Mental Health, Music and Me

May is Mental Health awareness month, and so I thought it might be helpful to talk about it.  It is my experience that many full-time musicians deal with some mental health issues: anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD are among the most common.  I have many friends in music who are also dyslexic, and though not a mental illness, if undiagnosed it can add to the depression and anxiety one deals with on a daily basis.

Most people who know me probably wouldn’t think that I have dealt with all of these maladies except dyslexia since I was a kid.  Hell,  I didn’t really KNOW until last June when I had an anxiety ‘attack’ while on tour last year.  I’ve long known that both my father and mother dealt with both anxiety and OCD, even though we didn’t use those words back in the day let alone call it mental illness. And my paternal grandmother also dealt with an assortment of mental health issues that seems to mirror mine. And, I hate to say it, but I see my four adult daughters deal with these issues at varying levels themselves. And I also knew that a lot of mental health issues are genetic.

The thing about mental illness is that denial, or even just lack of understanding, is part of the illness.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve known I was fucked up since I was about 8 years old when I knew I was ‘different’ from normal kids. But until last June I never used the phrase mental illness to describe my maladies. And because I’m a smart SOB, and a pretty fine actor I was able to ‘fool’ people into thinking I was a gregarious, confident and healthy person. Myself included.  But on the inside. Holy fuck-what a worm riddled mass of fear, anxiety, depression and anger my poor brain was.

Folks who know me know I struggle with sleep. Getting to sleep.  And I have for as long as I can remember.  I slept with a nightlight in my room until I was 10 or 12-it helped keep the terrifying thoughts at bay-a little bit. Because once the room was dark and all I was left with was my own thoughts-it was terrifying. And still can be.

My inner thoughts have always been on the dark side. Especially at night. I imagine ‘real-world’ scenarios where bad things happen to me and those I love.  And I can have an argument with someone in my head days or hours before I see the person. And I get angry and can stay that way for days, weeks, even months under the ‘right’ conditions.

In the 80’s when I was in my mid-20’s my first marriage was starting to implode.  So we went to therapy-something my wife stopped doing, but I continued doing.  As I look back the folks I was seeing for therapy really didn’t have a handle on the organic piece of mental health; it was all about how we thought and then acted.  It helped, I began to act differently, and even begin to get a ‘handle’ on the thinking piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve read these blogs you’ll find what I learned from therapy in much of what I teach to budding performers and musicians.  Self-talk, the words we say to ourselves, may be the most important conversations we have. I learned to put ‘screen doors’ on my ears and visualize the ‘bad thoughts’ going in one ear and out the other. Those who deal with my cocktail of mental health issues understand how looped base thinking can affect them-those bad thoughts just keep going round and round until we either feel them and let them go or act them out.  I got much better at letting them out. But I still didn’t feel better. Not on the inside. And as you can imagine my marriage ended in an ugly ball of flames.

And then the most wonderful thing happened. I got carpal tunnel syndrome and the possibility that I might lose the ability to play the guitar helped me get my priorities straight. And there began the process of becoming honest with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to become.

And this was brand new territory for me. I’d never asked myself who I was, what I believed, and how I wanted to act. I took my lead from my father-that’s too nice. I didn’t have options of being who I was as a kid. Kids don’t get enough credit in my opinion. They know way more than adults think they do. I knew that my father didn’t like who I was-I think I scared the shit out of him because we were so much alike-so I did my best to be the person he could like.  I learned to be a chameleon. I have an ability to fit myself into almost any group, no matter how deplorable. I had learned how to read people and give them what they wanted.  I used to think it was a gift. Today I think of it as a curse. Because it was a really difficult ‘habit’ to break.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tonic for me-it helps me with my mental illnesses. The music I compose and play is music that helps ease my anxiety and depression. And let’s face it, it gave me a healthy way to deal with, and even use my ADHD and OCD for the power of good.  I mean, what normal person sits down and draws out fingerboards with all the notes from open position to the 12th fret for 5-6 tunings? As a way to relax? And how many 35 year olds are willing to relearn how to play the guitar

And as someone who believes that the ultimate responsibility of a musician is sharing their music with a live audience it forced me to deal with my anxiety head-on.  When I talk to folks who have ‘normal’ stage fright I nearly laugh.  Their hands shake and their voice quivers a bit, but have they been having daily nightmares about performance, do they lose their ability to eat a day or two in advance of their performance? Does it give them diarrhea? (Sorry to be graphic) Does it make them snap angrily at everyone around them over things that really don’t matter?

The last piece of my mental health puzzle was when I realized the role that cannabis has played in my life the past 25 years. Remember, as I was coming to many of these realizations about myself, we were in the Reagan era of “Just say no”. And marijuana was touted as one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.

But a good friend of mine in Taos, NM knew I was dealing with a pretty bad case of depression at the time and offered to find me some cannabis-he said it’d help. At that point I hadn’t smoked in over a decade. At the time I was proud of the fact that I’d taken on some of my issues without medical or chemical intervention. Just done the hard work of therapy and using 12-step Co-Dependency meetings do try to temper my chameleon-like nature.

The first time I used cannabis after that decade was pretty amazing. It definitely helped me deal with my depression, and looking back I now realize that’s when the dark thoughts started to abate, and my ADHD and OCD had much less control over my behaviors. That’s still true today.

But most of what I’m talking about in this blog today is relatively new information to me.When I look back at my life, actions, and feelings now I can see the role my mental illness played.  And it makes me wonder what my life would or could have been like if I’d known and acted on my mental illness when I was a much younger man. Or if my parents had. But the times were different then. We didn’t know what we know now.

My hope is that if you are dealing with mental illness you’ll get help-both chemically and therapeutically. I’m not suggesting you smoke weed if that’s not for you. Or play the guitar if that’s not your thing.  I know that there’s not enough cannabis or guitars in the world to help me with my issues if I don’t do the therapy work and learn new ways of thinking and acting. It’s something I will work on the rest of my life. But please, seek out the help you need.  It’s pretty amazing when you get the help you need.

The good news for me is that I no longer beat myself up for being fucked up.  Owning my mental illnesses has really given me tremendous freedom, as well as making me even more responsible for how I act and feel than ever before.

And yes, I still suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD. But they control me less than they used to do.  And I can more easily see my thoughts and actions for what they are and act accordingly.

And I am closer to the person I want to become than ever.

 

Be well friends.

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The Power of Wow

Today I was reminded of the power of wow, and today that experience came from playing great instruments.

Truth told the last couple weeks have been hard guitar weeks for me. I’ve been working very hard to get ready to go on the road for a mini-tour the first full week of June which has included lots of office work, and I also had a less than satisfying visit with my father and family over his 90th birthday in Northern Michigan that included TSA hassles and gridlock.

I use the phrase playing the guitar to describe what I do and the word play is important. Play requires a certain mind-set, and mine was nowhere close to allowing me to play. I bounced back and forth from being a hyper efficient self-employed business man, and frustrated traveler/son.  I still spent time on the guitar, but man it was work. Real work. It was like doing push ups, or running on a treadmill. It was just exercise. I wasn’t playing at all.

Luckily I recognized that, and last week when I got back I told myself to chill. Most of what I was frustrated about was beyond my control, but anything that was within my control was dealt with immediately. And that really freed up my mind.

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And since I’d been fighting my baritone while I was in Michigan (my fault, not the guitar’s), I picked up my 20 year-old 12-fret which had recently been restored to its former glory by its maker, Alan Carruth.  And my immediate thought was wow. Just wow.

It sounded so good, and of course behaved great. I was once again transported by the power of wow. And because it felt so great I played with some reverence for both the music and the guitar, which translated to nice tone, improved dynamics, and really fluid rhythms. Ah, I was playing music.  I wasn’t working on the guitar.

And today, for the first time in several weeks I picked up the harp guitar and later the baritone guitar I had fought with last week. Holy Shit!! Twin Wows!  Both drew me in and seduced me. And again I was playing music not working the guitars.

People don’t know this about me, but I can go months without playing a particular guitar. So much depends on how much I’m touring, who I’m touring with, and what guitar has grabbed my particular fancy. And the last couple of weeks the wow has been the 12-fret guitar. But a couple of weeks before that it was the high-string, and before that it was the baritone. And before that it was the piccolo harp guitar.

As long as I’m playing a couple of hours a day, it really doesn’t matter which guitar I’m playing. I’m keeping my hands in shape, and if my hands are in shape it only takes me a few days to put together a 90 minute concert spread over 3 or 4 guitars.But I always try to follow the ‘wow’ because that’s where the playing is, that’s where new music is, and that’s where, when I’m really lucky, I can find a transcendent performance.

For me following the power of wow keeps me fresh. And staying fresh is so important when you’ve done something for over 4 decades, and something you still do a couple of hours of almost every day. It helps that I have five great guitars, but you can find wows in lots of different ways just on one guitar.

Putting on new strings, try a new tuning, trya partial capo, put the capo higher than you ever have before, play an old favorite song you’ve long neglected, plug in and turn up the amp really loud, record a video, or perform live. All can provide players with a wow-a breath of something fresh and exciting. Something that seduces us and draws us in. Something that makes 90 minutes FLY by. If we’re going to continue to grow as musicians it’s important to stay open-minded and keep asking ‘what if I?…” Following the power of wow does that for me.

What’s your wow? Find it, pursue it.  The power of wow, is powerful indeed.

Cheers, kb

Why I write music

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Recently I’ve been playing lots of gigs at libraries in New England. They’re very interested in my 60 minute program that uses music, guitars, and lecture to discuss how the guitar has gone from parlors and homes to the largest concert stages on the planet as the world’s most popular instrument.  At the CD table after each show I’ve been surprised to hear people notice that I’ve composed most, if not all, of the evening’s music.  I keep forgetting that these folks are there for the information and to support their library not necessarily because they’re a fan of my music-most of my shows are ticketed events and the folks coming know who I am.  The folks that come to see me at the libraries think of me as a guitarist/lecturer while I’ve always thought of myself as a composer who plays the guitar, and that got me thinking about why I compose music.

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard music in my head; I hear it pretty much non-stop from the time I wake until the time I go to sleep.  It’s one of the reasons I rarely listen to music anymore as it’s akin to having two radios playing two different radio stations at the same time.   This is especially true when I’m in ‘writing’ mode and have one or more pieces of music in active composition mode.  When I was a kid I never told ANYONE I heard music in my head-I was a dumb kid but I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone I was hearing things that weren’t there.  And I honestly thought the music was stuff I’d subconsciously picked up over the years; I had no idea the music was ‘mine’. (Still not sure about that). Continue reading