My mental illness journey is a long and circuitous one. It began as soon as I could tell the difference between sad and happy. It now continues today, although I am fortunate and proud to be in recovery.
My father was an abusive person, both to my mother and myself. We always had to walk on eggshells around him, because he was quick to anger. When the rage began, he would scream like a boiling tea kettle. Whenever this happened, I would run away, quick, into another room, and then shut the door behind me. Curled into a little ball in a corner, I heard him screaming at my mother. It was muffled sound, words intelligible, and my mother never responded a single word. But the cruelty was absorbed through the door, easily enough.
From home, I learned that it was wrong to express my opinions and stand up for myself, because it would make my father mad if he was in a bad mood. Often, he would ask me, “Your father is always right, is it?” And I would say, “Yes. You are always right.”
When I started kindergarten, I took this lovely “skill” to school with me. Kids taunted me in the way kids do, which is normal enough. “Neesa the Pizza, you’re stupid! You’re too tall! Your hair is poofy and ugly!” But instead of ignoring them, or telling them to go away, I would just stand there, looking at my shoes. In my head, I thought they were right. Because at home, I learned that the best way to show a person respect was to acknowledge they were right all the time, even at the expense of my personhood. I strove to respect my classmates, and so I agreed with them that I was worthless.
As I got older, my lack of confidence worsened. I began to thoroughly believe that the word “LOSER” was stamped into my DNA, and that it was a word written on my forehead, visible to all except me. I slouched terribly, and was somewhat ashamed of being the tallest kid in my class every year. My mother didn’t dress me fashionably also, but instead opted for practical adult clothing from L.L. Bean. I was tall enough to wear it. Things got better in the sixth grade, when my father left our home. I started therapy to help process my tangled feelings, but it wasn’t enough. The damage was already done, and by the seventh grade, I wanted to die. To help me, my mother decided to pull me out of public school and put me into an alternative private school for eighth grade.
I’m very glad she did this. The school was very small, and there were only about twenty-five of us eighth graders. I started to enjoy school and come out of my shell. I continued therapy, and had academic success. But then the depression started again, and by wintertime in ninth grade, I wanted to die again. This time, my mother took me to the hospital, where I stayed for two weeks. On my fourteenth birthday, I started new psychiatric medications: Zoloft and Klonopin. The stuff worked, and I stayed out of the hospital for the rest of high school.
I would be remiss in my story to downplay the importance of music in my life. I began playing the violin when I was five, and then switched to the viola when I was eleven. I played all throughout grade school, and was among the class of accomplished pre-college musicians in my area, that big fish bowl called New York. I consistently was awarded principal violist in various festival orchestras, and also sat principal chair at a prominent youth orchestra in Manhattan. After auditioning for conservatories for college, I was invited to attend some of the best programs in the country, one of which I ultimately attended.
As a musician, I learned to expect success for myself, and strove to avoid failure as much as possible. This should have entailed practicing my butt off at all times, but sadly I was quite tortured in this regard. Due to my mental illness, I had problems with practicing for longer periods of time. After focusing for about a half hour, I would become overwhelmed with sadness, tears in my eyes. Always in my mind was the message, You suck. You suck. You suck.
It was hard to practice regularly when I thought I sucked all the time, so I avoided the instrument as much as I could. It was a miracle that I had the success that I did. But as I trudged through academia, I was very confused. Having studied music intensely my entire life, I defined myself as a “musician.” And yet music was a source of pain. It made no sense.
For undergraduate studies, I desperately wanted to escape the East Coast, and go far away. So I decided to attend a school in the midwest. The school was absolutely perfect for me at the time. The campus was sprawling and green, and the downtown area was chock full of great restaurants. The music school was huge, and so it was easy for me to lose myself in the crowd and keep to myself. I was always surrounded by people in classes and orchestras, and yet I had few friends. I wanted it that way.
Why? I guess part of me wanted to immerse myself in my studies. I saw friendship and dating as a distraction, and I was emotionally fulfilled simply by music itself. The whole process of studying one-on-one with an esteemed professor was thrilling. I’d have an hour with the professor, during which I’d play a piece I’d prepared. Then he’d give me advice as to how to improve here, there, and so forth. Over the course of my degree, I studied with four different professors in this way.
There was just one problem. I had to practice.
When starting college, I was bright-eyed and optimistic. I fancied that I would become one of the best violists in the school. But at the start of sophomore year, there was a viola competition that jarred me. Although my teacher advised that I not participate, another sophomore entered and won. I immediately then regarded her with hatred and envy, and resolved to “beat” her by winning next year’s competition. This conflict was entirely in my mind. For the next year’s competition, I entered and prepared diligently enough, but lost.
By this time, it was the end of my junior year in college. I realized that I was not becoming the best violist in the school, and that I was unable to put in the hours of daily practice required to be of such caliber. Whenever I practiced, I would only be able to focus for about thirty minutes, when suddenly the thoughts came. You suck. There’s no point. And then there were the thoughts without language. The emotions. The tears. I thought I was lazy and stupid, and I hated myself. I needed help, yet I didn’t know how to ask for it, or even describe it.
I started to think that there was some magical spiritual quality that musical virtuosi had, that I didn’t. And that if I were to cultivate this ability in myself, I would be the superstar that I always wanted to be. I incidentally befriended an student on campus who was a member of a meditation group. The group had a guru that lived in India, who was perceived to be a living Master akin to Jesus. I approached the group with sheer zeal and enthusiasm, feeling that this was my cure. I soon made arrangements to formally join the group.
In order to join, I had to have three individual meditations with a meditation leader, a person specifically appointed by the guru to lead meditation sessions both in groups and one-on-one. Before I started, there was one statement that should have sent off a red flag:
“The guru has said that people with mental illness should not do this practice.”
I was earnest and upfront about my taking medications for depression. But my behavior was normal enough that I slipped under the radar. And anyway… how bad can a meditation practice be for mental illness? Isn’t it touted by even doctors, that mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help manage mental illness?
It was easy enough for me to assimilate the facets of this practice into my life. I meditated daily in the morning and evening, and held the guru in my heart as the cornerstone of my attaining Enlightenment. Every Sunday, during my senior year of college, I would hitch a ride to Indianapolis with a couple of disciples. We’d go to the home of a meditation leader and join their group meditation sessions. I also went on periodic retreats in different midwestern cities, where I met many kind people. I felt my horizons broadening.
And I also believed that I was now on the way to becoming a virtuoso violist. Just ahead, I knew that I was going to get the praise and recognition that I so badly wanted and deserved. The chess pieces were being arranged. At the start of senior year, I joined the music school’s baroque orchestra. I found new musical confidence, and I was introduced to a new set of musicians. Instantly, I developed a crush on one of them, a guy named Ricky*. I remained mum about it, although I was completely infatuated and “in love” by the end of the year.
During the spring of my senior year, I also worked with my psychiatrist to get off of my medication, claiming that my meditation practice had healed me. I felt like I was on top of the world, like the productive superstar I always wanted to be. My schedule for the summer was jam-packed too. First off, I performed at a music festival on my college campus, during which I smashed in a fling with Ricky. Directly after this, I attended and performed at a six-week music festival in one of those southern states. And then after this, I took a trip to India to go on a spiritual retreat, where I meditated in the presence of the guru himself. Quite epic.
But all was not blissful. When splitting ways with Ricky, neither of us contacted the other, and the “passion” fizzled. Being off my medications, I started to decompensate while stuck at the music festival, and then I became obsessed with Ricky. In my heart, I knew he hated me, the same way I knew I was a loser in childhood. To numb myself, I abused Klonopin, even arriving to orchestral rehearsals in a sedated stupor. I eventually had my roommate hide the bottle from me, likely horrifying her. And then when I traveled to India, Ricky was still on my mind. Even when meditating before the guru. Where was the mental peace? Everyone had their eyes closed, and no one saw my tears.
The next fall, I returned to the same college to start a masters degree. I played in the same baroque orchestra, but this time it was torture. I thought of Ricky 24/7, and by mid-September I started having violent thoughts about him. Completely spooked, I went to my therapist and told him Ricky’s life was in danger. As I confessed, I cried my guts out. I suddenly then experienced a feeling where I felt punched in the stomach. And as I dried my tears, I realized something changed…
Everything around me now had “energy.” Whether it be a chair or a flower, everything around me began talking to me. Mind you, I didn’t hear voices audibly, but everything around me now had personalities I could interact with.
I immediately perceived this to be a spiritual awakening. This energy I felt, I believed it to be what Buddhists call “chi.” It was everywhere, and it was in my body too. It gave meaning to my life, where before there had been none. And it also gave me a new wellspring of inspiration in music. Practicing viola became a joy. It’s working… the meditation is making me a virtuoso. I now viewed practicing as a sort of yoga, where the postures and technique of the viola were a path to Enlightenment.
But the chi was also confusing. All the people around me exuded energy as well, but it was more difficult to understand. People that I used to perceive as trustworthy and helpful would now exude energy that was hostile, and vice versa. No one noticed anything was amiss though, because no one knew me well to begin with.
At this time, I also auditioned for a music festival in New York City, and was accepted into the chamber music portion of the program. The festival was during the winter vacation between semesters. When the time came, I attended rehearsals and fulfilled my responsibilities, but my mental health was in shambles. But still, no one knew.
At home, I was obsessed with chi. I put mushrooms in my mouth and it felt like they exploded. I ran into the shower and rubbed oil on myself to enhance my chi. I wandered into stores, smelling the merchandise to see if products were heterosexual or homosexual. And I started to feel the “chi” in my body. I could direct it wherever I wanted. I felt powerful. I started eating lemons and going outside without a winter coat. I thought I could keep warm with the “sheer power of anger…”
Neesa Suncheuri works as a mental health peer specialist in New York City. She has an extensive background as a classically-trained violist, but now is a singer/songwriter performing at various dives with friends. She writes poetry for Organic Coffee Haphazardly, and runs a Facebook wellness group called “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group.”
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