I remember the moment that the fissures and cracks in my health as a musician and an oboist finally split. It should have happened on the second day of school, when out of nowhere a minor wrist/elbow/back pain I had had for a couple of years came back with unusual aggression, and that evening as I was chopping vegetables I completely lost control of my hand and dropped the knife.
But instead, following that incident, I kept playing, cut back a little, and tried to take it easy. For me, that meant only playing 30-60 minutes a day and still making reeds and going to rehearsals. I had big plans for the semester; I was going to play in orchestra, perform my senior recital, and make recordings to send to teachers overseas. Coming off of a summer spent touring Vienna and Italy, I had never been more inspired or more excited to make the oboe my life.
But the little cracks and fissures, the pain here and there, the numbness and tingling that I tried to shake off, and the creeping anxiety that something was really not OK finally split during the second USO concert of the season. I was playing English horn and then oboe on a big symphony. During the rehearsals leading up to the concert the pain and numbness seemed to linger longer but I didn't worry - I would rest after the concert. However, that night came and it was as clear as a pot shattering on the ground. I was not OK. The first piece went fine, however my hand/arm was feeling pretty numb (playing the oboe is not very ergonomic and the English horn, which is larger and heavier, is even worse), and as I got ready for the symphony I was beginning to feel concerned.
Then, sometime very shortly after the symphony (Schumann) started, I realized things had fallen out of my control. I was in pain, and it was because of the oboe. I was in pain and the very thing that I should not have been doing was the only thing that I wanted to do. I worked really, really hard during that concert. I had a job to do that I had signed up for and I wasn't going to let anything slip. But by the last movement, my hand was shaking so bad I couldn't hold my oboe up.
I don't even know if I got off stage before I started panicking. Really panicking. With ugly crying and everything. I had gotten the message, which said loud and clear - IF YOU KEEP DOING THIS YOU WILL SERIOUSLY HURT YOURSELF. And at that moment, like Epstein writes in his first chapter of The 12 Stages of Healing, I was helpless. Nothing was working. There was no making plans and trying to figure out what to do. I was consumed by fear of what had happened and what was going to happen and there was no way out. This is a dramatic and illogical place to be in, but in the stage of Suffering, "our sense of self is rigid and fixed. It is not open to change".
That night and for some time after, even as I made doctor's appointments, arranged people to take my place in orchestra, and decided to cancel the rest of my lessons for the semester, I stayed in this weird place of distorted time-space perception. The oboe, and the fact that I had hurt myself by playing it, became my identity, which then eclipsed everything else in my experience. But eventually, I stopped running from the suffering, and exhausted, I moved into it. I began to acknowledge that I was in pain, I had an injury, and that I was suffering. And it was this exhalation and movement from frozen panic to weary surrender that opened the door to Stage 2.