When I look out the window of my apartment, I see a church building with tall, stone pillars. The dark, wooden front doors are beautiful. But with a careful look, a crack in the glass of a church window becomes visible. It has been mended with tape.
I first noticed the vacant church building when I moved to the University of Cincinnati neighborhood several years ago. I passed the scrubby lawn with its overgrown bushes every time I walked to my university classes. I hoped the church would reopen. But instead, the front sign was removed, leaving only a foundation with empty screws, and the doors were all locked.
One day, out of curiosity, I pressed my face against a side door. Through the glass, I could see the edge of the sanctuary, carpeted in a subtle olive green. Matching, padded, empty pews were positioned in rows, facing a stage. As I looked inside, I was knocked back to a different time and place, when I experienced a deep dormancy inside myself.
There was a time when I was unable to maintain relationships, and I no longer had academic dreams or ambitions. My heart felt icy cold inside of me. I had lost interest in playing my violin in churches and with orchestras, which had once been a source of joy. Undiagnosed schizophrenia had become a silent but devastating intruder.
Violin had always been my passion. At thirteen, I became a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and performed in Cleveland’s Severance Hall, with its marble floors and tall pillars. I also played violin in a church, for weddings and services, in front of a shining stained glass cross.
I chose biology as my college major, and I also served as concertmaster of the university community orchestra. In my spare time, I performed with companies that recorded music for commercials. My second, less expensive violin accompanied me to Nairobi, Kenya in Africa, the summer after my junior year of college. I volunteered there and performed for Kenyan friends.
After returning to America and settling into my dorm room for the fall, my life plans radically changed. Suddenly, I could not read normally. I struggled to concentrate, and was unable to take meaningful notes during class lectures. I felt an irrational and overwhelming sense of obligation to do something about the poverty I had seen in Africa.
As I rejected help from family and friends, my violin remained untouched and forgotten in its case. I refused to correspond with people who cared deeply about me, who I thought I still loved. I quickly sold my violin to a dealer, for an absurdly low price, and sent the money to a medical project in Africa.
While putting my violin up for sale, I felt an emptiness inside that was almost tangible. I felt no guilt for ignoring all communication from family and friends, and no regret over selling the violin. I did not feel angry, or confused, or upset. When friends and family members wrote me again and again, I did not even feel a sense of annoyance, as I blocked their messages, almost mechanically, from my email account.
I rarely remembered the excitement I felt doing research in college, or the pleasure I experienced when I played the violin. It was as though all my relationships, ambitions, and dreams had momentarily disappeared, or were frozen in time. It began in fall of my senior year, when I was first unable to study.
Four years later, when I was hospitalized for schizophrenia, I was resistant to beginning treatment, unaware of how the illness had altered the course of my life. But after a few days on medication, I began to feel emotions I had not perceived in years. I wanted to see my parents again, and relatives, and friends. I wanted to know what had happened in their lives, while I was “away.”
I also wanted to play my violin again. When I realized I sold my best violin, it felt like I had lost a best friend, and I was devastated.
Doctors said that a full recovery was probably not possible. But after a family friend gave me a violin as a gift, I found that my fingers remembered much of their skill. I began to play the violin with other musicians for church services. Violin served as a way to remember who I was, and what was important to me. Through playing, I had a gift to share.
After two years in treatment, with medication and the support of family and doctors, I regained most of my musical ability. I transferred to the University of Cincinnati to finish my bachelor’s degree, and graduated two years later. Thanks to treatment, my heart warmed, and my life moved on.
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I play classical and religious violin music for the homeless and working poor, at dinners sponsored by a local Cincinnati church. When dinner is over and I leave, I often see homeless people resting outside in dirty sleeping bags. Many of these people are severely mentally ill, and I know the sense of emptiness some of them experience. I hope that the struggling people who hear the violin will one day find the medical treatment they need, so they might also awaken from the empty feelings of dormancy, sometimes associated with schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.
I wish I could take my violin into the empty church, tune it, and listen to it resonate, bringing music to the sanctuary, after many years of silence. The abandoned church building always reminds me of my own empty, difficult years. I hope that someday the church will be filled with friends, laughter, and music again.
Today, I have ambitions, dreams, and meaningful relationships. I am grateful to the doctors, family members, and friends who have helped me to finally move on. When I play my beautiful violin, it brings healing and warmth into my heart.
To read more about my descent into schizophrenia, paranoia, and psychosis, and learn how I made it back, please consider reading my book, “Mind Estranged.” And check back frequently for more blog entries and more information about what the CURESZ Foundation is doing to help patients with schizophrenia and their families.