BY JON FIELDER
MUSIC AND MENTAL HEALTH: HOW DIAGNOSING/TREATING MY MENTAL ILLNESS SAVED MY CREATIVITY
The role of mental health on creative individuals is not a new topic, and while there is a stigma surrounding mental health in America, it seems almost a romanticized component of artistic impulses and creative output. From the giants of art/music history such as Van Gogh, Poe, and Beethoven to modern examples like Antonin Arteaud, Jaco Pastorius, Syd Barrett, Mariah Carey, and Kanye West you can easily find links to creative people who live with mental health issues. I can add myself to that category of creative minds (related only by mental health, not by prestige). My battle with mental illness is more recent in my adult life, but it has nonetheless had a profound impact on me, both personally and creatively. Before continuing with any discussion of how understanding my mental health impacted my music, I would like to tell my story of how I got to where I am today. While the following is ostensibly long-winded, I feel the level of detail is necessary to understand just where I was mentally and emotionally leading up to my diagnosis, and how my behavior not only impacted me and my creative output, but also my fiancé (now wife) Michelle, and the critical role she played in helping me get better.
In November of 2017 I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. This came after a long period of battling symptoms of depression and a dearth of creative output. Upon finishing my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to live with my fiancé, Michelle, and start a new life together. Following the completion of my dissertation (double-bar in February, defended in April) I experienced extreme difficulty in focusing on achieving any compositional goals, and a dramatic rise in anxiety and general frustration with the world around me. At the time I chalked it up to the stress of moving, difficulty in finding employment, adjusting to living with Michelle, which we had not done in the previous years we had been together (long distance for nearly two years). My erratic behavior and shifts in mood seemed like byproducts of my environment and the extreme changes to my life, which had been wrapped up in the university system for 12 years. I didn’t really know how to exist outside of that world and I found the adjustment difficult to navigate, as I expect anyone would. The stress and anxiety felt normal, and in all honesty were not new to me. I had similar experiences when transitioning from undergrad to grad school in 2010, and a slightly less intense version when I moved to Austin in 2013.
Still, while these feelings weren’t without precedent, at the time I lacked the introspection and self-awareness to realize that what I was experiencing was not typical behavior. While it may have been normal for me, it was not characteristic of a mentally stable individual. Though I found a teaching job in July - only two months after making the move - it was an adjunct position and wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped for. I refused to seek out new friends, I stayed in my apartment on days I didn’t have to work, and I made no attempt to explore my new city, which is arguably one of the coolest places in the United States. Most importantly, at least to me at the time, was my complete inability to write music. It wasn’t the first time in my life I had gone through a compositional dry spell, but it was the first time that I felt completely incapable of writing music. I would stare at notebooks and staff paper for hours and come up with nothing. It would have been one thing if I had scribbled some ideas and later tossed them out because they weren’t what I was looking for, but I wasn’t even able to do that. I sought out a new therapist to talk about these personal issues, as well as the growing problems with communication I was experiencing with Michelle.
To say that I was difficult to be around and live with would be an understatement. I was angry, unmotivated, anxious and on edge all the time. I never wanted to do anything or go anywhere on my own, but I was also angry that I felt cooped up in our tiny apartment looking at blank pages staves for hours on end. I took everything as criticism and I compared myself to my friends and colleagues who I felt were doing better than me professionally and personally. I didn’t understand why my many years of academic training and teaching weren’t enough to help me find gainful employment as a teacher. Moreover, the years I had dedicated to honing my craft seemed pointless at this stage in my life since I couldn’t even come up with even one basic germ of an idea for a new piece. It was as if I needed the structure and deadlines of the university system to create.
I felt trapped, isolated, confused, and angry. And I took these frustrations out on Michelle with staggering regularity from May through November. It was exhausting for both of us, and even with weekly therapy there seemed to be no improvement and, at least for me, there seemed to be no end in sight.
After six months of what seemed like an endless cycle of personal frustrations and failed attempts to get my life together (what I felt was of no fault of my own), the fighting had reached a breaking point on Thanksgiving Day. I wish I could say I remember the details of that day vividly, but unfortunately one of the effects of my Bipolar II is that during moments of extremely heightened anger or mania I tend to black out portions of my day. All I remember is having a very intense shouting argument with Michelle. After taking an Ativan to help calm my nerves enough to talk I was still going full force. It even got to a point that I was literally falling asleep - a side effect of the benzo - and I continued to mumble angry retorts through dozing off. Michelle told me that something was wrong, that this wasn’t like me. She begged and pleaded for me to go to the hospital, because nothing seemed to help. So I listened to her and I immediately went to the local Kaiser Permanente hospital and checked myself in. I was there for about 2 hours, spoke with an on-call psychiatrist who wrote me a script for Zoloft and scheduled an appointment with me two weeks out. They said I might have Intermittent Rage Disorder and told me to try to just remain calm and relaxed while at home or at work. I went home with the Zoloft in hand, hoping it would help.
The next morning Michelle and I woke up and within 10 minutes we were back to arguing about the previous day and night. At this point I absolutely snapped. I told her I was leaving, packed an overnight bag and left. After walking around the town for a few hours I eventually went back to the apartment. When I got back Michelle pleaded with me, again, to go back to the hospital. Something was clearly wrong, and I needed some kind of attention from a mental health professional. I went back to the hospital, was kept overnight and the following morning I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Bipolar II and discussed my options for immediate treatment. The next few months (December through mid-January) were a difficult transition, but the full dose of medication eventually took hold and I started to see some major changes. I handled stress and anger better, my communication started to improve, and I noticed small changes in my overall behavior. What I previously identified as anger and stress I could now identify as mania (or hypomania, more specifically). Periods of lethargy wasn’t just laziness; I was cycling into depression. I now had an understanding of what was happening in my head, and I knew how I could manage it, and work with it to make the best of my life and circumstances. I felt better equipped to navigate the world around me with my new found grasp of how my mental processes operate. I don’t see my mental illness as a hindrance, but as something I just need to be cognizant of, and know how to identify warning signs of cycling behavior patterns.
That leads us back to the beginning - how an understanding of my mental health saved me creatively. The prolonged dry spell ended very quickly after I started taking medication. My first dose of Lamictal was taken the morning after I left the hospital on November 25. By the last week of December (still not at a full dose yet) I had started working on a new piece for bass clarinet and live electronics. I didn’t have high hopes, as I had started working on that piece earlier in the year after moving to California (around late May) and gave up after only a 3-4 weeks of failed attempts to even get some basic sketches done. This time around was different, though. I was able to create the kinds of sketches I was used to making. I had ideas for rhythmic patterns and ways I could create variations for the melodies. I could hear the electronics in my head and was already planning the live processing and structure of the Max patch. It was coming together more quickly than anticipated.
By mid-January 2018 I was finished with Broken Earth/Crags Ascending for bass clarinet and live electronics. Was it my best work? Not at all. But I hadn’t felt a sense of pride and accomplishment since I completed Dissociation Sequences (my “greatest hit” to date) in fall of 2015. I was hesitant to get overly excited, though. It was likely that this was just a fluke, a brief outpouring of creativity that was sure to run out. But it didn’t. I got hired for a full-time teaching position in January and had my own wedding to plan, so I took a break from actively composing until after the wedding - it was now late January and the ceremony was in April, so I had a lot on my plate. I continued to sketch little ideas, though. I kept two small notebooks with me all the time - one of staff paper, one with blank pages - and would jot down fragments of ideas on the train and bus to and from work. I wrote short descriptions of ideas down during my lunch breaks. I would make charts if pitch set relations and work out pitch sieves in my free time. I was building a collection of building blocks for when I was able to get back to writing.
After the wedding I got back to work, and 2018 proved to be one of my most productive years to date in terms of sheer output and quality. During the break from January to April I took some time to also work on an EDM album I had in the works for years and never had a chance to finish. This resulted in completing a 7-track album (Gnarlyshkeit), all finished in just under 3 months. Immediately following Gnarlyshkeit I started working on a piece for electric guitar I had put on the back-burner in 2015 and never came back to. I completed it in a little over 4 weeks, the result being Mercurial Tendencies I - Dyschronometria. While I was in the editing stage of Dyschronometria I started sketches on a piece for speaking percussionist and djembe - another work I had planned on doing for years and never got around to it. That eventually became He Gnashed In Fury, completed in September of 2018. I then immediately started a piece for solo vibraphone - Mercurial Tendencies II - Marbled Cobalt - and finished it in late November. I concurrently started working on a piece for cello and live electronics - an elegy to my friend and mentor Ed Pearsall, who passed away the evening of my second hospitalization. That piece was completed in the first week of December. I then moved on to two trios - one for flute, cello and piano (Mercurial Tendencies III - Paroxysm), the other for flute, oboe and Bb clarinet (Seeking the Edge of Chaos).
All in all, I completed a total of 5 very dense solo pieces - 2 with live electronics - totaling just over 30 minutes of music, started (and nearly finished) two trios, wrote/recorded/produced a 30-minute EDM album, all while working full time and getting married in the middle of it. For a period of time I attributed this uptick of compositional accomplishment as the end of a compositional dry spell, and the result of a much needed break from composing following the completion of my dissertation. But when taking into account what seemed like a complete inability to create for the majority of 2017, which was preceded by a dearth of output from mid-2016 through the completion of my dissertation, I cannot underplay the key role that diagnosing and treating my mental illness played in this process. I have Michelle to thank for that. I would likely have not sought any help on my own, and it’s hard to tell how my life would have played out as a result.
Furthermore, I noticed a drastic change in the music I was creating. I shifted my focus from pitch and timbre to rhythm and gesture. I started experimenting more with various methods for controlling temporal relationships, utilizing more complexity of rhythmic notation through nested tuplets, irrational meter and metric modulation. I had employed these compositional techniques in previous pieces, but not to the degree that I did in my pieces from 2018, and definitely not with the rigor and understanding of my more recent compositions. Upon further reflection a common thread began to emerge. My methods were not simply controlling temporal relationships, but were always creating a dichotomy of stasis and turbulence, of placid reflection articulated by violent outbursts of energy. While it was not done intentionally, I could see myself engaging with my current worldview colored by a new found understanding of my own mental processes. The constant turmoil of my life in previous years of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness had manifested itself in my creative impulses following the diagnosis and treatment. I sought control over my materials, and I now knew how to achieve that control. I also developed a better understanding of how to work with my materials to gain the complex relationships of time, rhythm and gestural shaping that could convey the sounds in my head, the music I wanted to create.
There is also a kind of struggle that goes into preparing and performing these works. This is not lost on me, but the difficulty in securing numerous repeat performances is not a deterrent. I realize that the music I’ve been writing since ~2010 is very difficult to play, and that it has only increased in difficulty in recent years (this is why I tend to only work with performers who want to play the kind of music I write). That said, I feel that my output demonstrates a command of materials and an intentionality of sonic results that I haven’t been able to attain in previous compositions. My hope is that a performer who would choose to perform one of these works (and potentially subsequent ones) would bring an element of the struggle and effort that went into rehearsing and preparing the work into the live performance. I write these pieces, in all of their notational density and complexity of time, with an understanding that they will never truly be performed with mathematical accuracy, but that isn’t the point (this is another conversation for another time). The point is that the performer capture the essence of the piece with as faithful a replication of the score as they can. In a way, an attempt to perform one of these pieces is an extension of what I outlined above - a desire and attempt to control something that in reality is ultimately out of my hands. I can keep my Bipolar cycling under control for the most part through medication and self-care, but I’ll never truly be able to keep it from affecting my life. In the same way, I can manage every minute detail of my music and notate what would be an “ideal” representation of my thought processes, but the reproduction of that is up to the performer, and I will gladly relinquish that final authority to someone more capable than myself of realizing my creative processes filtered through a newfound understanding of my mental processes and my unending efforts to engage with them in a healthy and meaningful way.
The final point I want to touch on related to mental health and artistry relates to a recent episode of David Letterman’s “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” in which he interviewed Kanye West. It has recently become public knowledge that Kanye was diagnosed with Bipolar I (different from my Bipolar II diagnosis; behavioral trends are similar, with differences severity and rate of cycling). Some celebrities and individuals came out in support of Kanye’s discussion of his mental health, noting that it was important that a celebrity with so much influence was so open about such a personal and stigmatized topic. But that openness about his experience is exactly what I found troubling about Kanye’s interview. He was very up front about his own mental processes that occur during a manic state (what he refers to as “ramping up”) and the erratic behavior and potential hospitalization that can come from that. I think it was important for people who are unfamiliar with Bipolar disorder, and mental health in general, hear a celebrity with Kanye-level fame talk so candidly.
However, I did find his interview very troubling when he started to talk about his treatment. He told Letterman that he was using “alternative treatment methods” overseen by a doctor to help with his disorder. He did, however, say that medication *might* work for some bipolar patients. This is what I found so problematic, and what I continue to find infuriating about many celebrities in their discussions of their struggles with mental health. Kanye has consistently spoken out against medicating himself to treat his Bipolar disorder, and as a person with heavy influence over a number of people that can influence how Kanye’s fans feel about mental health. West’s outspoken attitude against medicating mental health diagnoses is so prevalent that Pete Davidson made a joke about it on SNL’s Weekend Update, the punchline being “Take ‘em [meds]. There’s no shame in the medicine game!” I found Pete Davidson’s approach to the topic much more uplifting than Kanye’s. Mental health is stigmatized enough, and patients are already incredibly hesitant to even start a medication regimen, let alone stay on one. When a highly regarded celebrity like Kanye West comes out and openly talks about having a mental illness that is a big step forward. When that same celebrity then talks about they refuse standard medical treatment and medication that is taking huge steps back. It might raise awareness of the presence of mental health, but it further stigmatizes the use of medication as treatment. Therapy is incredibly helpful, finding a support system is helpful, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine is helpful, talking openly and accepting your mental illness is helpful ...refusing to take medication because you’re worried it will ruin your creativity is not only short-sighted and misguided, it is legitimately dangerous. While some might applaud Kanye for his candor, I’m afraid all I can do is sit back, shake my head and do my best to help inform people through my own experiences and struggles. And for what it’s worth, I agree with Pete Davidson on the meds...take em!
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you are experiencing any struggles in your daily life, I strongly urge you to seek out help. There is no shame in needing help with mental health, and there are resources out there for support. Mental health treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and just because my transition was relatively fast and effective, not to mention beneficial to my creative output, does not mean it will be that way for everyone. However, I cannot stress enough the importance that mental health care has had on my life and on my loved ones. Please reach out to one of the numbers below if you feel you are in a mental health crisis or need to speak with someone. My inbox is always open if you ever want to reach out.
Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness Hotline: 1-800-950-6264
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHS) Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
SAMHS Disaster Stress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990