Esther Neff – http://panoplylab.org/estherneff/?p=1856
Reflections on Recording Therapy
By Alex Cohen
I’ve always preferred a structured existence: a life of regimented routines with set goals and fixations. I would wake up, practice, do my daily errands and such, practice more, teach, play a gig, and then go to bed. Rinse and repeat. Six to eight hours of practice a day and very little social interaction seemed like a good life plan, and a good way to keep safe from the world. I could always excuse my eccentricities as part of being ‘a stereotypically weird artist’ and came to define myself as an instrument. My world was centered around a single-minded pursuit, so I guess in that sense, life was good.
Nearly four years ago, everything began to change. I was thrust onto my first major, European tour, a gig that offered a good opportunity to show the musical community just how awesome I was. Given my single-mindedness and general arrogance, I thought that I was fully prepared to take the next step in my career. What began as a great leap turned into a fall, and then a full-fledged collapse; the first full implosion that I would experience in a series of breaking points that would completely shape my existence today.
So exactly what happened? When you define yourself as one thing, and base your entire existence off of an instrument, spending a month being reminded how inferior you are to someone else can be pretty painful. Sure enough, I was thrust into a situation where, every night for a month, I opened for a drummer who played with ten times the prowess and ability I did. I got yelled at, got guitar picks thrown at me on stage, and got constantly berated about how much homework I needed to do. I contemplated quitting. I contemplated taking a plane back, and then flying to wherever the hell I could just to escape from my life. The whole experience still feels like a surreal dream, and yet it was just the first chapter in a long series of events.
Now fast-forward one year. After much contemplation and soul-searching, you make the effort to meet other artists. You collaborate, you begin to recover from the trauma of what happened in Europe, and someone believes in you when you don’t even believe in yourself. They become one of your closest friends and collaborators. You form an artistic and personal bond that begins to flourish, and then they mention ‘the most incredible person they’ve ever met’. He consistently invites a small group of people to a remote house where they don’t get paid, they don’t do any work, but they just seem to exist in an alternate reality that orbits around this one ‘incredible’ individual. They’re all so happy to be there in such splendid isolation, and in such a ‘magical’ environment. ‘Cult’ is the word that immediately came to mind, and ‘Cthulhu’ is the image conjured. Yes, I really just said that.
One day, your friend goes to Europe and then suddenly disappears. You’re frantic; you call and offer to help in any way possible, but you get no response. None of your fellow artists can get in touch either. Finally, after a week of desperately reaching out, you get a reply in the form of a text: they’re with the Cthulhu cult. They’ve chosen to seek help with something deceptively benevolent to anyone looking for a way out, and yet blatantly sinister in so many other ways. There’s a lot more darkness and despair in this backstory, but I will say in the moment, that was closest I’ve ever felt to complete and utter failure.
When I experienced such a tragic scenario, the second breaking point occurred. I lost a person who I loved to Cthulhu (for the record, the cult leader actually looked like the spitting-image of Cthulhu), and at some point, an escape through any means became necessary to search for a way to mitigate such feelings of failure. The options became weighed, and suddenly I chose to do something that never would have even crossed my mind years ago. Maybe the goal became a tribute to what happened in Europe, the people who were helping to overcome it, and what was suddenly lost to Cthulhu, or maybe it was simply created from sheer desperation and foolish willpower. Two years of construction ensue where I suffered consecutive mental breakdowns, almost died three times, and then found out that my father had malignant brain cancer. Eventually, my friend escaped the clutches of the cult, and yet the pain inflicted on them by Cthulhu endured. Our relationship became damaged, and ultimately, we parted ways for a time.
In such a scenario, the world ultimately feels like it’s caving in, and you reach the third breaking point; where you debate ending it all. Yet somehow, art endures in the most subtle ways. There’s still that faint glimmer that inspired so much creativity, even in the face of so much Darkness. Maybe it’s foolish, maybe it’s brilliant, but you reach toward it again. Either way, I finally sought professional help and reached out to other people who I loved, and had realized how important it was that they loved me back.
If there’s one thing I learned from everything that happened, it’s that art, music, and ultimately what is built from the ashes of such experiences can be the most cathartic force in the world. I went back and sought to repair relationships I had damaged in my selfishness. I worked to actively seek new friendships and comraderie. I stopped the eight-hour practice sessions. They no longer felt necessary anymore as I’m attempting to distance myself from the drums. Maybe I’m finally heading for a new way to define myself that doesn’t involve self-punishment.
So two years later, what you spent so much time making is finally used by those who it was intended for. It’s an amazing feeling when something comes full-circle, and I think it’s the ultimate testament to the true power of art and the healing process involved. I’ve also come to realize that everything that happened over the past two years occurred for a reason. It’s not so much faith as it is fate: a realization that someone you love is still alive when, had things gone slightly differently, they most likely would not be. Sure, the journey to such a point may be difficult, but then again, growing pains always are. I guess our art truly does bring us together even after the damage has been done, and then works to heal the wounds and strengthen the bonds.
Other Eyes: The World As Viewed From a Different Mind
by Alex Cohen
To truthfully paraphrase my thoughts, I see the world differently than a neuro-typical person does. By neuro-typical, I mean someone not on the Autism spectrum, or afflicted by any of its subsequent disorders. I’m far enough down the spectrum to feel the effects, yet functional enough so as to write and converse on a reasonable level. I also was diagnosed with a minor case of Savant Syndrome, or a mild version of the condition that allows autistics who can barely form coherent sentences to also be able to multiply six-digit numbers instantaneously. In essence, I see a lot of life from two sides: I live independently and make a career, and yet I see and experience a world vastly different than the majority of individuals.
A lot of people (particularly those in the New York music scene) have become aware of some of the feats I’m able to perform on the drum set, such as executing vastly complicated, technically-demanding patterns with great ease. It’s both flattering and humbling to be getting recognition for my abilities and the work I’ve put in, but I need to emphasize that none of this is easy, nor is it without cost. I view rhythmic formation as an established grid, with a metronome appearing as a white, blinking light corresponding to various intervals on the grid. When I play something complex, my brain calculates the phrase by placing the notes onto the lines in my head while measuring the subdivisions. It’s actually maddening in many ways, as I can’t really view music as being ‘fun’ so much as being a necessity which my mind needs to function. If there’s one thing I can tell you about people with savant-like abilities, it’s that they’re like an addiction. Maybe the addiction isn’t to drugs or alcohol, but it’s to a specific interest that becomes all-consuming and occupies your every thought and action. Ultimately, that’s why I think most people with these skills (myself included) are incredibly single-minded, and very closed off to others: We hyper-focus in a way that ultimately begins to become detrimental.
Sometimes I think I exist in harmony with this world, and other times I feel like an alien: A complete outsider who can’t seem to figure out how to function on a basic level. Personal relationships are incredibly difficult for me. Romantic ones are nonexistent. It’s not that I don’t want them, it’s just that I don’t know how to have them. I’ve always had an incredibly difficult time reading others’ cues and knowing what they want, or how to judge affectations, love, and so many other emotions that come as second-nature for most people. While romantic relationships are seemingly common for others, I can’t understand how to start one. It’s just not in my programming, and it’s a code that is a mystery no matter how much I think about it or analyze it. That’s another thing about skills that are seemingly paired with your place on the spectrum; you start to view them more as a curse than a blessing, and a trade-off for the traits you wish you had. Where as others watch a person perform amazing feats, that person may come to view their ‘gift’ as overcompensation for a deficiency elsewhere. I guess I’ve come to this conclusion in some ways, as the clear deficiencies grow more and more upsetting the older I get, and often overshadow the ‘gifts’.
Through reflection and research, I’ve come to understand that I see the world as a series of adjustable images. I’ve always been a very visual person, and was originally supposed to be a visual artist and not a musician when I was a child. When a situation arises, I view it as a series of complete, varied, visual outcomes, some good, and some bad. The images play in my head and my brain constantly processes them as they apply to all different scenarios. This consistent process is why I can’t sit still, and why a lot of people say I live in ‘my own little world’. In some ways, I really do, and can amuse myself for hours by thinking up various fantastical or alternate situations based on reality. It’s almost as if words and their applications come secondary to me, and I see life as a series of data files complete with sounds and effects. To be honest, I thought that everyone saw things this way for quite some time before realizing that this form of visual thinking isn’t really that common at all.
Autistics are often singled out for bullying by their peers for being ‘different’ or ‘weird.’ I was no exception, and endured torment for years. Bullying is hard to detect, especially when you can’t read social cues. The older I got, the more I realized how much I had been and was being taunted. To this day, even in my adult life, the guard I put up to avoid and protect against those years of bullying endures. Often times, that’s why people seem to find me cold, unapproachable, and dismissive. To those who have experienced me to be this way, I apologize.
Although I experience the same emotions as others, I ‘import’ them in a very different manner. Everything I experience has to pass a cerebral analysis for me, in which I break down the feeling to its core, and try to dissect why it affects me in a certain way. I think that’s why I often come off as disconnected or unemotional. I simply don’t process the emotions of sadness, love, joy, and so many others in the same way as a neuro-typical person does. Many times, I both feel and come off as immature and underdeveloped because of this process, and how it prevents me from immediately adapting to certain situations.
I’ve come to believe that, in some ways, being on the more high-functioning end of the spectrum is more difficult than being on the lower. When you’re more high-functioning, you see yourself as almost there; almost to normalcy, and yet still lacking so many of those basic skills that would make you enjoy life so much more. There are those who say the grass is greener on the other side, but if someone were to tell me that they could rewind my life fifteen years, make me normal, and give me romance, friendships, and the life I’ve come to so desire, I’d throw out every piece of drum gear I’ve ever owned, burn my recording studio to the ground, and never look back. I truly mean every word I just wrote.
When it comes to some the more ‘savant’ elements, I get asked a lot of questions as to how I was able to develop my rhythmic approach to such an advanced degree. The answer is that my skillset can only be described as from a different perspective, one that approaches the instrument as differently as other elements of the world. Being able to execute complex ideas is as much a matter of repetition and perseverance as a natural inclination; hence the addiction-like traits. For example, after suffering a complete Asperger’s meltdown while working on Marco Minnemann’s second, near-impossible book, I later went back to the book in an attempt to finally finish it once and for all, because I knew there was valuable information I needed to wring out of it. You can find the answers to repetition through that kind of dedication, and the madness that comes with it. Ultimately, I think there are plenty of people who actually pick this material up far more naturally than I do, but may not have the desire to see themselves through the frustratingly difficult elements that are part of my approach. I think that really, a lot of what I worked out and developed on the instrument doesn’t really benefit me musically, but truly is more like an extension of the overcompensation for all the other areas in life I found myself lacking.
Many autistics have been asked, ‘Would you rid yourself of it if you had a choice?’ Temple Grandin, (author of Thinking in Pictures) has repeatedly stated ‘no’, as it gives her a unique identity. Maybe my Asperger’s makes me unique in some ways, but I would happily get rid of it if given the chance. I guess I’m giving a dissimilar view from the ‘other side’, and one with which the charm of ‘being unique’ or ‘gifted’ has long since vanished, and all I’d like is to be more like the majority of others. Don’t take my words as being representative of all people in my position, but more as coming the from viewpoint of someone who’s lived enough in both worlds to have formed a conscious decision based on experience.