Category Archives: Depression

Total Perspective Vortex

The Total Perspective Vortex is a concept from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.  It is a device that shows a hapless soul the infinitely vast universe and exactly how infinitesimally insignificant they are in it.  In the novel, it’s used as a form of capital punishment, as no one (well, almost no one) has any semblance of sanity once they are exposed to it.

The total perspective vortex I want to talk about though is basically the opposite, despite the fact that I still find myself reeling from its effects.  Allow me to elucidate.

Last week I had a sudden flashback to Fall 2011, when I went to the Tritone to see a band called the West Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time.  For the past year or so I had been hearing amazing things about this Balkan brass band, and I finally made the time to check them out (damn 9-5 job!).  I arrived early to scope the place out, and the band was slowly trickling in.  I only knew one member of the band from a gig I had played with him about a year earlier, so when he came in I said hi and reintroduced myself.  Just about everyone else was a stranger.

I only stayed for one set, but it was an incredible experience.  Their sousaphone player was a powerhouse, and the music itself was challenging, infectious, and fun.  I lamented that I could only stay for one set, and also that they already had a killer sousaphonist, so my services wouldn’t be needed.

Flash forward to last week.  On Wednesday, I got a call from Larry, one of the baritone horn players in the band, asking if I’d like to play with them on Friday.  Of course, Jimmy, the sousaphone player would be on the gig, so I’d be playing as one of the three baritone horns.  When the night arrived, several members of the horn section joked that since baritone was the third instrument I had learned the music on (after sousaphone and accordion), maybe I’d like to learn their parts and sub for them.

Clearly, what a difference 2 years make.  I had first started subbing on sousaphone in rehearsals and a few shows.  Then I filled in on accordion when a few players couldn’t make it.  Finally last week, I broke out the baritone and started learning those parts.  Along the way, I got to be a part of this amazing group of musicians.  In fact, my band Polkadelphia is made up of several members of this group.  And hey, they’re all really nice people too (except for this one guy named Duffy…).

Unfortunately, that’s not the total perspective vortex I’m referring to.

Last Tuesday I had just finished a rehearsal with the group, playing baritone for the first time.  As I was driving home, all I could think about was how I was not playing the parts well enough, and how much I needed to practice and improve.

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Let’s back it up and look at the whole thing again.

2 years ago, I knew nobody and was playing zero shows with them.

2 years later, I know everybody, and am playing consistently with the group.

And all I can think about is how I’m not playing well enough?

I think we found our total perspective vortex.

I know this is a bad habit of mine.  For years I was consistently dissatisfied with my tuba playing, ripping myself apart after each show.  It really didn’t matter what anyone else said or the kinds of praise I was receiving, I was not living up to my own standards.  Even though I was getting consistent work, it didn’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, I found this as a theme in other areas of my life.  When I first started working as a software trainer, I was sure I wasn’t good.  I dreaded standing up in front of the class every day, sure somebody would call my bluff and reveal that I was a fraud.  About 6 months in I won an award for my teaching, and it wasn’t until that point I started to lighten up on myself.  Started to anyway.

Around the time I started treating my depression, about 9 years ago, I began to be able to find joy and beauty in the music I was playing.  I can’t begin to express the feeling of hearing myself and finally liking what I heard, after so long.  Since that time I’ve had relapses and recoveries.  It could just be that I’m in need of another recovery at this point.

But how do I do that? I mean, it’s clear that I recognize my perspective is skewed.  How do I snap out of the negativity?

Well, acknowledging it and putting it out into the world can help.  Thank you blog!  Sometimes just hanging your fears out to dry in the sun can take away the that mildewy lack of perspective.  Or as Nintendo has taught me:

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Beyond that, gathering perspective can be a useful tool.  Someone recently told me that as I am climbing this ascent to new and fantastic parts of my life, not to just focus on the peak ahead.  Sometimes it’s important to also look back at the paths I’ve already crossed and feel the gratitude and awe at having been able to make it this far.  I think my flashback to 2 years ago was my mind’s way of enforcing that idea.

Because while I get anxious and tend to pile on myself, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I have been able to accomplish in my life so far.  I’m thankful for the people I love, the abilities I have fostered, and the challenges I continue to encounter.

Hey, you know, maybe they should come up with a holiday where we talk about how thankful we are.



Last week I talked about some of the unexpected physical maladies I was encountering.  While I’m still not totally sure of the root cause, I’m pretty sure the pain in my upper back and shoulder is coming from moving and playing heavy instruments.  My sousaphone rests on the left shoulder and my accordion involves extensive motion of the left arm hinging from the elbow and shoulder.  I have begun looking at how I play to see if I can make ergonomic improvements.  Additionally, I have started to look at various related components of my life and how they might be affecting my back.

Big thanks to those of you who commented on my last post.  Bill, Emily, Chris, and Bryce all posted some great suggestions.  Some of them were painfully obvious, which made it painfully disappointing that I hadn’t considered them.  So again, thanks for your help.

So here’s what I’ve been doing over the past week to deal with the pain and get to the root of the problem.

Tuba StandTuba Stand

I’ve noticed sitting while holding the tuba has been hurting lately.  I believe it to be a combination of the heavy instrument with the sitting with the ancestral memories of playing a tuba for the past 20 years.  That last one is not to be underestimated.  I have a body memory of what it’s like to play the tuba, such that I find my body unconsciously storing tension in the legs and arms.  Since playing the tuba daily is important, I needed a work-around.

There are plenty of commercial products that hold the tuba while you play, but some work better than others.  The last one I bought (back in 1997) fell apart about a month after purchasing it.  So I decided to go rogue and make my own out of my bannister and a series of novels, graphic and otherwise.  Here I’m using books 5-9 of the Bone series as well as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem to prop up the tuba so I can stand up straight and play without having to support the instrument at all.  The only scary thing is my constant fear that the books will slip and the tuba will go careening down the stairs.

This has been great so far.  I would like to find a way to do it in my actual practice room, which might involve buying a commercial stand.  However, knowing it works is a huge step.

Handcartable Lecter

Handcartable Lecter

Hand Cart

My friend Bill recommended this.  My tubas come in cases that are soft and hard to stack, so this isn’t as useful for them, but recently I’ve had to play shows with a bass amp.  A massive, heavy bass amp.  Something that a hand cart would be perfect for (though this is more of a dolly.  And lest you be wondering, I am trying to do Hannibal Lecter with the only materials I had on hand).

This was the one that as soon as he recommended it, I immediately realized I did not have to be carrying the amp all over the place.  Call it pride or stubbornness, but I had a blockage about it.  Right now I’m borrowing this one (thanks Dad!) until I can get one of my own.  I’ve used it for one gig, and while it has its own unwieldiness to get used to, it was a big help.

The Hook!The Hook

Perusing the local Korean grocery store the other day, I found an oddly bent wooden hook with a handle for $3.  I wasn’t quite sure if it was a massage implement or a cooking utensil, but I am pleased to announce that it performs both functions quite well! (just kidding)

It lets me reach the muscles under my shoulder blade that are tight and dig around in there.  I was still sketched out by this thing until I looked it up online.  There’s apparently a whole host of tools like this that run from $10 and upward.  So this has been nice for some temporary relief.

Body Work

My trips to the chiropractor have been invaluable, though I have a hard time getting an answer of what I can do to prevent my issues from coming back in the future.  I don’t take it conspiratorially (“see man, they WANT you to be sick!  It’s like I wrote in my newsletter!”) but I do find it disheartening sometimes.

So that’s why I’ve been taking another avenue and exploring Alexander Technique as well.  If you haven’t heard of it, Alexander Technique is basically a study of relearning how to move in basic ways (walking, sitting, crawling, standing) that keep the body balanced and in alignment.  I had a wonderful Alexander Technique teacher when I was at college, and I had great memories of how it affected my body.  I have begun studying with a teacher in the area in the hopes I can develop new habits for healthy movement.  I’ve only had one lesson so far, but I’m hoping to continue to learn.

Acupressure MatAcupressure Mat

My friend Bryce recommended this.  It’s a 27×16 inch padded mat with thousands of tiny plastic spikes sticking up.  Like the proverbial bed of nails, you’re supposed to lie down on it with your bare back.  The spikes aren’t sharp enough to pierce the skin, but you definitely are aware they are there.  It is supposed to activate pressure points that release endorphins and increase blood circulation to the back.

In reading up on it, I found that there aren’t that many acupressure points on the back itself; most of the triggers for the back are found in other parts of the body.  However, I figured I’d give it a shot.

It doesn’t really hurt, though it is a bit uncomfortable at first.  I have to be careful about shifting around while lying on it, as that can irritate the skin.  After about 3 or 4 minutes, I no longer feel the individual spikes, and my back just gets warm.  It’s actually quite relaxing.  When I get up from it, my back is usually hot to the touch and quite red.

After lying on it, I usually don’t feel any of my acute shoulder pain.  I’m not sure whether the increased blood flow or heat has affected my back or whether I’m triggering pressure points or even if I don’t notice my back pain because it’s been replaced by “other back pain.”  And truthfully, I don’t care.  All I care about is that it brings some relief.

Sir Exercise Ball

Sir Exercise Ball

New Exercises

I have mentioned before that yoga has been a part of my morning routine for 12 or so years.  I’ve added in some new exercises that have been beneficial to my upper back and shoulder.  Using this old chap of an exercise ball, I do some scapular exercises recommended by a friend who recently went through  similar issues.  I’ve found and excised the parts of my yoga routine that exacerbate the shoulder (sadly including one of my favorites, Vasisthasana aka Side Plank).  Once I get a little less acute, I’m looking forward to finding strengthening exercises.

I’ve also made it a priority to find time to walk during the day even when inflicted with “Idontwantto-itus.”  I’ve even tossed in a little jogging just to move in ways I’m not accustomed to moving.


My friend Emily commented when I mentioned I was starting Alexander Technique:

“I think Alexander Technique is a really good idea for a long term solution, as are yoga and pilates for keeping yourself aligned, but unfortunately in the short term you probably do need to stop playing and rest. It’s very frustrating, I know.”

It certainly is frustrating.  Didn’t I just quit my job so I can play more?  And it’s not just the financial logistics that are difficult to come to terms with.  As musicians, we create an identity for ourselves as performers, interpreters, and expressers.  When we’re forced to put those things on hold, it’s easy to replace that identity with that of a broken machine; worthless and defunct.  So it has been a struggle to both accept that I need time to rest and that this doesn’t make me less of a person.

Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to keep the muscle strain down to a minimum, and that means taking more time to rest and only playing when I have to for now.  For instance, I played a bit of tuba today on my new “tuba stand” and I have a rehearsal this evening in which I have to play sousaphone.  The rest of the time, I’ve been kind to my body by utilizing all the other tools I mentioned above.

What’s Left?

There are plenty of other avenues I can take as well that I haven’t gotten to.  I’m struggling with the medical system right now to figure out how I can undergo physical therapy.  My friend Chris mentioned sitting when playing, and my friend Bryce offered the idea of playing a lighter accordion, both of which are useful.  A personal trainer might be able to coordinate a series of exercises to help me get in good shape.  There’s so much left to try.

For some of you, this might just be an interesting update of what I’ve been going through.  Perhaps some of my suggestions will be useful for areas of your own life.  In the thick of it it’s hard to see any further than the now, but the conversations I’ve had with friends have let me know that I can move on from this. I’m doing what I can to make sure this setback is just a small footnote in the rest of my life.

Depression and the People You Love

You can call it a defect in my personality, but my first instinct after learning of the recent shooting in Newtown, CT and reading the frenzied responses was to make light of those responses.  Not the heartfelt expressions of sympathy or sadness, but the immediate calls for arming the school officials (I did read at least one response that stated this never would have happened if the principal, teachers, and lunch lady would have had guns on them).  I have only the smallest feeling of shame for jumping back into levity so soon after a tragedy.  What else could I do?

This horrific event has brought up two big issues: gun control and mental illness.  I have some opinions on both of them, but one clearly weighs on my mind more than the other.  So if you’re looking for a discussion about gun control, I merely direct you to The Onion, which said it better than I ever could.  Today I want to talk about mental illness and how it is perceived in our country and perhaps the world.  I don’t want to talk about it in terms of policy.  In fact, I can sum up my opinion in one sentence: Everyone should have access to quality mental healthcare, and anything less is indicative of a society’s gross inadequacy.  Instead, I want to talk about it in very personal terms, and I want to focus on the only type of mental health issue that I really feel qualified to discuss.  I want to talk about depression, how to deal with it if you are suffering, and how to help somebody you know who is suffering.  Because fortunately, there are many correlations between how we can approach the many types of mental illness, and understanding one facet can open up the understanding of many.

Let me get this out of the way first.  I have struggled with depression for at least ten years.  I say at least, because I probably suffered from it before that, but was unaware of it.  While it’s something that I still deal with from time to time, a combination of therapy and medication has allowed me to overcome it to the extent that I am able to be consistently happy and productive.  I’ll never forget the moment when, after treating it directly for several months, I had the epiphany that I am capable of being happy and feeling good about myself and my life.  Until that point, I had resigned myself to leading an unhappy life, since that was “just the way it is.” Having been up and down with depression over the years, I feel like I’m an expert in knowing what the symptoms are, and more importantly knowing how the symptoms feel.

While there aren’t many absolutes in how different people experience depression, there are three components I have found in my experience that seem to define it best: isolation, hopelessness, and self-loathing.  That brings us to one of the more peculiar and distressing components about it, which is that it is an illness that hinders you from helping yourself.  The feeling of isolation makes it hard to reach out and connect with someone who can help you.  The hopelessness makes it feel like there’s no point in getting help, since the problem can’t be solved.  The self-loathing tells you that getting better is not something you deserve.  In that sense, your mind is pitted against your best interests, and it is far too easy to be pulled in, unable to escape.

The self-loathing aspect of it is particularly disturbing to me.  I was able to recognize that I was feeling terrible about myself.  And I was also able to recognize that those feelings and the way they manifest are repulsive to other people, and to myself as well.  If you’ve ever spent time around someone who is depressed, their self-denigration and lack of motivation can be off-putting and downright infuriating.  My reaction was often to spare my close friends the discomfort of being near me, since that way I couldn’t alienate them.  I ended up just pushing them further away by not bringing them into my life.

Here’s where our cultural approach to mental illness can be harmful.  I find a pervasive attitude in our culture that equates depression with weakness or lack of will.  A clinical diagnosis of depression is far less tangible than a diagnosis for something like diabetes or cancer, so it’s too easy to treat it as something non-existent or, pardon the expression, all in your head.  As I stated above, the nature of depression is that you often feel that you don’t deserve to get better.  So if you believe that you’re not good enough to get better, and the voices in American culture are telling you that you’re not strong enough to “snap out of it,” the feelings of self-loathing get compounded and can lead to someone hurting themselves.

So let me be blunt about this.  Depression is real.  If you cannot fathom how or why someone could be depressed, you are exceedingly fortunate.  But just in the same way that you needed extra help with algebra while some of your peers sailed right through it, different people experience life differently.  It is narrow-minded to think that just because you don’t experience it that it doesn’t exist.

If someone in your life is experiencing signs of depression, such as hopelessness, aversion to social situations, or persistent sadness, there are a few things you can say and do to help them in their situation.  First of all, listen as best as you can.  Let them understand they’re being heard and that you’re sympathetic to how they’re feeling.  This is not the time to be problem-solving.  I remember being told during a particularly low point that I just needed to get out more, which was not only wholly unproductive, but hurtful.  I wanted to ask the person, “you actually think I don’t want to get out more?  You think I like feeling like this?”  Listen and empathize.  Probably the most helpful thing that can be said is a sincere, “that sounds like it’s really hard.”  It can be good to follow it up with, “it’s ok.  You’re going to be able to feel better.  You won’t always feel this way.”  Again, offer support, but don’t push any solutions at this point unless specifically asked.

I say listen as best as you can, because in our relationships with friends, families, and partners, we have complex roles.  We go out and have good times with our friends; we experience complex family dynamics with our relatives; we entwine intimacy into our relationships with our partners.  Whereas it’s important in these roles to provide support for our loved ones, at a certain point it can harm our relationships as well.  Sometimes in listening to the issues our loved ones are dealing with, our own desires and roles can get muddled in the process.  As a listener, you need to be aware of how their issues are affecting you also, and you need to be able to catch the breaking point before it hurts either of you.  Sometimes that means saying at some point, “It sounds like you’re having a lot of difficulty right now.  Would you consider talking to a third party about it?”

To me, the purpose of a therapist is to provide the support and help you need without any of the dual roles that come with friends, families and partners.  For someone who has never seen a therapist before, the act of talking to someone about your problems, coupled with the isolation, hopelessness, and self-loathing inherent in depression, can be paralyzing.  It also doesn’t help that because the existence of mental illness is often challenged, the visiting of a therapist to help find a solution is often perceived as a pseudo-science.  In suggesting finding a therapist, I have found it helpful to not be pushy, but to be casual and be clear that this is a potential solution to the problems the person is having.  It can take time for someone to come around to the idea that this might be good for them.  With one close friend, we talked about it on and off for about two years before she decided it was worthwhile to try.

Medication for depression also seems to be a controversial subject, though I’m not sure why.  You have hyperthyroidism?  You take medication for it to make life bearable.  I have depression?  I take medication for it to make life bearable.  No one is challenging the sufferer of hyperthyroidism to deal with it, or telling them that if they just worked a little harder they’d be able to overcome it.  The truth is that there are drugs that help me, so I take them.  It’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not an indication that I’m covering up my problems.  When a friend recently made the statement about someone she knew, “well, she’s on anti-depressants, so you know she’s not doing well,” I was disheartened and actually insulted.  Shouldn’t it be: “well, she was feeling depressed, so she found the motivation and strength to do something about it.”  Yes, I’m sure drugs are often over-prescribed, but sometimes they’re also just “prescribed.”

Finally, if you are suffering from depression, I also say this is real, in that it is something that is actually taking place in your brain.  I believe you when you say you’re feeling alone and lost and you don’t think that it can ever get any better.  I understand and I empathize, but I also know from experience that it is possible to find a way to not feel this way.  Things can get better, your life can change, and misery does not have to be the constant backdrop of your life.  With the help of the loved ones in your life, you can find a therapist, a medication plan, a diet, an outlook, or whatever it takes to have the rich and satisfying life that you deserve.  That we all deserve.

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