CONTENT WARNING: SELF-INJURIOUS BEHAVIOUR, IDEATION OF VIOLENCE
My life of devoted classical music studies used to define me on a fundamental level. At the age of five, I started taking violin lessons at a local Suzuki school, switching to the viola some years later when I began to suffer from clinical depression as a pre-teen. The lower notes of the instrument seemed to give voice to the dark, wordless thoughts that resonated within my melancholic heart. I became the music I played, and cast myself in the light of that noble word “musician”.
I benefitted from many enriching musical experiences as a youth. Aside from taking private lessons, I received full scholarships to attend various orchestral events and music summer camps. In youth orchestra auditions, I usually ranked highest, so I often played as principal violist, right under the conductor’s nose. Winning first chair was bliss, and it verified that I was indeed an excellent musician. Despite having depression, my musical successes helped give some sense of purpose to my life.
I attended a top conservatory for my bachelor’s degree, hoping to become a professional violist in an orchestra one day. While I kept up well with the rigors of the program, I became saddened that I was not the absolute best at school, instead finding myself to be of distinctly average ability amongst my peers. Terrible bouts of depression afflicted me whenever I tried to practice in those little windowless rooms. After only fifteen minutes, feelings of despair overcame me:
You sound terrible. Stop playing.
Tears streamed down my face after half an hour, forcing me to stop. But because I did not practice enough, the despair attacked me again:
You don’t practice enough. Practice more.
This vicious cycle was inescapable, and one I kept completely to myself. I feared confiding in anyone about it, because I would lose my competitive face and be perceived as lazy. I instead considered it evidence of my faulty, shameful character. I tried to fight through it by practicing through the tears, but this only made the sadness more torturous.
Filled with misery, I began to believe that there was some sort of magical quality that elite musicians had and which I lacked, a thought which led me to start soul-searching on a spiritual level. I found a meditation group on my college campus affiliated with a guru in India, and immediately joined. During my senior year, I meditated on my own every day, and attended group meditation sessions at weekends. I believed that this practice would allow me to attain that magic musical quality that I lacked, and began to feel a greater sense of confidence.
Around this time, I also developed a crush on a student in my orchestra named Scott [name changed to preserve anonymity], which became more and more mentally invasive as time progressed. After keeping my obsessive feelings to myself for the entire year, I mustered the courage to talk to him about them shortly before summer break. There was only time for a brief fling between us before we parted ways, but I had hoped that it would continue when we reunited. However, when I saw him again, it was immediately obvious that Scott was uncomfortable around me, and our exchange was strained at best.
“My friends don’t like you for some reason.”
That summer, I had attended a six-week orchestra festival in Louisiana where I was supposed to enjoy focused music-making amidst rustic villas on a dusty farm. But instead of finding happiness and forging memories in these idyllic surroundings, my mind was obsessively fixated on Scott. Even when I meditated, I could only think of him. The affection I felt turned into a curse, and our lack of communication caused me to believe that he hated me. After Louisiana, I flew to the south of India to attend a meditation gathering with 50,000 other abhyasis, but even as I meditated in front of the guru himself, I could think of only Scott and his hatred. It was absolute emotional desolation.
I returned to the same conservatory in the fall, this time to start my master’s degree in performance. I dreaded seeing Scott again. When I finally did see him, words failed me entirely and I could only bawl in his presence. There was no way I could verbally express the misery I felt, and there was no way he could remedy it. I realized that my mind hadn’t been fixated on him, but rather a demonic concept of him that had never been real in the first place.
I became confused and started having violent thoughts against Scott, wanting to stab him with knives. Overwhelmed and fearful, I reported myself to my psychologist, claiming his life was in danger. Campus police then told Scott and his friends about me, and I too approached them with apologies for my condition. They verbally told me that they were fine with me, and that they hoped that I was alright, but the disdain in their eyes made me feel worthless.
My obsession with Scott created an enormous amount of emotional pressure within me, and all attempts I made to remedy it proved futile. I gave him a little statue of Ganesh, the elephant Hindu god that represents new beginnings, which he received tentatively. And then one morning, after spending the night at a friend’s house, I realized that Scott lived in the same apartment complex, so I knocked on his door. No one answered, but that same day I received an email:
Do not talk to me. Do not knock on my door. Do not try to contact me, call me, or email me. If you do, we will notify the authorities about you.
Any relationship we might previously have enjoyed was now definitively over. I meditated to try and help myself, but even this became warped - when meditating, I felt physical sensations in my spine, arms and legs which caused me to think that I was developing super powers. I began to believe that I had finally found that elusive, indefinable spark within myself that I had been desperately seeking for so long.
In the practice room, I focused on the physicality of viola technique instead of the music itself. I believed that these physical sensations were evidence of “chi” flowing through me, and that playing viola was a type of yoga that would allow me to develop this chi. I now had the magic powers that would make me the greatest violist who ever lived. No longer did I feel overwhelmed with inadequacy and shame; now, I could practice unimpeded.
Another component of my “superpowers” enabled me to sense energy emitting from all things, alive or inanimate. This caused me to question my relationship to everything around me, and in truth was utterly baffling. People that I previously knew to be friendly and supportive now had hostile auras, sometimes beastly, sometimes devilish. I became paranoid that everyone hated me, including my viola professor – feelings which they “confirmed” for me in my lessons:
“Neesa…you seem to be getting worse at playing. What's going on?”
“What?! I’ve been practicing more than ever! You don’t know what you’re talking about…I don’t want to study with you anymore! I am going to switch teachers!”
“I don’t understand. We’ve had a wonderful working relationship for the past three years…”
“You just don’t get it. This is over. I can’t work with you anymore.”
This meandering caused me to lose sight of any professional goals. Instead of preparing for orchestral auditions, my music-making became merely a spiritual journey, a tool for achieving enlightenment. Every delusional whim and hallucinatory vision of energy overwhelmed me, and these created a reality that was so much more vivid than that of normalcy. These voices and messages were real. They all spoke to me with a wisdom that understood my deepest emotions, and expressed greater affection for me than any of the actual people who surrounded me. By personally aligning with these hallucinated entities, my life developed profound meaning.
I flew back home to New York over winter break, and participated in a chamber music festival in the city. Although I kept up with the high performance demands of the program, my mind was still in dreadful tatters. While rehearsing in a string quartet with three other musicians, my mind fancied that these people were giving me secret messages as they played. In return, I transmitted emotions to the other musicians as we played together, which seemingly “changed” the way they played. When I played “angrily” at the violinist, he responded with “fear.” When I played with submission to the cellist, she played with dominance at me. It was an experience of yin and yang, of give and take and utter balance. Its perfection seemed astronomical to me.
As I walked to and from rehearsals along the streets of New York, everything seemed to overwhelm my senses. I could smell a passing dog urinating from ten feet away. I walked into a thrift store, searching for pairs of clothing that were married to one another. I went into an appliance store and smelled the merchandise, trying to distinguish whether each item was heterosexual or homosexual. All of this was monumentally important to me, each experience a new stone in the path towards enlightenment.
I was also in dreadfully poor physical health - already weighing only 125 pounds at 5’10”, I neglected to dress warmly in the snowy weather; I believed that my chi superpowers made me immune to the cold, so instead I ate lemons to “stay warm on anger.” While traveling on the train, I had nose bleeds, which I took as evidence that my heart was broken and literally crying. At this point, I wasn’t so much focused on Scott as I was simply engulfed by utter madness.
Part of me knew that something was wrong. The “chi” caused my body to feel incredibly exhausted, yet I desperately wanted my mind to continue to feel so powerful and enlightened. On one snowy evening close to New Year, I trekked through the snow to an abhyasi’s apartment, this time to have an individual meditation session.
“I’m not sure if I should meditate anymore. I don’t think it’s good for me.”
“Are you sure you want to meditate now?”
“Yes, I think it’s alright.”
We meditated together silently for about 45 minutes. As I left the abhyasi’s home, I realized that my head felt hollow. I spoke a couple of words, and they echoed in my head. I walked outside, gasping for breath as the sounds of the city resonated against the walls of my mind. I went into the subway, clutching the pole for stability, crying bitterly. I staggered out and walked into a pizza place, suddenly overcome by intense hunger.
“Meat! I need meat! I need pepperoni!”
I had not eaten meat for over a year as part of my meditation process, and now I realized I needed it. I felt so weak and cold. As I sat down with my tray, I devoured the food whilst crying uncontrollably. Where am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? I had no answers. I knew nothing.
“Excuse me ma’am, are you alright?”
A sturdy man dressed in uniform approached me.
“Come on, follow me.”
We walked into a back room in the pizza joint, and chatted for a while.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t feel well. I think I’m going crazy…I don’t know what’s wrong with me…”
After an assessing interview, the man politely told me that I was to be taken to hospital (a “good place”, I was assured). Finding myself in the emergency room, the intake drill felt familiar - this was my third psychiatric hospitalization, and it was late at night when I was admitted to the inpatient unit.
“We are going to start you on medication right away. You will sleep well.”
They gave me Seroquel, a heavy sedative – but, rather than put me to sleep, the drug seemed to fight with the physical sensations of “chi” in my body. It felt as if the chi were an erupting geyser and the Seroquel a boulder stopping its mouth, trying to strangle the flow. I feared that I would snap in half.
I reported my terrible night, and the doctors quickly switched my medication to Zyprexa. For subsequent nights, the feelings of chi subsided and I felt more sedated, which was a relief. My diagnosis changed from clinical depression to schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. Yet even though I was in a “safe” place for rehabilitation, I was frightened of my treatment team.
“Neesa, we are going to ask you to stop meditating. It appears to be very bad for you.”
I was too scared to speak up, though my internal voices were still strong.
Fuck these people. This is religious persecution.
In my room, I had a few toiletries. I stood in front of the little bottles on the shelf, entranced by their energies, and moved a bottle perhaps a few millimeters to the left. The energy of the whole picture changed. I moved another bottle, and the energy changed once more.
As the days passed, even these visual observations of “chi” subsided. I now felt like a foggy stone, forced to sit stagnant as life passed by like slow clouds. Or maybe I was now a cloud. I was discharged from the hospital after 3 weeks, in no shape to resume my previous life as a budding professional musician. I disclosed my condition to my new viola teacher.
“Don’t worry…just finish the year.”
He assigned me very easy pieces, which insulted me greatly, but I resigned to it because I figured that I was a broken person, incapable of being a professional. I was unable to talk with anyone around me, because I had nothing within me except nonsense. How could anyone relate to what I had just been through? There was no language to describe my absurd experiences.
“Neesa, if you want to finish your Master’s, you’ll have to stay an extra year. I can’t pass you like this.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving school. I don’t want to stay anymore.”
“That is probably for the best. You don’t need to be a professional musician - you can play in a community orchestra.”
I felt so useless. Now that I was no longer meditating, I had no social circle and no friends to rely on for support. I saw Scott and his little gang with their boisterous laughter and inside jokes, and felt as if I were watching them from some place far away. My feelings were incredibly hurt when they assembled a chamber ensemble to play the Mendelssohn Octet and purposely excluded me from their group, recruiting two other violists to play with them instead. For the entire semester, I heard them talking about the greatness of this piece, and the truth of why they had chosen not to include me only served to worsen my mental state.
None of this matters. Music doesn’t matter…yet music is all I have ever known. Who am I, if not a musician? I have no skills. No dreams. No friends. If I remove music from my life, what's left?
I went home to New York, never to return to school again. I was now merely lost in a fog with no goals in life, yet I was fine with this. I was exhausted from trying to live the musician’s dream whilst wrestling with mental illness. I now hated musicians, deeming them to be amongst the most stigmatizing of people. Now that I was free from them and their influence, I felt my life could truly begin.
These days, a full ten years later, I dabble in music as I wish. Instead of playing viola, I now write songs with my guitar. I also sing karaoke at bars, which is pleasant enough. My extensive musical background enables me to give compelling performances, and amongst friends I am considered a musically talented person, but never again do I wish to dedicate myself fully to music-making - the memories of stigma return to me, and I become incredibly angry.
But I still am a musician, and music need not be a trigger for me. Instead, it can be a triumphant reminder that, even when I was terribly ill, I managed to create beauty in my life. I no longer feel the need to define myself by my musical ability. I am now a writer and an advocate, and I find my current work as a mental health peer specialist to be more important to me than my life as a musician ever was. I have found my life’s true purpose, and I've broadened my world view overall. I have many interests and facets to myself, and it is unnecessary for me to define myself by any single standard.
Neesa Sunar is a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, NYC. She has authored a book of poems, entitled "The Ecru Gorilla," which will be published by September of 2017. She is also a classically trained violist and a singer/songwriter, and has performed in various venues throughout New York City. Find her on Twitter.