Reflections of a psychologist: mental illness through a lens of dignity
A gentle hand brushes my cheek as someone whispers in my ear, “Hear the invisible…linger in its beauty”. I open my eyes and feel the cool breeze. I look out the window and, judging by the bright moon, I realise I’ve had about a ten-hour nap. There is a pattern in the apricot tree I hadn’t noticed- it is a wizard holding his hat. But wait, as the leaves move around, so does the picture- he is now jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof! I put on my glasses. Turns out it was just a crack in the branch, probably caused by the weight of the ripe fruit. I take them off again…
Since the age of five I thought I would become a musician. I come from a small town in Bulgaria where we all had little due to the residual effects of communism, but had celebrated the little things, with music in the centre.
Growing up in South Africa, music became my main activity and I passively entered piano competitions, at the guidance of my teacher. It was a new context but I enjoyed sharing my music on stage and advancing during practice. However, the focus gradually shifted from embracing and celebrating a gift, to an empty attempt towards perfection.
I became increasingly aware of the outward importance of achieving and being the best. Music was reified, as trophies and awards were highly valued in my environment. I was drawn by ambition at first, then by a fear, to partake in the competitive world of performing classical music. I was naive at the time in that I internalised unrewarded performances as personal shortcomings.
Being self-conscious and afraid of failure perpetuated a self-defeating cycle where my performance would suffer, resulting in more anxiety. It reached a point where I found little joy in playing, and performing would be a recurrent stressor. The self-consciousness became more global as I started to focus on other perceived imperfections. Perhaps the most debilitating of these was my increasing belief that I was appallingly ugly, with a focus on my skin. Only years later would I discover this to be body dysmorphic disorder.
As my self-esteem deteriorated, I gradually withdrew socially and began to neglect my music. I was also biased towards apparent signifiers in my environment that would reinforce my negative beliefs. Spending most of my free time in my room, I would confide in my diaries and compose music as an outlet for my feelings.
In Matric, I realised that with the state I was in, I would not be happy pursuing a BMus degree. It was a particularly difficult time for me as I felt I had no other way of contributing to society. With the guidance of my sister and a psychologist, I had hope and energy to explore other interests I hadn’t been aware of. I realised I was unhappy with music because I was not pursuing it in a manner that I felt would give it justice.
I see music as a universal language that is there for us to embrace and enjoy. Instead of attempting to present it in a manner that would be approved of by ‘experts’, I would rather involve music in a therapeutic context, in a similar role it served back in Bulgaria. I also realised that I am sensitive to the social world and that the human mind was of interest to me.
I took first year at university one day at a time, without expectations or pressure on myself to excel. I became comfortable in my environment and felt a sense of appropriateness in where I was. At the same time, I underwent treatment for my distorted perceptions of my appearance and addressed my self esteem. Having emerged with a healthy self-concept while enjoying my studies, I became driven with passion for psychology, one that is expanding to this day.
I used to think that the world was “out there”, “as it is”, where having my glasses on would expose my imperfections. Today I consider perceptions as being coloured by one’s lenses of the world- a belief both liberating and comforting. Perhaps partly owing to personal experience, I found myself particularly enticed to psychopathology. I have been both burdened with and overcome a disorder, and having been on both sides I see how one’s reality is dictated by perception.
Having experienced mental illness both personally and in my environment, I am enticed. As I found meaning in my experience not only did I reach a place of dignity, but as my own therapist once said, “There is nothing I respect more than human pain”.
Who is Antonia Roos?
Antonia Gueorguieva Roos, originally from Bulgaria, is a Clinical Psychologist in Garsfontein, Pretoria. From the age of five she trained to become a classical musician and excelled in music performance and composition. Along the way she recognised her compelling interest in the human mind and decided to pursue a higher education in psychology. She completed her degrees at the University of Pretoria (BSocSci; BSocSci Hons) and University of Johannesburg (MA Clin Psych) with distinction. Antonia strives to facilitate healing by continually learning and developing as a person, sharing her knowledge and experience, and treating matters of the heart with the highest level of respect and support.