Archive for depression

Expectations of Genius

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

“Sticking it in the Crazy” – Thoughts on Sex, Dating, and Mental Illness

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

Mental Illness

Mental illness is, of course, a topic near and dear to my heart — and my mind, since I myself am clinically bipolar and have suffered throughout all of my remembered life from alternating periods of moderate-to-severe depression and anxiety.  I am the “one in five”, that statistic that gets tossed around so much (although of course there are legitimate concerns with the metrics used to measure such statistics — not least that they require self-reporting, which many people will not do, fearing the stigma of “craziness”).

And, of course, I’m not the only person in my life who suffers from this sort of thing — I have friends, lovers, and family members who’ve been diagnosed, at one time or another, with disorders ranging from seasonal depression to borderline personality disorder.  Each deals with it in their own way:  some are more private than others with the details of their lives and struggles, and some are more successful than others at blending in and appearing “normal” in everyday society.  But they are unavoidably present, in all of our lives.  You can’t just completely avoid 20% of the population, so we’ve all got a few “crazies” in our inner circles.

The Dating Question

One of the hardest things about being open and honest with the world regarding my own mental illness is dating.  Just saying, “I’m bipolar” to a potential romantic interest can be enough to send some people running for the hills, wailing “why are all the hot ones crazy?” and shielding their genitals as though bipolar were an STI and could be caught from me.  “Don’t stick your dick in crazy” (or the less gendered, “don’t stick it in crazy”, if you prefer), has become a well-known Internet meme and gets bandied about alongside so many other offensive little tidbits of “advice”.

Nevermind that I’m a very intelligent and self-aware person who works hard to manage and control my particular disorder; nevermind that I’ve spent years analyzing my own wants and needs when it comes to relationships and learning to compensate for my shortcomings at interpersonal interaction.  No matter how hard I work at it, to some I’m still just a “crazy chick”, and that renders me completely undateable (or even outright untouchable).  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I have to “fix myself” before I should even consider a relationship — nevermind that bipolar disorder isn’t like a cold or a broken bone that can be “healed” with just a little time and attention, and that I’m going to be “crazy” for the rest of the foreseeable future.

I’m attractive, talented, intelligent, fun — a lot of very desirable traits.  And those are all supposed to be overshadowed by a psychological diagnosis?  No thank you.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges associated with dating the mentally ill.  Especially when you get two of us together (and some of the most significant relationships in my life have been with other mentally ill individuals), it can be incredibly difficult, at times, to manage the extremes of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic flashbacks, dissociative periods — and then there’s the many unhealthy coping mechanisms that many of us may resort to in difficult times, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and reckless behaviours.

But these challenges do not have to be deal-breakers.  People with mental illnesses, even severe ones, should not be relegated to a loveless existence or avoided like the plague.  Because yes, there are challenges to be overcome, but there are challenges in every relationship.  There are always going to be ways in which two personalities will not perfectly mesh, and topics or situations where one partner has very different feelings from the other.  And being mentally ill does not make a person any less functional, intelligent, mature, or self-aware (actually I’d argue that the mentally ill among us are often the most self-aware, since we have to spend so much of our time analyzing and controlling our own behaviours).

Of course, not every mentally ill person is at a place in their life where they are ready to be dating — but then, not every supposedly “normal” person is at that place in their life, either.  Plenty of relationships fall apart for reasons other than, “s/he’s crazy!”

Atypical Relationships and Desires

Another challenge that I often have to face in the dating world, independent from my diagnosis, is that the relationships I’m looking for are not “typical” ones.  As someone who identifies as polyamorous, bisexual, and kinky, it can be very difficult to add “bipolar” to that list.  Polyamory is already seen by many people as an indication of a “fear of commitment”, or even as a sign of mental illness in and of itself (people who keep multiple partners are quickly labeled as “nymphos” and “sex addicts”, whether or not the definition really fits).  Bisexuality itself has often been characterized as a pathology, and (along with other non-normative sexualities) has been in the past something which was criminalized and punished.  Kink is especially complicated, since it can be very difficult to explain to people the difference between self-harm and consensual BDSM, and within the kink community itself there is a strong prejudice against “crazy people”, who are often characterized as being “unsafe” to play with.

Many people are quick to blame my atypical desires on my bipolar disorder, as though my “craziness” is the perfect explanation for why I don’t want a husband, kids, and a house in the suburbs.  “You like tying your partners to the bed and dripping hot wax all over their naked bodies?  Ugh, that must be because you’re insane”.  But this is an incredibly unhelpful (not to mention inaccurate) conclusion:  by assuming that all kinky people are “insane” and that all “insane” people like doing weird things in bed, you unfairly stigmatize both groups.

This isn’t to say that my bipolar disorder doesn’t play some part in my desires and choices with regards to relationships — but it’s certainly not the only factor, nor even the most defining one.  I prefer to seek casual, “friends-with-benefits” type relationships at this point in my life partially because I am not professionally settled, but also because I don’t feel emotionally ready for a connection of that sort, and my diagnosis is a factor in that choice.  But this is not an unhealthy attitude to take: I’m being honest with myself and with my partners as to my desires and the reasons for them, and this makes for relationships that are open, honest, and very rewarding.  And by exploring and indulging my sexuality, I’m learning more about myself (and how to deal with any potential future relationships that may be more “serious”) in a safe, consensual, and fun manner.

It’s not like I’d learn to be “more healthy” by just shutting myself away and being entirely celibate, after all.  If we don’t push and challenge ourselves, we stagnate and fall into bad habits.

The Bad Stuff

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t difficulties in my relationships — especially in those with other mentally ill people.  In the past, especially when I was much younger and didn’t yet know very well how to deal with my own issues, I’ve dealt with abuse (emotional and physical), being raped by a partner, abandonment, self-harm (by myself and by two partners), suicide threats and attempts (by a mentally ill partner), trying to manage being on medication (my own and three partners), breakdowns (mine and theirs), fights, spats, irrational displays, and many, many, many tearful encounters.  I’ve ended a relationship because I didn’t feel he was dealing well with his mental illness and I was having too much trouble with trying to help.  And I’ve been left for being “crazy”.

At the moment I have casual (or casual-ish) relationships with four people, three of whom have a diagnosis of some sort.  And we’ve had conflicts — they’re inevitable.  But we’re also learning to be giving and honest, and how to deal with those conflicts and problems when they arise.  Because a relationship is not defined by whether or not you have issues (let’s face it: we all do), but by how you deal with those issues.

My Advice

So … what have I learned from more than 10 years of being (and dating) “crazy”?

Know yourself.  The more time that you spend getting to know yourself (and your diagnosis), the more books you read on psychology, the more time you spend with a therapist, the more work you put into making yourself a better person, the better you’ll be as a partner.  This is true whether or not you’re mentally ill, but is especially important if you are.  Understanding what triggers your “bad” periods, what emotional stimuli are difficult for you, the places where you have difficulty understanding “normal” people … this will all help you to deal better with the times when you’re just not quite “yourself”, and make it easier for your partner to love and deal with you.

Know your partner.  If your partner has a mental illness, get to know everything you can about it.  Ask them questions.  Read books.  Seek support groups.  Learn all that you can, so that when the rough patches hit?  You can understand what they’re going through, empathize with them, and help, rather than just being confused and afraid.  Even if your partner is “normal”, you should spend time talking to them and getting to know them and figuring out what makes them tick, because it will help when you have conflicts — knowing how they react to, for example, a difficult emotional situation (grief, anger, etc) will help you to deal with and assist them when those situations arise.

Stop hiding.  We spend too much time fearing the stigmas of mental illness.  20% of the population is going through something very similar.  You are never, ever alone.  By hiding away, you’re hiding from your support networks.  You’re closing yourself off.  You’re making yourself harder to connect to and to love.  Saying “I’m bipolar” to people at an early stage in getting to know them might scare a few away, but it will make just as many people open up and welcome you all the more strongly, because they understand what you’re going through.  And those are the ones you WANT to let in, so don’t hide from them.

Be honest.  We all like to seem as though we’re in control, all of the time.  But sometimes we’re not.  And we need to acknowledge the times when we’re not having it easy, when we’re going through a rough patch or a “down” period.  Because if we don’t recognize those times, we can’t fix them or deal with them properly.

Forgive more easily.  It’s easy to take things personally, to see every conflict or difference of opinion or random happenstance in life as being directed specifically to hurt you.  Stepping back, taking a breath, and choosing to act with love and forgiveness, goes a long way, because in 95% of cases?  People aren’t acting deliberately to do harm.  And even if they are, they probably have a reason that you don’t see.  We can choose to live with more love, and we should do so.

Never, EVER, dismiss something or someone as “crazy”.  Because there’s probably a very good reason for it, and you’re just not seeing it.  And “crazy” isn’t irrelevant, or unimportant, or unlovable.  “Crazy” is just as beautiful and wonderful as “sane”.

We All Die Alone, and Other Stories

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , on February 12, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

I’m not a person who follows the news very closely.  I browse around the Internet, pick up a newspaper from time to time, and while I’m at work the local news channel is usually playing on one or more of the TVs in the restaurant — but I don’t make a point of checking up on these sorts of things every day.

Today, though, was a slow day at work, and so I ended up watching quite a bit of the day’s TV news coverage — much of which was, of course, concerning the death of Whitney Houston.

I can’t say I know much at all about Ms. Houston. I recognize her songs from radio and such, of course, and know that she was in The Bodyguard and a few other movies, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.  Watching the news today, though, got me thinking a lot about death, mental health issues, and addiction, and how we react to such things as a society.

Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not speaking specifically about Whitney Houston:  I know next to nothing about her, those around her, or the circumstances surrounding her death.  It was just the topic of the day on the news, and what got me thinking along these lines.

There have been a few high-profile celebrity deaths in recent years that have also brought up these same topics.  Michael Jackson.  Amy Winehouse.  And the story’s the same every time:  once they’re gone, there’s this huge and incredibly public outpouring of love, and appreciation, and support for this person.  Friends and family members are on every news outlet.  People who may not have even spoken to the deceased in years — who may have not even thought of them at all in recent times — are suddenly in high demand for interviews, reminiscing about what used to be.  And everybody says what a tragedy it is.  How awful.  How much they wish it hadn’t happened.

Where were these people six months ago?  One month ago?  A week ago?  Where was this outpouring of love and support when this person was alive, and clearly in need of it?  Why did they have to struggle, and suffer, and ultimately die, completely alone?  It’s all well and good to go on TV after they’re gone and lament the tragedy, but why weren’t you there before they died, helping them to deal with what was hurting them?

There are hundreds of answers, of course, and many of them are quite valid.  Life is tough, and full of things that take our time and our thoughts and our attention.  We’re all too busy to spend all our time watching out for somebody else’s problems:  we have our own problems to deal with, and our own personal demons to fight.  And even if we do take the time to help another, it’s draining.  It’s emotionally exhausting to spend time holding up another human being, pulling them away from the chasms of depression and self-destruction, and no one can possibly keep at it for very long, no matter how much you love the one who is suffering.

The factor that scares me, though; the thing that makes me sad and concerned for the state of humanity in general, is that so many people are simply afraid to confront things like addiction and depression.  They deny the problem, or they simply ignore it, no matter how obvious it may become.  And this is the thing that, I think, needs so urgently to change.  We as a society need to become more concerned for other people’s suffering.  We need to learn not to turn away when we see the signs that another is going through a bad time — because even just a kind word, or a friendly shoulder to cry on, for just a short time, can mean so much.  It can, quite literally, be the difference between life and death for someone who’s on the edge.  And if we all do this, if we all come to the aid and support of a person who’s suffering, then the burden on each one person is lightened, and it’s not so hard to pull that person back from the edge, away from their desperation and back into something healthy.

So while we’re all busy paying so much attention to the untimely death of one celebrity, I think it’s important that we take the time to think as well of those in our own lives who are struggling with demons.  Addiction and mental health issues affect so much of the population; we all have people in our lives who have been touched by these problems.  And we need to reach out to them more often.  To remind them that they are not alone, that they are loved, and that we are there for them.

Because being there for them now is so much better than being on stage at their funeral.

Let’s Try This Again … Sea Cucumbers, Bipolar Disorder, and Artistic Integrity vs. Ego Issues

Posted in Ramblings, Rants, Theatricality with tags , , , , on January 21, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

So … it’s been a while since I’ve been here, hasn’t it?  I have excuses, but they’re not particularly good ones — suffice to say that the past few months have consisted mostly of a series of terrible upheavals that have left me in an emotional state roughly equivalent to the life of a sea cucumber:  waterlogged, squishy, defenseless, and not particularly capable of doing much of anything.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to distract myself with various projects, and the rest of the time being a complete wreck and doing a lot of crying, pacing, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, and various other compulsive activities.  And with so many days when even the simple act of hauling myself out of bed and across the apartment to feed the animals was almost beyond my capabilities, blogging has been pretty much entirely neglected (I say “pretty much” because there have been a few posts I’ve at least *thought* about writing, but that’s as far as I’ve been able to get, of late).

All of this is, sad to say, probably a very clear sign that my bipolar disorder is, once again, out of control.  I was, for several years there, functioning rather well without therapy or medication, but it seems that I really do need to start searching, quite seriously, for a new therapist.  I’ve not had one since before moving to Toronto, so it’s a daunting task, but obviously something I’m in need of.

I don’t think I’ve talked much on this blog about bipolar disorder or my own struggles with it — a lot of it is very personal, emotional, and probably not very interesting because it has to do with things that are all entirely within my own head.  I’ve also been lucky enough to not have to deal with many of the more severe symptoms often associated with bipolar disorder, nor do I have any of the common co-occurring disorders (schizoaffective disorder, psychosis, or PTSD), and thus have been able to live mostly medication-free, through behaviour-management techniques and careful management of my diet and exercise … but my experiences aren’t typical, and thus are unlikely to be very useful to others who suffer from the disorder.  Most people need medication, psychotherapy, and a lot of outside help in order to deal with this sort of a disorder.  I’m just lucky to have relatively mild symptoms most of the time, and I’m also particularly stubborn when it comes to showing emotions to the outside world, or seeking help from it, so I’ve arranged mys life in such a way that it can allow for occasional meltdowns without too much difficulty.

This meltdown has just lasted quite a bit longer than my “usual” ones, and thus has not been so easy to accommodate.

One major factor in the duration of this particular episode has been, sadly enough, the direct result of my usual coping mechanism.  Generally, when I’m having a bad time, I’ll take on a new project or two, to keep myself busy.  Manic episodes are often associated with great creativity (this is why so many famous authors and artists are associated with this disorder), and having a place to channel all of that energy is useful — while depressive episodes are often associated with lethargy, which can be fought against if you’ve got some deadlines to meet.  In this case, I jumped on the opportunity to work on a theatre production, which is normally something that I would enjoy very much.  Unfortunately, I picked the worst possible theatre production to be working on, and in the end it only increased the problem.

Now, most of the people working on this show were absolutely wonderful.  I’d recommend working with any of them — except for the director.  This woman is, to put it mildly, a complete and absolute bully, with no regard for anyone but herself.  Artistically brilliant, yes — her work on the choreography was particularly impressive — but socially?  Completely inept.  For the actors, this didn’t seem to be too much of a problem (although two did walk off the show early in the rehearsal process, citing “artistic differences”).  Directors are often domineering types, and actors are supposed to defer to their desires in the interest of having a cohesive show.  For designers and other artistic workers, however, this sort of behaviour can be absolutely impossible — and, in the end, I had to leave the show a week before opening night, because it had become just too difficult to work with this woman.

I’m sharing this story not to be vindictive or to spread nasty tales — note that I’m not giving the name of the director (though if you are a Toronto theatre artist and would like to add her to your personal blacklist, please feel free to contact me privately for further information), but because I feel that I have an important point to make about the way that theatre works (or, in this case, the way that it *didn’t* work).  This is not the first time that I’ve had to deal with one awful personality ruining an entire show, and I’m sure it won’t be the last (although I could certainly wish that it would be).  The fact that such things happen, though, is a direct reflection of a problem faced by smaller, non-professional theatre companies all over the place: the lack of any established system for dealing with personality issues.

In a larger, professional theatre company where everyone is paid a wage for their work (rather than work being largely on a volunteer, profit-share, or stipend-based sort of system), there’s an HR department.  Artists and workers at any level within the company have a liaison that they can go to if they are feeling abused or mistreated, and there are established protocols for dealing with conflicts.  In smaller companies, and especially in those run largely on volunteer power, there isn’t this option.  Conflicts have to be dealt with very much on a case-by-case basis, and often there isn’t a clear person to whom an abused company member can turn, especially when the abuser is someone in a position of power (a director, producer, or stage manager, for example).  And even if there is someone to whom a wronged party can turn, there may not be any protocols in place to be followed, leaving helpers somewhat muzzled and unable to do very much.  In my particular case, when the director began to verbally attack me and my work, and to claim (loudly) that she possessed “veto power” over anything that I, the designer, might desire to do (a boldfaced lie, of course: the designer is always in ultimate control of their own design), I went to the show’s two producers.  They, unfortunately, lacking guidelines to follow, were unwilling to hand down harsh discipline, and thus were unable to prevent the attacks in any way.  Eventually, things progressed to the point where the director was physically attacking my set (making major changes to it while I was out of the building, without informing or consulting me in any way), and the producers still felt that they were unable to tell her “you can’t do that, put it back the way it was”.  As a result of that, I had the choice to either stay on and simply deal with the fact that the director was making changes and live with those changes, or to walk away.  As an artist, I couldn’t endorse the changes being made (they were not, to my mind, changes that effectively represented the artistic vision of the show), so I had to walk.

Now, obviously there are two major problems here.  One is self-evident: a director who doesn’t know her place, and is treating another artist poorly.  The second problem, however, proved ultimately to be the more insidious and destructive one: the muzzled producers, who did not feel that they had enough power to step in and stop the first problem in its tracks.  They did, of course, theoretically have that power, but since they were unwilling to use it, the director was able to go unchecked.

In light of this, I have formed the opinion that all theatre companies, large or small, should take the time to formalize a disciplinary procedure.  Something should be discussed and written down, agreed upon by all, so that if problems do arise, a person in power (be it producer, director, artistic director, production manager, stage manager, or whomever), can point to that written agreement and say, “this behaviour is inappropriate, and this is how we’re going to deal with that”.  There should be clear guidelines of what is and is not acceptable behaviour, as well as defined levels of punishment (at this level of behaviour you get spoken to, at this level you are under observation, and at this level you are fired, for example).  Just the establishment of such guidelines would likely serve as a force for good — I’m quite sure that if the director I was dealing with had felt her own position was at risk, she’d have stopped with her bullying tactics and tried harder to be a decent team player.  But even in cases where the written guidelines are not enough, you’ve now got an agreement on what should be done when negative situations arise, thus preventing the problem of impotence on the part of the supposed enforcers.

I’m trying very hard not to let the crushing disappointment of seeing my design, my creation, being ripped away from me and destroyed by an uncontrolled bully, stop me from being enthusiastic about continuing in theatre.  I love theatre, and I love what I do within it.  There are assholes to be dealt with in every possible job (I’ve dealt with a few in non-artistic jobs, as well), and one can’t let a negative experience get you too down.

So I’ll push on.  I’ll try to blog.  Try to spend less days lying in bed and lamenting the state of my life and the world.  And maybe one day I’ll reach a level of success where I can crush all the bullies like bugs beneath my sexy, six-inch heels.

What?  A girl can dream, right?

Music and Memory: Nostalgic Recollections

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , on June 24, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

Music taps in to a part of the human psyche that is so primitive as to be pre-linguistic.  Rooted in our emotional drives, we can listen to a song that’s in a language we’ve never heard before, and still make an emotional connection to it.  We find and make music pretty much everywhere — people hum, whistle, tap their fingers, get songs stuck in their heads, or (in a more modern world) simply live with their ipods constantly attached to their heads.  We hear rhythms and tunes in rain, traffic, the ocean, the wind.  It’s one of the things that makes us human in the first place, separating us from the “lower” animals.  Every human culture has a musical history, an ethnomusicology, that defines it — and this continues even into modern cultural movements.  We can’t think about Rasta culture without hearing Bob Marley, punk without The Sex Pistols, Goth without The Cure, Emo without Dashboard Confessional.  Never mind that not every goth kid thinks Robert Smith is a god (I don’t actually own any Cure albums, myself), but it’s a part of what defines the genre, the fashion, the entire tone of what being goth is all about, and it would be ignorant to deny the influence that the music has had over me.

To get back to my original point, though.  I was talking to someone today about the reasons why I got into theatre in the first place, and why I chose it as a path of study and a career over potentially more lucrative, stable fields like zoology or anthropology.  We covered the usual commonplaces that occur in such discussions:  following your passions, youthful idealism and the hope that you can change the world, doing something that makes you happy even if it never makes you a dime, all the things that people usually say when you tell them that you’re a professional artist and yes, you’re comfortable with that.

What’s harder to define, especially in polite discussion, is what pushed me to make the fateful choice — to select a university and throw myself whole-heartedly along the path to lifelong poverty.  The emotions involved in a very turbulent part of my life, the things that made perfect sense at the time but are now hard to qualify in any meaningful way: how does one describe such things?  “It felt right”, is what I’ll always tell people, but that doesn’t even come close to capturing the reality.

And so, as I often do when thinking about such things, I came home and put on some music.  A particular album (or, rather, two albums) that define for me that particular part of my childhood (teenhood?  young adulthood?).  In this case, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s “Bat Out of Hell”, and the sequel, “Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell”.  Nevermind about the third part of the trilogy; as of 2002-2003 it had yet to be released, and is a separate entity in my mind because of that.  It holds no part in this emotional journey of mine (although it is, I suppose, noteworthy that the third album takes so much inspiration from nu-metal, which was a definite staple of my high school listening).

Now, it’s really not the albums in particular — the songs, the lyrics, the musical style — that hold so much emotional meaning for me.  I’ll readily admit that while the albums are extremely theatrical in their own right (they’re basically rock operas, not dissimilar at all to cult classics like Rocky Horror in their over-the-top dramatic-ness), it’s no more than a strange coincidence that they are so linked to my choosing of theatre as a career path.  In point of fact, what they make me think of most is one of the least theatrical and artistic elements in my life: my father.

My dad is not a very musically-inclined person.  I’ve never in my life heard him sing.  He rarely whistles or hums.  He has no sense of rhythm, can’t dance to save his life, and disdains poetry and “artsy-fartsy crap”.  And yet for some reason, “Bat Out of Hell” is one of his favourite albums of all time.  I suppose it’s a testament to its universal popularity (as of 2010 it’s the fifth highest selling album of all time, anywhere).  But “Bat” and “Bat II” were albums that I heard so often, growing up, that I could quote every lyric even before I knew what most of the double-entendre meant.

Needless to say, my non-artsy dad never wanted his first-born child (or any of his children, for that matter) to pursue a career in the arts.  Telling him “this is what I want to do with my life” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because it meant disappointing the person who’d always been my biggest supporter and fan.

And listening to “Bat” takes me right back to that.  Sitting in the car, listening to that album, talking about my plans, while we drove to Windsor for my first university audition.  The sense of calm, accepting, happy, belonging-ness that came over me when I finally came to realize that it didn’t matter at all if my dad understood this or not, he’d still support me and be there for me all the way through it.  Shaking his head in disbelief at my craziness, he’d still stand behind me to the end of time and defend me from all other comers.  Never mind that its been years; I can go right back to being 17 in an instant, just from hearing the opening chords.

When summer came that year, I was still full of intense self-doubts.  With my bipolar disorder not yet properly diagnosed or managed, I was swinging wildly between excitement and elation at being on my way to school, and crushing, horrible fears that I’d made the worst mistake of my entire life.  Mix into that an unhealthy dose of teenaged hormones (the devastating rejection when my first love got herself a serious boyfriend and started talking marriage and future and babies with this guy, followed by an ill-advised rebound/revenge relationship on my part that left me questioning a lot of things about my life and sexuality), various issues with my mother, and a prescription for Prozac that inhibited by ability to see the negative sides to suicide, and it was beginning to look more and more unlikely that I would ever make it to university or my 18th birthday.  I read my journals from that year and look over the many drafts of suicide notes, and it can still bring me to tears.

It was my dad’s acceptance, even though he couldn’t understand my choices, that held my head above the water in the darkest of those days.  He was working for most of the summer; picking up overtime shifts to help cover the cost of my tuition and residence fees.  And I avoided being at home, trying to keep distance from my mother.  But when I was driving in the car, alone, between Port Elgin and Owen Sound and Tobermory, I’d listen to “Bat Out of Hell” and feel all right.

When I did go away to school, one of my very first purchases was my own copies of those CDs.  And when school was hard, or when I felt lonely, or when I felt dad-sick (never home-sick, but I did miss my dad), I’d put them on.

There are other albums, other songs, that hold deep emotional significance for me.  I’ll never be able to listen to Poison the Well’s “Tear from the Red”, and especially not the song “Parks and What You Meant to Me”, without thinking of a particular relationship.  Rammstein’s album “Herzeleid” is inexorably linked to my university design classes.  The Chili Peppers’ “Californication” will always bring back memories of a particular high school friend and a musical production that we worked on together.  And, of course, like many people who were young in the 90s, Nine Inch Nails holds a special place in defining many of my coming-of-age moments.  Some of the connections are more powerful than others — “Parks and What You Meant to Me” will almost always bring me to tears, while Coldplay’s “The Scientist” makes me sad and nostalgic, but not to quite the same degree.

Events.  People.  Places.  Emotions.  Beyond the literal meanings of songs, beyond the words and the images and the poetry, there’s a power.  Something visceral, that touches us in a way that’s almost undefinable.  It’s deep, it’s personal, and it’s completely, inescapably human.  Music is special.