My Dreaded Bandmaster
“Panic cannot kill you, Kathy…”
With all my heart I wanted to believe it, but my music students drowned out my doctor’s reassuring words. Inside my head, cornets squawked and drums hammered. Clarinets screeched like dying rabbits. I squinted at the car windshield, searching for a single hopeful note in the Missouri drizzle, but two slapping batons kept wiping the score clean.
I’m losing my mind, but no one can know. I’m a teacher — a professional!
My fingers trembled on the cold steering wheel, while a drummer thumped painfully in my chest. Shadows gyrated in the headlights of my Impala, and I held my breath as waves of fear swept through me.
I have to get home, now!
I jammed the accelerator, and a duet of rubber screamed at a sharp curve where the shadowy figures were leaping into a ravine. It seemed that an immense, gentle hand-held me to the shoulder long enough for me to wrench the steering wheel away from the macabre parade. Back on the pavement, my terror ebbed a little, and I slowed my car, but not my racing heart.
Panic cannot kill me…
Maybe not, but these “attacks” compelled me to behave irrationally. Like a merciless conductor, fear had been orchestrating my life since childhood. I couldn’t recall exactly when I began taking cues from this abusive bandmaster.
Had he entered my life in grade school when kids taunted me for having “dirty teeth”? As a child I was asthmatic, and tetracycline injections had caused my permanent teeth to grow in “black.” The trauma stained my self-image long after a dentist veneered my teeth white.
Had he come in my childhood, when voices jolted me awake night after night? Dad and Mom’s tempers boiled over in the kitchen, and in bed, I lay riveted to their quarreling.
Or maybe it was when my family moved away from my beloved neighborhood on Grace Road. A seed of terrible sorrow took root when I never saw my best friend, Tammy, again.
Growing up together, my two brothers could not understand me. Any hint of criticism sent me scurrying to my bedroom in unreasoning panic. I hungered for their approval, but my unpredictable, torrential outbursts dredged a growing chasm between us.
My father had an important job working for the U.S. Postal Service, and when he got home, I often peeked from doorways to study his scowl, too timid to ask the question that panted in my soul: “Daddy, what’s wrong with me?”
After supper, Dad usually disappeared into his garage to “fix” things, while I retreated to my bedroom after watching MASH or The Brady Bunch, and I mistakenly thought that my father despised the sight of his “crazy” little girl. My postman father and I tramped similar cheerless routes whenever we tried to communicate: His feelings had no return address; I scattered my emotions in a whirlwind. I ended most evenings staring out the window, pleading to God for Mom to get home early after working the nightshift; she usually arrived by midnight, bone tired. After she said goodnight to me, I listened through the walls.
More arguing. Kitchen chairs scraping the linoleum floor.
Doom cradled me close as I stared into the darkness of my room. An oscillating fan beside my bedroom window nodded back and forth, rustling my hair with invisible fingers. Drapes beckoned rhythmically, and the heavy odor of frying food stubbornly clung to the breeze. Mom and Dad had scrimped and saved to build this “dream home” that we lived in.
Then, in fifth grade, at the peak of my confusion, God had entrusted me with an unexpected gift that helped lift me above the chaos in my family. I came home from school, and on my bed, inside a shiny brown case, an Artley flute lay nestled in blue velvet. It was a present from Mom and Dad, and tears filled my eyes; I barely breathed as I lifted the flute to my lips that first time — a gentle stream and my flute spoke to me! Its tiny wavering voice filled my soul with joy, and in time, like the dye in new blue jeans, my childhood depression slowly faded to a manageable hue.
I practiced with my flute ferociously, learning to read music and mastering the finger positions — and if I shone brighter than other students in music classes, it was because I polished my talent like my sanity depended upon it (and it probably did). In music, I found order, unity, logic and a way to channel my inferno of emotions. When I played my flute, a blessed resonance distracted me from the dread of living, and to my delight, my peers at school saw me in a fresh spotlight, as an artist, a musician.
By playing in recitals, contending for music awards and spending every spare moment on flute practice, for a time I blunted the agony of watching my family implode. But one evening Mom and Dad’s marriage vows shattered in a crescendo of blame, and not even music could shelter me from the pain. We kids had to choose whom we would live with. I chose Mom; my two brothers chose Dad. Caring friends at church tried to console me. Mom and I packed up boxes of clothes and moved to a little duplex in Battlefield, Missouri.
Panic attacks stalked me throughout my teens and into my senior year at high school, but I was learning to immerse the “triggers” for my unreasoning fear in ceaseless activities. I practiced my flute for long hours, and I worked at a music store in the evenings. I devoted most of my spare time to my demanding music instructors.
I won a coveted music scholarship to Southwest Missouri State University, and from the first day at their stately fine arts building, Ellis Hall, I made up my mind to make a fresh start.
No one knows me here. I can be whoever I want to be!
And I changed. I buried my fears in a consuming academic environment and discovered wondrous friendships and even romance. I reveled in a newfound freedom from the dark conductor who had controlled me during my adolescence, and I graduated from SMSU with honors.
My professors recommended me for a celebrated placement in one of Missouri’s oldest schools as their director of music, but that’s where my abusive bandmaster forced his way into my life again.
As a music teacher at Linfield High School, I cued up for him like a marionette — feeling like the little girl with black teeth, unloved and lonely once again.
Yet for the Linfield students and faculty, I somehow carried off an encore performance.
In a gopher-pocked cow pasture (our boosters called it a football field), I delivered a cheery, practiced speech to my students attending their first summer band camp: “How many of you have played in a marching band before?”
The baker’s dozen of girls and boys seemed to be sizing up the gopher holes as an escape, and I fought down rising (this time reasonable) panic. Bugles drooped carelessly in their hands, and the nervous drummers in baggy red shorts knelt on the brown grass, jamming drumsticks at the dirt mounds. How could I possibly regiment these passionless farm kids into a functioning drum and bugle corps by the time school began in only two months?
So I marched them.
Like a drunken centipede we snaked up and down the field, thumping drums and blaring noise in a futile search for rhythm. Some could march; some could blow bugle notes as I directed — just not at the same time. We tripped through the simplest of drills (while I fought my own urge to crawl down a gopher hole), and over the weeks I pruned our presentation to fewer and fewer physical maneuvers and even less music. Percussion would have to carry the day and perhaps a few notes — I hoped the Linfield boosters loved drums.
“Mom, I … I’m falling apart.”
After teaching summer music classes at Linfield all day, I lay awake all night, tortured with insomnia, while my old bandmaster probed my nerves with brutal fingers. In the oppressive Missouri heat, I propped an oscillating fan at an open window beside my bed, where the curtains waltzed like mournful spirits. I lost interest in formerly consoling foods (staples while I was at SMSU) like Frito pie, Ramen noodles, pickles — and I couldn’t bear to pick up my flute, now a symbol of lost dreams.
My fingers began to exhibit strange behaviors, jerking uncontrollably, as if I played an invisible piano; and worse, I was losing control of my thoughts. Away from my bedroom I worried that this “disturbed” Kathy might try to steal the stage, and I poured out my despair over the phone to my mother. She listened helplessly, sensing my slide away from reality, and made up her mind to enlist the aid of an old friend.
“Why don’t you go see Pastor Randolf, Kathy? Maybe he can help…” Our former pastor immediately urged me to see a Christian counselor that he knew and trusted.
My looming failure as music instructor overshadowed every waking moment, and seeing Dr. Robert Gladden in Springfield seemed the least of my worries. And I desperately needed to talk to someone.
At their first football game, the Linfield Drum and Bugle Corps stole a few moments at halftime, and (considering whom my students had as an instructor) they played well. Sweat stained their stiff hand-me-down uniforms, and parents applauded their efforts. I, too, lavished praise on my students — inwardly demoralized at my poor performance as their university-trained teacher. Everything I had achieved in five glorious years at SMSU now seemed like overhyped concert billing. Even in a Missouri cow town I was out of my league; I watched my students trudge off the field, their expressions empty.
After my halftime debut, my “failures” gathered chaotic momentum. I hated myself for not loving my new career, and every day, teaching at school became a growing nightmare.
Careless children clattered into hard metal chairs with rusty brass and reed-less clarinets — with the school principal hot on their heels.
“Can you take another few students?” Principal Bowers, short and harried, already knew my answer. I was part of the Linfield “team” now — how could I refuse?
A few of my children actually teetered at the edge of becoming passable musicians if I could only ignite their passion. But at school they grappled with unending distractions every day.
The summer before my arrival as their teacher, an explosion had rocked the agricultural and adjacent buildings (from a bad mix of chemicals), and students had “landed” in hastily converted schoolrooms all over the Linfield campus while new buildings were being constructed.
My music classroom shared space with the busy school library; the adjoining gym had been temporarily divided into six classrooms where sweaty coaches hollered out cadence for push ups. Cheerleaders shared the theater stage with English classes (at different times of day), and burly carpenters in cowboy boots enhanced our rehearsals with buzzing saws and hammer percussions.
I was smack in the middle of a TV Hallmark Hall of Fame special (where a heroic, cultured young woman rescues artless farm children from their “hayseed” destinies), but no one cooperated. Parents excused my students from band rehearsals to milk the family cow, slop the pigs or gather chicken eggs — and it infuriated me.
How could I show these farmers that a love for woodwind or brass might energize their children with purpose?
Music has changed MY life!
“Miss Cooper.” A stubby boy stood at my desk shaking his instrument with a quirky grin. “They’re inside my trumpet again.”
I shook his horn, and it sounded like a tinny maraca. I choked the throat vigorously, and BBs rolled onto my desk.
I growled and handed the instrument back to the boy.
A girl in coveralls, near tears, handed me her drum, pierced and ripped. My stomach knotted.
Dark and ominous, my childhood bandmaster once again held me firmly in his grip; I had no friends to distract me from depression and no college instructors to bury me in late evening practices. Each morning I dragged myself out of bed to unlock a back door to the music room, barely able to face teaching: high school band, boys and girls choir, junior high band and drum and bugle corps.
By Christmas, Linfield had exhausted my last note of patience, though none of the school faculty noticed. I felt that I had failed in my first deployment as a music teacher in the “real” world, and my physical appearance told my story. Gone was the shapely, self-assured concert flutist. My full-length mirror reflected a husk: Crisp well-ironed dresses draped my thin slumping shoulders.
If only Linfield’s school principal had seen through my sterling resume! Was it just last winter that I vied for first chair at university concerts?
I longed to be back at Ellis Hall, the nucleus of my academic world. At Ellis, we budding college artists had mingled talents and were infused with purpose. None in my tightly knit student group had seemed tormented by the same toxic bandmaster as I, and now, in my lucid moments, I sometimes analyzed my agonizing plunge toward insanity. My intensity (so lauded among artists) shrouded inner demons. I had honed my flute playing to a razor’s edge, but I never confronted the roots of my fear.
While working at Linfield, my panic attacks were surpassing my worst episodes as a child. I was fighting memory lapses, and sometimes my mental calendar skipped crucial dates.
“I’m so sorry! Yes, I’m on the way!” The school principal had curtly ended our conversation, and I hung up the phone, stunned. I had forgotten about my own music students’ open house!
In minutes I arrived at school where pickups stuffed with hay bales and family station wagons filled the gravel parking lot with winter smog. My Impala sputtered into a parking space, and parents spotted me; their engines ceased to grumble, and children in colorful mittens and hugging instrument cases scuffed behind me as I fumbled for keys.
After work at home, late into the night, I conjured up childhood memories. I replayed scenes of a shivering little girl curled in a closet to hide — the picture stung my soul; but like gaping at a slasher movie, I couldn’t tear my imagination away.
I remembered asking my brother once, “Do you think there’s something wrong with me, Trent?” I had always trusted my younger level-headed brother, who seemed glued to his 10-speed all summer. He had studied the concrete floor in my dad’s shop, then straightened and met my eyes before wheeling out the door.
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, and I managed to hold myself together for a matter of seconds before weeping uncontrollably.
But that was years ago!
How was it possible for a 25-year-old professional woman to outshine her concert spotlight under epic competitive stress and perform intricate flute solos for demanding audiences, yet panic at the smell of frying chicken? Or collapse in terror in the breeze of a blowing fan? I had to understand why. Perhaps my mother was right to enlist the help of a counselor — but my school colleagues must never know that I was visiting a “shrink”!
During our first sessions, I might never have invited Dr. Gladden to probe my carefully defended mental cubbyholes, except that subconsciously, I felt that I knew him. His voice had soothed me, and his gentle round professor-like face had calmed my nerves when I was a little girl. When we shook hands for the first time, I stared into the eyes of my hero: Dr. Sidney Freedman from my favorite television series, MASH.
Meeting someone who looked identical to my childhood TV “mentor” had to be utterly providential, and I immediately trusted Bob, a former Baptist minister. My “trust” lasted until my second visit. At his office in Springfield, a familiar angst rose in my chest when he began scribbling down my “secrets.”
“Are you writing down everything I say?” My eyes snapped to the notebook in his hand.
“Does it bother you that I’m taking notes about you?” he asked.
“I think so. May I see what you’re writing?”
Bob smiled. “Of course.”
I scanned the barely legible chicken scratches, and Bob allowed me to be “in control” of our session for a moment longer before asking his next questions. He shoved the notebook into his desk drawer and never notated again in my presence.
My old bandmaster often tried to cue up panic at these therapy sessions, but in the company of my newfound confidant and friend, I discovered an inner strength to rebuff his overtures. Bob never knew when my frantic voice might be on the other end of the phone line day or night, and his gentle but firm counsel helped me refocus my mind away from memories that my merciless bandmaster demanded I play over and over.
I had a dream that summed up my relationship with Dr. Gladden: I was being chased into a barn by two strangers, and I climbed into a hayloft to hide. I closed myself inside a small room and curled up in the cool darkness, alone. Suddenly a door opened next to me — one I never knew existed — and Bob’s smiling face appeared. “It’s okay. You’re safe now, Kathy.” Relief flooded my heart. My rescuer had come, but only in my dreams; in reality, I continued to spiral downward…
Outdoors a dreary confection of ice and snow fell, as January pulled on pack boots to slosh through the final three months of Missouri winter. I had just returned home from school and wearily flopped on my sofa, fighting the urge to bother Bob again, and mulling yet another day of failure. I couldn’t face staying awake, but I couldn’t sleep, either. I heard the tap of a baton in my soul, and a wave of terror washed over me.
The thought of most foods made me ill, and at our last meeting Bob had asked me what I could eat and keep down.
“Hershey bars,” I had said wearily.
“Then stock up, Kathy.”
I filled my refrigerator with neat rows of the candy, and now I nibbled one as I stared out the window at the darkness. I imagined layers of ice cocooning the telephone lines. I could feel myself yielding to my utter aloneness. Where were my old college buddies now? No one ever called me. No one really cared if I lived or died, and neither did I.
My fingers began their strange chaotic jerking again as my heart began to race. Bob had advised me to find a new focus when I felt panic heightening — a change of scenery, a television show or music — and my eyes locked on the stereo a few steps away. I tried to stand to my feet, but for some reason, my limbs refused to obey.
I could see the phone next to me, but my arms would not reach out, and I shut my eyes, straining for reconnection of brain and nerves. I knew Bob’s phone number by heart — if I could just break through the fear paralyzing me!
God, help me! God!
Slowly, painfully, a vision beckoned me to the kitchen, where I stood before the sink. I opened the silverware drawer and reached my hand inside, feeling the cool wooden handle of a butcher knife…
I stood serenely, the thin blade poised inches from my heart…
The scene that raced across my soul sickened me, and exhaustion raked my mind clean. Two hours later, I awoke, repelled and relieved at the same time — it wasn’t real. And I could move again. Stiffly I uncurled from my frozen fetal position and called Bob.
“You need to come in and talk about this, Kathy. Can you be here at 10 o’clock?”
“I … yes, I’ll be there,” I said and shakily set my alarm. It was now the wee hours of Saturday, and I’d have plenty of time to drive to his Springfield office in the morning. Christmas concerts were over, and no great challenges lay ahead until Tuesday, when my junior high students competed in a district music contest.
But how can I fill my hours until I talk to Bob?
Numbness had crept into my hands, and confusing thoughts crowded my mind again. I grabbed a Hershey bar, nibbled and prayed.
“God, oh, God. Help me. Please,” I pleaded over and over aloud. I grabbed my Bible and read something that never broke through my confusion — then mercifully I fell asleep.
The brilliant sunny snowy morning should have lifted my spirits, but its beauty only condemned me for feeling gloomy. It was a day that would change the direction of my life forever; and it began with a test.
“Let me know when you’re finished, Kathy.”
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was a cinch, compared to music theory exams at college, and Dr. Gladden assured me that there were no right or wrong answers. The MMPI diagnosed personality disorders and assessed the potential for self-injury, and I flew through the 500-plus questions. I shook my head as I finished: Eating habits, sleeping habits, routines — I answered truthfully the best I could, but the questions seemed inane.
I had trained myself to “tough it out” when I was under stress, until I was alone and “safe,” where my emotions might shatter in pieces like delicate china, and after the test I drove home with a quiet, fearful resignation. I fought down panic as I realized that finally someone besides my mom might know how crazy I really was — and Bob called that evening.
“We need to get you some help, Kathy.”
My shoulders slumped under my robe.
“Kathy, your MMPI tells me that you are very ill, tending toward hurting yourself. I’d like you to be admitted to St. John’s Hospital where we can help you break free of this depression.”
Panic swelled past floodgates in my brain, and I tried to keep my voice calm. “You want me to go to the nuthouse? I have to take my kids to a music contest on Tuesday. I can’t deal with this right now, Bob. I’m not suicidal!” Even as I said it, my soul urged insistently: But you need help!
“Now, Kathy, St. John’s is a place to rest and get your bearings.”
A deep breath, then weakly I asked, “How long would I have to stay?”
“It depends solely upon your progress. Perhaps days or — sometimes it takes a few weeks.”
Weeks? My teaching career would be DEAD.
I yearned to break from my bandmaster’s grip once and for all, but to dismantle my own career was — insane! It might be acceptable for artists to chat about therapy sessions over a latte, but what would my students and their parents think if they knew I had been “institutionalized”? Or my peers!
Do I need a team of experts to help me escape from fear once and for all — and is my “freedom” worth a lifetime stigma? Isn’t Bob overreacting?
“I … I need a few days. My junior high class has a music contest on Tuesday, so —”
Bob cut me off. “Kathy, you really are ill. Why don’t you stay in town with your mother this weekend, and I’ll meet you Monday morning at St. John’s. I’ll be with you.”
God, help me. Please.
“I’ll help you sign yourself in, and afterward, you can leave on your own accord after prescribed treatment — or if you don’t wish to cooperate, I will commit you to St. John’s, and you’ll leave when I tell you. One way or the other, you’ll be in the hospital Monday morning.”
There was no reasoning with the man. I hung up the phone, and my eyes were drawn to the kitchen. I shivered. I needed help, no doubt. Resignedly I packed a suitcase and drove to Mom’s house, feeling my future slipping from my control.
I rehearsed a story to tell the Linfield principal.
Perhaps I’ll survive with my reputation intact if everyone thinks that I have a very personal “unspecified” medical condition.
When Mom saw me, she knew by my red, teary eyes that it was going to be a long weekend.
“Bob says I have to go to the crazy house — St. John’s. I took a psych test, and he says I need … help.” I expected Mom to look aghast. “And if I don’t go voluntarily, he said…”
Mom held me close as I sobbed. Then she took my hand, looked me in my eyes and smiled. “It’s alright. I’ll be there with you.”
But she won’t be able to stay the whole time…
I would be alone with insane people, perhaps clawing at wallpaper or screaming at ghosts. It was already more than I could bear, and late into the night I rocked mechanically in front of Mom’s fireplace, my eyes fixed on the flames licking at embers as they died down to smoke. I quivered and snuggled deeper into a blanket that Mom wrapped around my shoulders — a pink one that I remembered covering my twin bed with as a child.
I hated the thought of adding to Mom’s personal trials. She had remarried and was busy adjusting to new relationships with his family. And somehow she had missed the signs that the man was an alcoholic. Now there would be plenty to talk about on both sides of the family — and by odd coincidence, one of my new stepsisters worked at St. John’s in the psych ward. I prayed that she wouldn’t be there when I arrived — I would be too embarrassed to check in.
But on Monday, any hope of preserving my reputation died.