At one point, I had dreams of becoming a musician. My senior year in high school, I auditioned at conservatories and music departments; I wanted to study music and academics. When I decided to attend Yale, a professor I played for emailed asking if there were any way to change my mind. Taking lessons at the School of Music, I was told I could consider pursuing performance. I loved it, the feeling of air rushing beneath your fingertips on the open-holed keys, analyzing harmonic structure to map out themes, leafing through the cream-colored score of a new piece.
Onstage, the performance comes first. I remember my high school teacher telling me that even if you were sick or tired or feeling down, you put it aside for the performance. The music is what matters, and a musician embodies it. Bright lights and a brighter smile; everyone is looking.
Sometimes, I wonder what people would give up for that performance. What happens behind the curtains, behind the glowing lights and beautiful costumes. On some stages, beta blockers to deal with nerves, alcohol to calm stage fright. On others, pain-numbing injections because a show comes before bone surgery. Disordered eating. Harassment.
In mid-April of my freshman year, I spend a week in Liberty Village 2, the psychiatric unit, after a night that I mostly do not remember, because no memory of it exists. But I do remember the only thing I could think was Make it stop. Disgusting slut. This is the last time. I remember the ambulance that takes me to the ER. I remember the paramedic’s eyes. They are impossibly kind. It always gets better, he says, as I am wheeled away into a room full of fluorescent lights and sterile cots. I remember learning to appreciate sunlight and fresh air, because they are earned after 24 hours of good behavior and can be taken away. To this day, I still think there is nothing more beautiful than the sky.
During a weekend group session, we are each allowed to request one song for the nurse to play from YouTube on her phone. We sit, plastic chairs arranged in a circle, and listen to everyone’s choices. I ask to hear Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, the Evgeny Kissin one please. You can skip to 1:30, I know how it goes, I’ve listened to it so many times. When I hear it, I think of bells tolling in a cathedral, like a funeral march, and then bleak winds sweeping across a snowy desert, the tumbling piano arpeggios running over the swell of strings. Kissin plays powerfully, consumed by the music. When he finishes, he seems dazed. It is a genuine performance. It sends chills down my spine.
Two days before I am discharged, I have a 15-minute meeting with a psychiatrist from Mental Health & Counseling who will deem if I am fit to return to school, or if I must withdraw. I wear a gray knit sweater and leggings and think about how to comport myself. I can’t be too withdrawn, because that would indicate emotional dysfunction. I also can’t be too cheerful, because that would mean I don’t understand the gravity of my situation. Stable. I would go for stable; I must embody stable. I walk into my meeting the way I walk onto a stage: fast but not too fast, head up with a smile — present but not too wide — ready.
“You’re a cutter,” the psychiatrist proclaims, reading from a file. I stare at him, unsure of what to say. My sweater sleeves feel very hot.
“You wanted to kill yourself.” He reads further.
“I was blacked out. I didn’t know what I was doing or saying. I didn’t mean it.”
The psychiatrist stares back at me, and I feel my stage crumbling.
I tell him that I can handle the academic rigor. I tell him that I asked for my textbook, that in between morning vitals, groups and quiet halfs I am keeping up with my readings. I am complying with treatment, I have not missed a single activity, I can do it. Down the hall, someone is screaming, getting restrained. It is my roommate, who has broken a plastic snack spoon to use as a makeshift razor.
After being discharged, I return to school. I was out with the flu and my phone was broken, but I’m much better now, and so is my phone, I laugh. I resume my music lessons with vigor and practice to make up for my lost week. I go to rehearsals, I turn in all my assignments, just like everyone else. I fight to retain my summer internship, and I do. I tie the laces on my shoes and make phone calls that last longer than 30 minutes, both luxuries now. I take my finals on time with everyone else. I go to Spring Fling.
When I return home, I postpone my intensive outpatient program to focus on preparing for a charity concert. On the day of the concert, I put on a chiffon dress that sparkles around the neck. I wore it a year ago when playing my senior recital. How things were different back then. I cover my arms with a thick layer of foundation and powder. I ask my mother if she can see through it.
No, the makeup hides it.
Are you sure?
Yes. You can’t see it from far away.
I play Schubert’s Introduction and Variations, a piece that I love. It is based on Trockne Blumen, from his narrative song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, whose score I analyzed. The lyrics in Trockne Blumen speak of flowers on a grave, the hope of spring in the midst of winter; shifts between jubilant major and desolate minor echo and elaborate the narrator’s — and presumably Schubert’s — conflicting sentiments. Afterward, my friends tell me it was a beautiful performance. They ask me how Yale is, how my freshman year went, do I like it there? I smile wider and tell them I love it, my freshman year was wonderful. I turn my arms to hide the insides. Beneath the layers of makeup, they are burning.
That concert is the last performance I ever give. I stop performing solo, and then I stop seriously playing. When I stand under the stage lights, I am not sure what the audience sees. I am not sure what I want them to see. I feel like a fraud, arms covered in makeup, smiling at the ocean of expectant chairs. I cannot exit myself and enter the music. Because of that, I can never truly be a musician.
Before, the stage was a pristine, magical place removed from reality. I loved the music, the runs and staccatos, the thrill. After my freshman year, I did not want to be looked at anymore. My greatest fear, to this day, remains that I will not be able to deliver the performance I seem to embody. That concert-goers will look at the performer onstage, under the harsh lighting, and be disappointed at the person underneath. When I meet people, I wonder how long they will stay.
I read that time heals all things, but I think it is what happens in its pockets, in those months and moments, that matters. Three years later, there are still faint white ridges peppering my forearms. But so much more has happened. I visit SHARE and learn that it was not my fault; I stop lying to my therapist. I learn that a boyfriend will not heal me, that you must love yourself before you can love someone else. I begin to let things go, to forgive, to see in color. I cease trying to perform stability and start to embody it. One evening, I sit in an empty lecture hall and play all 29 Taffanel scales. I practiced them in my warm-up almost every day for five years; my fingers remember the harmonic shifts on the descending relative minors. The notes fill the hall, reverberating from the high ceiling, and I can feel the soft hum of air under my fingertips. I have not heard myself play alone for a long time. I listen to Rampal playing Schumann’s Three Romances and Dufour playing Poulenc’s Cantilena when I walk to class instead of listening to nothing. I pass Liberty Village 2 on a breezy day and look through the high metal fence separating courtyard from street. There are inpatients playing volleyball, undoubtedly without rules. A nurse watches them. There is someone sitting on the grass, looking up at the sky.
As I write this, I think about the first time I played a concerto with orchestra. When I reach the recapitulation, the last time the primary theme returns, I envision all the time I have spent with the notes. I hold them close, and then, prodded by the strings, release them one by one, watching them float away. Somehow, it feels like saying goodbye to a now-distant friend: Your heart aches, but it is full. Dolce. The paramedic with the kind eyes was right. It gets better.
These days, I prefer to engage in different forms of expression. My art class visited the University Theatre last semester. We could choose anything to paint: the coarse ropes hanging in the wings, the plush chairs, the velvet curtains. Standing onstage facing the audience, I paint the lights. They are white in the center, haloed with turquoise and lime green.
I do not remember the last time I stood on a stage and performed. But what I do remember is how it goes: I would nod at my accompanist, put on my most brilliant smile, walk out — fast but not too fast — and turn to the audience before bowing. The blinding lights were the first thing I always saw.
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