Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist. To read past articles click here.
by Bill Harrison, MA, LPC
“Whatever is unnamed, …whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language – this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.”
– Adrienne Rich
One sunny Sunday in the summer of 1981, I broke the index finger on my left hand trying to catch a 16-inch softball. At the time, I was a graduate student at DePaul University, working towards my Master’s degree in double bass performance. I was already a professional musician; I had a five-night-a-week gig with a jazz trio at a nightclub downtown.
I was playing first base during a pre-game warm-up when a good friend (and bandmate) threw a zinger at me from his position at third. Since I didn’t grow up playing this game, I didn’t know you’re supposed to make a basket with both hands to catch the ball. I attempted to grab it with my fingers splayed and the ball slammed into the tip of my forefinger. As soon as it happened I knew it was bad, but I immediately squelched that feeling. I was deeply ashamed and angry with myself. I walked off the field without a word to anyone, got into my car and drove home. I was scheduled to play a recording session that evening, so I stuck my hand into a bucket of ice, hoping it would ease the intense pain and swelling. After about half an hour I realized something more had to be done, but I had no idea what. So I called my girlfriend, who took one look at my mangled digit, blanched, and whisked me to the nearest emergency room.
My finger had sustained an interstitial fracture. A small chunk of bone had broken off and was floating somewhere in the joint of the middle knuckle. As I sat in the ER waiting for the Novocain to kick in, I wondered if my career as a musician had just ended. The orthopedic surgeon aligned the joints of the finger as best he could and told me there was a 50-50 chance I would have to undergo surgery to remove the detached piece of bone. The med techs affixed a metal brace to my finger and covered it with a cast that engulfed my entire hand and wrist. I insisted they cut away as much of the cast as possible so I could continue to play electric bass on my steady job. I figured three fingers were better than none – and I needed to work.
The forefinger was immobilized for 12 weeks. I swallowed a lot of ibuprofen as the pain came and went in unpredictable waves. X-rays taken halfway through the healing process showed I wouldn’t need surgery, which was a huge relief. However, when the brace and cast were removed I was barely able to move the finger. I learned that hyper-toned muscles (the kind musicians and athletes have) lose their strength faster than normal muscles, and it takes a long time to regain muscle tone after the injury heals. This injury occurred during the pre-sports medicine era, so I was not sent for physical therapy. The surgeon suggested I get some Silly Putty and start squeezing and rolling it with the nearly useless finger. He also recommended I exercise by repeatedly attempting to make a fist to encourage the finger to increase its range of motion.
Of course, I was anxious to start playing my double bass again. It takes considerably more hand strength to play the upright bass than the electric bass and I hadn’t been able to touch the big instrument for three months because of the cast. So not only had I lost all the muscle tone in my index finger; the other fingers were weakened from lack of use on the upright as well. I can almost feel the jarring pain of playing those first few notes as I write this.
Several weeks after the cast came off a miraculous thing happened – something that profoundly changed the trajectory of my professional life. One of my fellow students at DePaul recommended me for my first musical theater job. I firmly believe if I hadn’t been forced to play eight shows a week on that gig, I would never have regained the serviceable use of my injured finger. Playing thirteen weeks of Oklahoma on unamplified upright bass was difficult, but it ultimately proved to be necessary for my recovery. I wound up working at the same theater for most of the following year, strengthening my finger far beyond the doctor’s expectations.
Over the ensuing decades, the pain from my injury has been ever-present, ranging from a dull ache to sharp jabs. But the broken finger did not prevent me from earning a living as a bass player for all of those years. About 20 years ago I began experiencing pain in the base knuckle of the injured finger in addition to the knuckle I’d broken. The physician I worked with at the time explained that I’d probably been compensating for the weakness in the injured joint by overusing the other one. He also told me both knuckles were showing symptoms of osteoarthritis. This bit of news was shocking. When a musician hears the word “arthritis” he instantly thinks “career over.” I was fortunate to be able to continue playing without constant debilitating pain until very recently.
The injury to my finger occurred 36 years ago. Yet, I’ve never told this story in public before. Even close friends and family members don’t know many of these details. As a psychotherapist, I have to ask myself the question I would ask any client in a similar situation: “Why am I disclosing this story now?”
The simple answer is that, for the first time ever, I’m considering the possibility of calling it quits as a professional musician. About five years ago I decided to pursue a graduate degree in mental health counseling. (I’ll explain how that evolved another day.) I knew changing careers in my 50’s would be tough, exciting and scary, but I always imagined I’d continue playing music, at least for several more years. Now I’m not so sure, primarily because of the way the pain has progressed lately.
I just played a two-week engagement in the orchestra pit for a nationally touring show that came through Chicago around Thanksgiving. The music was not technically difficult, but I spent more than a month preparing because I felt the amount of playing would challenge my physical stamina. Two years ago, I played seven weeks of a far more demanding show without much unmanageable pain, but his time it was different. Despite the careful planning, I was teetering on the edge of excessive discomfort for most of the run. I enjoyed the music, the camaraderie with my colleagues and the income. But the intensity and persistence of the pain made it almost not worth it.
A more nuanced answer to “why now?” requires deeper historical reflection. As the pain has waxed and waned over the years, so has it wafted in and out of my consciousness. Because it’s been the background radiation for most of my adult life, I’ve been able to ignore it much of the time. Concurrently, I’ve suppressed the fact that I’ve lived with chronic pain for nearly four decades. This disavowal isn’t just a coping skill; it’s been a way of protecting myself from the morass of distressing feelings I associate with the injury and the pain.
When the accident happened, I was a 25-year-old kid suddenly confronted with a potentially career-ending injury. I was confused, ashamed, angry and terrified. Instead of acknowledging those feelings, I pretended they didn’t exist. I shoved them into that bucket of ice along with my hand. Denial was (and is) a seductive defense.
Like others of my generation, I was raised inside “the man box,” which insists that boys don’t cry and men don’t complain. I believed my story was thoroughly mundane. “Who’s going to give a shit about my little broken finger?” I thought. “Suck it up, go about your business and don’t go looking for sympathy. No one respects a man who appears weak or needy.”
I was ashamed of the injury because I mistakenly believed I’d brought the whole thing on myself. I felt I should have known how to catch a 16-inch softball (despite never having played the game before the previous Sunday). I shouldn’t have put my hands at risk by playing ball without a mitt. I should have gone immediately to the ER when it happened. I should have sought psychotherapy.
Such is the power of shame. It blinded me to the truth that the injury was an accident; that it was out of my control and not my fault. My lack of understanding and worldly sophistication was a function of my youth, not willful ignorance or defiance. Blaming myself for my guilelessness was destructive and senseless, but it took many years of inner growth to comprehend this.
I’ve also been angry with myself for many years. I was angry with the friend who threw the ball. I was angry with the surgeon who laughed when I told him I was a bass player. I was enraged by the slow pace of my recovery and the relentlessness of the pain. I was furious that my embarrassment prevented me from expressing how hard all of this has been. Sometimes I still feel like shaking my fist towards the sky and yelling “why me?!”
I was afraid to admit I’ve always had limitations imposed by this injury, but I know the broken finger has impacted both my technical facility and stamina. I used to be scared that, if my colleagues learned I had a “disability,” I wouldn’t get hired for certain kinds of jobs. Conversely, I’ve shied away from using the chronic pain as an “excuse” for failing to develop better technical skills or achieving more artistic success.
Shame, anger, and fear comprise a powerful cocktail of potentially paralyzing emotions if they’re not acknowledged and processed. I may not have told my story openly before but I was smart enough to start working on it in my own therapy when I learned about the onset of arthritis.
Asking myself “why now?” raises other disquieting questions. What do I do when it becomes increasingly clear that I may not be able to continue doing the thing I’ve diligently pursued for almost 50 years? How do I maintain my emotional equilibrium when it feels like the metaphorical rug is being yanked out from under me? When will I feel ready to let go of the familiar and confront the realities of a life without playing music?
I don’t have any of those answers – yet. But I have gotten to the point in my life where I recognize that denial no longer serves me. Hiding from the truth is not a solution. The only way to find authentic answers is to become more conscious and self-aware. So, why now? I tell my full story now as an act of “naming”. I speak about the previously “unspeakable” facts and feelings because I know it’s the pathway towards undoing “the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language”. I allow myself to be seen and heard in order to recover my voice, to reclaim my confidence and integrity.
Whether you’re dealing with an injury or with chronic pain caused by arthritis, an autoimmune disease or for any other reason, I hope my story resonates with you. I encourage you to share your story below or by contacting me: firstname.lastname@example.org