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The musical mad scientist

Internal conflict can consume every aspect of life, generating a feeling of confinement between internal expectations and motivations. As time progresses, one develops coping mechanisms to satisfy both sides.

Tragedy, like terminal illness, affects people regardless of religion, socioeconomic standing or morality. Junior John Hassett’s grandfather was a smoker and alcoholic for the majority of his life, he said. When Hassett was 13, his grandfather died of a heart attack in front of him, which he said really freaked him out at the time, though his passing was not altogether unexpected.

“We were driving out from Yorktown, [Pennsylvania] back to his house, and he was in the front seat, and he was like, ‘I don’t feel so good, so I’m gonna swap the passenger side. I’m just gonna take a nap in the car.’ And everybody was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ He gets out and he just [collapses]. And I had to call 911 and stuff,” Hassett said. “They don’t tell you this in movies: when people die, their eyes get really, really tiny, like needlepoint thin.”

Witnessing a death is horrible, said Jennie Bedsworth, owner of The Counseling Palette and a licensed clinical social worker specializing in therapy for trauma and post-traumatic stress. Such an incident can be especially traumatizing for a child who has limited life experience and understanding of the world. How people respond to a death is largely dependent on their support systems. Without a structure of discipline and love, Bedsworth said, it takes longer for someone to make peace and reconcile with the death.

Children who do not receive the help they need following a traumatic experience could experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety problems or depression, she said. Treatment later in life can help one heal from his or her trauma.

Bedsworth said drug and alcohol abuse can run in families, and growing up in a “dysfunctional setting” might make one more vulnerable to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with stress as he or she grows up. Substance abuse is a mental health problem, though it can also accompany underlying issues such as depression or anxiety. While turning to drugs and alcohol for short-term management may work, Bedsworth said, in the long-term it “starts to mess up your life.”

Hassett, who said he drank alcohol socially and as a coping mechanism his sophomore year, said his grandfather’s alcoholism and his own struggle with depression made him a prime candidate for developing a drinking problem. Hassett no longer consumes alcohol because of the medication he takes. He said if he metabolizes alcohol now, there could be serious, possibly fatal, complications.

“I was like, ‘Does drinking help you not be depressed?’ And then I did it a few times, and I was like, ‘No, now I’m just depressed and bad at holding things.'”

John Hassett, junior

Even at moderate drinking levels, medications can interact with alcohol to result in “adverse health effects for the drinker,” Ron Weathermon, Pharm.D. and David W. Crabb, M.D. wrote in their paper “Alcohol and Medication Interactions” for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Two types of alcohol-medication interactions exist. With pharmacodynamic interactions, alcohol “enhances the effect of the medication” in the central nervous system. In pharmacokinetic interactions, however, alcohol interferes with the way the body metabolizes medication.

“I don’t like being inebriated with the people I was around,” Hassett said. “When people are drunk or they’re high, they’re either cute, funny or annoying, and the majority of the people I’ve been around when they’re like that are very, very annoying. And I’ve found that when I’m inebriated I become more easily annoyed by these other people; in other aspects I become much more calm.”

Alcohol consumption can lead to memory impairment, blackout, recklessness and impaired decision-making in the short term, according to American Addiction Centers, a group aimed at providing help and empowerment for those dealing with addiction. For heavy and/or chronic drinkers, the organization stated, alcohol consumption also can lead to diminished gray matter in the brain, loss of visuospatial abilities, an inability to think abstractly and memory and attention span loss.

Hassett said the cultural idea surrounding underage alcohol consumption presents few consequences for social drinking and, in most cases, binge drinking, too. About 7.4 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 reported alcohol consumption, according to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, though there is a distinction between social drinking and binge drinking.

“Out of social situations I think maybe [for] a few months or so I had a drinking problem, but it never got completely out of hand; however, I am biased, you know,” Hassett, who describes himself as having a “really loose moral compass” and being susceptible to peer pressure, said. “The number one thing a former alcoholic will try to convince you, if they’re not at peace with it, is they’re not an alcoholic. So take that with a grain of salt.”

Growing up with “sound-based anxiety,” a condition similar to phonophobia, Hassett said he developed agoraphobia, the fear of situations that could cause discomfort, and an aversion to social situations and crowds. He used different substances as a way to handle the world around him, relying on them in a sometimes senseless manner. The combination of his sound-based anxiety and depression made alcohol consumption an attractive option. Hassett said his depression impacts how often he eats, sleeps, talks with other people, makes things with his hands or does his school work. He tried to justify his drinking to himself and his friends, but ultimately realized it was an ineffective and self-destructive coping mechanism.

“I was like, ‘Does drinking help you not be depressed?’ And then I did it a few times, and I was like, ‘No, now I’m just depressed and bad at holding things.’ I mean, some days now it’s just like, ‘Ah, I hate being sober. I hate being as aware of things as I am.’ It’s like anxious. Like, it [mellows] you out,” Hassett said. “The way I used to describe it to other people is when all the chemicals in your brain are going all over the place ‘cause you’re nervous or you’re scared or you’re anxious, and you take something that just throws your brain at a wall, it has to, like, relevel itself, and when it does so you’re gonna be back to normal. That’s not true. Don’t listen to that. That’s pure b—s—. Never tell anybody that. It’s terrible advice. But if you’re trying to convince other people that it’s okay that you have like a quarter cup of gin in the mug that you carry around iced tea [in], it works. Sometimes. Other times, no.”

As Hassett understands himself better, he realizes the seminal role music has come to play in his life. Having taken band since middle school where he also played in the jazz band after school, he plays baritone saxophone and joined Emerald Regiment last year. He is proud of his taste in music and his hands-on projects, such as a pickup for acoustic instruments so he can connect them to amplifiers and run a distortion pedal through a mandolin in order to play Black Sabbath. His identity as a musician and his passion for music, he said, have helped him craft a new approach to life.

“I am the sum of all of my actions, good and bad. Because those are the only things that other people see, really.”

John Hassett, junior

“I like to define myself by the results of my creative endeavors,” Hassett said, “because I like talking with other people that have their own creative endeavors and that sharing of ideas.”

He also enjoys making music, seeing people laugh and sharing ideas with other people in small groups. After reading Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel, “Dune,” Hassett said the story’s “uncomfortable philosophy” became important to a deeper sense of who he is or at least who he would like to be.

Hassett believes people are the sum of their actions. Even if he tells someone his thoughts or what he is trying to do, he said he is not the things he wants to be nor the things he thinks about doing unless he actually does them.

“All of the thoughts that you think are only within [your mind], even if you share them with other people. You’re only the things that you do. And you’re not even the things that happen to you, necessarily, right? Because the only thing that you can control is how you respond to everything else going on [around] you,” Hassett said. “So there are things that have happened to me that I don’t define myself by, necessarily, because I don’t view it as an intrinsic part to myself. And there are things that I do that I have to define myself as that I didn’t like. I am the sum of all of my actions, good and bad. Because those are the only things that other people see, really.”

For people diagnosed with a mental illness, defining themselves by an illness identity, “the set of roles and attitudes that a person has developed in relation to his or her understanding of having a mental illness,” can adversely affect their recovery and could further increase their risk of suicide, according to Philip T. Yanos, David Roe and Paul H. Lysaker with the National Center for Biotechnological Information in their study, “The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness.” People with mental health issues such as depression or PTSD can be at risk for suicide or suicidal thoughts, Bedsworth said. In situations involving suicide, she believes the most important thing is for one to share his or her thoughts rather than keeping them bottled up.

“I would definitely encourage people [to], like, talk to your doctor or talk to people at school that you trust, adults that you trust, call like the suicide, national suicide hotline. Just [keep] asking for help until you get it,” Bedsworth said. “‘Cause there are people that want to help; you just gotta find the right people sometimes.”

Did you know?
For those aged 15 to 19, suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidents or unintentional injuries and preceding homicide. Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Hassett considers himself a nice, helpful person but believes others must describe him in that way first for such characteristics to remain true. He said his “narcissistic” view of himself biased him toward his own actions because he is only able to view his treatment of other people through his own lens of self-perception.

“I’m not allowed to define myself as a good person. Those are actions that are interpreted by other people, and those are actions that have to be defined by other people,” he said. “I can’t define them on my own. You need some kind of outsider approval or else you might be fudging your results.”

Though he used substances as a coping mechanism, he believes the term “finding an escape” is flawed. To handle anxiety or shame inducing situations, humans rely on coping mechanisms: adaptive, attack, avoidance, behavioral, cognitive, conversion, defense and self-harm, according to ChangingMinds.org, a site aimed at developing metacognition and philosophical methods of thought. Rather than using music, a substitute for drugs and alcohol, to escape from his life, Hassett relies on it to change his view of the world. Still, he said he lets go of his pain as much as he can, mainly because he does not find it productive.

“I use [musical composition] as [a tool] to make interpretations and reflections of the world as opposed to [trying] to find an escape from it. I write things ‘cause, you know, I have a feeling,” he said. “And it’s like, well, how do I put this feeling into sounds? And then I do. Or I don’t. Or I put something into sound that is a different feeling than the one I was going for, but I work with it anyway.”

Compositional challenges, like trying to understand classical Chinese music theory, rhythmic patterns and chord progressions, allow Hassett to “wig out.” He said he finds peace in music because it allows him to create tension or relax into serenity. While he believes he is inferior to most of his friends in “levels of musical experience and musical skill,” Hassett rationalizes his anxieties of not measuring up to them by taking a step back and realizing there are seven billion people on the planet, each with their own set of unique talents.

“There’s always going to be somebody standing next to you that’s gonna be better than you at something. It doesn’t matter. It matters what you create and what they create and what you do and what they do,” Hassett said. “And perhaps maybe it matters that the two of you can do things together, ‘cause it can be better than either [individual alone].”

Usually Hassett believes his own internalized anxieties create more adversity than what he encounters externally. Still, he said his friends and peers support his personal projects just as he tries to do for them in return because Hassett said he knows what it feels like “to hurt in some of the ways they do.” These relationships help his mental health, he said, and he hopes he offers the same kindness in return.

“I have an amazing support group from my friends. I have an amazing support group from a lot of my peers that I don’t know, as well,” Hassett said. “I think I draw a lot of self-esteem and self respect from the people close to me ‘cause they make me think that I am worth it, and I try to make them think that they are worth it, as well.”

How have internal and external expectations affected your life? Let us know in the comments below.

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