I’m such a cliché.
Every day I feel like a fraud.
I’m mentally ill, I write, I drink, I smoke, and I paint the sounds that I hear – I have synesthesia. I am obsessed with my senses, they’re finicky, they’re cross-wired. In many ways we’re all like this. We taste twice, once with our noses and again with our tongues. They play in tandem, a sensual symphony helping us hear every note. My problem is they all do that. They play in harmony, minor and major to experience the world. I don’t know if my senses are part of the reason I have mental illness or if mental illness has its own side effects. (like the fucking drugs I take don’t have enough) It’s my brain’s way of playing chicken vs. egg. Is this the gift for the curse?
When most kids are playing with dolls or action figures I was practicing. I started the violin at three, percussion and piano at four, and performing in front of crowds of nearly 1,000 by five. Every time someone would say, or does say that I have any talent I think they’re lying. Though I don’t remember the arias or the violin concertos I played those nights. I remember the sights that music always brought me, the transfixed escapism that the music brought me. Sound and light were my escape from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of neighbors and family members. Drawing was an escape, locking myself in my room to practice was a safe-haven from what my brain was telling me.
I didn’t learn about synesthesia until I was in my early thirties. I thought everyone operated like this. Hell, I didn’t learn about bipolar until then either. Through countless therapists, psychiatrists, faith healers, pastors, and every other person I was thrown in front of from eight until I had a mental breakdown at thirty-two no one suspected bipolar. They blamed the visions on the gifts of the holy spirit, emotional outbursts on demon possession. Nothing about who I am was about me, it was forces from the metaphysical tormenting or blessing me; each to let their light or darkness shine through. Mental illness wasn’t real; it was the byproduct of not having enough faith or living as Christ had taught us. Pray the gay away, and if the voices are good it’s the Holy Spirit, if they’re bad then they’re Satan.
My lone refuge was a room my father built me off my bedroom. (by built I mean he took a circular saw and cut a doorway into another room for my birthday one year) It housed my drum set, a few windows, and a desk. It’s there that I truly took in my “spiritual gifts”. I discovered the painters Jackson Pollock and Roethke in there through a book on modern art. The way they let color and paint freely flow and be the centerpiece, not the image that light reflects back to us, hit me on a TRULY spiritual level. I felt as though for the first time even after all the spiritual reading I had done, the hours of prayer I had thrown to the clouds, this was the first time the universe had spoken to me. Someone saw that colors were not just reflections of light in the cones of our eyes, but they were the essence of matter. They were in the sounds that I saw, and the colors I could hear.
By fourteen I had figured out there was one easy way to shut things up, dull myself from the chaos – alcohol. Other drugs like pot and speed just made things more enhanced, fed the intensity of senses. Which was great at times but would get overwhelming, so I chose booze as an escape. From the beginning of high school until thirty-one I was drinking most of the time. I kept painting, spending most of my time in the art room or in the band room and playing in various rock bands. This method of sitting with the demons, writing, painting, playing, and then shutting them up when I couldn’t take any more with vodka worked until my kids came a long and I had to get a job and be a provider.
At that point I could no longer have regular tea parties with Lucifer, I had to shut them up constantly. I sold my drums, never sang, never painted, never wrote anything other than checks to the gas company. There really wasn’t much music in the house for a long time. I never wanted to see it again, didn’t want things to crop up, to be tempted by the kiss of creativity. The shell would go to work, come home, pour a scotch, sit in his tie until it was time for bed. Affection was gone, love was gone, what I thought was helping my family was abandoning them in front of my eyes. They lost the person they loved to a desire to be wired correctly and do the right thing. It wasn’t until my shell was blown off in a nuclear explosion of life that I was left naked curled on an air mattress at my mother’s house – feeling, seeing, hearing again. It poured out and I did research on what was happening.
That’s when I discovered what synesthesia was. I was diagnosed with bipolar and a small host of other fun things and the concept of my cross-wired senses were real and something I could leverage. I could listen to music, and simply paint the colors that I saw. The sound could move my body and hands to create new things. This wasn’t possession. This wasn’t the holy spirit using me as vessel to save the world. It was real, and in the end it was beautiful. And then it went away.
Adding medications to keep life going and remain sober was doing the same thing alcohol did in many ways. I was coherent for the daily operations of life, making business decisions, interacting with clients and my children. (which is basically the same thing without hugs, let’s cut the shit) It helped to have them, to get my shell back, and and center it for a while. But I had felt it again, the pleasure and pain of what was inside. I had called on my demons and muses, named them, and began to cohabitate with them. I didn’t want shell back on that, I knew I’d crack again even with medications.
I wish I could say that I did it the right way, talked to my doctor and we stepped down in a controlled way. It would be great if I could say that. Nope, like everyone else I’ve ever known with this disease (bipolar) I said a big “Fuck You” to lithium, figured I had my shit all sorted. That was in fact very wrong. I crashed and burned. I pissed away relationships all over again. It was like starting all over again. But it was worth it.
The one thing they don’t tell us about having mental illness, whether it’s anxiety, depression, or any other form is that we get a luxury that psycho-normative people don’t. We feel differently, deeper, and if you’re like me and can experience things that would normally require psychedelics it’s a blessing. To stay out of the gutters or under a bridge it does require a network of loving and understanding people. If you have that luxury as well, in the loneliness of mental illness you can feel whole in your own way.
There are still days when I think dying is a better option. I still cry myself to sleep or in the shower, there’s still pain everywhere. But there’s the good parts, the parts of me that no one else gets. While there are many people with bipolar and or synesthesia, they don’t see and hear exactly how I do. It’s my battle to fight alone but it’s my unique gift as well. After thirty years I have my own voice, my own path, and I get to be who I was put on this planet to be. I will however, apologize every day for everyone that has to live with me on this.
Matthew lives in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area where he paints what he hears, makes music and writes whenever possible and attempts to raise a family that embraces their gifts as well as the curses life gives them.
You can view Matthew’s work at his Etsy shop and have your favorite album or song painted either by going here or by contacting him directly by emailing him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew can be found on Etsy.