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Second Skin

By M. Brady

PROMPT — I will not rest until ...

As I was driving to my first audition to play bass guitar in an indie rock band, the iconic song by The Byrds, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” came on the radio. Hearing it, I had the naïve thought that this was a moment of grand synchronicity, an omen from the gods portending my success later that day. Now it is clear I would have been wise to pay closer attention to how the lyrics progressed: “Listen to what I say, get an electric guitar and learn how to play.”

The band was waiting for me inside an old, ramshackle garage that served as their rehearsal space. Drum kit, microphone stands, amps and a variety of instruments were crammed into a small, musty room. As I looked around, I was immediately aware of the vacant space opposite the guitarist that I was about to step into. At that moment a feeling of terror slowly rose in my body.

I was twenty-five years old, temporarily living in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, and recovering from an injury I had suffered while playing professional tennis. As I was struggling with a decision whether to return to the tour, where I had only marginal success, or enter grad school, the bass player in my brother’s band gave notice he was leaving in four months. Hmm: tennis, grad school or a shot at my long-time fantasy of playing in a rock and roll band? I started practicing the bass obsessively. Tennis, grad school and “adulthood” could wait!

Immediately after strapping on the bass guitar that day, my right arm and leg began shaking so violently I had no control over them. My fingers froze and were useless. This hijack of my body did not relent. The audition ended before a single note was played. This terror was then followed by a sense of shame and humiliation. Later, I came to understand that I had had a panic attack that was all about fear—fear of failure, fear of embarrassing my brother in front of his band and fear of losing a part of my identity.

What I failed to mention is that I had never played live with a band and had played the bass for only four months. What had allowed me to put myself forward with such unfounded confidence? I had some finger dexterity after playing guitar casually for a few years and could play the bass lines of the band’s songs seamlessly—to a cassette recording. It took years to understand all the forces that led to that moment and other breakdowns in my tennis career.

My guitars stayed in their cases for the next 20 years.

During those years I became a psychotherapist and am now on the other side of the couch. Witnessing so much effort and courage in my clients was inspiring. I decided to explore a return to music.

I took my neglected guitar in for a tune-up and began writing songs. Initially, it wasn’t pretty but I liked the idea of learning another craft and putting the puzzle of a song together. I experienced the process like I was working inside a mandala, the confines of the process strangely appealing.

I may have started playing my shiny guitar reasonably well, but that was not enough to calm my ancient fear system. I would work on songs diligently for a few months and then stop, sometimes for years. I could not take myself seriously and wouldn’t let anyone listen to what I had created. I told myself I would take guitar and voice lessons but never did.

Despite everything I had learned professionally, I still felt like the poster child for imposter syndrome. The voice in me that criticized and compared would not relent. The intense fear of being vulnerable felt hardwired into my emotional DNA.

Yet I kept studying and learned how the brain registers the same level of distress with both large traumatic events and seemingly small ones. I discovered that my extreme reaction to the panic attack had its origin in bigger “unprocessed losses” that occurred years earlier. Not surprisingly, my inability to first recognize and then process historic losses had a lot to do with how little resilience I had to respond to my failed audition.

Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, haunted me. As a therapist I was able to apply Brown’s idea that true emotional safety comes not in avoiding discomfort, but in leaning into it. The part of me making decisions about my musical life did not get the message. Thankfully, the cognitive dissonance I experienced witnessing my clients take risks while I avoided taking my own became increasingly uncomfortable. In response, I decided to create a musical “concept” album inspired by my clients and informed by universal themes from my practice and work done there.

For the next three years, I wrote and recorded new songs and reworked old ones. I hired a producer to help me. My brother and the producer held my hand as I struggled with decisions and wrestled with self-doubt. They, along with musically talented friends, added musical depth to create fully orchestrated songs. In time, I was able to build my own songs with layers of instrumentation.

Initially, my old nemesis, perfectionism, showed up and I nearly drove my producer mad requesting gradual changes. But this, too, became an opportunity for letting go and accepting my limitations.

When I unexpectedly had a significant medical issue, I assumed my normal pattern of being anxious about the unknown would take over. Instead, the music project became the salve and essential gift that allowed me to manage anxiety and be resilient. More often than not, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I was pondering whether to add strings or guitars to a section of a song instead of worrying about medical concerns.

What became clear was that the meaning and purpose I had created in my therapy work, and now this musical project, was the most important thing I could do for my mental and physical health. I found myself calmer, more compassionate, willing to be more vulnerable and able to experience deep gratitude. The imposter and critic voices receded. The creative and emotional process of making the album was the laboratory where my old emotional belief systems were challenged, reorganized and ultimately changed. For the first time I was able to fully embrace the idea that I was a musician. The transformation was as powerful as any therapy I had experienced.

In truth, a solitary event like my failed audition is often not solitary at all and merges with earlier life experiences in our family, school, sports or social relationships. We are often half-blind and dismissive of the nature, depth and meaning of individual events that register as traumatic in our minds and bodies.

After thirty years as a practicing psychotherapist, I am still surprised how many kind, high-functioning people have shame braided into their emotional selves.

The album was finally finished. A song entitled “Second Skin” became the appropriate title for the record. My musical name became M. Brady because Michael Brady had already been taken. But now what? Would this simply be a legacy project, like an earlier immersion in painting twenty years earlier? Or did I really want to make the challenging effort required to give the record a chance to be heard by a wider audience?

Another stab of fear and vulnerability arose. I deferred to Brené Brown: “The willingness to show up changes us, it makes us a little braver each time.” And so here I am, changed, a little braver and only a wee bit terrified. * Photo credit: Claudia d'Allesandro

 

Michael Brady is a psychotherapist and songwriter who lives in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts. He records under the name of M. Brady. His debut album “Second Skin” can be found on all streaming platforms. Links to his music, videos he created for the album and an invitation to collaborate on his next album can be found on his website at: mbradymusic.com

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