JAVS Summer 2023

Health and Wellness

From A Mental Health Therapist and Violist: Personal Experience with Total Aphantasia by Neesa Sunar, LMSW

“ Visualizing ,” “ Seeing in the mind’s eye ,” “ Picturing things in your head…”

Beginning in mid-2021, I took on work as a telehealth therapist with a virtual clinic. This gave me the luxury to move out of my family’s home and live by myself more happily. I have worked in telehealth ever since. As a therapist who works remotely, it can be a lot to work long hours from home; I now find myself turning to my viola to de-stress from daily therapy work—I find it a nice alternative to relying on TV or Netflix to derive entertainment. Since my day-job is not musical, music serves to be refreshing (I know it’s a bit different if music is one’s source of employment!). With this practice schedule, balanced with intensive non-musical work, I have noticed faster progress in my viola-playing, in comparison to my previous conservatory studies. Of course, one drawback is that I have been completely isolated: there isn’t time to collaborate with musicians or play in ensembles. But there is some benefit to this. As an autistic person, I require a lot of alone time to recalibrate after a day of socializing. Thus, it has been enjoyable to be in isolation with a laptop and a viola for the last 2 years. My therapy work is also inherently social, so I don’t feel truly isolated. Isolation has allowed me to reset my understanding of the instrument. Without having to worry about the judgment of others, or matching the expectations of professional work, I can focus more on really getting in touch with myself. Understanding how my own body works, how I can hold the instrument in a more relaxed manner, listening to music I want to hear exclusively, and even devising solutions to improve technique in experimental ways that might seem eccentric, centered in my own experiences as a neurodiverse person. I am autistic. I have the disability of schizoaffective disorder, and I experience total aphantasia—mind’s eye blindness in all five senses.

But what if you can’t see pictures in your thoughts? What if you can’t hear music in your head either?


It was about three years ago, concurrent with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I resumed my viola studies with Ann Roggen. Though, while I now take my lessons most seriously, I primarily work as a mental health therapist. My professional existence has become remote due to the pandemic. In early 2020, I had just finished my masters degree at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in Harlem, NYC. Right when I was ready to sit for my social worker licensing exam and take on new employment, the pandemic broke out. I first remained at home for a few months working as a peer specialist at a public housing agency in Queens, calling clients from home to see if they were okay. There was a lot of confusion for everyone. In the summer of 2020, I had a brief job working at a crisis respite center in the Lower East Side. MTA public transit was incredibly stressful, especially because I had to commute after midnight. After a few months, I decided to find alternative employment working remotely. I had a brief position working as a marketing writer for a mental health hospital network, although I was laid off after a month. With unemployment COVID relief benefits, I was able to save money while living with my mother for about eight months. I earned my LMSW social worker license and searched for remote work.


Journal of the American Viola Society / Vol. 39, Summer 2023 Online Issue

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