The Power of Music and Metaphor

I had one of my most intense and effective sessions ever with Wakana last week. She supported me by alternating between A Major and A minor chords on the piano, adjusting her style & chords to complement the emotions I was expressing. I sang, nonverbal melodies at first and words as they came to me – statements and images and raw expressions of anger, grief, triumph… She sang too, reflecting and supporting and occasionally making suggestions. It was very intense; we peeled back most of my defenses as I became more and more relaxed.

It’s one thing to know, cognitively, that one’s self-judgment is the result of early, most likely pre-verbal, experiences of being judged and found lacking. Of not having one’s emotional needs meet sufficiently, and so on. It’s relatively easy (now, after studying psychology for over a decade) for me to connect my current emotional difficulties and insecurities to past experiences. (And yet I’m still surprised how often certain ones come up in therapy.) I’ve built this narrative about my life that organizes the chaos, giving it purpose and meaning; I can reflect on it and pat myself on the back for all the things I’ve overcome.

Yet, time and time again, Wakana tells me the same thing: “You’re too hard on yourself.” She asks what it is I dislike so much about myself. And other than this nonverbal sense of being Wrong, I can’t really answer her. Not in straightforward prose, anyway.

It’s another thing entirely to go through the process of seeking the cause of my self-judgment as it exists deep within my psyche, much as one might search a room for an item one has lost. Several years ago I moved into the other apartment in my mom’s 2-family house; she had been using its closet and cabinets for storage but was happy to have me move back in with her. As Banji helped me clean and re-organize, we identified items that were not mine. Then we moved the items to a space where Mom could sort through them without entering my apartment. We called the items “someone else’s problem,” which made it easier to remove them from my space.

I felt like I was doing that again as I searched for what could possibly be so “wrong” about me. What did I find? The Single Thing I most want to change about myself is this feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with me, which makes me depressed and anxious and keeps me from fully living my life. It keeps me from loving myself. I judge myself for judging myself for judging myself.

… Or so I thought during the session last week. The judgment is definitely what I want and need to change, but I’m still judging something about myself… Perhaps something that doesn’t need to change after all. As I wrote and re-read the above, I realized that I judge myself for having intense emotions – especially when they come up at inconvenient times. The sadness, grief, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. take over my body all too often, usually at times when my “rational side” considers them to be utterly inappropriate.

Today I tried to acknowledge and accept how I was feeling without judging or fighting it. I felt anxious while getting ready to leave the house and considered taking the medication my nurse practitioner prescribed, but decided instead to accept that I felt anxious and continue getting ready. I felt tears welling up in my eyes during conversations and let them flow, inwardly acknowledging why they were there while continuing to share my ideas and experiences.

The problem isn’t my emotions. The problem is that it is risky to allow one’s emotions to show in most social situations. It’s that I have been judged and punished from a young age whenever I expressed strong emotions – especially if my doing so inconvenienced the adults in my life. It’s that, until recently, I haven’t had the support and tools I need to express and manage my emotions in healthy ways, instead of suppressing them.

My emotions are inextricable parts of me that serve vital functions, even if they’re often not what I want or (think I) need at the time. The judgment isn’t mine. It belongs to cultural norms that should be obsolete and caregivers who internalized those norms. As humans we both create and adapt to our environment (society)… and we have an uncanny knack for creating unhealthy environments for ourselves and our children. Self-judgement and internalized stigma are two related ways in which we adapt to some of the most toxic elements in our environment.

(I feel the need to include that not everything in Western society is toxic; some aspects are actually quite awesome. Also, just as we create our environment, we can change it for the better.)

The thing is, it’s one thing to know that cognitively, to think it and talk about it with other people. It’s something else entirely to, as in the movie Inception, delve deep into one’s own mind and find something that was placed there by someone else. Wakana helped me do that last week; now I’m looking for the “someone else’s problem” box.

Being a Good Client

I’ve noticed a pattern: I spend a significant portion of my sessions with Wakana celebrating the progress I’ve made so far. On Wednesday I spent a third of our time together raving about my new, androgynous haircut; telling her I was able to separate myself from the agitation my mom was expressing; and taking about times I’ve been assertive. At one point I felt dangerously close to suggesting that maybe we’re reaching the end of our work together and should start talking about termination.

The thing is, I’ve been exhausted. Under my excitement, energy, and good news, a deep weariness was waiting; as soon as I relaxed, it would devour me. I felt it, resisted it, but couldn’t deny it.

She found a way in when I shared the insecurity that was keeping me from joining a new social group: I’m afraid I won’t be accepted as I am. I verbally connected it to childhood experiences; this was no gain in insight but a defensive, almost academic wall I constructed with each word I said. “Keep it intellectual. Don’t feel.”

Wakana is a music therapist. She’s all about the feels.

Somehow she got me to talk about what’s going on for me now: whenever I’m in a social situation, I feel like I have to adapt to the norms and expectations of whomever I’m interacting with. If I don’t know what those are going to be, I feel very anxious. If I can avoid the situation, I probably will.

The whole adapting to social norms thing is just reality to some extent, but I think I take it to a bit of an extreme. I hide who I am, presenting myself as a sweet, quiet, perhaps a bit reserved, easygoing person who is happy to listen and will comply with most requests. I let people touch my arms and shoulders even though I hate it. I smile and avoid interrupting people and don’t tell them when what they’re saying is factually inaccurate or logically flawed … or I just plain disagree with it. I feign interest in topics I couldn’t care less about and fade into the shadows when I can’t find an opening in the conversation. I’m basically the opposite of how I am on this blog. (The more comfortable I am with a group, the less likely I am to fall into this pattern.)

Getting my new haircut was an act of rebellion against most of what my mother trained me to be. And yet, the pictures she took of me the day I got it are identical to every other picture she’s ever taken of me: I look like a demure pre-teen.

Practically everyone I interact with projects their interpretation/expectation of my gender onto me and uses the wrong pronouns, even if I’ve “come out” to them. The exceptions are Fox and Banji. Fox is generally awesome at using the correct pronouns, but he goes with the gendered terms that require the least explanation when in public. Banji respects my preferences by avoiding pronouns. I appreciate their efforts. Also, the LGBTQIA+ organization on campus includes pronouns in introductions, so it provides an opportunity to be authentic without singling myself out as “different” or “other.”

I made the conscious decision not to correct people the last couple times they used the wrong pronouns because I felt too anxious about it. However, the reduction in anxiety came at a high price. Such a basic part of my identity that most people take for granted, and I feel like it’s invisible – even with the hair!!! It’s exhausting.

(My pronouns are ze and zir. As in: “Ze wrote in zir blog that people regularly misgender zir.”)

Wakana finally seems to accept it; when I realized that it was a huge relief.

She beckoned me to the piano so we could vocally venture forth into the unknown. She asked what modality I wanted; I asked for Major. I sang a pretty melody about… something related to being myself or being assertive or whatever. Wakana’s accompaniment diminished, her head dropped, and then she stopped playing all together. It looked like she’d fallen asleep.

I poked her shoulder and said, “c’mon, it’s not that boring!”

That’s when she asked if I was feeling very tired, and I admitted that yes, I was. She was picking up on that so strongly she fell into a trance – and not for the first time during our sessions. I attributed my chronic fatigue to undiagnosed sleep apnea, but she said she thinks it’s because I’m repressing my emotions.

She got me to admit I was mad at my mom for telling me how I should style my hair and which picture I should use as my profile pic on Facebook! We banged on the keyboard and yelled things like “I’m not you!” and “leave me alone!” It was very intense.

I finally broke down crying. “I don’t want to be left alone. I want to be accepted as I am.” I sang about walking my own path and wanting someone to walk with me for a time – but without pulling me onto their path or invading mine.

Wakana yelled some more but then it hit me: I was treating her the same way I treated my mother. All the stuff about how far I’ve come in therapy… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m proud of it! All the time I spent talking about it was an effort to assure her that she is a good therapist… while simultaneously keeping her at a distance. I was hiding my vulnerability. This happened as I sang, “I don’t need you to accept my emotions because I accept them.”

In a flood of tears I finally confessed: “I haven’t been doing better. I’ve been feeling sad and lonely and exhausted and I’ve been spending a lot of time playing The Sims 3. I didn’t want to tell you because you get so angry when I do; I didn’t want to hear it!”

She said I shouldn’t have waited until the end of the session to bring this up. I didn’t tell her, but I needed the work we did in the session to enable me to bring it up.

She conceded that perhaps it’s unfair of her to get so angry when I say I’ve been playing The Sims 3; she asked me to write down the themes that have emerged in my game so we can work with them.

She also said: “depression isn’t feeling sad. Depression is not feeling at all. You need to stop repressing your emotions and dissociating. It’s okay to feel sad; let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and express it.”

I said I hate the cold emptiness of depression and would rather feel sad… but I also despise being sad for no reason. And crying. Ugh. I hate crying.

… but not quite as much as I hate being chronically exhausted.

Healer, Heal Thyself

I came up with a music therapy intervention that not only meets the criteria for at least one part of my piano improvisation midterm, but is also useful for me in my everyday life! I was playing an ostinato (repeated musical pattern) in Mixolydian and kept thinking: “this wants to be a movement intervention, but it’s so tranquil.” I kept imagining myself slowly raising my arms above my head and inhaling, then lowering them and exhaling – like one might do as part of a warm-up for yoga.

Everything I’ve been learning about improvisation, psychotherapy, music therapy, and improvisation points to the same essential guideline: Work with what the client is giving you. My mind was giving me a movement, so I decided to go with it. I played the ostinato in my left hand, used my right arm to do the movement, and sang instructions with the melody that felt most natural. I added turning to one side, back to the center, to the other side, and then back to the center again.

Then I changed up my playing and added my right hand. Initially the music (including my vocal melody) had been very flowy and tranquil, “holding.” I changed it to be more like playing a drum, with shorter sharper notes and pauses between chords, “driving.” It also became slightly faster.

I sang instructions to step side to side and clap, similar to what one might expect in step aerobics. There is an option to increase the tempo (speed), depending on the client’s response and how much time there is for repetition (I need to keep it short for the midterm). I suppose other directions, such as forward and back, and possibly even turning one’s body as one steps, can be added.

After a short time, I returned to the original “holding” music (including vocal melody). I sang instructions to turn to one side and then the other first, then ended with the instructions to raise and lower arms. This gives the exercise a nice symmetry and is intended to help the client remain calm and focused. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes.

Music therapy students are encouraged to be specific regarding which clients would benefit from an intervention, what needs it addresses, and how it meets those needs. It didn’t take me long at all to realize that a simple movement activity like this would be very helpful for me: an able-bodied individual with anxiety and depression, who can follow verbal directions and typically lacks the energy and motivation to exercise.

Everyone (including scientific research) says that physical activity is a highly effective “treatment” for depression, possibly the most effective. I’ve experienced its benefits firsthand, when my symptoms have been mild enough to allow me to do it. The problem is, an intervention doesn’t work if it’s inaccessible to the client (for example, I’d need to modify my instructions – or even come up with a whole new activity – for someone who uses a wheelchair). So, even if exercise could cure depression it doesn’t, because the symptoms of depression prevent exercise.

Which is where my intervention comes in. I could totally see Wakana doing something like this, particularly on a day when my energy and motivation are so low I ask to meet via Skype. I can hear her voice saying, “Stand up, we’re going to do something about this;” I can feel myself groaning as I drag myself out of my chair and scowl at her – annoyed, but secretly hoping that whatever she “makes” me do will provide some relief.

It starts out holding, comforting, with very simple movements that don’t take a lot of energy and can feel good as soon as I start doing them. It’s meeting me where I am: in need of emotional support. The amount of movement, energy, and coordination required increases gradually. When used as a live intervention, the therapist can adjust the level of challenge to meet what the client is capable of at that time. It can be recorded and used by the client (e.g. me) as a daily movement activity that is a million times easier than going to the gym, taking a walk, or even playing Wii Fit. Hopefully it will provide enough energy to encourage additional exercise.

Physical movement aside, I believe listening to the musical intervals (the specific sound created by playing two particular notes simultaneously or consecutively) in my intervention can be intrinsically healing. The Anthroposophical Concept of Intervals describes them in terms of 1) inner or outer focus, 2) movement or stillness, and 3) balance or tension. I find that my musical self-expression, especially when my symptoms are at their worst, tends to involve mostly intervals that are associated with inner focus and tension. There is definitely a place for these elements – in life and in music – but sometimes we need a break from them!

When I was creating this intervention I intentionally chose intervals that are associated with 1) both inner and outer balance as well as 2) active movement outward. Whether I move my physical body or not, use of these intervals reassures me that I am safe and I can direct my energy outward. In other words, these intervals directly contradict the distortion at the core of my mental illness. They free me to be the healthy Self I always am.

All that, in two minutes! I love music therapy.

The Drama of the Gifted Child

TW: descriptions of physical and emotional abuse

Reading The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller has helped me put a lot into perspective: I’m actually very fortunate and blessed to be precisely where I am in my life, right now. It may not match my ideals of being successful in a meaningful career, living on my own, and starting a family – and that hurts, a lot! – but it gives me the foundation I need to be able to build those things while also being true to my “inner child,” my genuine self.

book cover – The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller – links to Amazon.com

If I take Miller’s argument to be true for me – and it probably is, because I relate very strongly to it – my parents were unable to love me as I truly was from very early in my life, possibly birth. My mom recently revealed to me that my birth was a very stressful experience for her – involving pressure from in-laws, feeling unsupported by my father, and concerns about her own health. The hospital staff separated me from her – now understood to be one of the worst things you can do – and brought me back when it was “time to breastfeed!” I was “fussy” and she didn’t know what to do, was probably uncomfortable trying to figure it out with someone watching, and the field of lactation consulting didn’t exist at the time.

Right there, in what was probably my first interaction with my mother as a separate human being, my emotions (“fussiness”) were a problem that interfered with our ability to bond and my ability to have a basic need met (food). Never mind that she probably wanted to love and nurture me, and I imagine she did the best that she could, given the circumstances. When I was traumatized from the birthing experience, hungry, and at my most vulnerable ever, I needed to look into her eyes and see unconditional love (and have my brain be flooded with oxytocin). Instead… I probably saw her pain, insecurity, frustration, and sorrow – in that moment I wasn’t what she had hoped I would be. (And great, she was stuck with me for 18 years, at least.) The very first thing I did was let her down. For all I know, trying to imagine an experience I can’t even remember, she might not have even made eye contact with me.

Image Description: Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact even though the baby is looking at her. from News In Health: Understanding Postpartum Depression December 2005 National Institutes of Health

Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact though the baby is looking at her.
National Institutes of Health

This is the part where I’m supposed to get angry with her for letting me down, but all I feel is a deep sadness and emptiness that I find intolerable. (Like a fussy baby?) It’s a beautiful day, let’s enjoy some time outside. How can you wallow in these emotions on a bright sunny day like this? I took a look outside at the glorious green grass and the sunlight glinting off the beautiful green leaves on the trees and felt a cool breeze and smelled the crispness in the air that means it’s autumn. Mmm, these are the things that keep me alive! And now I’ve settled back down at the computer with some food. Silencing my inner newborn’s cries with a burger and fries – an adult approximation of formula.

This is what Miller would call repeating the harmful behaviors my parents imposed on me, behaviors that prevent me from expressing my “unsavory” emotions and keep my true self in torment. I’ve used food to avoid feeling difficult emotions for as long as I can remember – from accepting chips and sour cream as a substitute for emotional bonding while watching TV with my mom, to stuffing my face at social gatherings to smother my feelings of anxiety and isolation (from being surrounded by people I didn’t think could understand me, and who wouldn’t accept the real me). More recently it’s helped me finish papers for school (that earned grades of “A”) and write particularly difficult blog posts.

In short, I adapted. I had to, because when I felt my emotions I couldn’t help but express them, and doing so put me in very real danger. I remember my father becoming terrifyingly angry, dragging me from the first floor of our house to the third, spanking me for several minutes on my bed, and paying no heed to my pleas for him to let me go use the bathroom; I wet myself, long after I’d stopped having any of the normal childhood issues with such things. For most of my life I was convinced that I’d done something horrible to deserve it – until only a couple of years ago when I learned that it was physical abuse. Maybe I’d done something for which I should have been redirected, disciplined, possibly given a “time-out” to consider how I could have responded more appropriately… it doesn’t matter. He hurt and humiliated me.

It was like I wasn’t even there; my feelings and my needs didn’t matter. All that mattered was his anger.

My mother wasn’t aware that my father had done that to me. But she did know something that I did not: he also slapped me. It was horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse I don’t remember – if there’s one, how many more are there? What else did he do to me? It was also horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse she didn’t remember. I would hope she would have remembered if he’d talked to her about it, so I’m inclined to guess that he didn’t. My father didn’t tell his wife that he had lost control and beaten the shit (well, pee) out of me. That would have been the first step to taking responsibility for his actions and trying to avoid such behavior in the future.

He never took it.

So, you’re probably thinking: Ziya, all these things you’re writing about are pretty horrible. What makes you say you’re fortunate to be in your current situation?

Well, in a nutshell, I’ve been in therapy for about four years now, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. There was a time when I thought my parents were wonderful for pushing me to focus so much on academic success and having a successful career. I was at the top of my class, went to the best high school my mom could afford, went to a rather prestigious university with a semester’s worth of credits already under my belt, completed a double major and a minor, and graduated magna cum laude. I needed my academic adviser to convince me not to do an honors thesis because I didn’t want to do one, but thought I should because I was so used to being an overachiever.

But my social skills are nowhere near as developed as my academic ones, and I have a lot of social anxiety. I miss out on great opportunities to make friends and otherwise have fun socializing. I feel isolated and lonely. In college, the semester I was the happiest was the semester I got the lowest grades because I decided not to do my absolute best in all my classes, but rather focus more on developing my social skills and enjoying extracurricular activities. (I was also taking Wellbutrin, but it caused increased irritability, dry mouth, and other side effects I strongly disliked. I made the rookie mental health consumer mistake of going off it cold turkey when I thought I was “better.” I thought I could leave psychiatry behind me…)

I used to be so proud of all my academic achievements – okay, I still am – but that pride came at the cost of believing that they were what made me a worthwhile person. (Miller calls it grandiosity.) The more time I spend as an adult, the more I realize that my grades matter less than, well, the skills I’m not as strong in and have trouble accessing when my mental health symptoms flare up. If the thing that makes me worthwhile isn’t really worth much in the real world, what does that say about me?

In therapy I realized that part of why I got such good grades in school (besides being very good at academic learning) was because it was one of very few things I had control over, and it provided some of the stability my home was otherwise lacking. My parents would have awful fights – but at least I would bring home a report card they could be proud of and display as proof that things were going well in their lives; they’d reward me with the affirmation that I took in place of love and craved like most people crave air.

In one therapy session I likened this process to Kudzu, “the vine that ate the U.S. South.” It is not indigenous to the Americas, so the local flora have no defense against it and there are no insect predators. It climbs up bushes and trees, covering the whole trunk and leaves until they can no longer access the sunlight. Countless plants have become corpses supporting this vine, no longer able to exist for their own sake. In my metaphor my parents urged me to grow ever taller, reaching for the sun, so that they could climb my trunk and spread their leaves high above the obstacles imposed on them by their own life circumstances and relationships. But in the process, they smothered all my access to air and light.

kudzu vines covering a vaguely anthropomorphic figure that looks like it's reaching up to the sky with both arms - and the surrounding area image by Markus Griesser

kudzu vines covering a vaguely anthropomorphic figure that looks like it’s reaching up to the sky with both arms
image by Markus Griesser

There was a time when I thought my childhood had been very happy and I missed it, horribly. I think my image of my childhood was based on my memory of the home-cooked dinners my grandmother served every night, and the whole family gathered around the table, complete with our golden retriever’s head in my lap. That was quite awesome and I was more physically fit, so I could run and climb and ride my bike and roller skate and play sports. I suppose I can still do those things, but not as well and not without a lot of physical discomfort and difficulty breathing. I was also less inhibited and had less access to electronic entertainment back then, which made it easier for me to have fun playing outside. And I truly believed that I could grow up to be anything.

Therapy has helped me face the reality that, while there were definitely positive experiences, I did not have an overall happy childhood. Perhaps you could say I had a neutral childhood – the best and worst parts of it kind of cancel each other out. It certainly wasn’t idyllic. According to Miller, people who seek therapy often think their childhoods were happy. Therapy enables them – us – to remember and re-experience the parts of our childhoods that were too painful to remain in our conscious experience. The goal is not to “correct” the experience, but rather to express the emotions that had to be repressed at the time in order to survive. Only by expressing and accepting these emotions (and having the world, e.g. the therapeutic relationship, not end) can we begin to heal.

Career Person?

Some strange and unexpected things happened to me today. I’m not quite sure what to make of them, but I’m optimistic.

During my music therapy session, Wakana asked whether I thought Fox and I could live on just his salary. I thought about it for a short while, then gave my answer: “I think, in order to maintain the comfort level we’re used to, we’ll need to have two incomes.”

This might not seem that extraordinary – these days, what couple/family doesn’t need 2 incomes? – but from my perspective it’s a huge change in my self-perception. I’ve always seen myself as a career person, there was never any question about it. I couldn’t imagine myself not working outside the home. I would feel as though something were missing in my life if I didn’t pursue a career, like I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I’ve worked my butt off in school so I could have a meaningful, satisfying, (preferably decent-paying) career. Part of why I entered my field of choice – why I started my Master’s degree – is because I see it as one with a lot of room for growth, where I could become well-known and make a serious impact.

I never thought I could have tolerated someone implying that I could or might consider not pursuing a career. To suggest such a possibility would be an affront to who I am, and all I’ve worked for. How dare anyone suggest that I stay home while my spouse works to support our family financially?

Yet, at the time, these thoughts didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t even get mildly angry. I just thought about it from a purely practical perspective: Fox isn’t entering his field for the money. He’s entering it because it’s his calling, what he wants to dedicate his life to. We might be able to get by on what he’s likely to make, but we wouldn’t be able to afford much more than basic necessities. To live the lifestyle I’ve always taken for granted and that I want to be able to provide our children – never mind to be able to afford their education – we’re going to need more income. My income.

Even that may not be enough, because I refuse to enter a career simply because it pays well. I need something I’m passionate about, something I find fulfilling in its own right.

I thought I’d found that in music therapy – a field with plenty of decent-paying jobs, but not one to enter if your goal is to become wealthy. It’s all about developing a genuine (therapeutic) relationship with clients; connecting and communicating and building on their existing strengths through and in music; being and experiencing human creativity not as an art form or as entertainment, but as a means of healing and growth. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d rather do and yet, sometimes, I question my decision. Whether it’s my calling or not I have a choice: Is it really what I want to do?

Or did I choose to enter a helping profession because helping other people is the only thing I know how to do?

Since I’ve been so focused on my own healing, I’ve felt like I want – and need – my music to be for me. Something I do because I find it fun and fulfilling, a way to express my emotions and channel my creativity. I would love for it to be a source of income, as long as I’m always making music because I love to do so and not just for the money. All the better if my music does some good in the world, whether by brightening someone’s day, helping them overcome mental illness, or changing how millions of people think about relationships. There’s so much power in a handful of notes, a simple melody. But if I’m going to make those notes sound, I need them to do something for me.

I’m not sure that works with music therapy. The therapeutic relationship requires that every action the therapist does is primarily for the benefit of the client. That doesn’t mean the therapist can’t benefit from it, too – mostly, it means the therapist should never do anything to help zirself at the expense of the client. But if I want and need my music to be for me, I think there’s too much risk that I’ll neglect the client’s needs in my efforts to meet my own. Or, alternatively, that I’ll fall back on my old habit of ignoring my needs while trying to help the client. That might lead to me resenting the client, my employer, the field, myself.

A huge part of why I’m feeling better is because I’m freed from most if not all of that resentment. I don’t need to feel resentful because I’m able to assert myself and meet my needs (well, at least somewhat). That frees so much energy for interacting with my loved ones as equals, growing as a person, and feeling joy. It’s wonderful.

It’s also wonderful to know that I don’t have to make my decision right now. I have to wait until 2015 to re-take the classes I still need to complete my degree, anyway. A lot can change between now and then, and if it doesn’t I can pursue other options. Whatever I decide in the near future, I might – and can – choose to change my course later on. It’s easy to freak out because I’m almost 30 and apparently there’s lots of things we’re supposed to do my then. But then I hear our parents talking about the new directions they want to take their lives, and I realize that there’s plenty of time for growth and change. I’ve barely begun my journey.

We stopped in a tea shop on the way home. The customer service was as excellent as the tea was delicious. I saw something about careers, so I checked online and sure enough there was an open position that required less than a year of experience.

So I applied.

I don’t know if I’ll get the job and to be honest I don’t really care that much about this specific job. But that enabled me to “put myself out there,” to create the possibility of becoming employed. And it gave me an opportunity to look at some of my credentials, to see past accomplishments and responsibilities I was trusted with in the past and things I know I’m capable of doing. That felt really good.

And now I’m wondering: What other jobs are out there? What do I want to do?

Awesome

Awesome things have been happening the past few days!

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an unexpected package on Wednesday. It turned out to be 4 pounds of modeling clay from Banji!

Mom encouraged me to take a holistic approach to treating my depression, including aromatherapy, a better-balanced diet, and seeing a chiropractor. To be honest I’m inclined to take some of her advice with a grain of salt, but it means a lot to me that she’s been looking into things that might help. I figure it can’t hurt to look into holistic approaches and adopt the ones that help me feel better; things like diet are basic to everyday self-care. (And, frankly, I’ve come to see psychiatry as a bit of a Hojo science: “Try taking this random substance that will affect your brain and we’ll see what happens …” If we’re going to be doing that, I might as well get to relax while inhaling a smell I like, thanks.)

More importantly, she’s willing to be involved in my exploration/implementation of these things: cooking for me, covering costs, even going to the chiropractor with me. I just hope this is a step toward her helping me with the things I think/know I need – and not an attempt to distract me from effective treatments that she’s uncomfortable with (because they might change our relationship?). :-/  I’m inclined to be a bit wary, but for now at least I’m focusing on the positive/potential for good: she wants to help me.

Fox has been positively wonderful. Among other things, he lets me read my blog posts to him – even if he’s tired or trying to focus on something else (or both).

He and his Dad both agreed to (collaboratively) make important mental health care decisions for me, in the event that I am unable to do so myself. This means a lot to me because while Fox knows me incredibly well, Dad is in a profession where he gets to see both sides of the coin; he knows what’s available, red flags to watch out for, how to translate from Human to Doctor and back again, etc.

I pushed myself to meet with Wakana today, despite desperately wanting to go back to sleep. It was very good that I did so. We spent most of the session talking about things related to asserting myself, primarily in the realm of receiving the mental health care I need. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I started playing one of the instruments that had been calling to me the whole time; as I played I started to hum; as I hummed, I started to sing:

This is what I need
Listen to me
Fuck your red tape
Listen to me

Forget your procedure
Listen to me
I’ll tell you what I need
Listen to me

Can you do what I need?
Listen to me
Answer truthfully!
Listen to me

If the answer is “No,”
Then I’ll say, “Goodbye,
Have a nice day.”
Listen to me!

At the end of the session I was even able to express, in the moment, how I felt about leaving (sad, and a little anxious). We were able to talk a bit about our (therapeutic) relationship, though a bit awkwardly (from my perspective). I expressed my anger about only having an hour with Wakana – while acknowledging that we need such boundaries and listening to her explain that she needs to make a living and this is how she’s chosen to do it; that doesn’t make our relationship any less genuine. It wasn’t the most comfortable or satisfying thing in the world, but it was a huge milestone in my emotional development.

Best of all, the melody filled me with a strong sense of Self that I’ve been desperately missing. It filled my whole body and spread beyond me to the people, buildings, trees, grass, sky, etc. all around me. The whole world, maybe even the whole universe, reverberated with it. I don’t need labels/categories, hobbies, a profession, relationships, even a name to define me. I just am. And I’m already whole. No matter how chaotic things may be, around me and inside me, I am. (We are.) It can be embodied in that melody. Or whatever melody best fits in the moment. It can be silent, or played by orchestras around the world, or anywhere in between.

Peace.

Honesty

Wakana and I had a very productive conversation yesterday, perhaps one of our most therapeutic sessions yet. She was completely straightforward and down to business; she wanted to know what was going on last Friday and why I didn’t feel comfortable talking to her – at the very least, letting her know I was still alive. Most importantly, she asked what it is I need from her that I feel like I’m not getting.

Friday. It’s like something is actively trying to block my access to what was going on that day. In a nutshell, I just didn’t want to be bothered – with her, or anyone, or anything. That’s not entirely true: I wanted to spend time with Fox and I did. But he came to me. I didn’t want to face the world, reality. I really didn’t want to go out in it. I didn’t want to put on shoes; none of the shoes I own were quite right for the weather that day. And I didn’t want to face whatever we’d reveal about myself.

And yes, I was more interested in focusing on The Sims 3. My escape. She’s really concerned about all the time playing that game, and the narrowing of my world. On some level, I’m concerned about it, too. But on some level I feel like it’s what I need all I can handle right now. Anything else requires me to wear the mask, and it’s just too heavy.

What do I need from her that I’m not getting? Music. I need to spend more time making music – and, more importantly, using the music to get at the heart of the matter. It’s hard, it’s painful, I don’t really want to do it most of the time. I guess I need her to push me a little more, or pull me, or … do more to help me feel safe. And to help me put my armor back on before I have to leave her room and face the world again. I hate being so vulnerable. But I think I can do it in front of her, as long as it’s contained within the session.

It felt good to be able to have that conversation with her. It was extremely uncomfortable, but just the fact that she really wanted to know and understand my experience – without judging it or telling me what to do – meant the world to me.

Rage Dragon

On Wednesday I spent a significant portion of my music therapy session throwing an extremely loud temper tantrum on drums and cymbal. (The cymbal is seriously the best instrument ever, you should check it out! – especially if you have anger issues. Just … give everyone else around you earplugs.) Wakana supported me on keyboard and drums. I had a blast, banging crashing screaming wailing shouting “Go away!” It was fantastic!

When I finished (I wasn’t really finished, but things were slowing down a bit and it was a good time to take a break. I don’t know if I’ll ever be finished with this temper tantrum!) Wakana looked me in the eye and said, “Ziya, you have got a ton of rage!” As I spoke I felt like laughing, crying, and tantruming again all at the same time; it took all my effort to speak coherently. Yeah, of course I’ve got a lot of rage.

And I’ve been sitting on top of it for a lifetime.

I gotta get this stuff … you know, strong language is allowed on WordPress. I doubt people would really mind reading “shit” from time to time. You’re typing it. Great!

I gotta get this shit out of me! It’s causing me constant back pain! I’m wasting so much energy trying to keep it down. No wonder I’m so anxious, I’m afraid I’m going to explode! And I really really really don’t want this to end with me hurting myself. I can’t hurt other people either. There has got to be another way!

Art. My ideal would be to go in a place where I could smash things, maybe things made of colored ceramic or glass. Then, after I’d smashed things, I’d put the pieces back together into something beautiful.

Or a room where I could throw red paint everywhere, okay, maybe other colors too. I could roll in it and crash into the wall, smear it all over the place with the biggest broadest strokes my body can do.

I was considering getting a giant roll of art paper and finger paints to simulate the second option at home, but the rolls I’ve been able to find (so far) are too expensive.

So, for now, I’ve contented myself with coloring a dragon. It was drawn by Rachael Mayo. Her artwork is gorgeously complex, so it will probably take me a few coloring sessions to finish. Here’s what I’ve done so far; I’m working with colored pencils because they give me the most control.

color-dragon-01

Lean on Me – But Just the Right Amount

Wakana pulled back, standing squarely on her own two feet again. I felt my body relax.

“It’s like your mother,” she said. “She needs you to be dependent on her in order to have a sense of herself. But you can’t lean on her too much – I don’t think she could handle it.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to figure out how much to lean. I feel safer not trusting her than risking that we’ll both collapse, or that she’ll use whatever I confide in her against me.

“But it hurts! She’s my mother!”

Wakana was huddled in her chair, arms and legs crossed, like the lost abandoned child crying inside me. Her eyes seemed to have a grey cloud over them – likely reflecting what she saw in my eyes. Her lips were turned downward in a frown. I was staring at my own pain.

“She’s also a person,” Wakana explained. “People can’t always be what we want them to be.”

The silence was broken only by the flood in my eyes.

“It’s disappointing.”

My mom just can’t be the mother I’ve always wanted her to be. I need to accept that about her and relate – as my real self – to the person she is. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I’ve been chasing a dream … and living a nightmare!

I need to get my needs met elsewhere: other family members, friends, and by caring for myself. And I need to establish and enforce boundaries between Mom and me. We can’t lean on each other anymore! It’s too dangerous for me.

But I’m not sure what “boundaries” entail! It’s one thing to talk about this stuff with my therapist – quite another to get it to work in my real, imperfect, living and breathing relationship with my mother. I’m paying Wakana to spend an hour every week being whatever I need her to be; she’s had decades of training and experience in helping clients heal lifelong emotional wounds. My mother … to be fair, I’m sure she’s tried her best. But that hasn’t been enough – often, it’s actively hurt me! I don’t trust her to respect my boundaries; nor do I trust myself to get it right when I try to establish and enforce them.

Should I say “no” her her requests? Refuse to listen to her stories? Avoid expressing any vulnerability? Should I schedule times when we are allowed to talk about a limited, predetermined list of topics? Set a timer and when it goes off she has to stop speaking and listen to me?

When does it stop being about boundaries and become about control? How can I let her be her without it hurting me?

WHERE IS THE MIDDLE GROUND?!

Using Words to Say What They Cannot

Playing The Sims 3 too late Monday night all but ruined Tuesday. My plan had been to pick up textbooks from the bookstore on campus, leave from campus to go to my music therapy session, then return to campus for my evening class, attend class and come home. Instead, I overslept by 45 minutes. I was sluggish, groggy, and disorganized. I left an hour later than I’d intended. When I got to the bookstore there was a long line; I was worried about being horribly late for my session, so I left without accomplishing what I’d gone to campus to do. 😦

I was late for the later time to which I’d pushed back my session when I realized I was running late, but my therapist (Wakana) was very nice and actually allowed it to go on longer than our usual hour. Fox came with me, per my request, so we could work on some stuff together:

The Issue

I’ve been feeling very trapped in our relationship, like I can’t express myself fully. It’s fueling the depression. Sometimes I feel like he’s trying to shape my thoughts regarding a topic (e.g. saying we know my pet rats are smart) or change some aspect of something I’ve said (e.g. repeating it with an inflection that suggests a different emotion/meaning, or changing the wording). He (almost) always has a response for (nearly) everything I say and most of what I do; that response always seems to convey either approval (like I need it) or the suggestion that I should do/think/say something different. When he doesn’t respond, I worry that I’ve broached upon an unapproved topic.

Other times, I feel like his actions (e.g. opening a drawer for me) or reactions (e.g. shrinking away when I express anger) limit my ability to be an active agent in accomplishing my goals. I feel like he doubts my abilities when he helps without me asking him to. I feel unsafe expressing anger – and harnessing that energy to complete tasks – when he shrinks away from it. I worry that I’m being too aggressive. I almost never practice music when we’re together because I know he doesn’t like hearing the same thing repeated over and over again. I waited almost an hour and a half to call Banji Monday night because I felt uncomfortable excusing myself from Fox to do so.

I don’t know whether these are red flags suggesting an unhealthy dynamic to our relationship (as my mother seems inclined to suggest), or whether I’m taking his behavior too personally. One of the mental distortions in depression is perceiving others’ neutral behaviors as somehow negatively directed toward oneself – for example, as disapproval. Knowing this can help me quiet the Critic enough to get through a day, but it might also cause me to doubt instincts that I really need to trust. Do I need to just be myself, assert myself, do what I need or want, and leave it to him to express his needs directly? Or is something more sinister going on here?

The last thing I need is an abusive relationship.

What Words Can’t Say

I am distressed by the impact of Fox’s actions on my quality of life, but just as distressing is my impulse to ask him to change his behavior and speech patterns to better suit my needs. How is that not limiting his ability to express himself fully? Don’t we both have that right?

I feel horrible bringing it up, especially since he’s done so much to show his love for and dedication to me. He’s stuck by me through some very rough times, shown me more respect than I was once inclined to show myself (and still have trouble requesting from others), and even remained supportive and present while terrified by the strength of my anger. (I think it helps that I was not angry with him at the time.) How dare I question his motives?

I worry about falsely accusing him, controlling him until he’s forced to become someone he’s not, hurting his feelings, and/or driving him away. The anxiety steals my voice and silences my thoughts. I have trouble coming up with the words to express how his behavior is affecting me – or, how I feel in response to his behavior. If I manage to think the words, I can’t bring myself to say them. My mouth and vocal cords refuse to work.

If I manage to say something, I don’t communicate it clearly. I think it comes across as nitpicking about this instance of the behavior instead of trying to address the broader pattern. Fox becomes defensive. I get frustrated and fall into a cold, hostile silence full of pain, anger, and guilt. At some point we both let it go. Rinse and repeat.

Tuesday morning was particularly bad because we were both cranky from lack of sleep, and on a schedule. It didn’t help that (as he expressed later) he was trying to navigate the thin line between giving me the nudge I need (and have requested) and being overbearing; I felt like he was guilty of the latter. I was convinced he was controlling me and I hated him for it. Even when he went to take a shower and I was putting our breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, these thoughts were running through my head. I felt abused, unappreciated, neglected.

Finding a Voice

I talked to Fox about feeling trapped on our way to the music therapy session. I told him I hoped we could use music to work through some aspects of our dynamic that I was having trouble understanding and expressing in words. He agreed to try. We also talked about what happened Tuesday morning to try and find better ways of interacting. I suggested we work together as a team, with a routine and different jobs we each know we need to do, to make mornings run more smoothly. He suggested we have a technology curfew – no computer/internet use after midnight or too soon after waking – to help us get the sleep we need and start the day focused on reality.

(I’m breaking the technology curfew to write this, ironically. But he’s not here to be affected by my choice; he’s at his own home near his campus. I’d probably benefit from maintaining it whether he’s here or not, though. There’s just one problem: late night is my favorite time to write!)

The music therapy session was the one part of the day that went well. Wakana opened it by asking what our objective was, so I explained my perspective of what was going on and desire to use music to work through it together. We showed Fox how to play a variety of instruments, then he and I selected several to improvise with. He played the djembe (African hand drum held between the knees/thighs). I started with the cymbal, but when I saw that it was interfering with his music-making, I switched to the “nicer” and “quieter” malimba (African thumb piano).

If I’m making music with one or more other people, I listen to and might watch them, but the majority of my attention is on my own playing. This time, most of my focus was on Fox: his playing, facial expressions, and other body language. I tried to give him time to find a rhythm and play something that made sense with it. I got frustrated and even once played loudly on his drum when he played very quietly around the edges.

It was only when I backed off and became engrossed in the melody I was playing on the malimba that he was really able to join me. We responded to each other in the music and smiled at each other. He started to play with more confidence and volume. Where before my cymbal playing had interfered with his ability to play anything, I found I could punctuate and to some extent respond to his rhythmic patterns with it … then go back to playing the malimba. We connected and had a lot of fun.

Using Words

I was a bit annoyed when it seemed like Wakana was focusing mostly on Fox’s experiences, but listening to Fox speak was actually very helpful. I learned that, like me, he feels like he is putting a lot into our relationship and not getting as much out of it as he would like; his needs aren’t getting met. He expressed that he’s trying very hard to support me in dealing with my depression, all the transitions that are happening in my life, and day-t0-day stress. Sometimes it’s hard for him to figure out how to fit in his own needs, particularly because he doesn’t want them to have an adverse effect on me. It reminded me so strongly of what I’ve learned about the therapeutic relationship – the therapist should never use the session to meet hir own needs at the expense of the client – that I actually told him very firmly “You are not my therapist.”

I think sometimes we both need to remember that his job in our relationship is not to meet my needs. We are two individuals, equals, both of whom have needs that need to be met in a mutual and reciprocal way. I can’t meet all his needs and he can’t meet all of mine; we each need to find ways of taking care of ourselves and reaching out to other people for support. I think a lot of my anger toward him comes from forgetting this.

I’ve also finally come to acknowledge that, whether he is intentionally or subconsciously controlling me or not, I am putting stupid amounts of energy into trying to control him. Let me say that again: I am controlling him. For a while I was reading a book Wakana had recommended, titled Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie. As soon as I read the subtitle I denied that I could possibly be guilty of controlling others. My mother did that to me, Fox was doing it, even Banji. Everybody else. Not me! I was the victim.

Now I’m thinking maybe I should give this book another read with the understanding that maybe more of it applies to me than I had thought. Maybe Fox and I can read it together – codependency is something we both struggle with and a significant, 2-way issue in our relationship.

Wakana also gave us a valuable tool we can use to better assert our needs to one another, while still respecting each other and being polite. She suggested that if one of us wants to talk to the other about something, we set a date – it could be “in half an hour” – so we both have time to prepare mentally. Then no one’s activity gets interrupted and everyone’s needs can be discussed, hopefully addressed to the satisfaction of all parties.

A New Vocabulary

Wakana and Fox also helped me find the words to better explain something that’s been happening to me that is very distressing, interferes with my functioning, and has yet to be addressed by mental health professionals despite my attempts to bring it up. Sometimes I freeze up (I used to say “get stuck”): I feel like I either can’t or really don’t want to move; sometimes my head is swimming with thoughts. Sometimes I can’t think at all. All I can do is hold still and feel my body.

From my subjective experience it seems similar to my understanding of catatonic episodes, though for me it usually only lasts a few or maybe several minutes. I’m afraid to use that word with mental health professionals, though, in case I’m wrong. My understanding is that, even in the context of depression (vs. schizophrenia), catatonia is considered a severe psychotic symptom. One of my major goals in life is to avoid being involuntarily committed to inpatient psychiatric care – or needing it, for that matter. Applying inaccurate labels to myself around authority figures does not seem conducive to that goal.

Wakana didn’t use that word, though, she put it in the context of trauma response. There are 3 typical responses to a traumatic experience: fight, flight, or freeze. She noticed that, in my suddenly-much-clearer-than-usual explanation of the symptom, I said I feel overwhelmed by my (often self-deprecating) thoughts and conflicting emotions. “It’s anxiety,” she said, “probably linked to a past trauma.” There have been several times when I’ve frozen up to varying degrees – from feeling like I couldn’t move to completely shutting down emotionally – in response to trauma, such as: hearing my parents argue (as a child); learning my father had just died (as a preteen). Those responses seem sensible. Freezing in response to my own thoughts as an adult is a bit of a concern. Clearly I have a significant anxiety disorder that coexists with and feeds into my depression.

Well, now I have the words to describe one of my most distressing symptoms, and a nudge from Wakana to address it with Psychiatrist B.

But It Comes with a Cost

The downside to the extra session time Wakana gave us is that I left her office too late to make it to my class on time. I was beating myself up mentally for being late, especially because I did not have the book the instructor had emailed us three times saying to bring!

I tried checking my email to see if the order had been filled, so I could at least get the book and keep up with assignments, but I didn’t have an internet connection. I was too exhausted to deal with showing up significantly late for class without the book, never mind attempting to learn anything (and driving home afterward).

I went home with the Critic angrily lecturing me about the extra money I’d wasted on transportation to campus and how irresponsible it was/looked to miss the first day of class – especially as a graduate student! It went so far as to tell me I’m not allowed to spend an equivalent amount of money on other things! (Suggesting maybe I shouldn’t would be reasonable. Saying I’m not allowed is a bit harsh.)

I told the Critic that I’d made my choice and to shut up, but the guilt lingered. It only faded when I decided to make an appointment to meet with the instructor during her office hours. I’m also thinking I should look into filing for official disability accommodations with the school; it might be the difference between graduating and being forced to withdraw – i.e. give up my dream career – “for medical reasons.”

If I were given a choice between that and being involuntarily committed for inpatient psychiatric care, I’d take the latter – at least temporarily.