Saturday, August 28, 2010

Smashing the Bell Jar, Once and for All

I recently saw a 2009 interview with the stunningly talented pop sensation Lady Gaga and was aghast, not only because of her genius and creativity, but because this poised, wise, already-an-icon diva is just 23 years old—basically at the beginning stages of her career, with something like 15 million album sales already to her credit.

As Gaga would be the first to probably tell you, the number means nothing, as music is her religion--something she would create regardless of whether or not she succeeded. Instead, she says, it’s the spirituality of her pursuits, and the creative and joyous outlets that go with it that provide her with the necessary inspiration for continuing—the writing, the recording, the videos, the live shows, and most important, the fans.

Years ago, I might have felt envious of this startling young woman, as I, too, was a performing songwriter in the mid-90s and early 2000s, right up until the time I became too ill to continue, and thus had little to say in the form of a pop song anymore.

With the tens of thousands of talented musicians out there hoping to make it in the music business, I suppose I didn’t fare too badly during my heyday, although my career didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the commercial success of Lady Gaga. I've talked about my former career in other posts and so won't repeat myself here, but the upshot is that while I carry no sadness or disappointment about my songs not finding a home in the earthly catalog (and thus on people’s MP3 players), I do feel a type of ache when I witness the vitality of artists who come from a happy home. If I envy anything, it’s the abundance of unencumbered fun they have in bravely expressing their true essence in all they do, having a type of faith that their creativity and love from others will provide a bedrock of strength and a cushion of comfort when life's challenges erupt.

When I think back on when I was 23 years old (I’m now 51), I remember that as the year that I first went into therapy. It happened out of absolute necessity, as the band-aids that had been holding my psyche together since college completely collapsed after my reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which believe it or not, sent me into a freefall of anxiety and depression so bad that I remember telling my mother one night while sitting on the edge of my bed that I literally could no longer move.

I was frozen solid in position, so paralyzed by the constant criticisms of my father over the course of my entire life that the moment had finally arrived that I just no longer knew which way to turn. I didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but now I see it. And so did my therapist that very first day I sat in her office, who told me at the end of the session that my issues were with my dad, an opinion I completely disagreed with at the time, as everyone knew he was a great guy, and the problem was my insane brain, not him.

I’m not sure what drove Sylvia Plath, but we both obviously ended up in the same place, and the image of being stuck in the bell jar terrified me. I saw myself as a carnival sideshow--a creepy deformed contortion of a human being, as if someone had placed me in the jar as a baby and left me there to grow within in it, ultimately becoming too large to ever get out of the jar's small opening on my own. Even though the image was just a metaphor, it felt strikingly real, and a seething claustrophobia set in, gripping me with such terror that I ultimately became paralyzed on that bed, drained of all energy by absolute, suffocating fear.

What also terrified me was that Plath's book was no ordinary book--it was the beginning of the end, in a sense, in that the issues she so beautifully dealt with in her novel, the issues I so readily identified with, were the exact issues that were to kill her off years later when she took her own life. Talk about being freaked out.

To compare that 23-year-old person with today’s 23-year-old Lady Gaga is a study indeed on the influence of our parents, which was made all the more clear by Gaga’s endearing comments on the wonderful relationship she has with her own father, who supports literally everything she does, as does her mother. “He gets me,” she says, and if there was ever a thing about her that I would envy, that would be it right there.

It took me a full two years to admit to my therapist that what I wanted to be in life was a musician, and took another ten pick up a guitar and begin writing music in earnest. When it came, it poured out of me with a creative zeal and necessity that Gaga has most likely been feeling nearly all of her young life. It took me 12 years to pick up that guitar, and took many more to feel worthy of just being alive.

I realize that the job of any artist is to document his or her journey, no matter what it may be, and I’ve done that to the best of my ability. What a waste, though, to have had to do so much work just to get to Level Zero, to get to the blank canvas on which to begin creating.

But is “waste” the right word? Nothing is wasted if you can use it somehow to help others. I used to feel a certain bitterness about the added weight I knew I was carrying around that others weren’t, but to indulge in that feeling would be the real waste. Years ago, my depression wouldn’t have allowed me the choice to give up a negative feeling. But I have that choice now, and I’m grateful.

Even as this chronic pain continues as I write (no doubt the lingering scar from my stressful past), I feel happy for and inspired by Lady Gaga, thrilled that I’m so completely out of the bell jar that I’m even able to be inspired. I still can’t muster up a new song, but I am painting and writing, and excited to start flamenco classes again in September (if I can afford it).

When I first entered therapy with those terrifying visions of being so trapped in the jar, I wondered how in the world I’d ever get out of it. It never once occurred to me back then that there were those out there who would have compassion for me, who would help me get out of it, who would do whatever it took to break the glass to set me free.

How wonderful for the Lady Gagas of the world who know that compassion from Day One. They know they can count on it as they embark on their life’s journey.

I’m still a bit suspect, but enough already. This lack of faith is starting to get old, frankly. Evidence is presenting itself everywhere these days that it's time to begin trusting again. While the bell jar glass has been shattered, it's up to ME to step out of its remains and begin walking the earth.

For years, I was so afraid to move. Thanks Gaga, for inspiring me to dance.


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