It’s never too late to pick a new path

As a 23-year-old who had just finished a degree in film and just started a degree in nursing, I did something very stupid for someone living in a student house, working twelve-hour shifts in hospitals and care homes, and who didn’t have two pennies to rub together: I bought a violin.

Why a violin? At school, I used to watch other kids leave early to go to their violin lessons, and I was desperate to be one of them. There was something so sophisticated, so otherworldly, about those little black cases and those gorgeous wooden instruments. They spoke of a history and a culture almost unimaginable to a kid raised on Christian music and whose cultural horizons ended just outside the front door.

The violin stirred something in me, a nameless and poorly understood yearning for sharp suits, Corinthian columns and a tender beauty barely glimpsed behind a gossamer veil. I was terrified that if I reached out towards it, it would shatter – that such a fragile magnificence would never survive the cold light of day – but nonetheless, I wanted to throw myself into this feeling, and either triumph or be consumed.

Trouble was, I didn’t come from a musical family. There was an acoustic guitar in one corner for the occasional folk song and an organ in the other for hymns, but my parents weren’t particularly musical. They knew what they knew, and what they knew wasn’t much. While many of the children around me had rich educations in classical, or jazz, or blues, or rock, thanks to the tastes of their families, my brother and I knew the Christian songbook and little else.

But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t open to our learning music. Being two years older, my brother was the trailblazer by which to gauge our musical potential, and his musical potential was, frankly, shit. My parents bought him a trumpet and paid for endless lessons, and over a couple of years of tone-deafness and refusal to practice, he hadn’t progressed beyond making fart sounds. In fact, I think his favourite thing about the trumpet was draining the spit from it.

So when it was my turn, I was rewarded with the recorder, a cheap, plastic abomination of an instrument that is torture for anyone within earshot, including the player, and a music teacher (the school’s head) so frightening that my hands would literally shake as I played. We learnt and played in a large group, and if there were any squeaks she’d stop mid-piece and make you all play solo so she could work out which of you to shout at. Needless to say, my recorder experience was not a crowning success.

When I later floated the idea, multiple times, of learning the violin, it’s therefore no surprise it wasn’t met with any enthusiasm. It was a waste of time and money for someone who hadn’t shown an ounce of musical flair, so while other kids had these fetishistic attachments to polishing pads and reeds and bows, gleaming metal and shining wood, I sat and watched and envied and swore that one day I’d learn violin.

Then something happened in my teens. My brother bought a CD by a band called Nirvana, whose singer had killed himself a couple of months earlier, and through the bedroom wall I heard something that I just couldn’t ignore. When he got bored of Nevermind after a few weeks, I bought it off him, and played it endlessly. For the first time in my life, I felt a visceral connection with something beyond myself, some intangible sense of the sublime, and I wanted to disappear into it.

Luckily, there was an acoustic guitar downstairs. Getting some guitar books with chord shapes in them, and watching a video that explained tablature, I threw myself into learning the guitar with the typical obsessiveness of an autistic teenager. I played every spare moment I had, teaching myself by ear, mastering techniques I didn’t know the names of like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, natural and pinch harmonics, tremolos, palm-muting, pick slides. Eight to ten hours a day, I drove my family absolutely nuts repeating the same riffs over and over until I could play them perfectly without looking.

There were, however, a few massive problems with my training. As a lonely social outcast, I saw the guitar as my gateway into the larger world of music. If I could master the guitar, I thought, people would think I was cool and want to be my friend. The guitar was therefore a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I didn’t play it because I enjoyed it, though there was an element of that – what I enjoyed was impressing people with my ability, turning my obsessiveness into a positive and using my guitar-playing to compensate for my social deficits.

That meant that while I was focused on playing songs and riffs and solos, I wasn’t interested in anything to do with musical theory. You don’t need to understand why something works, I thought, in order to make it work. If I’m impressing someone with the solo from ‘Enter Sandman’, what does it matter that I can’t read music or know any scales or what all the notes are?

Looking back, I think this was partly because of my autism, since we’re often great at rote learning but lack a genuine, broader understanding of a topic. But in larger part, I think it’s because I’ve always had a massive inferiority complex to ‘musicians’. I was useless at music – the recorder showed me that. It’s too hard. I’m not capable; I’ll never be able to learn music; I’ll never be able to learn scales. Every lunchtime I watched the other kids go off into that glorious, unreachable world of orchestra and band practice, a world I knew was beyond my grasp.

I therefore ‘mastered’ the guitar without really knowing or understanding anything about the guitar. It got me out and about, it got me into bands, it got me socialising, but that was where it ended.

‘I can play the guitar, but I’m not musical,’ I used to say. ‘I know nothing about music.’

At 23, I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be me. I thought that being able to play the violin would make me interesting, so I bought one – not because I wanted to play it for itself, but so I could be somebody else.

Of course, in an age before YouTube and on a shoestring budget with unkind (or sensible) housemates, teaching myself the violin the way I’d taught myself the guitar wasn’t something I had the time or inclination to pursue. After a few weeks I put it in the back of the wardrobe with the idea that I’d learn to play it eventually.

And there it sat for sixteen years.

It was a constant reminder that I’m not musical; that I don’t have what it takes to be a musician. Musicians are a special, select group, walking among us like gods who inhabit a mysterious, divine world that we mere mortals can only dream of.

A few weeks ago, I took it back out.

Earlier this year, I was in a really bad place. Nearing forty, I thought I’d reached the end of me. Nothing really gave me any pleasure. I didn’t look forward to anything, didn’t get excited, didn’t care if I lived or died. It was too late for me to do anything, I thought. Where I am now was where I would always remain.

One of the side-effects of depression, something I’ve struggled with all my life, is a lack of motivation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say depression was invented by a diabolical genius – it makes you unwilling to do the very things that help lift you out of depression. Particularly if it’s something new.

So a few weeks ago, I decided I’d try to force myself out of my depression by teaching myself the violin. I spent hours watching videos online and trying to apply what I’d learnt, the cat-screech wail of my instrument testament to my utter lack of musical ability.

I was about to give in as the failure I always knew I was, when I suddenly came to a startling realisation that I wish I’d known sixteen years ago:

I don’t like the violin.

All these years I’ve spent looking up to violinists, I’ve been fixated on what they are rather than what they’re playing.

Even a good violin, played by a good violinist, is whiny. I don’t mind it as part of an orchestra to highlight or accentuate movements, but on its own it isn’t very pleasing to my ear. Why would I want to invest that much time and energy learning to play something in a room on its own that I don’t like the sound of in a room on its own?

So I asked myself the question: what do I like? The answer should have been obvious from the start.

Four years ago, while feeding my baby late one night, I was flicking through channels on the TV when I came across a concert by 2Cellos, a classically-trained Croatian two-piece. They were playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and there’s no other way to describe my reaction than that they blew my freaking mind. I had never seen such passion, energy, grace and talent, and when, a few days later, I recorded their 2013 concert at Pula Arena, I discovered that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the least of their triumphs. I then watched it more than fifty times, and bugged everybody in my life to watch it too.

For four years I’ve listened to people playing the cello and loved every moment of it. What started with 2Cellos moved on to Hauser and Yo-Yo Ma, ‘Schindler’s List‘ to Bach’s ‘Cello Suite No.1 Prelude‘. My favourite piece of music of all time is the opening four-note run in 2Cellos’ version of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator. It’s the bit where, in the original, Lisa Gerrard sang ‘We de(ee) zu’. I can’t explain why but those four notes resonate with something inside me. They communicate in a language beyond words, as if I have strings in my heart and God is playing them. People talk about having a ‘God-shaped hole’, and as someone who’s spent his whole life feeling disconnected, I’ve longed for the touch of the divine. Listening to the cello is the closest I’ve ever been to heaven.

So it is strange that never once in all that time, even in passing, have I ever considered learning to play the cello. It genuinely never occurred to me; didn’t cross my mind for a second. I see movies set in space and wonder if I’d make a good astronaut; I go to the doctor and wonder if I’d be a good doctor; so how big a mental blindspot must I have to obsess over cellists and never once consider learning to play the cello?

I guess it’s because I thought cellos are for musicians. They’re for other people, better people; people who went to orchestra at lunch, who understand music and would’ve been able to play the recorder. I believed, without question, that mine is to watch in humbled awe, to listen and be moved, not to participate. I never believed the magic could be mine to hold.

But why not? I suddenly realised, in this blinding explosion of the obvious, that I don’t want to play the violin – I want to play the cello. Not because of how it’ll make me look, not to make friends, not to join an orchestra or bore my family with recitals – I want to play the cello because I genuinely like the cello. I want to play it for me. I want to sit in a room on my own with nobody listening and play it for its own sake, with no other goal than to play. I want to feel the notes vibrating in my chest, and I want to understand it all.

For the first time in forever, which I know sounds awful for someone with a wife and two young children, I feel excited about the future. I feel hope. It’s like being a kid again, the first day of a new school. There’s a long journey ahead, but you look down at your feet and watch yourself take your first step, and you step into a larger world, a more colourful world, a bright place of endless opportunities, where things will never be quite the same.

I’m not unrealistic. I know it’s going to be hard. I’ll become disillusioned at times, there’s going to be plenty of frustration and tears, but it’s better to be on a path you want to follow than on literally any other path. All I know is that a year from now, I’ll be a better cellist than I am today; that in five years, I’ll be better than that; and in ten, who knows how far along that path I’ll be?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do something because we’re too old, or we’re not good enough, or we failed in the past. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I can’t do music, that I’m too old to learn a new instrument, that unless you have a musical background growing up, there’s no place for music in your life. Therefore, for my whole life, I’ve been completely full of shit.

It’s never too late to pick a new path. Nothing is impossible.

I’m looking forward to the coming year.

Mental Illness and Me: a Testimonial

I am mentally ill.

Despite having been mentally ill for much of my adolescence and most of my adult life, it is still not an easy thing to admit. Nor is the word ‘depression’ something I’ve ever really been comfortable owning.

The Black Dog, the Cancer In My Mind, the Darkness That Never Seems To Let Me Go – all of those seem better somehow, more free from the stigma of depression. I’ve spent my life trying to pass it off as something else – genius twinned with madness, a self-destructive temperament, a personality disorder. Depressed? No, never that.

Luckily for me, I was diagnosed with autism, which is one of the best ways of avoiding facing up to your illness. You can attribute all of your problems and difficulties, whether motivational, social, functional, emotional, behavioural or cognitive, to that umbrella term. Don’t want to leave the house? Autism. Always interpret things in a negative way? Autism. Feel you just can’t cope anymore as a husband, a father, a human being? Always the autism.

And so I’ve spent the better part of a decade denying that I suffer from depression. I take antidepressants to tamp down the overactive sensory and central nervous system responses caused by my autism, I say. I take anxiety management and mindfulness courses to address my social phobia, I pretend. I wrestle with the urge to self-harm because I’m a father and I don’t want them to take away my kids, without ever asking why I even have those urges to begin with.

Why do I never admit I have depression?

Because I hate depression and I always have, ever since I was first formally diagnosed with it at 17. Because despite repeated assurances to the contrary, I always felt it was a weakness, something that happens to melodramatic teenagers and socially incompetent adults, and not real people. And because, as an illness, it’s just so self-centred, indulgent and sick.

Most of my prejudice comes from within. You’re a wimp, I think. Just get up and do it. Everyone else manages, so why can’t you? You haven’t got anything to be miserable about. Why are you just wallowing? Why can’t you take steps to get yourself out of this funk? Stop being such a fucking baby.

And yet the big secret, the one that nobody likes to admit, is that deep down we actually love our depression. Because it’s ours, and it’s been with us all our lives, our constant companion, and we don’t want to lose it. We get off on just how miserable we are. It’s part of us, and we look on those who ‘get better’ as traitors to themselves, because it’s not real, there’s no ever getting better, this is who we are, depression is what makes us special, and we think we can coexist with it, channel it, control it.

Until we reach a point, as I did a little over two weeks ago, where we realise that it has taken control of us, and it’s eating us alive, and there’s no place else to go but down.

I wish you didn’t have to reach rock bottom to get that epiphany. I wish there was a way that the insight would be granted you before you’re at the point of desperation. But there it is.

I went my doctor with a care worker, and as I started to tell her how I felt, all the denials fell away, and even I hadn’t realised how bad I’d become. As I put into words all the thoughts and feelings I’d bottled up, I discovered just how much I’d been holding in. For forty minutes it kept pouring out of me, the emptiness, the misery, the tears I had never shed. And bless the doctor, even though the appointment massively overran, she gave me the attention that I desperately needed at the time I needed it most.

She prescribed a new antidepressant, in addition to the one I’m already on, referred me to the Community Mental Health Team and sent me for blood tests for possible ME. And despite being hit by a multitude of side-effects – dry mouth, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, and a sudden dizziness that comes on every time a dog barks, a door slams or my phone vibrates in my pocket – I feel like a different person. Whether it is because of the pills, the distraction of the side-effects, the outpouring of emotion or some kind of placebo doesn’t matter to me at all. All that matters is that I’m not where I was.

What is astonishing is the change I’ve seen. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. My thoughts are clear, my heart is stilled. The guy who walked into that doctor’s office a week ago – that angry, bitter, resentful, miserable, broken wretch of a person – is gone. And I’m glad. That guy wasn’t me. I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t me. A veil has descended over him, as over the dead, and I struggle even to connect him to me. It is as though Gillan died, and I am what has been reborn in his stead.

So finally, with the clarity of thought to reflect, I look at him, this agitated, toxic, troubled soul, and I think: how the hell did he get like that? How did he get like that and how did he manage to keep going so long?

The second question answers the first: he got that way because he kept going so long.

I read a book a few years ago entitled Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. The central premise flips the received wisdom on its head – people with depression are not the weak ones in society but the strong. The weak encounter something difficult, unhealthy, damaging, and they run away from it, quit, give up. The strong put up with it, and press on, and keep going, long after they should. The weak do not endure long enough to get depression; the strong keep going, with no let up or sense of quit, until they’re used up and literally can’t go on any more.

That’s why Gillan got to where he was two weeks ago. He was too damn strong for his own good.

But now he is me, and I will no longer deny it.

I am mentally ill.

I am depressed.

I won’t be quite so strong in future.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.