String Theory: How Learning to Play the Violin Saved Me​ by Jason Cheung​

Jason Cheung is a performance artist who advocates on mental health issues, specifically recovery through his dramatic re-telling of his personal story of lived experience. He is involved with the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and the Mental Health Commission of Canada as a volunteer.  His piece, “The Instruments of Precision,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

Jason Cheung is a performance artist who advocates on mental health issues, specifically recovery through his dramatic re-telling of his personal story of lived experience. He is involved with the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and the Mental Health Commission of Canada as a volunteer.  His piece, “The Instruments of Precision,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

As I ruminated over my experience of learning to play the violin, playing collaboratively, and then using those skills to heal myself and others, I found Erica Fletcher’s “Viola Strings and Other Troubles: Mentoring a Medical Student’s Artistic Endeavors” (Intima Spring 2014) a source of inspiration. Ms. Fletcher reminded me that tuning a violin or a viola string, or engaging in an artistic endeavor generally, can temper the ebb and flow of a journey of recovery through a mental illness.

What’s poignant throughout this story, for me in my own journey, is that the violin and viola and learning how to play them become symbols of resilience and strength. I can hear her string vibrating as if I were practicing my vibrato with love. Even though we have never met, and I have never been to med school, I can relate on two different levels. First, there has been a kind mentor in my recovery: in my case, my drama teacher, who encouraged me to re-embrace the part of humanity I lost during the initial diagnosis of my illness. Jane has always been there for me; teaching me the ins and outs of the craft. It’s almost too surreal to see a mirror of that suddenly come up in a reflection that occurred thousands of miles away. On the second level, the constant trials to achieve and regain equilibrium, both playing artistically and spiritually, made me reminiscence about a time when, I too could “think, write, and chew gum at the same time”—except I was simply sitting and watching the traffic out through the window. I would never think the very instrument I despised when I was ten would become one of the greatest triumphs in my adult life. It saved me not only from mental illness, but a sorrowful view of the world and the lack of hope in recovery.

With grace and gratitude, I would like to dedicate a poem to Erica, and her mentor. Please accept it with much respect from one artist to another.

Metronome Mourns

My hands trembled as I tighten the knob of my bow

Gentle hair flung graciously as I tried to match it,

Only to find that the hands are shaking because

The adverse effects of Lithium are too strong.

Hair by hair, turn by turn

I fight my thoughts and feelings of inadequacy

One bow at a time; to overcome pure self-indulgence

at the moment and the urgency of arrogance.

Mode by mode, time by time

I try to compensate with a slower tempo

In the ferocity and anguish of time

Allegro is not for the faint of heart.

My troubled youth did not just flash

Before my eyes like a slow motion picture

Disgusted at past contempt

Digesting the present consequences

Each sound denotes its meaning,

Conveyed but not lost in translation

But beauty struck as stuck staccatos

Trying to free themselves from my constraint

Tensile violin string collides with schizophrenia

Temperance not found in either

Pulsating unequivocally and oscillating harmoniously

complementing each other as the Instruments of Precision

Jason Cheung is a performance artist who advocates on mental health issues, specifically recovery through his dramatic re-telling of his personal story of lived experience. He is involved with the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and the Mental Health Commission of Canada as a volunteer.  His piece, “The Instruments of Precision,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine