’ is trying to get out of their soul crushing job…

Ah, well, the composition program will email me when they email me. In the meantime I have stuff to do and look forward to with the EP. Banji’s parents want me to sell some stuff for them, that could be a way to at least make some spending money (and get my butt in their house more often, they’re good people). There’s no reason I can’t/shouldn’t compose just because I feel like it – especially if that will help me practice my theory and aural skills. I can post stuff online and who knows? maybe that will help with my application… it will definitely be adding to my portfolio!

If composing is my idea of living then I should live, and have fun with it. And of course there’s still gaming and my friends and my family and and and… so much good in my life, I choose to focus on that.

Choices

I got to spend several hours with Ron today, mostly just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. We went for a brief walk on a nature trail and got a late lunch. Ze told me ze has been super busy and very stressed, not getting enough personal time and rest, and everything feels “raw.” I could see the pain in zir eyes and wanted to do something, anything, to help … if I couldn’t take away the pain, to at least be there with zir in it.

“You’re not zir therapist,” a committee member reminded me. I’m having trouble naming ‘her’ – I think it’s a ‘her’ – but she’s kind of motherly, kind of authoritarian, the one who ‘encourages’ me to do the stuff on my to-do list and wants me to get my act together professionally. The one who’s willing to go along with the whole entrepreneurship thing for now, but won’t call it a career until we start making money. In addition to being an important personal boundary, it’s also unethical to provide therapy to loved ones. She was getting at both of those concerns with her comment. “And I thought you didn’t want to do this kind of thing, anyway…”

“I don’t want to do it professionally,” I thought back curtly, “but I have learned these skills. I want to use them to help people I care about. How can I do this without crossing that boundary?”

I basically told Ron I could relate, asked if there’s anything ze can do to create a(n emotional) space for zirself, and listened.  I tried to be as supportive as I could. I chose my words carefully, and it took some effort, but it wasn’t draining or anything. It actually felt good. And I hope it helped… but whether it did (in the way I’d intended) or not, it was a moment of connection that we were able to share. It was real.

If the work I did in graduate school enables me to love the people I care about better, in ways that support my mental health as well, then it’s worth every penny.

I listened and sang along to the Moana soundtrack on my way home, getting into character and dancing and reveling in all the sensations. I thought about how awesome it must have been creating that music, and I can do that too, and even if I don’t do it professionally I can do it for the sheer joy. “My music is for me,” I thought, “I want and need it to be for me.” I felt myself connecting again to the passion I felt for music in undergrad, playing in the orchestra, studying theory, composing – back when I was focusing on the music for the music itself, not so I could ‘use it’ to ‘help’ others. And I felt grounded in who I was a decade ago, who I am now, who I’ve always been… maybe even who I will be. I felt whole.

“You should share your gift. You would make a great therapist.”

Maybe you’re right. But I don’t want to – not now at least. You can call me selfish, but it’s my choice to make.

It feels good to make that choice. I’m grateful that I can, and for the journey, and to everyone who supported me in getting here.

The Power of Music and Metaphor

I had one of my most intense and effective sessions ever with Wakana last week. She supported me by alternating between A Major and A minor chords on the piano, adjusting her style & chords to complement the emotions I was expressing. I sang, nonverbal melodies at first and words as they came to me – statements and images and raw expressions of anger, grief, triumph… She sang too, reflecting and supporting and occasionally making suggestions. It was very intense; we peeled back most of my defenses as I became more and more relaxed.

It’s one thing to know, cognitively, that one’s self-judgment is the result of early, most likely pre-verbal, experiences of being judged and found lacking. Of not having one’s emotional needs meet sufficiently, and so on. It’s relatively easy (now, after studying psychology for over a decade) for me to connect my current emotional difficulties and insecurities to past experiences. (And yet I’m still surprised how often certain ones come up in therapy.) I’ve built this narrative about my life that organizes the chaos, giving it purpose and meaning; I can reflect on it and pat myself on the back for all the things I’ve overcome.

Yet, time and time again, Wakana tells me the same thing: “You’re too hard on yourself.” She asks what it is I dislike so much about myself. And other than this nonverbal sense of being Wrong, I can’t really answer her. Not in straightforward prose, anyway.

It’s another thing entirely to go through the process of seeking the cause of my self-judgment as it exists deep within my psyche, much as one might search a room for an item one has lost. Several years ago I moved into the other apartment in my mom’s 2-family house; she had been using its closet and cabinets for storage but was happy to have me move back in with her. As Banji helped me clean and re-organize, we identified items that were not mine. Then we moved the items to a space where Mom could sort through them without entering my apartment. We called the items “someone else’s problem,” which made it easier to remove them from my space.

I felt like I was doing that again as I searched for what could possibly be so “wrong” about me. What did I find? The Single Thing I most want to change about myself is this feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with me, which makes me depressed and anxious and keeps me from fully living my life. It keeps me from loving myself. I judge myself for judging myself for judging myself.

… Or so I thought during the session last week. The judgment is definitely what I want and need to change, but I’m still judging something about myself… Perhaps something that doesn’t need to change after all. As I wrote and re-read the above, I realized that I judge myself for having intense emotions – especially when they come up at inconvenient times. The sadness, grief, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. take over my body all too often, usually at times when my “rational side” considers them to be utterly inappropriate.

Today I tried to acknowledge and accept how I was feeling without judging or fighting it. I felt anxious while getting ready to leave the house and considered taking the medication my nurse practitioner prescribed, but decided instead to accept that I felt anxious and continue getting ready. I felt tears welling up in my eyes during conversations and let them flow, inwardly acknowledging why they were there while continuing to share my ideas and experiences.

The problem isn’t my emotions. The problem is that it is risky to allow one’s emotions to show in most social situations. It’s that I have been judged and punished from a young age whenever I expressed strong emotions – especially if my doing so inconvenienced the adults in my life. It’s that, until recently, I haven’t had the support and tools I need to express and manage my emotions in healthy ways, instead of suppressing them.

My emotions are inextricable parts of me that serve vital functions, even if they’re often not what I want or (think I) need at the time. The judgment isn’t mine. It belongs to cultural norms that should be obsolete and caregivers who internalized those norms. As humans we both create and adapt to our environment (society)… and we have an uncanny knack for creating unhealthy environments for ourselves and our children. Self-judgement and internalized stigma are two related ways in which we adapt to some of the most toxic elements in our environment.

(I feel the need to include that not everything in Western society is toxic; some aspects are actually quite awesome. Also, just as we create our environment, we can change it for the better.)

The thing is, it’s one thing to know that cognitively, to think it and talk about it with other people. It’s something else entirely to, as in the movie Inception, delve deep into one’s own mind and find something that was placed there by someone else. Wakana helped me do that last week; now I’m looking for the “someone else’s problem” box.

A New Normal?

According to the current clinical depression screening tool on MoodNetwork.org, I am not depressed. I was so surprised by this result when I first got it, I answered all the questions again to make sure I hadn’t lied on any of them: Sad most of the time, check. Trouble falling asleep and waking early, check. Feeling tired, check. All these other questions… no, my appetite hasn’t changed, I’m actually more motivated and active than usual, and I DON’T FEEL WORTHLESS!!! (or suicidal). I feel… okay.

a checkmark in a green circle next to the words, "You are not depressed."

screenshot of my result from the depression screening: a checkmark in a green circle next to the words, “You are not depressed.”

I’ve been re-taking the screening for the past few days now, and I keep getting the same result. I’m not depressed. I’m not depressed. I’m not depressed. I’M NOT DEPRESSED!!!

Oh my GOD!!!

I know, I know, it’s just an online screening. It’s not a substitute for a mental health professional’s evaluation. Well, I met with two mental health professionals this week. My prescriber told me, “It seems like your antidote to feeling sad is keeping busy.” She agreed with my decision to stay at my current dose of lamotrigine (50 mg 2x/day) because I don’t want to try to medicate away my feelings. Wakana congratulated me, said that clearly the therapy and medication are working, and told me I’ve been making good progress.

I am not depressed. Part of me wants to scream “I’m cured!!!” – but I think that might be a little bit premature. (or complete bullshit.) I’m… better. I’m okay.

I’m standing at the edge of a cliff with a brand new glider on my back, watching everyone else glide around, and wondering, “Is this thing really safe?”

Wakana said, “baby steps.” She used the metaphor of easing oneself slowly into a pool – which I find ironic because to me that’s torture. I’d rather just jump in, get the “it’s cold!” shock over with all at once, and start swimming oh my god swimming it’s the best thing ever!!! I want to go right now! But, umm, I don’t have a pool. So, yeah, this isn’t swimming it’s life. Baby steps. (I have friends who have a pool, and they’ve invited me to come swim in the past. I should ask them if the offer still stands.)

I guess I’m taking baby steps. I’m (literally) taking thousands of steps (that is, walking) on the days when I meet with her… and I want to take more on the days when I don’t. I’ve been having great conversations with loved ones, including Mom. Composing, making art for the fun of it, spoiling our pet rats… being intimate with Fox…  (I love having my sex drive back – and it takes some… navigating…) In the next few weeks I plan to acquire clothes I feel good about wearing, start practicing music instruments regularly, declutter, meet with my adviser about internship possibilities, and start applying for internships and part-time jobs. I had to re-write this paragraph to sound positive and not “being hard on myself” for the things I “should” be doing; now I’m worried about trying to do too much and burning out before I even get started! But at least I can re-write it.

In the past, times when I’ve temporarily clawed my way out of the bottomless pit that is being clinically depressed have been the best days of my life. For example, my wedding: at that time I was still using the Burns Depression Checklist to keep track of my symptoms; on my wedding day my score was 6. That’s “normal but unhappy” (granted, only 1 point off from “no depression”). The best I ever felt – EVER – the best days of my life were what most people would (ostensibly) consider “unhappy.”

These are not the best days of my life. I’m tired. I’m sad. I’m achy. I miss my friends, especially Banji. Last night I had a nightmare (in which my husband died). I’m going to go crazy (and spend way too much time playing The Sims 3) if I don’t find some way to structure my time (besides playing The Sims 3). For a while I was starting blog posts, then deleting them. … I think you get the idea.

Today I scored a 10 on the Burns Depression Checklist, which is the highest score in the “normal but unhappy” range. (a score of 11 would indicate mild depression.) I think I answered honestly, despite the temptation to lower my score to fit with the previous assertion that “I’m not depressed.” It seems accurate to say that I’m unhappy.

But something’s changed. Like someone lifted a blanket off me and I can see the sun and feel the breeze and stand up tall and breathe. I feel more confident. Hopeful. Maybe… even… whole?

The End of the Semester (and other boundaries)

I’m very happy to report that I got a B on my Piano Improvisation final. More importantly, I worked very hard to master the skills I needed, went into the final feeling confident, and felt good about what I’d accomplished. That class was the most difficult music therapy course I’ve ever taken; it’s in the top 5 most difficult courses I’ve taken in my lifetime. Now I’m done with it (including the paper)! I gained a lot of useful techniques and insights, and the inspirations for my two compositions-in-progress. I call that a win!

On Wednesday, I confronted Wakana about her growing tendency to either not be fully present with me, or to interact with me in ways I’d expect of a friend or a parent, during our sessions. I told her, “I’m your client and I’m here so let’s work; I like you and would love to be friends with you, but you’re my therapist.” She apologized and explained that she’s been trying to do too much; now that it’s the end of the semester she can be a better therapist to me (she teaches at a different university from the one I attend). It took us a while to find an appropriate focus for the rest of the session, but with her support and guidance I was able to do some good work:

I’d been feeling guilty about needing to ask for an “incomplete” in Group Music Therapy (I still haven’t finished that paper). Talking to Wakana helped me realize why: I was projecting my childhood relationship with my parents onto the instructor of that course, who is also my academic adviser (and a generally awesome person). I’ve known him for almost six years(!), taken several courses taught by him, been honest with him about my mood disorder, crushed on, admired, and respected him. I’ll admit, I tend to subconsciously(?) blur the boundaries necessary to maintain an appropriate, professional, student-teacher relationship with him; I want us to have a more personal relationship. (I think I’ve managed to keep that from slipping noticeably into our real-life interactions…)

Anyway, the point is, I felt like I needed to be a model student to help him feel good – kind of like how, as a child, I felt like I needed to be a straight-A student to keep my family from falling apart. Handing in my paper before the end of the semester was “the least I could do” to “repay” him for being so supportive all these years.

Then I realized that (I’m an adult now and) my instructor/adviser/mentor’s self-esteem is his business. Also, it’s his job to work with students to help us succeed in school – including being supportive in times of difficulty. Asking for the “incomplete” was the most appropriate, responsible thing for me to do: I clearly communicated my intent to complete the paper, as well as my inability to do so before he was required to submit grades for the course. That’s where my interpersonal responsibility ends. I have an academic responsibility to complete and submit the paper as soon as possible. This responsibility is ultimately to myself: I need to complete the paper so I can earn credit for the course so I can be one step closer to graduating and beginning my career of choice.

Wednesday was also the last meeting of my Group Music Therapy class. I role-played clients for my classmates’ skill demonstrations, then did my own despite feeling anxious. I was able to ground myself, be present in the moment with my “clients,” tune in to what they were feeling, and adapt my intervention to meet their needs.

At one point during verbal processing I felt uncomfortable and wanted to stop. The instructor asked what I noticed going on in the group at that time. I said, “I feel tense and I don’t know what to say.” He replied, “that’s a great intervention! Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just be honest about your uncertainty.” After receiving some additional feedback and suggestions, I asked, “Can I try that now?” That was a huge change for me; in the past I would make mental notes of suggestions with the intention of “using them later,” not applying them to my current situation.

We re-entered the role play and I used my “great intervention.” The “clients” started talking about how they were feeling and expressing dissatisfaction with the music we’d been creating. I remembered what we’d discussed in class about giving the group room to find its own solutions and asked, “What can we do to make it sound better?” Some more discussion led to a “client” explaining that she was rocking back and forth because she was nervous; I asked “What does that nervousness sound like?” She played rapid, intense 8th notes on her drum; after giving her some time to play I invited the group to play with her. This intervention used the suggestion to bring our verbal discussion back into the music; it also incorporated what I’d learned from research for my paper: drumming the same rhythms causes people to move the same way, thus feeling the same sensations. This improves empathy and feelings of group cohesiveness – my main goal.

The next thing I knew, the whole group was playing loudly together. The tension had dissipated. I was so focused on the group, I completely forgot there were people observing us… until the instructor said, “We need to end the role-play.” If I could change one thing, I would have been less concerned with following the plan I’d had for the demonstration and more in tune with what was going on – in other words, better able to just sit back and feel good about what I had accomplished.

More positive feedback and useful suggestions, an opportunity to let my inner child dance around with a shaker – I mean, “role play” for one last classmate – and I was done. I had dreaded this class, but I stuck with it and grew so much from it. The end was bittersweet. I’ll miss spending time with my classmates and especially my small group… and I’m very proud of what I accomplished! I look forward to putting what I’ve learned into practice.

Since then, I’ve been taking some time to feel good about the end of the semester, relax, and compose. I love being able to focus on something I find intrinsically rewarding, not having to worry about deadlines or grades. Fox and I have been spending quality time with each other and our pet rats; it’s really satisfying to feel like we’ve created a family together. I’m happy and optimistic about the future.

… except that early this morning, after Fox’s alarm had gone off, I had a nightmare:

It’s the middle of the night. I’m cleaning the liners for the rats’ cage in a large plastic bin full of water. The rats are in the bin. At first the water is shallow enough for them to stand in it comfortably, but suddenly it is far over their heads.

I’m aware of them, but focused on my work. Periodically I notice that they’re staying under the water; one of them seems to be struggling and the other hasn’t been moving much. Finally, I catch the one that has been struggling and pull him out of the water. He clings to me, dripping and terrified. I worry that, since it still gets cold at night, he might get sick.

Then I remember that the other rat is underwater and not moving. I pull him out, but too late – his body is cold. I feel between his arms/front legs but there is no heartbeat. I try to do CPR (yes, on a rat!) but it’s actually one of the rat stuffed animals Fox got me before we adopted our current pets; the mouth is embroidered onto fabric. I’m aware of this, too, but I try anyway.

After struggling for some indeterminate amount of time, I realize the painful truth: I drowned my rats, and I was only able to save one of them. The other is dead, gone forever. His brother might not live long, and the time he does have will be very lonely…

I woke, devastated, then dragged myself out of bed in hopes that seeing my real, live rats would help me feel better. One was resting – clearly alive – and the other was standing near the door, climbing the wall of the cage, sniffing toward me, and otherwise being adorable in an attempt to attract my attention treats. That cheered me up, but I still can’t shake the guilt from the nightmare.

After reassuring myself that the rats were okay, I saw that Fox was still asleep. I helped him wake up just in time to avoid being late for work! I’m trying to convince myself that’s why I had the nightmare: my unconscious needed something that would force me to wake up enough to help my husband. But somehow I don’t think it’s that.

The vet gave the rats a clean bill of health, but they seem to cough (or hiccup?) and sneeze fairly frequently. Last night their cage was overdue for a cleaning; we replaced their litter, wiped everything down, and today I put the liners (sans rats) in the washing machine. But still. We suck at keeping our space clean, so there’s dust that can affect their lungs; trying to get Fox to help me clean – including their cage – is like pulling teeth. (Getting myself to clean is also like pulling teeth…) I feel like it’s completely on me to keep them healthy – including being vigilant for signs that they might be getting sick. If rats do get sick, their condition can deteriorate rapidly.

Mom’s also been putting pressure on me… in a variety of areas, but particularly regarding the decision of whether to go to my cousin’s wedding. If it were within a couple hours’ drive we would go, but it’s not – and the airfare for 3 people is ridiculous. It’s an 11-hour drive without traffic and/or rest stops. We have to factor in gas, tolls, multiple nights in different hotels, food, Fox taking time off from work, and who’s going to care for the rats? They need human contact and supervised playtime outside the cage at least once per day. My cousin and her immediate family are the only people we’ll know at the wedding (or in the area), and we have no idea whether we’ll get to spend any time with them besides the event itself. It seems unlikely we’ll even have the opportunity to sight-see, use the hotels’ amenities, or otherwise make a vacation out of it.

Fox left the decision in my hands. The three of us talked about it, I thought about it, and I decided that, given the circumstances, the only reason why I’d go to my cousin’s wedding is because she came to mine, so I want to reciprocate. Honestly, I think a better way to reciprocate would be to send her a particularly useful gift. I told Mom my decision and it seems we all assumed that if I’m not going, then she isn’t either.

She seemed happy to be free from the stress of figuring out travel logistics, but expressed concern about how this will affect her friendship with my cousin’s grandmother. (She said she “might” be going.) We conspired for a while to come up with an explanation she thinks her friend – and, likely, their larger group of friends – will find acceptable. Finally, she said she would think about it and asked us to give her until Monday to decide.

Now I’m hoping she’s not going to try to force me to change my mind because she’s that concerned about what her friends – not my cousin whose wedding it is – will think of her. I’m trying to relieve myself of being responsible for my mother’s emotions. I don’t need to be responsible for her relationships, too.

What it all comes down to is: things are going well for me. I’m happy with my life. I just took a huge step toward completing my master’s degree. I’ve been focusing on what’s important, working hard, emphasizing the positive, and asserting myself. I love asserting myself; it feels wonderful to just say what I want or need! Most of the time, people seem willing to help; if they don’t want to – or can’t – they just say so and I can focus on other possibilities. It’s so freeing!

But it all feels so fragile; one wrong move and my whole life will shatter and I’ll be too depressed to get out of bed (or worse). I just want to know things will be okay, and that it’s not entirely on me to keep them from falling apart. Is that so much to ask?

Healer, Heal Thyself

I came up with a music therapy intervention that not only meets the criteria for at least one part of my piano improvisation midterm, but is also useful for me in my everyday life! I was playing an ostinato (repeated musical pattern) in Mixolydian and kept thinking: “this wants to be a movement intervention, but it’s so tranquil.” I kept imagining myself slowly raising my arms above my head and inhaling, then lowering them and exhaling – like one might do as part of a warm-up for yoga.

Everything I’ve been learning about improvisation, psychotherapy, music therapy, and improvisation points to the same essential guideline: Work with what the client is giving you. My mind was giving me a movement, so I decided to go with it. I played the ostinato in my left hand, used my right arm to do the movement, and sang instructions with the melody that felt most natural. I added turning to one side, back to the center, to the other side, and then back to the center again.

Then I changed up my playing and added my right hand. Initially the music (including my vocal melody) had been very flowy and tranquil, “holding.” I changed it to be more like playing a drum, with shorter sharper notes and pauses between chords, “driving.” It also became slightly faster.

I sang instructions to step side to side and clap, similar to what one might expect in step aerobics. There is an option to increase the tempo (speed), depending on the client’s response and how much time there is for repetition (I need to keep it short for the midterm). I suppose other directions, such as forward and back, and possibly even turning one’s body as one steps, can be added.

After a short time, I returned to the original “holding” music (including vocal melody). I sang instructions to turn to one side and then the other first, then ended with the instructions to raise and lower arms. This gives the exercise a nice symmetry and is intended to help the client remain calm and focused. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes.

Music therapy students are encouraged to be specific regarding which clients would benefit from an intervention, what needs it addresses, and how it meets those needs. It didn’t take me long at all to realize that a simple movement activity like this would be very helpful for me: an able-bodied individual with anxiety and depression, who can follow verbal directions and typically lacks the energy and motivation to exercise.

Everyone (including scientific research) says that physical activity is a highly effective “treatment” for depression, possibly the most effective. I’ve experienced its benefits firsthand, when my symptoms have been mild enough to allow me to do it. The problem is, an intervention doesn’t work if it’s inaccessible to the client (for example, I’d need to modify my instructions – or even come up with a whole new activity – for someone who uses a wheelchair). So, even if exercise could cure depression it doesn’t, because the symptoms of depression prevent exercise.

Which is where my intervention comes in. I could totally see Wakana doing something like this, particularly on a day when my energy and motivation are so low I ask to meet via Skype. I can hear her voice saying, “Stand up, we’re going to do something about this;” I can feel myself groaning as I drag myself out of my chair and scowl at her – annoyed, but secretly hoping that whatever she “makes” me do will provide some relief.

It starts out holding, comforting, with very simple movements that don’t take a lot of energy and can feel good as soon as I start doing them. It’s meeting me where I am: in need of emotional support. The amount of movement, energy, and coordination required increases gradually. When used as a live intervention, the therapist can adjust the level of challenge to meet what the client is capable of at that time. It can be recorded and used by the client (e.g. me) as a daily movement activity that is a million times easier than going to the gym, taking a walk, or even playing Wii Fit. Hopefully it will provide enough energy to encourage additional exercise.

Physical movement aside, I believe listening to the musical intervals (the specific sound created by playing two particular notes simultaneously or consecutively) in my intervention can be intrinsically healing. The Anthroposophical Concept of Intervals describes them in terms of 1) inner or outer focus, 2) movement or stillness, and 3) balance or tension. I find that my musical self-expression, especially when my symptoms are at their worst, tends to involve mostly intervals that are associated with inner focus and tension. There is definitely a place for these elements – in life and in music – but sometimes we need a break from them!

When I was creating this intervention I intentionally chose intervals that are associated with 1) both inner and outer balance as well as 2) active movement outward. Whether I move my physical body or not, use of these intervals reassures me that I am safe and I can direct my energy outward. In other words, these intervals directly contradict the distortion at the core of my mental illness. They free me to be the healthy Self I always am.

All that, in two minutes! I love music therapy.

Progress

Last night’s class was great! Whereas in the past I’ve been terrified to show imperfection and extremely critical of myself, last night I was eager to receive feedback. I was uncomfortable about the class watching last week’s video of me acting as therapist in my small group, but the instructor pointed out something I’d facilitated without being aware of it. This element had been very effective in supporting the goals for the group: free expression and interaction among members.

Then we broke up into groups for hands-on experience, with the task of dealing with “problem group members.” The instructor recommended lyric analysis; for once(!) I immediately knew which song I wanted to use. Another group member was a bit better prepared and group consensus seemed to be for her to go first, so she did. I’m kind of wishing I’d gone first because the instructor came in while she was leading and gave a lot of useful feedback. The whole thing got video recorded, which meant (unbeknownst to us) that there was not enough memory left on the device to record a second mini-session. (Spoiler: So there’s no video of me leading.)

I left plenty of room for one of the other group members to go next, but there was an awkward silence as we all looked at each other. So, I volunteered. Perhaps I could have been a bit more direct about my desire to take a turn leading, but that’s working against an entire childhood, much of my adolescence, and even some of my (young) adulthood spent learning to step back and “give the other kids a chance.” (Including teachers refusing to call on me unless I tricked them into thinking I wasn’t paying attention.) I may have taken it to a bit of an unhealthy extreme, but I’m working to correct that…

I felt so good to go because I wanted to go, not because I had to. I felt ready. I presented the song in the way I felt comfortable with and that left me free to focus on connecting with the group members as we sang. I facilitated a verbal discussion that helped one of the group members come to her own conclusions that were supportive of her therapeutic goals, despite initial rejection of the primary imagery in the song. I tried several strategies to engage a silent group member without losing the ones who were participating. Even though she was quite successful in remaining disengaged, I felt good about the creativity I’d employed and eager to keep working. She later told me that it had been very difficult for her to resist engaging with the group, and that the only way she’d managed was by diligently avoiding eye contact with everyone.

Best of all, I felt accepted by and connected with my small group-mates, and comfortable in the class as a whole. I feel like I’m back on track and more alive than ever!

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.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2015

Last year I resolved to remember that my episodic mood disorder NOS is part of me – not all I am, but not somehow different from the “real me” either. I think I did a pretty good job of that throughout the year.

This year I want to renew that resolution and make a few more:

  1. to be physically active – let’s try 10 minutes per day
  2. to join and regularly attend in-person meetings of a group
  3. to express my spirituality
  4. to do something musical every day
  5. to keep in touch with people I care about

Why these resolutions?

1. I’ve been saying for a while now that including physical activity in my daily routine would be good for my physical and mental health. I feel so much better when I do something that gets the blood pumping – usually walking for longer than it takes to get from one room of the house to another, or dancing. I’ve seen what an extremely sedentary lifestyle has done to my godmother (who is still in the hospital, doing better but Mom wouldn’t say she’s “okay” yet) and it scares me. The extent to which I was winded after carrying a chair up one flight of stairs yesterday scares me. I don’t need to be in tip-top shape, but it’s important that I improve my stamina. I want to be able to do things. I want to feel alive.

2. I’ve gotten a lot better at being with myself or interacting with one other person, setting boundaries and asserting myself and the like. I’ve always been more comfortable with one-on-one interactions. However, especially since I realized I’m an extrovert, I have increasingly felt the need to be a part of some group. I had my friends over yesterday to celebrate the holidays and, as crazy and overwhelming as it got at times, I felt great. I was tired last night but today I want to do it again; I hate the idea of being alone. I know I can’t be interacting with people in groups all the time, but I need it to be a more regular part of my life. Hopefully the classes I’ll be taking in the Spring semester will help, but I need non-academic social groups, too.

One group I’m considering is Clutterers Anonymous because I don’t even know where to start trying to clean my apartment. Fox is just as much of a clutterer as me – if not even moreso – and I learned the behavior from Mom. Ideally the three of us would all go … but he has work and I don’t want to be dependent on her to interact with this group. I need to be able to attend it myself regardless of whether they come with me. I would have specified this group in my resolution, but if it doesn’t work out for some reason, I want to be able to find another group and have it count. The most important thing is to get out of the house and be social.

Another possible group is that Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance support group I attended once and haven’t been back to since. There are also a ridiculous number of Meetup groups in my area; all I have to do is join and actually show up. I’d even be willing to count going to different groups’ meetings toward this resolution, as long as I stay remotely consistent with it (say, at least twice a month?).

3. Spirituality is an important part of who I am that I had been neglecting until very, very recently. I used to feel at one with nature, dance under the stars, direct the energies of the various elements as they flowed through my chakras, practice zen Buddhist meditation, and pray. Even though I didn’t always agree with the lyrics, I found the act of singing or playing sacred music to be a profound spiritual experience. All of that fell apart as situations changed and I withdrew instead of adapting.

Now Fox is going to work most days and I worry about his safety. About a million things could happen to him; I could lose him. You just never know these days, and the world just seems to be becoming more and more dangerous. If I get caught up in thinking about this stuff, it could destroy me. So instead I pray: “Keep him safe.” I close my eyes and visualize him coming home to me. I send out my love and wishes for his protection and clothe him in armor made of positive energy. It helps me feel better. And so far he’s been safe.

I want to expand on this to more fully live my spirituality, especially acknowledging the seasons as they change.

4. Music is another important part of who I am, that I’ve also been neglecting. Among other things, I got too caught up in trying to do it perfectly; I was so worried about making mistakes that it interfered with practicing! That bright, cheerful, simple song would become painful and strained, until I’d drop my instrument and start crying. I was trying to force something that wasn’t there, and suppressing what I needed to let out. I need to find a way back to making music that is for me. It starts with picking up an instrument – any instrument – and trusting myself. Wakana helps in our music therapy sessions, but I only see her once a week. I need to build on what she’s given me.

5. This resolution is kind of difficult and I’ll be honest, I’m tempted to take it off the list for this year. The people I care about are kind of scattered, living in different states and/or busy with their own lives (and/or lacking funds for transportation). I intend to call or text or email or contact via Facebook or something, but then the time just keeps going by and … nothing. People aren’t exactly the best at contacting me, either; many of my family members go through Mom.

I want to maintain and strengthen the connections I have, so I want to try and reach out to them more often. Maybe send a text when I’m thinking about them or something. Emails. I still need to send out thank-you cards. I need to address why I don’t like calling people on the phone. This could probably be its own post, but at the moment I’m struggling not to fall asleep…

Yuletide Blessings and Happy New Year!