When I was nine years old, I was offered music lessons at school. I chose the violin. My parents borrowed one from a friend. It was a nice instrument but was a full-sized violin and a little too big for me. I didn’t care. I knew I loved music more than anything and was anxious to learn to play it. Unfortunately, the violin is a difficult instrument to play well at first, and it squeaked and squealed all the time. I tried playing it softer, but that only made it worse. My parents had no patience for it, so they sent me into the dark, dank, dirty, dingy basement to practice. In spite of that, I still practiced every day. Then the teasing started. My dad bordered on cruel with his teasing. He had learned the art from his family and practiced it regularly on me and my brother. My brother learned it from my dad and joined in. Finally, it became too much for me, so I quit the lessons and returned the violin.
A few months later, I overheard my parents talking about a piano they had been offered. It would cost them fifty dollars if they moved it themselves. I ran in the room and literally got down on my knees, begging them to buy it. Of course, they reminded me that I had tried one instrument already and quit. I tried to explain that the teasing had caused me to quit, but that only made Dad angry. I reminded them tearfully that I had practiced every day in that horrible basement until the day I quit and promised that I would also practice the piano every day. Dad agreed to go get the piano if I agreed to practice at least an hour a day, which I did. Those practices were sometimes torturous, but I stuck with it. Dad brought out his photography timer that made a loud ticking sound and clanged obnoxiously when the hour was up. It rarely ticked in the right tempo and competed with the metronome, but I learned to tune it out and keep my own rhythm. Most days, I practiced the required hour then kept at it, sometimes continuing my practice and sometimes playing my own music. I quickly noticed that when I was at the piano everyone left me alone, so it became my second sanctuary. I rarely play the piano for fun anymore because it has too much baggage, but I often use it as a tool. I managed to keep that original piano, in spite of my parents trying to get rid of it multiple times, though I recently gave it to my son.
Dad wanted to be involved in my lessons, so he often sat with me during the practice hour criticizing and correcting me. Then, I would go to my lesson where the teacher explained that I had been doing it wrong. Dad didn’t believe me, so I insisted that he go with me to a couple of the lessons. Once again, this made him angry and made my life harder, so I practiced for an hour on my own, while he was at work, playing the way the teacher had instructed me then practiced another hour with Dad. As frustrating and confusing as it all was, I think it made me a better musician in the long run. I have a great sense of rhythm that I attribute to practicing with competing clicking sounds. I also can hear multiple parts in my head at the same time. For example, when I’m creating harmonies for a song, I hear all of the parts together. I can even sing rounds in my head hearing all of the parts simultaneously. I used to think that everyone could do that, but I’ve since learned that’s not necessarily true.
I spent my early life trying as hard as I could to follow the rules and not make waves. Mistakes were dangerous in our home. Dad was a firm believer in corporal punishment. He took his leather belt to me at least three or four times a week. He also tormented me and my brother, constantly teasing, criticizing and belittling us. Neither of us ever did anything right. He was fond of that game of hitting you and saying with a satisfied smirk, “That was for nothing, now go do something.” He also loved to pull me into his lap then, when I got comfortable and let my guard down, he would rub his thumb on the inside of his Planter’s Peanut can and smear the grease all over the front of my glasses. He never questioned Mom who I suspect was bi-polar or had some other mental health issue. She would often change moods like flipping a light switch, and she lived in a different reality than the rest of us. Most times, I was punished for something I didn’t even know I had done. Or maybe the rules had suddenly changed without any notice. When she decided I had done something wrong, I was sent to my room to wait for Dad. Sometimes I waited for hours, knowing that I would get the belt and having no idea what it was for. I grew up believing that I was crazy because my mom certainly couldn’t be. She was my mom. She had to be right. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had witnesses to her changing reality that I realized it hadn’t been me. Until then, I lived as though I was walking on eggshells, trying not to be noticed, while knowing that violence could erupt at any time.
My high school days were filled with bullying and abuse. I had been diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before my freshman year and entered a brand-new school wearing a steel and leather brace that stretched from my chin to just below my hips. It was large, uncomfortable and obtrusive. After having spent my first eight years of school in public school, this new Catholic school with all of its restrictions filled with snobby kids that I didn’t know was a nightmare for me. The bullying was cruel and relentless. One boy a year ahead of me climbed on the school roof with a gun and shot randomly before finally killing himself. Another boy committed suicide at home because of the bullying. I became anorexic and was carving designs into my forearms with straight pins. The only thing that got me through that time was music. I stuck with those lessons through high school and also took classical voice. Unfortunately, the high school that had no music or art classes until my senior year, but that didn’t stop me. Those two subjects, as well as writing, were the things I excelled at and truly loved. They were saving my life. When it was time to look at colleges, my guidance counselor told me that I had to choose only one of those subjects, so I chose my first love music and was accepted, in spite of my failing grades, into two music schools. One was Hart School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and the other was Seton Hill College in Western Pennsylvania. Hart had offered me a scholarship and wanted me in their music education department, but I had no interest in being a teacher. I wanted to be a performer. I had finished the music entrance exam before everyone else and had continued on to the education section just to pass the time and got a perfect score. My parents pushed for that school assuring me that I could come home every weekend. That was the last thing I wanted to do.
My family was dysfunctional and violent. My mother tried to control my every thought. Believe it or not, she chose the clothes I wore every day until I moved out. Dad’s teasing got worse, and during the years that I wore the back brace, he focused on that and my physical appearance. I wanted to get as far away from home as I could and decided, against everyone’s advice, to go to Seton Hill where I was also given a scholarship. I won’t go into all of the details of why, but I failed miserably the first semester, had a mental breakdown and was sent home. It had been the first time in my life that I made my own decisions, but it felt like I had been thrown to the lions. I hadn’t experienced any of the things that normal kids go through in high school. I’d had no relationships of any kind with the opposite sex. I’d never held hands with a boy or even really talked to them much, and I was afraid of my own shadow. Now I was in a whole new world and didn’t handle it well at all. When I came home, my parents were angry. They found me a job at a bank and set me up with a therapist who I couldn’t stand.
The good news was that once I had a job, I had my own money and was able to start living my own life. I started meeting people and started learning how to socialize. I became friends with a woman my age who helped me invent things to tell my therapist. We came up with dreams and fantasies, changing these over time to make it look like I was recovering. What really helped me recover was having a friend and being able to make my own decisions. I went clothes shopping with a friend for the first time, took the train into New York City to go to concerts and just cruise around the big city. I reconnected with a couple of old friends from Junior High School and eventually got my own apartment that I shared with a roommate. I still struggled and made some very bad decisions, but they were my decisions. I was not being ruled with an iron fist. Looking back on it, I think it’s a miracle that I survived. Between my family’s abuse and the abuse that I suffered in high school, it was no wonder that I turned to sex, drugs and alcohol. But I did survive, and everything from my past has led me to the present and a full and fulfilled life.