I’m continuously fascinated by how my inner psychological Journey has been revealing itself. The more layers I peel away, the more is revealed to me, and often what comes up surprises me as much as it would a stranger. What came up this time, seemingly out of the blue, was middle school violin.
I started playing the violin in elementary school with the Suzuki method, which involved a lot of ear training so that I only needed to pick out a few notes from the sheet music as a prompt to what I had memorized. When I started middle school, I placed second chair second violin in the large school orchestra, which was very good standing, but then they started expecting me to actually be able to read music.
I loved the violin, and was repeatedly told I had talent, but with my Irlen Issues, I could not see the music correctly and quickly started falling behind. Private music lessons helped me memorize more, but I kept falling further and further behind and after two more years, gave up the violin. There were other issues involved in that decision—it was a complex situation—but this was a big part of it, and it left some deep wounds around music.
Middle school is also when I started having difficulties with math, beginning with algebra, for the same reason that I couldn’t see the equations properly, and by high school that started interfering with my math-heavy advanced science classes as well. Which is also when I excitedly started learning German and did a ridiculous amount of extra credit in that class, hoping that my enthusiasm would cover up the fact that I couldn’t learn the vocabulary or grammar well because I could not read the words correctly or keep their order straight in a sentence.
Ever since I was very young, I had heard over and over how much potential I had, how much talent and promise I showed, how I was going to go on to do great things, yet I was unable to do the three things that I cared most about and really wanted to get good at.
For each of them, I started out strong, working hard, learning quickly and garnering a lot of praise, and was excited about what I was learning, but then I would start struggling and falling behind. No matter how hard I worked, and I worked hard, I could never live up to that elusive “potential.” Over and over.
What I realized now is that, for all these long years, I have felt like a huge disappointment. Not that I did something disappointing, rather that I am a disappointment. That is a huge burden of shame that I have been caring around.
It has subconsciously influenced a lot of my major life decisions regarding careers and advanced schooling and even, more recently, career options I have been considering and the entrepreneurial projects that I have been interested in pursuing. Why bother working hard at something when I’m just going to be a disappointment again? Sure, I’ll start out excited and do well for a while, but eventually I will rise to my level of incompetence and show everyone how I couldn’t cut it. Again.
And I won’t even know why. Because the most frustrating part of this whole situation is that I could not understand what was holding me back.
With the violin, math, and German, I knew that I knew how to do them, yet I couldn’t produce the evidence. I couldn’t demonstrate what I internally knew I was perfectly capable of doing, and that was incredibly confusing and frustrating because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t perform.
Sometimes I couldn’t quite get my head around a topic because I wasn’t reading it right to start with. That happened a lot with German grammar. And sometimes I knew the answer perfectly well, but would write it down wrong and not be able to see the difference. That happened a lot in math. Either way, I struggled to barely pass these classes because I couldn’t demonstrate my capabilities.
So why bother to spend the time and effort to take on another big project, or graduate school, or train for a career that I was passionate about, just to bomb out again after a little while? Why get excited about anything when I know I’m not going to be able to get very far?
That’s how I spent a lot of the last two decades of my life. Not very excited about things. And holding myself back when I did start to get excited, because I was afraid to care enough to be disappointed again. To prove once again that I am a disappointment.
There’s more to it than that. Life is hugely complex, and although I like to pretend that there is one revelatory answer that explains any given psychological issue, there are many layers to this issue that I have been peeling away, and I had finally discarded enough layers that I was able to get down to this one; one of the really big layers.
Except. Well, here’s the thing. Despite what I just wrote, sometimes there is a pretty straightforward single answer to an issue, and as to why I couldn’t learn to read music or write down math or keep German straight, there is a single, straightforward reason. I described this in more detail here, but to be brief, the basic problem is that my brain sees the letters in words, numbers in columns, and notes on a music staff moving around so that I never saw them the same way twice. This is a neurological condition, but I also have a solution for it now.
It doesn’t have to hold me back anymore, because I can fix it. Or at least mitigate the symptoms. I didn’t figure this out until 15 years after high school graduation, but hey, there’s still a lot of life left to live.
As I was processing this old hurt, a friend reminded me that the reason why I couldn’t perform all those years ago effectively no longer exists, and that huge burden of shame, the feeling that I was a disappointment, promptly evaporated, and I felt an incredible sense of freedom and spaciousness and possibility.
This sense of freedom has come to be my reliable signal that a major issue has truly healed.
Without that in my way, without the promise of being defeated by my own neurology, without the dual burdens of shame and fear that I have been dragging around like anchors keeping me down, I feel like I could do anything. More specifically, I feel like I could actually do the projects that I’ve been coming up with over the last few months as my creativity has kickstarted itself again, but which felt hugely intimidating just a week ago. There are even a couple projects that I’ve been holding onto for many years but was too afraid to consider seriously, that all of a sudden seem not only possible but doable and exciting, and aspects that were before intimidating now feel like desirable challenges.
My friend also reminded me that I have already proven that the Irlen issue is no longer an issue. Once I got my Irlen glasses, I started learning German at a rapidfire pace and was soon teaching it and later translating professionally. And last year I successfully worked my way through an algebra book, my old nemesis.
Somehow, music has felt like a different beast. Or maybe just a bigger beast. I tried picking up the violin again in college, and again a few years after college, and took three semesters of music theory classes in college, and these experiences only served to reinforce my insecurities and shame, but they were all before I discovered the Irlen solution. After finishing that algebra book, I have thought more seriously about trying an instrument again, but haven’t quite managed that yet.
Maybe now it would be different. Maybe I could try? Hmm.
However, the delicate wooden violin seems seems like it would be incompatible with the temperature and humidity changes in van life. And I don’t have much storage space.
Oh, how subtle excuses can be.
Even when true.
Coincidentally, or providentially, perhaps, a few days after this revelation I came across a brand new kalimba, or thumb piano, at a secondhand store for only five dollars and took the (emotional) plunge and bought it. Just a week before, I would have passed it up. When I got it home and started to play some simple tunes from the included instruction book, I found it extremely enjoyable and exciting, with much less fear attached to that feeling of excitement.
I love the sound of the kalimba, and the feeling of stroking the tines is extremely comforting to my nervous system. I’ve found that this can calm me down as well as any other stims. This is awesome for my sensory issues!
I’m now hooked, playing a little bit multiple times a day. So far I’ve learned three Christmas carols (’tis the season, after all) and am starting to learn a longer piece now. I am loving this!
Here’s my current best attempt at God Rest Ye Mery Gentlemen:
And I can read music!
I am printing the sheet music on blue paper, which completely solves my Irlen problem so that I can read the notes. They stay in place, even when I move my head, without having to put my finger on them! So I can learn songs from printed music, not just by ear or memorizing everything. This is awesome!
It is already healing my old wounds around music, and reinforcing that I can do the things that have intimidated me for so long. As I continue to progress with the kalimba, and it continues to not defeat me, it will help cauterize this old wound so that it never needs to open up again.
This is another huge breakthrough for me. I am excited about my new future.
* * *