How Music Helped My Struggles w/OCD

By Joe Alterman

It had been pure luck that the onset of my most difficult days with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) coincided with a two-year long early evening class that was a prerequisite for my synagogue's confirmation. I didn't feel lucky because I was religious and excited for my confirmation studies or anything like that. Quite the opposite in fact; I was often thrown out of these classes for goofing off and disrupting them. The reason I say that it was luck that these two events coincided is simply because it was thanks to one of these classes that I learned what became my motto during this difficult period in my life: "fake it 'til you make it." 

As a fifteen/sixteen year old who, at the time, was spending most of my days counting in my head and spending 4+ hours getting ready for bed at night, one of the most difficult and age-appropriate struggles for me at the time was the realization that I was no longer "normal". At this point in my life, not being normal was not a good thing. 

Even though I spent almost every waking minute performing compulsions, the only place I could still at least feel normal was around my friends. My closest friends and I were jokesters and pranksters; whether it was our weekend-long prank call sessions, or our ability to recall and act out - in (what we thought were) perfect Borat voices - nearly every line of every episode of Da Ali G Show, I loved my friends and the fun that we had together. 

In addition to being fun and funny people, my closest friends were great listeners and advice givers, people who I looked forward to speaking with during rough times; however, at this stage of our lives this mostly consisted of what to talk to a girl's parents about when they'd pick up the phone [we still had to call girls on their house phones back then].

While I cherished my friends and the advice they gave, I couldn't, yet, bring myself to tell them the truth about me. While I'm sure they would have comforted me and made me feel better about my situation, I still felt that being around them was the only place where I could still feel normal, and I wanted to hold on to that for as long as possible. 

So, as that confirmation teacher advised, I tried my best to fake it 'til I made it. 

Each day I'd go to school, plaster a big fake smile on my face and joke around with my friends (all while counting to eight fifty-five times over and again and taking my tests aurally with my guidance counselor because each time I'd write even a single letter on a piece of paper, I'd be forced to erase and re-write it until it looked perfect, which could take hours). 

Faking that smile and pretending to be normal around my friends was helping - often times, that fake smile would become a real smile simply because I was smiling. However, the feeling that resulted from both the OCD and me not being able to talk to those who I would most like to confide in left me feeling a nearly unbearable amount of frustration, angst and anxiety each day after school. 

I had to get all of this off my chest. It's not simply that I badly wanted to get all of this off of my chest. I absolutely had to. I knew in my heart that there was absolutely no difference between terribly needing to go to the bathroom and the feeling that I was experiencing. I needed to let it all out or I would surely explode - if not literally explode, I would via my obsessions and compulsions, which acted almost as punishment for not getting the release I needed. 

It was at this period that I totally and completely fell in love with music and the piano, and that the piano became an extension of my self. 

Almost every day, as soon as I'd come home from school, I'd run (well, walk as quickly as I could considering the hundreds of spots in the house I'd first need to touch and touch again, the doors I'd need to open, close, re-open and re-close until they were perfectly aligned against the wall, and the other spots that I'd have to step on in many, very specific ways until I'd satisfy the number my OCD told me was my then-"lucky" number) to the piano and just play for the next three, four, five, six or seven hours, and that's where it would all pour out. 

Using my relatively elementary, but rapidly growing, musical vocabulary at the time, I'd improvise for hours on end, playing whatever it was that could best illustrate what I was then currently feeling. 

This became a crucial and necessary part of my life during those difficult days. While I was faking everything all day long in an effort to save at least the last bit of normalcy in my life, the piano quickly became much more than the piano; it became, quite literally, the only place where I could always be my total, complete, honest and real self. 

It gave me something to look forward to each day when I'd be suffering my way through school. It made it easier for me to have real, "normal" fun with my friends knowing that I'd be able to get all the frustrations out of not truly being about to talk to them later that day when I'd sit down at the piano. 

The pieces I'd improvise were either very dark, slow and sad, or happy (if I found joy anywhere back then, it was in music). 

My family was treated each day (save for the times that my OCD forbid me from playing) to my marathon practice sessions, and it was because of this that I learned of the power of the feeling in music. 

While most of the pieces I'd improvise would be relating to my OCD and anxiety, there were times when I'd be playing about something else. One day, my Dad - a very astute listener and knowledgeable music fan - came upstairs during one of these long sessions. 

"Are you upset over a girl?", he asked.

He was right; I had been. To this day I have no idea what it was that differentiated this slow, sad piece from the hundreds of other slow, sad pieces he'd already heard that month alone, but he knew what I was playing about that day and that was a powerful learning experience for me. 

While it was during my college years that I was able to actually begin to become the musician that I wanted to be, it was during those difficult high school years that I discovered and formed my deep bond with music, which was formed purely on how it made me feel. 

When I wasn't playing, I was listening. I was discovering new music each day that either made me feel better about what I was feeling, relief from what I was feeling, or less alone in what I was feeling. 

On the long bus rides to and from school, I'd be listening to Nat "King" Cole, Ahmad Jamal, Sonny Rollins, Ramsey Lewis, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Diana Krall, Wayne Shorter and Charles Mingus. Each one of their musics had a specific feeling and role in my life at this period. Mingus' music, for example, was intense, loud, often abrasive and cacophonous; it made me feel less alone. I felt like I was hearing exactly what I was feeling; however, because the music was so powerful and beautiful, I'd start to feel better all at the same time. 

So, whereas playing music was where I could let it all out, listening to music became the only place in the world where I was able to find beauty, relate to it, and let it inside and make it's impression on me. 

Now, almost fifteen years later, the one thing that most people say who comment to me about my music is of a wonderful, joyous feeling in it, and I totally credit this to my OCD. Without having had OCD, I doubt emotion would have become, to me, the most impressionable and most important aspect of music. Being that this all took place at a crucial time in my musical development, I could not be more thankful for how OCD literally made my relationship to music a purely emotional one. Sure, technique is impressive, but the only reason I want to have technique is so that I can play all the feelings I'm feeling; it is not so that someone can compliment me on how fast my fingers move. 

People often come up to me at my performances and say things like, "you sound like an old man who has been through some shit". I'm sure they wouldn't have the same reaction today had the piano not been my main outlook of expression during those dark days. 

It was during these days that I began to realize that the piano was not only a part of me, but that it was also a true extension of my subconscious and unconscious selves. 

I remember spending many days at school excitedly thinking about and planning the music that I'd play later that afternoon, but being totally shocked at what actually ended up coming out. 

If I was frustrated or upset about anything, the cause of those feelings would almost always reveal and resolve themselves during my piano sessions that day. 

It gave me something to be excited about ("I wonder what will come out of me today") and it also gave me a much needed sense of peace during these times; no matter how confused I was about the many thousands of strange and upsetting thoughts going on in my head, I always knew that they'd resolve themselves - or at least come closer to resolving themselves - that night at the piano. 

I eventually did tell my friends what was going on and was sure glad I did. While I did, for a while, lose that sense of normalcy around them, it was because of those important self-discovery sessions at the piano that I learned that being normal was nothing special. In fact, by definition, it was the opposite of special. 

Having the gift to relate deeply and emotionally to music was special, and that sure beat being normal!

While I wanted to be rid of OCD, that realization made it so much easier to be with my friends and not mind not feeling totally normal around them. Sure, I was different than them, but there was no way that I'd give up my powerful relationship with music just so that I could be like everyone else. 

Music was everything to me during those dark days, but the way in which I handled that situation and the way in which the music handled me has shaped everything about me and everything about me that makes me happy about who I am today. Not a day goes by - seriously - that I don't think about how thankful I am to OCD for giving me that opportunity to find myself. 

Towards the end of my very difficult period, I reached out to Sonny Rollings via the guestbook on his website to tell him how much his music helped me during a rough period in my life dealing with OCD. I was shocked when he responded. "Dear Joe," he wrote. "Your comments were appreciated. We all have to use adversity as an opportunity to find a way. So keep a strong mind throughout this short existence. Your examples give us all hope, as all of us here in this life have to struggle."

A friend of mine in the music business often says, "Take care of the music and the music will take care of you." I couldn't agree more completely. 

Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Joe Alterman moved to New York City in the fall of 2007 to attend New York University, where he received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Jazz Piano Performance. Since moving to New York, Alterman has performed at many venues in town including Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the Iridium and the Kitano, among others, and has performed at venues around the world including Atlanta's Rilato Center For The Performing Arts, Milan's Blue Note Jazz Club and New Orleans' Preservation Hall, either alongside his trio or with his mentors: saxophonist Houston Person and pianist/vocalist Les McCann. A frequent opening act at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club, Alterman has opened for many artists there including Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann, Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire), John Pizzarelli, Hiromi and more. Alterman has released three albums under his name and was recently profiled by legendary journalist Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal