My first real opportunity to work with individuals who had experienced severe trauma and abuse was during my clinical internship at Oregon State Hospital. During this time I had the extremely challenging experience of working with institutionalized children and teens – almost all of whom had histories of physical and/or emotional abuse – and with men in a forensic sex offender treatment program – all of whom had inflicted trauma on others, and many of whom had been abused or traumatized themselves. As a new professional, I was shocked by the stories I heard, and in some cases by the individuals I met. I felt powerless. What did I know about severe abuse and neglect? How could I have any impact on either group of people? That’s when I really began to understand the therapeutic ‘tool’ I had available. I had music, and I was determined to learn how to use it!
I’ll never forget one of the first groups I participated in on the adolescent unit. The group consisted of five teen girls, all of whom were in the state hospital because of crimes they had committed. They had also experienced pretty horrific abuse. These were some angry and traumatized young women. I wasn’t much older than them, and was honestly a little frightened of how they would react to me. My first surprise was how eager they were to come to music therapy. I had been told that this group of girls was particularly resistant to treatment – they often acted out in order to get out of groups, and they were usually disruptive during activities. Not so music. All five of them were ready when my intern supervisor and I arrived.
When we got to the group room, we did a brief check-in. On this particular day, each of them had been tasked with bringing a song to share with the group, a song that had a special meaning for them. I was amazed that every one of them had completed the assignment, but I really doubted that they were going to take it seriously. It seemed like it would be a great opportunity for them to goof off and derail the therapy process. Well, I was completely wrong. The first girl shared the song I’m the Only One by Melissa Etheridge. It is a heart-wrenching anthem about wanting – and being willing to do anything – to be loved. “Please baby can’t you see my mind’s a burnin’ hell… I got razors a rippin’ and tearin’ and strippin’ my heart apart as well.” Once those first lyrics came on you could have heard a pin drop. We were all frozen as we were swept into the despair and longing of the music. And then, as the last line (I’m the only one…nobody else is gonna love you) faded away, I realized that all of the girls were crying. The music shattered their hard shells in a way that nothing else could have.
Picture it – in less than five minutes, these hardened teens who had been abused, abandoned and locked away were transformed into little girls who wanted, more than anything, to be loved. That’s when the therapy was able to happen. My supervisor was able to take the raw emotion and vulnerability and use it as a springboard for processing their trauma (I didn’t contribute much, I was still in awe of what had just happened). Needless to say, we only got through one song that day.
We often put up emotional barriers when we experience trauma in our lives. It’s our way of protecting ourselves from memories that are too painful to remember and from feelings that are too painful to feel. However, true healing cannot take place until we deal with what we are trying to avoid. And in order to deal with those painful memories and feelings, we need a way to access them. Music can take us to those scary places faster and deeper than anything else can. As music therapists, we are trained to help people understand and process whatever the music triggers for them. And then, the healing can begin.
Take a few minutes to listen to this powerful song and imagine that you were in the room with me that day. As you listen, I know that you too will be filled with empathy and compassion for the scared, traumatized, and abandoned girls I met so many years ago…