Picking the Right Poison

Music is a complicated topic for me. 

When I was about 13-years-old, I remember having my first mental breakdown. All I remember is being totally and completely overwhelmed with my life and by stress that I shut myself in my room for an entire day and simply cried. What calmed me down was a CD my mom really liked called “Songs Without Words”. It was an album completely made of piano covers of songs/short contemporary piano music. It calmed me down as I listened to an instrument that had a huge impact on my life from a young age. That’s what I wanted to do. I decided that I was going to do music. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. 

Saxophone was something I had always been good at. When I picked up the instrument at 10-years-old, I did it because my best friend was playing it and it was the only instrument that no one in my family had played. I begged and begged my mom because I didn’t want to play percussion like my dad. My band director, who happens to still be one of the most influential people in my life today, granted my wish. When I started, I was a natural. I never had to practice like my best friend whom I took lessons with. I would show up, play what was on the page, and was eager for more. It was fun. 

My band director noticed my potential and kept trying to keep me at first chair. Somehow, I would always sneak my way down to the bottom of the line with my best friend. I didn’t care what part I was on. I was having fun. 

In junior high, I started to play the baritone saxophone. For those of you who don’t know, it’s one of the larger saxophones that usually plays with the tuba parts in bands. It was a whole new beast, but I took it eagerly. But I remember one year at Christmas, we were with my mom’s family. I have a cousin who is a music teacher. When I first told her that I wanted to be a band director, she told me the first thing to do was to switch back to alto. Bari sax, while important, doesn’t see a whole lot of notes. The parts are easy. I would need to get used to seeing harder music. 

It took me a few years to switch back. When I did, I was in private saxophone lessons for the first time and improving at an exponential speed. First came the new reeds. Then came the new ligature. It snowballed quickly into sitting in a church basement with my private teacher who brought me a vast array of mouthpieces to try into getting my first and current serious horn. I remember crying when I got it. 

After only a few months of lessons, I was already playing the Ferling etudes which are usually studied in college. In fact, I’m going to work on them this semester. My private teacher was a doctoral student in the studio that I currently reside. He taught me my major scales, prepared me for my first All-State audition (which didn’t go as well as I had wanted), and was the first person who right off the bat took me seriously as a saxophonist. 

But of course, he graduated and was moving to Texas with his wife after my Junior year of high school. Never fear, he told me whom I should take lessons with next. A masters student with an education degree that was also in the Iowa studio was looking for new students and had a very similar teaching style. I also knew of a very talented doctoral student who was at Iowa as well. I asked Scott, my teacher, if he thought this doctoral student would be good as well. He told me that while he knew he was a great player, he didn’t have the education degree and he also didn’t know what his teaching style was like. He felt consistency was key. He told me I should really go for the masters student, James, but that it would be a good idea to take trial lessons with both teachers. 

I liked James better.

He was welcoming, not condescending, but also knew what my weaknesses were and how to work on them. Unfortunately, I just didn’t practice as much as I should have. But James was excellent and prepared me for my college auditions. 

January of 2011. Auditions were a month or so away. I decided to take a lesson with Dr. Tse before my audition at Iowa to see what his teaching style was like. I remember being so nervous. I idolized the musician and professor. He had the most incredible sound out of any saxophonist I had ever heard. I still remember sitting in that church basement with Scott and him telling me that Dr. Tse was one of the top 10 saxophonists in the world right then. In all honesty, he still is. 

Dr. Tse took me in, listened, and gave me feedback. He immediately addressed some of the larger concerns like how I was holding my horn, but he said he could tell I had a good concept of sound, I just needed some help achieving it. Mostly, he believed that my mouthpiece was to blame but also that I was too tight. I needed to relax. With a smile, we worked on the Creston sonata and Bozza aria. He was kind, but not too kind. I could tell he was tough and that he was holding back some since I wasn’t really his student. It was a trial. It was a great lesson. I knew that none of the other teachers I had had could hold a candle to this man. He was the real deal. So I was set. 

Fall of 2011, I was the only incoming freshman at Iowa. I was scared. I was scared shitless. I was accepted as a BM Performance with Certification which means I was a performance major going for an education degree as well. The studio was incredibly intimidating. The graduate students vastly outnumbered the undergraduates, the only music studio at Iowa to do so. The only person to come talk to me on a regular basis was my former teacher, James, and a senior who was the only BA in the studio, Annelise. 

College hit me hard. The lack of support I received from the studio at first overwhelmed me mostly because the next person closest to me in age was Calvin and he was lightyears ahead of me as a player. He was also strictly a performance major. I didn’t really care about that difference though. Only that he was so much better than me and it was intimidating. Even now, intimidating seems like a huge understatement. The only support system I had from my freshman year, or rather I should say the only people with whom I felt comfortable was the people in marching band. But even the older ones immediately came after me saying that Tse was a horribly mean person. As they liked to call him, he was a “dream ruiner”. They were envious that I had made it into the studio and they had not. I didn’t know what to say. They weren’t particularly good players, so it wasn’t like I blamed Dr. Tse for not admitting them. But these were also my friends. What was I to say? They had greater influence over me than the people in studio. Even out of all the people in studio, the first person I clicked with was someone who had a huge problem with Dr. Tse. 

The further into my freshman year I got, the more overwhelmed I was with it. I started getting very sick all the time. I felt scared to leave my dorm room. Even marching band became taxing because of all the people in it. I had remembered a conversation I had with my dad just a few months before, right before I graduated. He said something to me along the lines of me having an anxiety problem. As a psychologist, he could always tell, but never really felt that he knew what to do with it and me having struggled with it for so long himself. So after talking to him about it, I decided to see a doctor at the student health. I described my symptoms and for the first time, I was correctly diagnosed. You see, when I had first noticed the symptoms of heart palpitations back in my sophomore year of high school, the sudden change in heart rate made me feel dizzy and out of breath. They thought I had exercise induced asthma. 

After that, I started taking antidepressants. After a month, I started noticing changes. Good changes. I felt more at ease around groups of people. I was able to concentrate more fully. The constant, nagging urge of worry was lessened. The more I continued medication, the better I felt. 

Then came my studio performance. 

I was so, so, so incredibly nervous. Nervous doesn’t begin to cover it. Playing in front of all those incredibly talented saxophonists and Dr. Tse and having them critique me…

The day came. I played a piece I didn’t feel great with. I was nervous. So nervous. I felt sick the entire time I was on that stage. Don’t get me wrong, performing makes me nervous, but I had never faced something like that. I was able to put on an entire program of music my senior year of high school and still the nerves I had that day never compared to playing in front of my studio. Playing to the experts that didn’t make me feel welcome. 

I immediately walked off stage and started to break down. 

Everyone rushed over, telling me of what a great job I did. Telling me not to worry about it. James and another girl named Brooke were probably the most helpful. Brooke drove me to band, tears and all, and told me about her first studio performance. She said it was a good thing I took it so seriously because that’s what would make me a great player. She didn’t take it seriously and she wished that she had. 

Then came my next lesson with Dr. Tse.

He was not as supportive. He was worried. Worried that if I reacted like that in a studio performance that I wouldn’t be able to give a senior recital. I started to explain what I thought was going on. I told him how that had never happened to me before. How I had put on an entire recital just a few months prior without any kind of anxiety like this. It didn’t shake him though. He was determined to get me on the BA track. For me not to be a performance major. He felt that my anxiety was too much. 

In turn, I think he made it much, much worse. 

The next few years weren’t good. Things went from bad, to worse, to slightly better, to relapse, to improvement, to complete mental breakdown. I declined heavily after the spring of my sophomore year. Over the next 6 months, I was hospitalized twice with suicidal ideation and self harm. I couldn’t get myself out of bed in the morning to go to class. Saxophone became a source of fear instead of a love or a dream I was pursuing for a career. I still haven’t quite gotten over that fear. I’m extremely unsure as to how I’m going to conquer that this semester. Especially when I have a new teacher who doesn’t know about any of this and I’m playing new repertoire. 

I’ve been debating for a long time whether or not I want to play saxophone in band. For the last two years, our band has been so short on clarinets and so heavily represented by talented saxophonists that I’ve offered myself over to play clarinet. I think in turn it made my fear of saxophone greater. This being my final year if not just semester in band, I’ve been thinking I should really play saxophone. At the same time, though, I’m so incredibly scared. I’m so out of practice. My fellow undergraduates are even lightyears ahead of me. People tell me I shouldn’t give up because I’m good, but is it really worth the sensations of choking, numbness, dizziness, and sudden, rapid heart rate? Should I just stick to clarinet because it lets me avoid that fear or at least postpone it a little longer? 

Of course, the band assignments came out today. Due to the large numbers of people needing band credit, Dr. Tse figured I should play clarinet because I can, because of the shortage of clarinets in the bands, and because of the overwhelming numbers of saxophonists. It makes sense, really. I’ve been playing clarinet for the last two years. But it bothers me that he didn’t even ask. Last year, he assigned me to saxophone first until Professor Kastens asked me to play clarinet. I don’t know if they had possibly talked it over before he sent it out, but I doubt it due to the question mark he put beside my name every time. 

I know it’s my fault. If I really wanted to play saxophone, I should have said something or now is my chance to say something. The problem is, I don’t know what I want. I don’t know if I’m ready to face that fear that head-on in front of my peers. On top of the stress of everything else in my life, it doesn’t seem wise to try to jump right on into saxophone. At the same time, I miss it. This could be my last opportunity to play in a concert band for the rest of my life. I sincerely hope it isn’t though.

Especially because that’s what made me fall in love with saxophone. It wasn’t the solo music. I’ve never been one for solo music. It just seems to selfish. I love performing in ensembles. Quartets. Chamber. Band. I love it. Performing with people to collaborate to come up with something so spectacularly beautiful. 

I have to pick my poison, so to speak.

Existence in Intense Fear

Wake up.

Try not to feel sick.

Which illness today? The one that never goes away or that same stomach bug I’ve had? I can’t tell the difference. 

Don’t drink coffee. It’ll tip you over the edge.

But as I work, I become a sleepwalker. I have no energy talking to my tables. It’s pathetic.

I keep thinking about him coming back and it induces the same feelings as last winter. Distance is hard. I don’t know how people can do it.

Maybe because for him, coming back here isn’t coming home. I fear that it never will be. That here isn’t enough for him. 

Part of me knows that’s true too. The extent of it though I don’t know.

A friend asked me how I was holding up. How I was handling the whole distance thing. I found it odd that someone was asking me this now. The more I thought about it though, the more it struck me that no one had asked me how I was handling it when he left or while he’s been gone except for my therapist. And I pay her to do that. No, this friend was the only person to ask me.

I was pretty honest.

I’m not well. I’m so scared right now. I’m so incredibly scared. My job is falling apart. People are quitting right and left so I’m having to pick up more hours when I’m already so burnt out on the place. It’s showing there, too. Two full blown panic attacks at work in a span of two weeks when I hadn’t had one there all summer? That’s something. It’s not like they can do anything about it though. My doctors just say it’s expected for me to have these panic attacks and tell me I’m okay to keep working. We have so few people to work too that they have no choice but to give me hours.

Then, my coworkers are bitter towards me when they have to cover my shifts because I have to leave due to a panic attack. They tell me I owe them. As if I didn’t have enough guilt or worry to carry me on to the next panic attack. I think how I only have to work this week, then I’m supposed to have next week off, then classes start. But then more panic.

Classes?

What?

And then I start thinking about my next break and how it isn’t going to be a break. It’ll be a vacation and I’m happy to go to Hong Kong, don’t get me wrong. I’m still just so vulnerable to panic attacks though. Where the fuck am I going?

I’m going to vacation on one of the hardest holidays for me to get through so hard that I often request to work or tell my family I’m sick because I can’t stand being around them for too long to a foreign place all the way across the world with unfamiliar people that all speak a completely different language and many are supposedly hopeful that I’ll know some of the language by the time I get there so conversing will be easier for them when I’m just going to be focusing on not having a mental breakdown much like the one I’m currently having and hope to something that I don’t relapse and shit this was such a terrible idea.

I supposed to be doing things right. I supposed to get my act together. I’m supposed to just live normally. 

What the fuck is normal?

My idea is not having this intense choking sensation every time you think about meeting your boyfriend’s extended family. My idea is not hyperventilating when you get sat 6 tables including a party table and one of your coworkers refuses one simple request at work. My idea is not trying to fall asleep for over 2 hours only to have thoughts like this tear your mind to shreds until you start having a mental breakdown.

It’s mental stability.

People don’t understand how little control over this I have and I how much I despise it. How I’ve hated it so much I grew to hate myself and was ready to kill myself. How it’s making me question if I need to go to the hospital right now in fear of myself.

This isn’t life. This is hell. 

This is existence in intense fear. 

It doesn’t help that I don’t have anyone to talk to about it either. I write about it. I always have. And what kind of sucks too is not a single person has ever asked me to come to them when I feel like this. Not a single person that I have opened up to enough. And it makes me trust people less. It makes me never want to tell anyone anything. It took me forever with my therapist. But she’s not on call. I have to ride these panic attacks and mental breakdowns by myself. Just like I always have.

Sorry for the self-pity rant. I’m just pretty done with this… I don’t even know what to call it.

I’m just scared.

Scared that things are gonna get really bad again. Now that some people know about it and how bad it is, I feel like people just want to know the surface. Know why I am the way I am. What makes me tick. When they know, the leave it to observe.

Watch me explode, my friends.  

Sync

How am I?

Just feeling a little more hollow than normal, thanks.

But a smile and an answer “I’m fine” never makes you think twice.

I’m cold, hollow, shivering, empty. I feel numb to the warmth.

My brain is just a bit confused. My body isn’t in sync with it. Or so in sync that I feel like I could vomit at any moment.

Now, I start shaking. Thoughts blur through my head. I’m barely able to make sense of them. They leave a lingering feeling of helplessness though.

I should sleep. I’m always tired.

Emotionally Unstable

Let me walk you through something.

You’ve been stressed. Moving is hard. Moving 2 people is hard. Helping other people move is hard as well. Summer classes aren’t over yet and you haven’t gotten word from that friend who was gonna look over that one paper for you. You’re still trying to catch up on sleep from that all-nighter you pulled last week. Yet, you’re still up at 3:37 AM. Why? Who knows? You honestly could have felt like crashing after work. Maybe it was because of that energy drink you had to get your feet moving during your shift. Why the energy drink? You took too many of your sedatives when you were having a panic attack at work. You still haven’t quite figured out the magic number of pills to take when reality becomes too big to handle. But you’ve got to take the pills because you can’t keep missing work due to anxiety. Money, money, money. That horrid curse. Of course, you’ve just recently spent a good deal of it buying things for your apartment, carpet cleaners, rent, groceries, the list goes on. But your pockets aren’t as full as they could and/or should be. Why? Panic attack at work. You threw up in the bathroom after you had just gotten back from break because they cut the rest of the servers from the floor leaving you with 5 tables with open menus plus a party. Those servers that were cut are too consumed in doing their cleanups and getting their part of the dining room in order so they can get out of there faster. Forget what you need to help your tables. They’re just trying to make their boss happy so they can get out of there and be happy.

I very much so need to figure something out.

Those pills… while they do help in the short term…. the after effects are…. horrible.

I’m left with this vague emptiness that I don’t feel like will be filled. I’m left with the disappointment that yet again I let anxiety take control of my life. My head is still groggy from the medicine. It’s like being drunk and high at the same time except you aren’t doing it just to have fun or have a good time. You’re using it to stop the bad thoughts, to keep yourself sane and together. 

I feel like a tightly wound string that gets constantly pulled out then put back again messier than before. Being chewed on then spat back out. 

I could go over how I feel physically. I could go over my mental state. 

I am emotionally unstable.

And it sucks.

We are driven by fear and desire. Neither of these things are entirely rational nor irrational.