This article contains a small section with graphic language of self harm please take care while you read.
Here is the truth: we are fragile creatures. The violence of being alive happens right in front of us, so it comes as no surprise that we are constantly in search of something beautiful to look at, to listen to.
I have worked in recreational therapy my entire career, all four years of it. I have believed, for as long as I can remember, that music is the only earthly truth we have. Though it may be dismissed, unappreciated, or fall on lost ears, it has been the constant thing that watered my roots and turned my face to the sun. I know this much is true for many of us. That is why I decided to incorporate a music therapy program in my facility to be a placeholder for medication.
Music is the richest and most effective form of communication we have. It is influenced by language, culture, region, race, class, age, political movements, and historical events – it is never confined by them. I always come back to that damn John Denver song, because I swear to you, I saw a ninety year old Indian woman, who does not speak English, belt out Country Roads during a music therapy session. I had to call her son right then and tell him, he laughed for a minute straight. Music does not serve one over another, everybody has the opportunity to sit at the table and eat.
However, working for a corporation makes getting funding feel more like pulling teeth. I once had to write our (multimillion dollar) corporate office several emails because they kept denying my order request for a stapler. Advocating for the payment of a music based therapist to western clinical giants was not easy. I asked them to give me three months to show positive results: less behaviors, no patient-to-patient verbal or physical altercations, a decrease in suicidal ideations, and an overall happier patient base. They agreed. That same day I hired two licensed music therapists: Shana and Lisa of Creative Arts Therapy Services.
As part of our initiative, we took basic vital signs prior to our first music therapy session and then afterwards. We also conducted a small questionnaire. Eleven out of thirteen patients saw a decrease in blood pressure. Thirteen out of thirteen patients reported feeling relaxed, less stressed, less anxious, and happier after the session concluded. Three of those patients did not require their typical antipsychotic medications that evening due to a complete lack of paranoia, anxiety, and inappropriate behaviors. There were no suicidal ideations documented that week. The registered nurse during the evening shift asked me what I drugged them with, I told her Billie Holiday.
Since the start of our program, I have seen a severely ill, nonverbal patient hum along to Moon River after not speaking for two years. I’ve seen a quadriplegic patient tap her foot during drumming circle. I’ve seen a man in the midst of a psychotic episode return to reality because he heard his favorite Elvis song.
There is so much healing to be done through music.
I want to share a quick story.
My first day on the psychiatric wing of the hospital, a young man with Huntington’s disease dissembled a bic razor and drew two vertical lines on each forearm. Bloody, he stumbled right passed me to the common area, then quickly turned around and looked at me with so much fear. The nurse’s aides swarmed him, helping him into a chair, wrapping his arms in thick gauze and checking his vitals. Someone called the crisis team, another called his guardian, and all the while he kept looking at me, The Unfamiliar.
Mary, the registered nurse, one of my personal heroes, and the queen mother of the psychiatric wing, concluded that his wounds weren’t significant enough to send him to the hospital and he jolted from the chair suddenly, fighting off the care of the assistants. Mary disappeared for a minute and when she returned she said she was prepared to administer a B52 shot, which is a cute way to say a heavy cocktail of Ativan, Benadryl, and Haldol.
With zero confidence, I told her to give me a few minutes to see if I could calm him myself. She looked at me like I was stupid, sucked in her breath, and said, “Good luck.”
I walked over to him and he stopped struggling against the aides. I asked him if we could sit outside until the crisis team arrived and he agreed. He said his name was Manny. I took note of his pitchy voice, the involuntary muscle spasms, the random tremors. Huntington’s is a brutal and progressive disease that takes your body from you function by function. I could understand wanting an out. He had wide, sad eyes like a child, but I could see they were tired. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.
I asked him to tell me his favorite memory.
He told me when he was younger he lived with his mother and three younger brothers in California. His mother worked all the time and he had to watch them while she was gone. They would play outside and steal mangos from the neighbor’s tree and throw the rotted ones at the walls of the house to see who could make the biggest splatter while Metallica blared from an old stereo. Manny liked to sit under the tree and eat slices of the mangos he cut with a kitchen knife. He would extend his legs out into the sun and watch his brothers hollering and throwing the fruit all afternoon.
I took out my phone and shuffled Metallica’s self titled album and we propped up our feet on the extra patio chairs.
The crisis team arrived and asked me to step inside so they could speak to Manny, “Stay by the mango tree, Manny,” I said.
He smiled with all of his teeth.
He lived in our facility for over a year. Everyday we jammed to James Hetfield’s raspy thrash metal vocals, practiced painting, and sat on the patio in the sun. The waves of depression inevitably would hit, the anxiety attacks came often and we would repeat the mantra, “By the mango tree,” until his breathing slowed and he found that warm, familiar place. We did that up until his last days. I haven’t forgotten a minute of it, the magic that music is, how it carried him through the darkest time of his entirely too short life.
I want to give you a job: compile a playlist of music that makes you feel empowered, acknowledged, safe in your vulnerability. It doesn’t matter if it’s forty-five minutes of the same Beach House song or Metallica’s greatest hits. It’s yours. Take it like medicine. Adjust your environment, find solitude or friends, find a dim room or a nice patch of grass, and sit with your medicine music.
If you play an instrument, play along to your favorite songs. If you don’t, invest in a tambourine. The beats of a piece of music, more often than not, reflect the human heart beat. The pieces are as alive as we are and can teach us to slow down and listen. There is so much healing to be done.
I guess what I want to say is that I hope you find your mango tree.