It’s been 4 years since my battle with anxiety and depression began. I feel it is finally time that I share my story with the world in order to help others who struggle with the same condition.
In my second year at Berklee College of Music, I was diagnosed with tendonitis in my right arm. My condition was as a result of playing the piano with improper technique. Tendonitis is caused by repetitive motion in sporting activities like running as well as micro-movements such as typing on a laptop, or in my case over-use of certain muscles involved in playing my instrument. When this injury occurred, I began studying with a new piano teacher who specialized in teaching students with this type of ailment. He informed me that the way in which I was playing the instrument was injuring me, not the amount of time I was playing it on a daily basis. I took up the piano when I was 8 years old meaning that I had been playing incorrectly for almost 12 years. I had to completely relearn how to perform. This meant changing everything from the way I sat on the stool to the way I played the C Major scale (the very first thing most piano students learn). This was of course a physically challenging venture. I spent hours practicing seemingly simple motions. I didn’t practice an actual song for over a month. However, the psychological stress caused by my injury proved to be more overwhelming then the somatic overhaul. I was constantly worrying about how I was going to make it through the next rehearsal without having to embarrassingly bow out. I doubted whether I’d ever be able to recover. And worst of all, my most frequent thought was, “What am I without music?”
Nonetheless, I was determined. Even after a doctor told me to stop playing for 3 months and a physical therapist told me I should consider focusing on a teaching career, I soldiered on. I went to workshops on Alexander Technique and body-mapping, practiced all the exercises my teacher gave me every day and also began seeing a psychotherapist and taking anti-depressants. I came to understand that although the pain was caused by my poor technique, there was a mental element to it as well. I noticed that when I felt the tiniest pain in my arm and the race of negative thoughts took off, the pain would dramatically increase. When I performed poorly I would feel depressed, sending me into physical agony. Once I started putting the ideas I discussed in my therapy sessions into real life practice, my level of pain seemed to decrease every week. Also, my practice sessions became more efficient which allowed me to improve my technique at a faster rate.
After my last semester at Berklee, I finally felt that I was able to play the piano without pain. That may seem like an unusual milestone. But getting to that point from being in a place where I was literally afraid of touching the instrument was one of the greatest accomplishments of my entire life. However, I found myself struggling with other things. I felt inadequate compared to my friends who were musicians. I was depressed about the lack of gigs I had after moving back to Toronto. Finally, any threat to my health brought back memories of my battle with tendonitis. I associated any kind of physical pain with the mental distress I experienced at Berklee. Anything from a sore muscle to the flu would cause psychological pain.
Although therapy helped, I knew that I needed to personally take control of my mental health. I also wanted to stop taking anti-depressant medication. Last May, while traveling in India I discovered meditation and Buddhist philosophy. At first, meditating seemed to make the stress worse. As someone who found it hard to be alone, you can imagine how difficult sitting on my own in silence for even 10 minutes was. However, just like when I realized that I needed to change my piano technique, I persevered because I knew my quality of life depended on it. 10 minutes of meditation became 15, then 20. Today I practice sitting meditation for an hour a day (2 sessions of 30 minutes). Reading the literature of Jon Kabit-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh and Osho has taught me to look within for guidance, fulfillment and strength. I learned how to see myself as a complete person, one with unique traits and flaws that make me human. After practicing meditation and these philosophies for 9 months I now know that although I may be prone to anxiety and depression, I will always have a tool with which to confront it.
My message to anyone who is struggling with anxiety and depression is the following:
1. This is not a fixed state. You are in control of your quality of life. While therapy and medication can be good tools, in the end you have to take responsibility for your own well-being. Whether it is meditation or going for a walk every morning, as soon as you start being proactive in regards to your mental health you will feel better. You will start believing that you are at least on the path towards enlightenment.
2. You are not alone. We all battle stress and self-doubt to some degree. Allow yourself to ask for help and let the people who love you provide that care.
3. One day at a time. If you accept the fact that you can live a better life, simple things can get you on your way. A) Instead of bottling up your anxieties, write them down. B) If you feel depression coming on, call a friend that you trust to talk about it. C) Sit for one minute and just focus on your breathing.
I hope my story has connected with you in some way. Whether you struggle with mental health problems yourself or you know someone who does, this post is for you.