Two powerful feelings arose in me at the age of nine: the desire to write music and intense, overwhelming waves of anxiety. I began exhibiting daily obsessive-compulsive behaviors and my parents wondered if I should see a child psychologist. They also purchased a small keyboard for me to play, and it became clear that writing music made me feel better. I would get lost in the dreamworld, spending hours playing and creating songs and trying to figure out the relationships between the notes. Music was fun and freeing, and I would forget in those moments that I felt anxious in other areas of my life.
My obsessive-compulsive tendencies quickly subsided, but I still remained a very anxious child. Most mental health disorders don’t fully manifest until around twenty-years old, and at nineteen, I began experiencing panic attacks that brought me to the hospital. At this point, I was in college studying composition with Steven Stucky. I remember one lesson with him where I was struggling to articulate my musical ideas. My mind felt clouded and my heart was racing. He stopped me, looked me in the eye and said kindly, “Take care of yourself,” and made it clear that I could leave the lesson early if I wanted to without an explanation. I understood in that moment that my creativity was suffering, that I was suffering, and that I needed help.
I was diagnosed soon after with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, considered a mental illness, and have been in therapy and on medication ever since. There is a myth that a tortured psyche creates great art, and the classical music industry still subscribes to ideal of the mad genius. This belief system initially interfered with my healing process. While I was open to therapy from the beginning, I was terrified that medication would dampen my creative impulses. Even more dangerous was my belief that my suffering somehow made me a more powerful artist, and that through the process of healing, I would lose access to the frenzy and adrenaline I associated with sleepless nights of composing.
It took years to find the right medication and dosage, but I quickly learned that my medication functioned like a volume knob, lowering the noise interference of anxious and oppressive thoughts, clearing a path for me to form my musical ideas as well as feel freer in my life. Through therapy, I began to examine my childhood desire to cure my anxiety with my music and the many complex ways that manifests in my adult life, and ultimately have developed a healthier relationship with my creative process. I also had to learn to reconnect with that childhood joy of writing, which we can easily lose once music making becomes entwined with the stressors and realities of professional life.
I have wanted to share my experience publicly for a long time, but finally felt ready last summer when I launched LooseLeaf NoteBook. In the midst of the pandemic, national protests against systemic racism, increasing threats of domestic terrorism, and going stir crazy in my living room, I started the podcast at first simply as a creative and emotional outlet. I yearned to connect with friends and colleagues about the collective toll this period has taken on our mental health and creativity, and to remain active and present within our community while so many of us are forced to wait, or worse, are struggling to survive or function.
Through interviews and solo reflections, LooseLeaf NoteBook uncovers the connections between mental health and creativity, with a focus on nurturing artistry, emotional intelligence, and self-care. I share insight into my creative process and journey towards mental health alongside guests from across fields to provide a space for open dialogue and paths towards healing through artistic self-expression. While my focus is to help de-stigmatize mental illness within the arts, I use the terms mental health and creativity broadly to include any conversation about caring for one’s own emotional wellbeing while embarking on creative work. I also strive to feature guests who can speak to experiences beyond my own, spanning from how racism, xenophobia, and homophobia impact one’s psyche to the emotional and creative challenges of parenting or caring for an ill family member.
There is so much more to being a productive, thriving artist in our field than we learn in conservatory or discuss openly in our professional lives. It is my belief that mental health, emotional vitality, and creative potential are inherently linked. In my experience, the healthier I’ve become, the more powerful my music becomes because it is a more authentic communication and reflection of who I really am and what I need to express.
I could not feel as healthy as I do today without the support and my family, friends, and professors who have guided and comforted me along the way. I cannot overemphasize the power that Steve Stucky’s simple gesture, expressing his wish that I put my health before my musical studies, had on me during those formative years. I hope that, in turn, LooseLeaf NoteBook provides a safe space to discuss openly how we take care of ourselves and cultivate healthier creative practices, ones that allow for spontaneous inspiration as well as healthy boundaries, for pursuing artistic excellence while caring for our wellbeing – practices that support us as artists, as contributors to society, and as humans.