As Funny as a Brain Tumor! Part 13

Hello again.  No I didn’t die.  I’m sorry for the delay with this chapter but every once in awhile I have a problem with tendonitis in my arms and have to take a break from typing for them to get better.  I am feeling  better now and can continue the story.  OK,  where was I…………..

I woke up the next morning and was surprised to find that I was still alive.  Not only was I still alive, but I actually felt better!  I think it was because I had finally slept that night.  For the next couple of days the doctors kept and eye on me to see how far the allergic reaction would progress but it looked like it had stopped and that I might be OK.

They released me a few days later and I went home.  I still had this feeling like something was around the corner and I wasn’t out of the woods yet.   When you have been through so many health issues, you start to get a bit paranoid that every little bump, pain or weird thing is another deadly illness.  I drove my wife crazy with all of my concerns and questions for the next year or two.

A couple of weeks later, I noticed that there were what seemed like large bumps in my neck that I had never noticed before. Another question to bother my wife with……. My wife took a look and she said that my lymph nodes were really swollen and enlarged.  We called my doctor and of course she gave me the advice she always did back then………”Go to the Mass General Emergency room!”.  My doctors would always give me the line “Considering your medical history you should go to the emergency room………better to be safe than sorry.”

I went to the ER and to make a long story short, they admitted me into the hospital.  My old Oncologist who was my doctor when I had testicular cancer popped his head in the door.  He said that he was concerned that this might be a return of my cancer that had now spread to my lymph nodes.  If you remember back to that part of my story, they were concerned that the cancer might spread to my lymph nodes about four years earlier.  I of course assumed the worse, and thought for sure that now I had cancer coursing through my entire body and would surely die!

They did a number of tests and decided that this lymph node swelling was just another symptom that was lingering after my TENs (Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis).  They let me go home and life continued for me.  My skin was a complete mess and I had to use a special cream on it everyday. It was always itching which drove me crazy.  Also, my wife said I was always complaining about the way my mouth tasted. She said I was obsessed with toothbrushes during this time and I would go out and buy a new toothbrush every couple of days.  I was convinced that if I found the right toothbrush and brushed enough the weird taste in my mouth would go away.

Also, I have to tell you that something felt very wrong with me emotionally.  By this point, it was late December, early January of 2001.  What I’m going to share here isn’t easy for me to share but it’s part of the story so it should be included.

After I got home from the hospital, I found I had very little energy.   I would have more trouble than usual waking up in the morning and felt exhausted all day long.  Simple tasks like doing laundry or vacuuming felt exhausting.  I found myself spontaneously crying for no reason whatsoever that I could discern.  I just felt this overwhelming sadness that seemed to be like a dark cloud over my thoughts and I had no idea what to do about it.

Soon after the dark feeling started,  I started having odd thoughts. I would just be driving down the road and suddenly think about just yanking the steering wheel and running into another car coming my way.  If I was on a bridge I would think about just driving my car right off.  At first, these thoughts would just pop up out of nowhere but then they started coming more and more into my head.  When I took medication I would think about taking too much and going to sleep forever.  If I saw a movie with a gun I would imagine having a gun myself and imagine killing myself with the gun.  Now I know these are some alarming thoughts and some of you might feel uncomfortable reading about these things but those were the kinds of thoughts that were running through my mind.

I had always thought of depression as something that happened to people who were unstable and just couldn’t handle life.  It was never something I would have a problem with.  My wife helped me come to grips with the fact that no matter how hard I tried to deny it, I was in fact very depressed and that I should get help.  I can be quite prideful at times so for awhile I tried to fight that decision and work my way out of this state of mind by pure determination.  It didn’t work.  It just seemed like I was continuing to spiral down and down.

I wouldn’t call any of my friends, I hardly ever smiled, I wasn’t doing any housework, I wasn’t playing my sax, I wasn’t getting out of the house and trying to find more work as a musician.  All those things seemed too hard to do and part of me just didn’t care.  I knew that I should care and I knew I should be feeling and thinking positive thoughts but I just didn’t.  During the day, I was tired and useless but at night I was a huge ball of anxiety.  I couldn’t sleep.  I remember going out for drives at midnight and feeling like I was having panic attacks.  I’d be up most of the night and then be even more tired the next day. My wife was 8-9 months pregnant and was about to give birth to our second child while working 40 hours a week as a nurse.  I was home trying to take care of my 1 1/2 year old daughter and going out on gigs on the weekends.  This was a very stressful time for us.  I feel bad that I put my wife through that. Her strength and love during that time were amazing!

Finally, I decided to get help after Sarah was born.  I couldn’t keep putting it off. I went to see my doctor and we tried a few different medications.  I can’t remember the details but I seem to remember having a few adverse reactions to some of them.  Finally, I settled on one and took that for about six months.  During this time, I saw a psychologist who helped me out immensely.  We talked about all the things I had been through and all the feelings that I didn’t even know I was feeling.  I don’t know the bottom line to why I was feeling so depressed but as I went to those sessions and talked about things it was clear to me that I had some emotional issues.

I think I had always tried to do and feel what I thought was right.  If I felt mad or angry I would immediately squash those feelings down because they were bad feelings.  As I met with the doctor every week he would ask me questions about how things made me feel.  I shared about my whole medical history and after each part of the story he would ask me how that made me feel or how I felt towards others, myself and even God.  I would always answer with these nice answers that the doctor would always question. Finally,  when we got to the last episode of being in the hospital and breaking down he broke through my nice answers and I remember just sitting there crying and  feeling so mad and angry at God.  I knew that I had been angry in the hospital but this moment revealed to me that I was still very angry. It also revealed  that I still thought God was out to get me and that I believed more bad things were coming.  No matter what I did, I could not stop it or change that fact.  I still thought very strongly that I was cursed.  Obviously,  you can see how these kind of thoughts could make someone quite depressed.

The other major breakthrough at this time is that the doctor had me read a book called “Feeling Good” by David D. Burns.  This book was amazing for me.  You can not even imagine how reading this book and talking to the doctor helped me change my life.  It was huge.  The book helped me see that up until this point in my life,  I had an “All or Nothing” mentality. I would always go to extremes with things.  If I was going to be a musician, then I had to practice no less than eight hours a day.  If I only practiced two hours then I had failed and would get depressed about it.  I would then use these depressed thought and sad feeling to motivate me to set more unobtainable and unrealistic goals that for awhile I would reach and then fail again.  My life was a cycle of this type of thinking. I was all about motivating myself with negative thinking.

I was also a perfectionist.  Every single recording I made, I hated.  In 1993, I made a recording and as soon as it was done, I hated it and thought it wasn’t good enough.  I never did anything with it.  I’d practice and practice  and people would tell me I should make a recording and I would always think that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t good enough.  I had this fear that if I thought I was ready or good enough then what would motivate me to practice?   Those were the negative thoughts that kept me working tirelessly all through high school, college, and adult life. I couldn’t let go of those thoughts.  That was my motivation. I also had the fear that if I tried and put my whole heart into something and failed, that would mean I’m a failure.  Better not to try at all…….

Obviously, this book helped me to see theses destructive thought processes going on inside me.  I still have these thoughts but now I recognize them and can work around them. For example, now on my website I have hundreds of sound clips of me playing the saxophone.  The old Steve would never have done that.  I would have listened to each one, thought it wasn’t good enough and discarded it.  Now I recognize those thoughts and I post the clips anyways deciding to overcome those thoughts and fears.  

Another example is my practice habits.  I’m still tempted to get down on myself if I don’t practice for at least four hours a day but if I only practice for one hour,  that’s OK!  I can be happy with that.   It’s a matter of recognizing the thoughts and being able to get around them.   There’s more that improved but I can go more into that in another blog post.

Needless to say, a lot was revealed to me in these session and while reading this book.  After about 6-8 months I slowly came out of this fog of depression.  The suicidal thoughts became less and less,  the overwhelming sadness lifted and I finally started smiling a bit more.  I actually had moments where I didn’t think God was out to get me and that some new disease or tumor was around the corner.  If only I could be so lucky………. Part 14…….

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. Avatar aaron1011 says

    Thank you so much for sharing this part of your life! I have no doubt that everyone that reads it will be encouraged as much as I have been by what you have written here. Praise God, I have never had to deal with any major medical issues, although I do deal with depression. I very much appreciate your insight into this issue. Playing my sax has been a means of therapy for me, so to speak. It is what has led me to your site.
    BTW…I am an MRI Technologist by trade (a.k.a Barry White) and I just wanted to tell you that I “force” all my patients to listen to jazz. I mean real jazz, not the Kenny G stuff, like you got for your scan. Very few people appreciate it but, to be frank, I don’t care. I’ve got them in my scanner for at least a half hour and I feel, as a medical professional a little Stan Getz and Paul Desmond is healing in its own rite, so its for their own good. Haha

    God Bless you brother and just know that I greatly appreciate your heart, not to mention your vast knowledge for all things Saxophone.

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