Musicophrenia

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by Patrick Redding

I think I was lying in the floor of my friend Callie’s living room when the shift happened. Something vital was taken away, to be replaced by something spectacular.

We’d been fooling around with our guitars earlier, and now we were stoned. We were listening to Heart; Ann Wilson was belting out “I’ve Got the Music in Me” – not a particularly profound song, I know, but I believe that’s when it happened. The music took over my brain.

I didn’t notice the change at first. It was getting late, and I wanted to get something to eat before I headed home, so I said my goodbyes and went out to my car. I laid my guitar case very carefully in the back seat, poked a CD into the player, and started the car.

Then I was in a boat on a river, and Lucille Ball was decked out in a diamond bracelet and earrings, flying an airplane in the orange sky overhead. I didn’t remember Callie having landscaping quite like this in her yard – and she didn’t live near the river, for that matter – but I figured it was the weed skewing my perception, making me see the flowers as being much taller and stranger than they actually were.

“This is some wicked stuff,” I thought. “Really creeps up on you, though. You think you’ve straightened out but then off you go again. Weird. Like… extended-release weed. Are they growing that now? I haven’t heard anything about it. Wow. Look at those little plastic dudes over there with the mirror neckties. They’re like some freaky new set of Lego guys. Wow.”

I sat there in la-la land, watching the parade of nonsensical visuals for several minutes before a sharp rapping on the car window got my attention. For a minute, I thought Callie’s eyes were spinning, speckled – like what you’d see in a kaleidoscope – but then that faded and I was able to focus.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I assured her. “No. What was in that stuff? Did you lace it with something else?”

“No,” she laughed. “Why?”

“I’m hallucinating.”

“It’s just some kind of Afghani stuff. It’s good, but it doesn’t cause hallucinations,” she said.

Then she was gone and I was sitting in school, and the teacher was yelling at me. That wasn’t cool. I was confused and getting really uncomfortable, and then Callie was back, leaning across me and popping my Sergeant Pepper’s CD out of the player. “You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”

“No,” I admitted. “I don’t think I should drive.”

“No. It’s probably where you came out into the night air. It just hit you again,” she suggested. “Come on. You can crash here tonight.”

So I went back in with her, and we ordered pizza and listened to more music, and over the course of the evening we managed to figure out that something in my brain was making me actually experience the music that I was hearing as a sort of hallucination. It started when a song came on; it went away when the song did. It was most noticeable on songs with weird lyrics. Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And it completely overrode any contradictory input from my other senses.

It was the weed. Had to be. Callie wasn’t experiencing anything like this (and was heartily laughing her ass off at me, cuing up every bizarre song in her varied collection). But it had to be the weed. Right?

Well… not really.

I ran my car into a ditch the next afternoon. I was driving home, totally straight and sober, having had a good night’s sleep on Callie’s couch, and without thinking, I clicked on the radio. The local classic rock station was playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and the hammer of the gods drove my Toyota to new lands to fight the horde, only instead of singing, I was crying, because I hit the ditch with a crash, and found that rather than ice and snow or soft, green fields, my car was mired in mud and rocks.

When the cop showed up, he gave me a sobriety test (since there were no other vehicles involved) and a ticket for reckless driving (since I passed his sobriety test). I didn’t want to sound like a smart-ass or anything, so when he asked me what happened, I told him a bee flew into my car and startled me. I figured that would sound better than what really happened, and it did, I’m sure, but I still got a ticket and had to pay a tow truck to come and get my car out of the ditch.

The tailpipe was dangling and scraping the ground, so I had to have the car taken to a garage. I rode in the truck with the driver, and it was really unfortunate that he was an old-school country music lover. He blasted George Jones and Tammy Wynette songs all the way there. I became convinced that my wife had left me and I’d become an alcoholic with nothing to live for, and when the tow driver shoved me out of his truck at the garage, I was bawling like a drunken moose.

The mechanic was looking at me funny, so I asked to use the restroom, and spent a few minutes cleaning myself up and trying to pull it together. When I could act like a normal human being again, I asked the mechanic to take the radio and CD player out of the car when he fixed the tailpipe. He looked at me funny again and set a grimy-looking telephone on the counter and told me I could call someone to come and get me.

I didn’t want to bother Callie again, but I couldn’t get my brother on the phone, and I really didn’t want to try explaining things to him. He’s kind of a snot and I knew he’d say it was the weed even though it was perfectly obvious to me that this was something bigger than that. So I called Callie, and she came to fetch me, and very kindly didn’t play any music in her car on the way home. She suggested that I get some rest, and if this continued, I should probably see a doctor about it. “I’ll take you,” she promised. “It’ll be OK.”

The thought of having a doctor examine me wasn’t very appealing, but when it persisted for several more days, I realized she was right. I needed help. I’d been mostly all right at home, but when music triggers a bizarre, uncontrollable reaction in your brain, you begin to notice just how ubiquitous music is in public places. I guess it’s supposed to make things relaxing and pleasant, but the grocery store, for one, was a nightmare. After spending half an hour with their “Soft Sounds of the ’80s” in my head, which prompted me to fall in love with the produce manager and later propose marriage to a cashier, I was escorted out of the store. I’m not sure I’m allowed to go back there again.

Noise-canceling headphones, strictly speaking, don’t cancel all noise, but they did prove helpful. They muted the music sufficiently to allow me to ignore it when I had to go to Wal-Mart to purchase socks and underwear. I was doing just fine until the cashier got huffy with me. I removed one earpiece long enough to see what she wanted, and inadvertently caught a snippet of Lynyrd Skynyrd on their sound system. Then I was standing on the register area’s conveyor belt, flapping my arms and trying to fly away just as the lyrics insisted I should. I certainly wanted to fly away, but I wasn’t quite as free as a bird, and I still needed to pay for my socks. Being Wal-Mart, this behavior went more or less unnoticed, with the cashier merely sighing and muttering, “I’m gonna have to ask you to get down from there. Your total is $27.92.” I adjusted my headphones so the world became silent again, climbed down, and swiped my card so I could get out of there.

When Callie took me to the doctor, a guy in the elevator was listening to Aerosmith on his iPod, loudly enough that I could hear it. Callie had to whack me in the jaw to get me to stop humping her leg, but there were no hard feelings. Fortunately, the waiting room was devoid of music. There was a TV set in the corner, but Callie clamped her hands over my ears when the peppy little jingle for the erectile dysfunction drug came on the screen, and we avoided any further embarrassment.

The doctor, as expected, ran a bunch of tests (including drug screening, I’m sure), and couldn’t figure out what was going on, which clearly annoyed him. He seemed to think I was making it up, and when no simple answers came from the test results, I was pretty sure he didn’t believe me at all. There was some shouting when Callie overheard him drop the word “hypochondriac” to his assistant.

He referred me to a neurologist named Dr. Baggett, who did some more exams and scans, and also couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but rather than get testy about it, he seemed curious and fascinated. He had me come back a few times, and he did some research, and had me try some different medications (which didn’t help and made me depressed) and tried some meditation exercises (which didn’t help either but made me feel like it was all going to be OK).

It stumped Dr. Baggett, which I think is probably pretty hard to do. His best guess was that it might have been a very unique combination of head injury, neurochemistry, and drug use. He cautioned me that because we didn’t know exactly what set it off, I should avoid recreational drugs for the time being. “Some people really shouldn’t take drugs,” he shrugged. “Everything’s fine and then one day they get a batch of something just slightly different, and their neurotransmitters go wacko. You may be one of them.”

I wore my headphones everywhere I went, trying to prevent further incidents. I declined offers to go out for drinks, regretfully sidestepped my cousin’s wedding invitation (earphones would’ve been frowned upon, and I was sure that wedding music would be a disaster, in light of my condition), and tried to get used to a quiet life.

I did occasionally listen to Yes or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. If I couldn’t enjoy a joint now and then, I could get stoned without the aid of chemical assistance just by listening to Dark Side of the Moon.

Needless to say, my musical aspirations were pretty much over. My guitar sat in the closet until I gave it to Callie so it wouldn’t feel unloved. She gave it a good home.

Gradually, through experimentation in the safety of my home, I learned that I could listen to certain specific kinds of non-lyrical music without incident. I’d never been a fan of classical music, but I grew to enjoy Bach and Schumann, although Liszt and Beethoven were too unpredictable and dramatic and I didn’t trust myself to have that sort of thing going on in my brain.

I tried checking out some music with non-English lyrics, but it seemed to have a similar effect. Even if I didn’t understand what they were singing about, my emotions ran amok. My mother was convinced that I’d miraculously found religion when I accompanied her to a Christmas cantata by a German choir and had to leave because tears were streaming down my face.

One day Dr. Baggett’s office phoned and asked me to come in for an appointment. When I arrived, he was very excited, and said he’d read about something that he thought could help. “It’s a drug that’s been used to control seizures,” he explained. “There are some off-label uses, but it’s mainly an anticonvulsant. That’s not why I think it could help. We don’t need the effect that the drug is used for; we want a particular side effect. It’s not a common one, but it’s significant enough among certain patient populations – and I think it might help.”

“You want me to take a drug just to get one of the side effects?”

“Yes! That’s it, exactly,” he beamed.

“What kind of side effect?” I asked.

“It seems to cause loss of perfect pitch in people who had perfect pitch before they started on the medication. I’m thinking it might disrupt the effect you get from music.”

I thought about it, listened to him explain the potential issues and benefits, and finally agreed to give it a try. I was pretty sure I’d never had perfect pitch, so I really didn’t have much to lose. The other possible side effects – nausea, headaches – somehow didn’t seem as worrisome as the possibility of having something much more than a feeling if I accidentally heard an old Boston song on someone’s car radio.

Did it work? Oddly enough, yes, it did. As Dr. Baggett had suspected it might, it disrupted the harmonics of the music enough to stop the strange hallucinatory effects.

And it had an unforeseen plus. You’d think that if everything sounds off-key, it would make horribly discordant noise out of whatever you listen to, but it doesn’t.

Everything just sounds like jazz.

 

 

© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.


Header art via Pixabay.

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