I have been, it turns out, unwell for a long time. I didn’t really start realising how unwell I’d been until I suddenly — over the course of three months, got a little bit better. The long and short of it is that I’d had an ugly mental health episode about ten years ago, and got immediate treatment, but then, as a result of my own laziness, punishing travel schedule, and being convinced that I needed to see a shrink who takes my insurance, what had been an emergency solution to clinical manic depression became a permanent cocktail of medications, taken every day, for ten chemically-unexamined years.
Recently, I thought to myself, in a moment of rare clarity about my own life, that maybe I wasn’t feeling as great as I might. From 2009-2014, I wrote two operas, several orchestra pieces, a few film scores, tons of choral music, and a pile of chamber music. I was constantly busy, and all of my projects were great ones to have and all of my collaborators were stellar and it was all, on paper, going fine. Something a friend’s mother said to me kept haunting me, though — she’d come to the Met premiere of my opera Two Boys in 2013, and the opening night crowd was enthusiastic and was, as is the custom at such events, clapping enthusiastically as I took a bow. She said to me afterwards, “Wow! You must feel ten feet tall.” I said thank you and smiled but I couldn’t shake that comment from my head. I thought about it a few months ago and realised that no, I really didn’t. It wasn’t the opposite — I didn’t feel “small,” but I felt empty, or invisible. This physical manifestation of the work wasn’t something I’d made; it was something that was happening around me to which I was a passive and silent witness.
I tried, at that moment a few months ago, to sort out the difference between ‘pride in having made something’ and ‘feelings of happiness with a project’ and the dual senses of personal satisfaction, professional satisfaction and/or ‘achievement’ and realised that I didn’t have any way of teasing them apart, because they were foreign feelings; I hadn’t had them in years. All I had was a sense of gnawing anxiety, tempered, usually, by a feeling of displaced pride in other people having done the work for me — the conductor, the orchestra, the librettist, the stagehands, the wig-maker. I thought back on less complicated projects; one of the best things I’ve written, I think, is a song Old Bones for my friend Iestyn. I felt like I’d achieved, somehow, having made good something for him, which in turn makes him happy, but I couldn’t save anything for myself in that transaction. I’ve written for Nadia, and for Pekka, and I was ‘happy’ because I love writing for people I love, because it makes them shine, and even though I think the pieces are fine, the satisfaction, for me, is displaced.
Once I had that revelation, I didn’t panic, but I thought: have I really not been happy or satisfied during any of this work for over a decade? I thought, as an anxious extension, about my obsessive relationship to working and work and what it even means to work. It’s not that I’m “a workaholic,” it’s just that I don’t know any other way to engage with the world. My work — in which I include writing emails, cooking, thinking — is the only way I know how to engage with anybody or anything. You turn an interaction, any interaction, into a kind of project, and then do it the best you can. This is related, I think, to doing “the best you can” in general, but in a specific, focused way, in which each task is divided into a sequence of sub-tasks, each of which has its own economy of goodness. This is inherently a dangerous way to behave, because it can sound (and feel to others) craven and plotting, as if being friends with somebody is a project to be in some way completed or a problem to be in some way solved.
I still didn’t panic. I thought back over the past ten years, and then I had a vision: this sense of work dominating everything made me highly irritable in many professional and personal interactions. In the closed systems of my own processes, I can run quality control obsessively over everything I do: I can stay up until two in the morning editing clarinet parts, and I can worry about how for that clarinettist, her first experience of my music will be this four page document, I can slice the garlic how it needs to be sliced and I can butcher the meat in the right way for the task at hand. Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine, which is to say: expended a violent breath of energy at the thing, continuously, all day, every day. I became angry — and directionlessly choleric, as my body got hot, I sweated, I shook — at the objects that surrounded me. The noise of traffic would send me into a tailspin of not just anger, but despair at not having my environment coöperate with me. A honking truck became not, as it should be, a part of the sonic landscape of a city, but instead it came to represent a broken contract between me and the world. A sense of magical thinking arose naturally, where the only explanation for things not going as I wanted them was that I wasn’t working hard enough, that I wasn’t devoted enough to the task, or that I wasn’t giving enough of myself to anything or anybody to warrant getting anything in return.
I found myself, particularly when tired (which was always), or after having had too much to drink (which was often), irascible and shouty, telling people they were doing their jobs badly or bungling something when it was really not my place to say anything. I cussed people out for doing what, in the economy of my work, would be unacceptable, but which, in reality, was perfectly fine. I was unable to distinguish people deliberately doing or saying hurtful things (which, at the age of 33, still happens to me from time to time) from forgetting to dot an i or cross a t. I could feel my body pointedly roiling — the sweat, yes, but a gut-clenching sense of a drop from a high place — at the accumulating details of my life. A little cut on the hand, agitated into a wound, the noise of laughing children on the street, the edge of the dog’s toy getting caught in the wheel of my work-chair, the feeling of my stomach touching the fabric of my shirt, the acute knowledge of the various asymmetries and plumpnesses of the body. All of these things were incendiary and dangerous: the arsonist’s last glug of gasoline thrown on the carpet before lighting the match.
After these episodes — which could last days, or weeks — there could arrive a period of calm. I would try to reconcile with those I’d wronged, but found it difficult to understand what I was apologising for, precisely. They had, after all, misspelt something important, or taken too long to write back to an email, or been lazy about a complicated project, and they needed to know. Right? I found myself physically angry at people for whom work wasn’t a consuming fire but for whom was, at most, a part of their day which could be offset or justified by taking vacations, sleeping late on purpose, taking an hour for lunch and sitting in the park, or getting str8 married and taking time off to do this. I was furious with musicians who lived off of their parents’ money, I was furious with people who dared to plan their careers in units of ten years. I was furious with myself for being furious about these things. I was impossible with my boyfriend with whom I share a small apartment, because each of his movements was another shot fired in my already complicated battle with my environments both physical and emotional. He’s only known me within the space of this 10-ish years of treatment, and never really knew any other conditions aside from my slightly terrifying and almost religious relationship to my work and my community as the only worthwhile transactions in a life lived vigorously.
At the end of these daily forceful and exhausting immolations, the only thing that could bring me something resembling peace was watching somebody do something – anything – well. I live in Chinatown, and there is nothing more calm-inducing than watching an old man work a meat cleaver expertly. I am soothed by watching a woman pinch a dumpling together, and I am soothed by watching the Man Who Grills Meat fan the meat just-so with his meat-fanning fan. I could no longer read new books or the newspaper; I had to read books I already knew that I liked, because I couldn’t be let down by them or tricked into going along with somebody else’s uninteresting plan. I could only listen to music I already knew, because the shock of something new would send me into a state of heightened agitation. I developed an agoraphobic anxiety and found myself only able to explain it to virtual strangers, and fibbed my way out of going to any live music for almost two months. I found myself not craving but needing routine in an almost aspergic way, but with a life completely and necessarily noncondusive to even being able to do the same thing three days in a row.
So I sought help. I found a new doctor, who does not take my insurance and therefore costs as much as my rent, literally no joke. She looked at my medical history with what I would generously call the world’s subtlest cut-eye; I’m sure that doctors don’t like to second-guess what another doctor thought best ten years ago, but within 30 minutes of being there, she was like, “we gotta get you off of this stuff.” I went off of it, and onto something else. My body ached and I was confused all the time. I told her that I had three goals: to not be angry all the time, to be able to engage with my environment and friends and boyfriend and collaborators in a healthier way, and to start seeing if there was a way to start to feel happy about my work — or not really the work, even, but about myself as it related to the work, or about myself as it related to anything.
Medication helps with a lot of these things — within a few weeks, the constant agita let up, confirming to me that it was actually chemical and not some devil perched in the back of my skull. I’d been told that the drugs working correctly might feel like a veil lifting, but in my case it was more like a kabuki-drop: a sudden whoosh of waking up without a clamor of small pressurised objects rattling around. As a result of this clarity, I was able to think about the very rare times that I’d felt happy about my own self. I realized that the thing I’ve made of which I am the proudest — or, perhaps the only thing I’ve made about which I feel even a nominal amount of pride — is my community. It’s a large and multi-faceted creature, with ever-widening spaces between its elements as we all age, but it’s a collection of people for whom I have a near obsessive love.
I’ve never really bought the concentric-circle model of friendships. My model is much more “let’s just go for it all the way,” which I think can be off-putting for people. I am in a near constant dialogue with myself thinking about other people — oh, this funny image, I hope T— has seen it, or I really should email M— about that piece of his which I liked and which I listened to, or I feel like the world would be a better place if N— had read this book. When people text me, I text them right back. I write back to emails quickly and try to stay connected to everybody and be au courant with my friends’ lives in as generous a way as I can. I write back to professional out-of-office emails with bitter, scathing essays about why it is that they can’t manage to make their iPhones work in whatever sad holiday destination (Alicante, usually) they’ve chosen instead of performing professional immolation on the fires of productivity. I’ve never gotten an out-of-offce reply when I haven’t been nine miles deep into a river of work, and you can imagine the resentment and fury that creates.
Once the new medication had sorted a few things out, however, I started accessing an emotional register of genuine sadness surrounding my community, something I’d not felt in years. My obsessive communications with my friends: what if this was actually a huge chore for them, and that my vigor (and rigor) in that part of my life could never be reciprocated? If a loved one doesn’t write back, does that mean that I am specifically unlovable, doomed to a life of sending unreturned emails and un-replied-to texts? The machinery of my head has been, until recently, too busy to really let that feeling in for analysis, and I managed to actually write a whole opera about it as a giant, expensive act of displacement and disengagement. “Are you there,” the opera asks; nobody answers, and the boy at the centre of it gets a knife to the heart. Letting this feeling in — to use the somewhat three-little-pigsian argot of pop psychology — has been, I think, one of the more difficult things I’ve done as an adult. Why won’t she write back? Why won’t he text back? What does that have to do with meeeeee? I found myself hoarding kind words from any of my friends or even passing acquaintances like a squirrel with his nut: a tiny compliment from a friend stored in the back of the head to be taken out and surveyed in darker moments.
After so many years of never thinking about myself — emotionally paying myself last, as it were — I feel an enormous guilt in spending the time thinking about myself at all. I am (or perhaps was?) a big proponent of the “it’s not about you” strategy of dealing with emotional conflict: always assume that the offended party is the correct one, and ignore any evidence that you, too, might have been wronged, and it’ll all be alright. I felt that self-care was a nonsense excuse to not do one’s job, and that taking time to think about these things, even in the context of the doctor’s office, was a form of extreme and dangerous narcissism born out of Tumblr and Twitter activism, or out of the thickets of trigger warnings that surround the castle of anything difficult to think about.
I haven’t yet managed to shake my molten rage at administrative things in my life going wrong.
I feel bad even retelling this story, but I think it points towards a few important things. I had a concert in a church the other day, and I had been in communication with the producer and his staff about wanting to set aside some seats for friends, and he had a very welcome ‘no problem’ kind of attitude. It was a free concert but one which needed tickets. I was very grateful for their help with all of this and tried to be as on top of the ticket situation as possible, sending names via email, confirming, double-checking that the number (12) was alright. An hour before the show I checked again with Capable Seeming Ticket Lady, and confirmed that the names would indeed be left at the door, and gave her another name I’d just gotten via SMS. Now. I then went for a little stroll and had a bracing lager, and I came back from this stroll to discoverer two strange tableaux-vivants. The first tableau was a bunch of my friends — who, in this case were all tall blond English men, don’t judge me, u don’t know my journey — clustered around the door next to a confused-looking woman with a clipboardt. She was not, however, as confused as the blind woman with her collapsible cane, wearing what looked like corrective shoes, precariously hobbling over the uneven cobbled surface of the churchyard, tripping on bollards and chain gates and heading the wrong way towards a certain spill against a leaning plane tree. So, I ran to the blind woman and took her arm and began to escort her towards the door, at which point I sort of nervously looked at the clipboardt lady and discovered that all of the name-emailing I’d done had resulted in the Seemingly Capable Ticket Lady scrawling MY last name, misspelt, with a blue pen, and then “+12” next to it. Now. How are these tall English boys going to get access to the Lord’s House when I had told them to just give their name at the door and it would all be okay? Also present in this dozen people was one of the performers’ momma. Not nann one of the names I’d emailed and confirmed had made its way to the door. This is an good example of a contract with the world being broken.
What I should have done is taken a deep breath and moved on with my life, chalking this particular incident up to the fact that arts administrators and their underlings are, I’m sure, hideously overworked people — although, me too: I am chained alway by devils to my desk writing music for their employers, gnashing my teeth and suffering the self-induced psycho-electrical shocks of self-discipline and profound fear), but, at that particular time in front of the church in London, the combination of my friends being inconvenienced, the appalling bootleg fuckery of my scrawled name, and the idea that the door staff were letting this blind woman trip all over the cobblestones sent me into a 2011-style ragefest galore. I was not asking for an extinct animal to be brought before me, I was not asking for some kind of exotic honey to applied to my body for reasons of allergies. I just wanted my friends to be able to arrive at a door, give their name, and be granted access to the space behind the same door, at that time.
So, furiously, I marched back to the vestry, found Seemingly Competent Ticket Lady, and I am sorry to say that, beloveds, I read her for filth. I told her what time it was in every timezone. I let it all in, and then I let it all out, in her face, at that time. But something curious happened: I found that my rage had three dimensions and an origin story: I could see the whole thing, I could understand its weight, and I understood, at that time, that the whole thing was springing from this inner vacancy and sadness, with the idea of my writing a piece of choral music (for which I am now able to feel a tiny shimmer of pride!) that asks “are you there” being answered, in an acute sense, by this organisational incompetence. I heard myself saying all these terrible things, and once it started, it all spilled out like change from a torn pocket. During this diatribe, I left myself momentarily, and had a conflicting group of emotions, which were: first I have to stop yelling, but also: I know both why I am yelling on a small level (she did totally fuck up and should have been pilloried before the village) but also on a large level (I am a person slowly getting better who is not yet better) and also: I finally know how this relates to larger problems about whose nature I am finally learning.
I am sorry, truly and deeply and honestly (despite my flippant attitude in the previous paragraph), to have lost it at this woman who I’m sure forgot to do her job for perfectly good reasons. The details are lost to history. It is never appropriate to turn into a volcano of rage no matter what has happened to you, and I speak as a volcano who has erupted a number of inappropriate times, despite my goal of dormancy and peace.
I’m telling this story to say that the nature of getting better, of becoming well, is not that you will automatically stop doing bad things, or that you will stop letting bad things happen to you. Getting well is going to involve sometimes doing these awful things and experiencing these terrible things and having those bad things done to you, but having, at the same time, a growing understanding of their beginnings and middles, and an awareness of the effort it is going to take to herd them towards their ends.
At the end of that concert where I lost my mind, the choir sang Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever in the world, and which is one of the reasons I am a composer now. Its text is by Christopher Smart, who spent a good deal of his life in an insane asylum. The text — of which Britten sets only a part — is an ecstatic journey of religious devotion through mania and altered states: Smart offers us the wordplay of the schizophrenic and the self-annihilating coldness of the depressed at the same time. At the end of one of the particularly excited sections describing a heavenly orchestra of instruments, Smart describes the hand of God cutting through the joyfully chaotic cacophony to play the harp. Britten treats the ensuing text with an almost maternal delicacy, relishing, in a lambent and suspended F-major chord, the symmetries of the music the text suggests, and tells us, with gentle hopefulness:
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.
I don’t think I am yet at, or even near, that time, and my flightpath might be asymptotic to that time, but I like seeing, through the flashes of fire and reminders of difficulty, a path towards stillness and serenity.
[Two notes: this post uses English spelling because for a variety of indescribable reasons my computer has to be set that way, as I’m in London right now, and two, the Britten link is to the UNT choir, which is the school at which my uncle Martin “Mickey” Mailman taught composition for many years, so I’m trying to keep it, as it were, in the family].