Musings on: my life as a composer and my struggles with anxiety.

Composition was something I fell into. Not because of any significant forethought or passion. Initially it felt a bit like a risky experiment. I had to specialise in something to complete my undergraduate music degree and performance was not my forte. I had no idea if I could be successful at composing, but I was curious about this world I knew little about, and so figuratively speaking, I dived into these unknown waters, and came up amazed by what I discovered. In the beginning, studying composition was intoxicating. It was magical, new and innocent. No one expected anything amazing from me, and I had no unrealistic expectations of myself. Like being born into the world for the first time, I was blessed with “being a beginner” and with the freedom to explore and create music, without any real idea of what I should be doing, or what to expect of myself. As I began taking these first few steps, what started to emerge in me was a growing confidence that somehow, miraculously, I could write music, and I loved to write music, and quite surprisingly, people genuinely liked my music. I was astonished. But with this new freedom to engage in creativity came a price: vulnerability.

Brené Brown has been researching topics like “vulnerability” and “shame” for over twelve years. She says: “There is nothing more vulnerable than creativity”.[1] After I had been composing for a while, people’s criticism of my music, despite being mostly positive and encouraging, started to weigh me down. Gone were those innocent first steps into composition, and with them the feeling of a freedom to explore. Suddenly I believed that I had a reputation to maintain. I had an audience who liked my music (how small this audience was didn’t seem to matter). I couldn’t let them down, and before long the purpose behind my composing was more about what I should write to make others happy, and never what I wanted to write for myself. Over the years, as I composed to please others, I started experiencing debilitating physiological and emotional changes in myself. I didn’t understand I was suffering from anxiety. I didn’t know anxiety, as a condition, even existed, and as it got worse, I had dizzy spells, my neck started to tremor, I had difficulty getting to sleep, and my hands would shake uncontrollably. On many occasions, I went to get blood tests done, convinced that what I was suffering from must be low blood sugar, or low blood pressure. The blood tests always came back normal, and the doctor couldn’t give me any answers. My shaky hands weren’t new. I’d had them ever since I could remember and a neurologist diagnosed this as essential tremor a “common movement disorder”[2]. Similarly, in later years, my neck tremor was diagnosed as dystonia, in which “sustained muscle contractions cause twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures”[3]. The other things, like the frequent dizzy spells, racing heart, insomnia and emotional outbursts, I became so used to feeling, all I could do was to try unsuccessfully to ignore them. Steadily my anxiety grew, and I stopped composing altogether.

The birth of my baby daughter resulted in the biggest challenges I’d ever had to face. During my labour, there was a complication that led to my needing a number of hospital procedures – the side effect of which was severe and chronic back pain. I had the worst case of insomnia I had ever experienced (about five hours sleep in one week) and my anxiety levels reached breaking point. I was experiencing intense panic attacks, which led to screaming and uncontrollable crying every couple of hours. I was finally admitted to a mother baby hospital unit where I received proper pain medication, and (thank God!) I was finally able to sleep. But all this pain and suffering came with a silver lining: I finally found out what it was that I’d been struggling with for so long. That there is a condition called Generalised Anxiety Disorder and I had been suffering from this, probably since as far back as high school. This understanding is something for which I am eternally grateful because being treated means I am now able to experience a relatively normal and much more enjoyable life.  

This new lease of life has encouraged me to reclaim my composer identity, but with a new purpose in mind: to begin again and do everything I do simply for the pleasure I get from doing it (easier said than done). I love this quote from David McCullough, Jr.

Lose yourself in what you do because you enjoy and believe in it, and let the consequences, and their benefits, be what they will. Give the moment its due; trust that the future will take care of itself. Have faith in yourself. [4]

I have been realizing more and more how endearing people’s vulnerabilities can be. When it comes to hearing about people who have achieved great things, the story isn’t nearly as interesting unless we know something of their lives and personal struggles. This is because we, as humans, can relate to this. We all do face struggles in life. Some encouraging words I wrote in September 2014:

Don’t be afraid to be yourself and to be open and honest about: who you really are. Love who you are, including all your failings, for this is what makes you human – accepting the whole package will provide you with the freedom needed to achieve a greater level of happiness, and most likely a greater level of creativity as well.

End Notes

1 “Brené Brown: why your critics aren't the ones who count,” 99U, YouTube, 4th December 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-JXOnFOXQk: 2 min.

2 “Essential tremor” Wikipedia, last modified 20 August 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_tremor

3 “Dystonia” Wikipedia, last modified 4 September 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dystonia

4 David McCullough, Jr. “You are not special: and other encouragements” (New York and Australia: Harper Collins, 2014):107

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AuthorKatherine Rawlings