October 2009 Archives

Blog Carnival for October 2009

| By Paul |

The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse for October 2009 is up. It's hosted by Lynda from In the Best Interest: Child Advocacy Law.

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How Beethoven Saved My Life

| By Paul | | Comments (11)

Ludwig van Beethoven is unquestionably the world's most famous composer. And he is so for good reason. He is a "universal" composer, with an unprecedented ability to translate the extreme range of human emotion into musical form that can appeal to the casual listener as well as present huge challenges to even the most savvy musicians. He is extremely original, yet practically anyone can recognize a piece as being written by him. There are some exceptions, most notably the Große Fugue, written only a couple years before his death when he was completely deaf.

I was exposed to Beethoven through my paternal grandfather who owned the complete symphonies on vinyl recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. For some reason, probably due to my musical non-sophistication, I was fixated on the most popular 5th symphony, never appreciating any of his others. At the time, back in the 70s, that was pretty much my whole musical world. Nothing much else existed. I would "conduct" to that recording of that one symphony in private, pretending I was signaling to the violin section or the horn section to sing louder or softer or with more expression. This piece gave me strength; strength I did not have in real life.

When I started to play classical piano, I immediately turned to Beethoven. I played many of his easier early student pieces (e.g., minuets and German dances) found in my student compilations, but quickly fell in love with his sonatas even though much was beyond my technical capabilities. They were insanely difficult for me, especially since I was not taught for very long. But I really couldn't stand having a teacher. I wanted to be left alone with the music. It was personal. I wanted to play the real emotional and difficult pieces, figure them out for myself, make them my own, and then feel the emotion as I was playing. Not surprisingly, I started with the first movement to the Moonlight Sonata (no. 14), and then learned the first movements to the Pathetique (no. 8), Appassionata (no. 23), and Funeral March (no. 12).

I focussed on memorizing the notes so I could play without having to think, but rather by purely pouring myself into the music from an emotional place; people say I often bite my lower lip and make contorted facial expressions when I play. Luckily I don't have to see myself! Eventually, I learned some of the other movements from these sonatas, with the only one I truly mastered being the adagio cantabile second movement to the Pathetique, which I believe to be one of the most beautiful melodies ever written for any instrument. When I was young and didn't have words to express what was happening to me, I would play these and other pieces. It was my subconscious way, I believe, of talking—of crying out—even though nobody, even me, understood what I was really trying to say or what was really happening to me.

I discovered Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica) when I was a bit older and listened to it incessantly, especially the second "death" movement or funeral fugue. Whenever I needed to feel I would listen to it. Eventually, when I got a job and had money, I started to venture to record stores and discovered that there was more to classical music than what I was exposed to. I started to build a CD collection. There was Mozart, Casals, Pärt, Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Faure, Schubert, and Haydn, to name but a few. And there were other periods of music for me. Somehow I was absent from any knowledge of 70s rock. I was into Journey and the anthem bands of the 80s. Then Nirvana and Green Day in the 90s. Classic blues in the late 90s. I amassed hundreds of CDs.

In the 90s, I started going to concerts of all types. And about two or three years ago, with a new iPod and great headphones, I started seriously listening to classical and choral music once again.

I listen a lot to Beethoven's String Quartets, String Trios, and Symphonies nos. 3, 6 (especially the fourth movement), 7, and 9 (especially the last movement). I've returned to choral music (e.g., Mozart's glorious Requiem). I tend not to like light baroque music, but rather intricate, rich, and deep choral without soloists that seems to explore the subconscious much like Beethoven does for me in his Eroica. After a long search including Allegri, Bach, Casals, Pallestrina, Purcell, Tallis, Tavener, and many others, I have settled on a short list. Barber's Agnus Dei is simple, but evokes emotion. Faure's Requiem is incredible, and Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine is one of the most sublime choral works I have ever heard. There are some Masses I like: Mozart's Mass in C-minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in D-major. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a master at combining simple and uncluttered melodies that are unpredictable, called minimalist. Like Beethoven's Eroica, Pärt sends me on an exhilarating journey of self discovery.

And, over the past couple years, I fell in love again with Beethoven's Eroica. Eventually, as I began to get better mental health-wise, I heard more in it. I started understanding it. Listening to this piece is like exploring my inner landscape extreme emotions and realities.

I have talked before about how recovering from dissociation is about being aware of, coming to terms with, and learning to navigate around extreme experiences. There is perhaps no other piece of music which captures this better than Beethoven's Eroica. When I listen to this symphony, I hear the messages buried not at all subtly within it. To get the most out of it, you have to listen to what it's saying.

The symphony starts out with two almost obnoxious E-flat chords that scream out to pay attention. Then it soars majestically. The cellos begin, then the violas and second violins provide the inner voices and rhythm. It's pure intimacy. Melodies get passed from section to section, changing a little each time, just like a healing journey. There's an entire incomprehensible landscape of emotional extremes. There's meandering, conflict through harmonic dissonance and "switching" keys. It goes from one end of the human experience to the other end in a very short time. This quickly going from one extreme to another spoke to me profoundly. This was precisely my experience!

But the most meaningful part of the piece for me is the fugue that comes in the middle of the second movement (at Bar 113) with an amazing use of counterpoint, and at Bar 145 he attains heavenly heights. The movement is all about death. It starts off almost in a whisper and this enormously sad melody gets passed from the strings to the oboe. Back and forth. Suddenly the fugue begins. It's the most beautiful two minutes of music I have ever heard. The fugue builds and builds seemingly without end. It cries out with sad strings and then blaring horns. But then it hangs up in the air with unbelievable tension before it collapses. Suddenly, the horns come in and there's power. How is this possible? There's a march. Trumpets provide the melody and strings provide the background. Then the melody from the beginning returns. Who would have guessed? It meanders again, like it has lost its way. And the movement ends like it begins, in a mere whisper. Was everything in between merely an illusion? Did it really happen? Sad. Indeed, even after this emotional journey, this is not the end of this grand symphony. There's more to come. More sadness. And more triumph.

I ground myself to Beethoven's music. Listening to him makes me feel authentic and it makes me realize that the complexity inside my head is all right. The complexity in Beethoven's music is like a kindred spirit. And I can literally look inside myself. What a great gift this man who lived 200 years ago has given me!

Some of you may be wondering what's happened since my last post. Another piece that is equally as amazing as the Eroica is the Große Fugue. It's not, however, easy listening music. This piece is almost a direct mapping of the internal chaos I felt over the last week or more. When I'm in the midst of that chaos, I feel like I'm in a bottomless pit. I can't make sense of anything. Somehow the other night I had the good sense to play the Große Fugue, and almost immediately everything made sense in my head. It was like taking a magic pill!

For a related writing on music on this site, see Music and Heart Healing; if you have not seen this post and have any sort of interest in music, you should check it out.

Two excellent books on Beethoven are "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" by Edmund Morris and "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development" by J. W. N. Sullivan.

For a wonderful explanation of Beethoven's Eroica, you may find PBS' Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas a very worthwhile watch.

For a musical analysis of Eroica, see W. A. Dewitt's Beethoven's Eroica site.

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It's been a while since I've posted here, or done much of anything to support my healing in any meaningful way (e.g., writing in my private journal or taking time to check-in with myself). To be honest, everything has changed over the last several weeks. The need to be functional while my wife was away completely changed the internal dynamics in dramatic fashion. On the surface, I appear my old self again (going back to over a decade ago). I am able to do almost anything, with unusual ease.

But this functionality has come at a huge, unacceptable, price.

I had thought that old all-encompassing coping mechanisms were largely a thing of the past. Sure, they become a problem now and again, but they never took hold like they used to. Over the past year or two, I have focused on true healing. I have been determined to not have the dissociative walls be so severe. I have been determined to communicate. I have been determined to understand what other parts of me were feeling. I have been determined to accept.

It's one of the worst experiences to think that you have evolved and conquered the most severe symptoms, only to have many of them return with full intensity and over such a short timespan. In just a few short weeks, all the acceptance I had cultivated for the past couple years has completely disappeared. The concept of internal parts evaporated (even though I know my life is now radically compartmentalized). I cannot talk at all about feelings. I am in complete denial about any abuse history, in fact relating it to the famous Tawana Brawley case of the late 80s. And I have seriously thought of quitting therapy, for I am having trouble seeing the point of it; this despite the fact that therapy has been a major component of my life and a huge reason for the progress I've made.

What has happened is something I never thought was possible. The reverting back to total compartmentalization has meant that each part does what it does best, with very little knowledge sharing between them. This strategy removes accountability. It removes conflict. Life has become autonomous realities and the compartments are all flourishing just as this coping strategy is meant to accomplish. Just as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Certainly, a lot of that flourishing is welcomed. Work, for example, has become easy, without all the customary anxiety, and I am able to perform at the level people are used to. My wife loves the new (i.e., old) me too.

But the self-harm compartments have equally flourished. They are so isolated that I have such little sense of what they are about. Some are objectively super dangerous and even life threatening, but because I don't feel much of anything and don't really know about them, I don't really care. I know this is not a good position to be in.

I do now worry that I could easily become trapped in the old ways of coping, sucked in like a vortex. I do worry that all the work I have done to heal could become undone. I do worry that it could take me a long time to recover from this state if I don't act right away to change things. Because I have these worries, I hope that I can reduce the chances of my becoming trapped.

For my whole life I have put up with the self-harm as a necessary side effect of the functionality. I felt powerless to change any of it. Or more accurately, I didn't even know it was a problem or harmful. Since I didn't know there could be any other way, I just dealt with it. But I've learned that there is another way. This is what the healing I've been able to do has taught me.

I have lost site of the simple fact that healing is not compatible with not being safe from self-harm. Being safe and making the effort to be safe has to be our number one priority as survivors. The issue cannot be a secret. It cannot be ignored in therapy (or within ourselves). I know that dealing with it means that life gets more complicated and functioning goes down by some measures. That's a smaller price to pay than the price we have to pay for the very dangerous self-harm.

Somehow I need to get back to the place of acceptance and collaboration that has helped me heal. Right now, at this point, I have no idea how to get there given the stressors I have in my life with work, family and time of year.

There are certainly steps I know I can take based on what I've been able to do before. In the short term, this may mean going back to basic skills which I have taken for granted (or perhaps I find a bit beneath me). Kate's Grounding/Coping Skills Links are, for me, a good place to start. I also need to require myself to take the time to write and check-in on the inside.

I suppose healing and cultivating self-care is a choice. We can choose another path. For me, though, I made the decision long ago that healing is something I am committing myself to. Today marks the beginning of my reclaiming my safety, reclaiming who I am, and reclaiming some wholeness.

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Rocking the Boat

| By Paul | | Comments (9)

For 14 days, my wife is in Europe on vacation with her niece and I'm completely in charge of the kids. Well, my mother-in-law has been here for half the time in the middle, so she's been a huge help. But, I have to be totally responsible for my 11 and 8 year old girls. We are on Day 8 now, but who's counting?

I've mostly taken the time off from work, as I've only gone in a few times. I've learned that being responsible for the kids is a huge job. I didn't really know that before. Well, I knew it, but I didn't experience it, except for a day or two here and there. There is so much to coordinate with this activity and that activity, who we will carpool with, what to wear to school, what to pack for lunch, and on and on. There are so many details. It's so complicated. I'm keeping a lot of lists. We figure out what they want in their school lunches and two snacks the night before and I write all that down, then in the morning I just have to tick off the list. I also have every day all spelled out on another list with every single detail. If I get confused, I just consult the list.

It's been an emotional roller coaster for me, though. I have to be aware of so much. I can't drop the ball. I'm in charge after all. And I know that my kids are totally dependent on me. I guess that's why I can claim them as dependents on my taxes! I deserve that tax break! This changes things. When they go to bed the reality of the emotional stress kicks in. I can tell that old coping mechanisms are at play. For example, there's a lot of blocking out of experiences during the day. I definitely experience more internal fragmentation. This just makes it that much harder for me to sustain keeping track of all the family details. Sometimes my head is swimming.

It's not just that I'm responsible, it's that my whole environment is different. I'm not used to my wife not being home. I don't know how to sleep alone. Yes, I miss my wife! My work schedule is thrown off, as well as my therapy schedule. It's very hard to set time aside to journal and check-in. My whole internal experience is thrown off; it's akin to how things changed internally when we brought our first daughter home from being born.

But, even while my experience is off, I still have to remember at what time to schedule that orthodontist appointment 1 hour away so that we will be able to get back to gymnastics in time. I have to make sure I send in the pick-up note to school, make sure the gym bag is packed with the right clothes and with water, remember to bring her contacts and a toothbrush so that after she eats her teeth won't be dirty for the exam. I have to take pictures of her getting braces so my wife can see them on Facebook. Then, figure out how to get from the dentist to the gym (thank you iPhone voice navigation App) because I don't ever go from one to the other.

I do like it, though. I just don't think I could do this 365 days in a row. I like the feeling of accomplishment. Another good outcome is that because I need to be on the ball so much, I've been able to get a lot of house chores done. Our basement is cleaned out, septic pumped, oil burner and propane fireplace tuned up, and lawn is mowed. I have this extra energy and alertness going for me (with little sleep).

I also have been able to assess what life is like for our family. I'm a little unhappy about how busy my kids are. My immediate reaction to all the kids' activities is this: Whoa! Slow down! What ever happened to coming home and playing? And having real time to do homework? And relaxing? Nope. Can't have that. Apparently, somehow, we ended up having the crazy activity schedules like everyone else we know, even though my wife and I always promised each other that it wouldn't happen to us.

This has happened partly because I've sort of taken a back seat in the managing of our kids' lives. I want to have a bigger say. My kids are great. My family is great. But our lives are way too hectic. And we all know it's easier to add things then it is to take them away!

I've also been able to appreciate the amount of time and energy that I put into healing. This time with the kids has really meant that I cannot put too much effort into healing. I haven't read much of the blogs I follow. As I said, I've written very little in my journal. I watch the clock in therapy. I have to think much less of me and much more of them. I try not to judge whether that's good or bad. It just is right now. I know it won't be that way forever.

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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