Category Archives: mental health

The Intersection of Classical Music Studies and My Mental Illness

by Neesa Suncheuri

“You should apply for conservatories for college!  You’re very talented.”  Such was the advice of my high school orchestra teacher.  I studied privately with her husband, who was a violist in the New York Philharmonic.  I put in applications to audition for seven conservatories.

Although I felt confident in my playing, I never could practice as much as I wanted.  I always experienced despair in my mind:

You suck.  Stop playing.

 I could never push through.  I always put the instrument down after an hour.  If I didn’t, I would end up in tears.  But giving up made me guilty.

You’re lazy.  Practice more.

 A vicious cycle, even though I did my best to counter it.  I took Prozac and had weekly sessions with a therapist.  Only three years earlier, I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital for teens.

I began undergraduate studies at the conservatory at Indiana University, Bloomington.  Even though I could not practice as much as I needed, I approached music-making with enthusiasm.  Private lessons with my professor were the pinnacle of my week.

“When you play this section, act as if you’re playing with a fun toy.”  My professor was an inspiration, and nothing was more enjoyable than performing in his masterclasses.  Not a drop of stage-fright affected me as I played for the other students.

“You’re a diamond in the rough.  We must polish you so that you shine.”  My professor’s comment made me proud.

During college, I kept up with weekly therapy and monthly medication management appointments.  I maintained myself well in the beginning, but things began to go south by junior year.   Every day after orchestra rehearsals, I walked home and spent my nights alone.  I saw myself slipping behind in my studies, and became envious my colleagues as they pulled ahead of me.

I then met a few people who were affiliated with a spiritual meditation practice on campus.  We became fast friends.

“Our guru in India is our guide.  He imbues us with his divinity, and we digest his holy food, becoming lighter and more enlightened.”

This divinity can make me a better violist.

I formally joined the meditation group and earnestly took up their practice.  It seemed to work at first.  I began approaching viola playing as a sort of physical yoga.  I strove to cultivate spiritual energy in my body.  A new sense of motivation affected me, yet my professor was confused.

“What is happening?  You are getting worse in your playing.”

“I don’t understand!  I’m practicing harder than ever!  You don’t know what you’re talking about!  I don’t want to study with you anymore!”  On a dime, I turned against my beloved professor.

Meditating ultimately failed to provide any benefit.  Clearing my mind only made room for other thoughts, seemingly coming from elsewhere.

There is energy you can see, which no one else can.

Inanimate objects and people alike now had “auras,” chock full of information.  People whom I previously perceived as benign had new, hostile auras.  When a person entered a room, the collective energy in the room changed.  All of this was fascinating, yet distracting.

After my first semester of graduate studies on viola, I returned home to New York and participated in a chamber music festival.  When commuting to and from rehearsals, stimuli overwhelmed me.

This picture of the ocean on that subway ad…I feel its breeze on my face.

 That dog is sexy.

 My nose is bleeding.  It’s my heart crying.  That happened twice.

During string quartet rehearsals, I believed I could control the other musicians.  When I played “angrily” at a person, they would grow wide-eyed and yield to me.  I felt powerful.

Right before New Year’s, I had a ticket to see an orchestral concert at Carnegie Hall.  During my commute, my mind suddenly shut down completely.

I am so cold and weak…I haven’t eaten meat in over a year…I haven’t dressed warmly in the cold …I’ve been eating lemons to stay warm…My head is hollow…

The sudden realization of these feelings overwhelmed me.  I gasped for air, grabbing a pole in the subway for support.  I emerged above ground as the evening snows swirled around me, disoriented.  With a hungry stomach, I staggered into a pizza place.

“I need pepperoni pizza!  Meat!”  I bawled as I scarfed down precious food.  My tears locked my mind into solitude.

“Ma’am?  Are you alright?”  An EMS worker came to intervene, presumably summoned by the pizza people.  “We’re going to take you to a good place.”

Back to the psychiatric hospital.  My diagnosis changed to schizoaffective disorder.  New medications covered my delusions under a blanket of sedation, which helped somewhat.  I vowed never to meditate again.  When returning to conservatory, my new viola professor handled me with kid gloves.

“You don’t need to be a professional.  You can play in a community orchestra someday.”

With a heavy heart, I dropped out of graduate school.  While my professional musician ambitions were dashed, my lot in life was revitalized.  By giving up music, I now had the chance to discover new aspects of myself.

 I started doing artistic modeling for photographers.

I went on dates with people from OkCupid.

I revived my German language skills from high school and corresponded with many pen pals in Germany, attaining conversational fluency.

I attended a closed audition for America’s Next Top Model, during which I encountered two contestants later chosen for that season.

None of these experiences could have manifested if I had remained a musician.  Perhaps it is a good thing once in a while, to give up talent in favor of living a more varied life.

Neesa Suncheuri works as a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, New York.  She is the founder of a Facebook discussion group for peer specialists and other recovery enthusiasts, entitled “What is Wellness?  A Mental Health Discussion Group.”  Much of her creative inspiration is rooted in her now-tamed schizophrenia.  She is a singer/songwriter, and performs in various venues in the city.  She writes poetry, maintains a blog and is currently working on a memoir.  Follow her on Twitter at @aquariumspeaks.

Unique, Volume 4

By Stacey Lehrer

EDITOR’S NOTE: Get caught up here on Unique’s story.

When she was having a hard time and trying to hold it together, Unique would often say, “Give me 5 reasons that you love me.” The first time she asked me, it caught me off guard. I wasn’t used to having conversations like that. I wasn’t used to talking about my emotions in general, and I’d certainly never told her that I loved her. I’d spent years by that point listening to her talk about how she was feeling, and trying to counter the negative thoughts. I resisted at first, and saw how upset it made her. Her life experiences and her depression had told her that she wasn’t worth loving. She needed to hear that she was, and she was trusting that I could tell her that. So I did…that night, and countless other times over the years that followed. And I learned something from each of the qualities I admired in her.

Continue reading Unique, Volume 4

An Image of Self-Violence

by Darick Taylor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Discretion is advised. Following is a story about self-harm and suicide. 

This piece originally published on Across the Margin.

My therapist had introduced me to another of her clients: a woman in her mid-40s with a history of self-harm. She had a kind of loose-skinned thinness brought about not by her age but by the incessant tanning she hoped would camouflage her scars. Her natural teeth had clearly been replaced by dentures, giving her a look that lay in a place between her actual age and twenty years older.

Continue reading An Image of Self-Violence

Unique, Volume 3

By Stacey Lehrer

EDITOR’S NOTE: Get caught up here on Unique’s story.

They eventually won the appeal, allowing Unique to continue staying in the SCL placement. By that point I’d watched Unique’s worst fear of totally losing control play out. She couldn’t have any kind of conversation that made sense, and often didn’t seem to know who I was. When I visited that summer she was convinced that she had just been in an awful car accident, and that she had all kinds of broken bones and wounds. She sobbed that she didn’t want me to see her like that. Not long after that, she stopped talking completely, for a period of several months. I still called her every day, and had one-sided conversations, to the sound of her breathing, or sometimes crying. In the middle of that, she moved to a new city, to a new house, with new staff who didn’t know her as anybody other than this silent person. The staff were confused about why I would be calling her.  One guy, who barely spoke English, took a full year to understand that I was her friend. Other staff caught on faster and got used to my calls. One guy talked to me so often that he started answering the phone in a falsetto when I called to try to trick me.

Continue reading Unique, Volume 3