My Past

content note: language (to describe ease of using skills) that is based on my experiences as an able-bodied individual

I have a turbulent relationship with my past. I have longed for it: for long-gone friendships, fond childhood memories, deceased loved ones, “simpler times.” I have shunned it, disconnecting myself from identities and ways of being I felt did not serve me well, and embracing the anonymity of a new school. I have been taunted by it in dreams where that person I miss so much is alive again – but for some reason I never get around to interacting with them directly in a meaningful way, and I wake up feeling empty. I have been tortured by internalized abuse and actions I regret. I have blamed my past for my current problems. I have hated it and run from it, and yet I can’t stop looking back.

Yesterday was the first time I truly and consciously thought of my past as a tool. Fox’s dad was telling me about a time he was surprised by his ability to do something he found challenging, but later realized that he’d managed something similar over 30 years ago! It was a skill set he had already developed, that was just waiting to be used. “Like riding a bike,” as the saying goes: once one learns to ride a bike, one can do it again at any time (assuming no change in physical abilities, e.g. from an injury). It gave him confidence for a new direction he wants to take his life.

I connected his story to my ability to lead a group music therapy experience with my classmates on Wednesday, despite feeling overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and inadequate. They were role-playing children; I used a familiar children’s song to facilitate group interaction. Once I’d received enough support from them that I was able to focus on the task at hand, my past experiences kicked in. Years of playing guitar guided my fingers between two familiar chords, even though I hadn’t so much as looked at my guitar in months. My brief experience of working in a daycare for young children (seven years ago) jumped back into the here-and-now: I was singing the same song, having the same fun, and using the same strategies to keep the group from descending into utter chaos. This was augmented by related experiences in some of my music therapy fieldwork (five years ago).

Even the new suggestions I got to try out in the moment were supported by what I’ve learned through past experiences and reading. I was able to consciously focus on them and be more intentional in my overall approach because so much was happening automatically. All I needed to do was allow myself to be fully in the moment, past and present working together.

I see it in other areas of my life, too. Being in my thirties is great because I clearly remember things that happened ten, fifteen, occasionally even twenty years ago. I’ve been driving for well over a decade; it’s become as easy and natural as walking. I’ve been actively and voluntarily developing my music skills for over twenty years now: singing in choirs, studying instruments, becoming fluent in music theory, composing and improvising. Reading and writing and looking up information… forget about it. They’re all active skills I’ve nurtured for so long, they’re just part of my nature.

I can use them, trust them, develop them further. Too often I fear going into new situations alone, like I’m completely unprepared and I’ll fall apart as soon as things become unpredictable. But I’m never alone. I have all these years of experience to guide me.

What I Need is What I Fear is What I Need

Wakana (my music therapist) has been helping me learn to assert myself, particularly in the realm of acknowledging, accepting, and acting on my emotions. I’ve learned to express my needs and wants, politely disagree, and set boundaries. I’m still working to develop these skills; it will probably be a lifelong process. But the foundation is there, and I feel pretty good about building on it.

The thing is, most of my work has been in the realm of one-on-one interactions. I have individual music therapy with Wakana. Our marriage counselor helps Fox and me have more intentional, supportive interactions with each other. I’m learning to assert myself in conversations with my mom, or situations in which Mom is accompanying me as I interact with another person (such as my dress fitting), or appointments with healthcare professionals.

I get lost in group situations. Even spending time with friends, there’s usually some point during our time together when I feel overwhelmed, overlooked, and unheard. I was barely able to participate in that one support group meeting I went to (no, I haven’t been back yet). Forget about being heard and acknowledged when my family is involved. I think about having most of my and Fox’s families all in one room just over a month from now and it seems like the worst idea I’ve ever had. If it’s not a disaster, it will definitely be overwhelming. I will probably be disappointed by at least some of them. What was I even thinking?

I really need to develop social skills. It’s not just me, people with psychiatric and/or mental health issues tend to have underdeveloped social skills. I’m inclined to believe that lack of a healthy home environment, same-age siblings or cousins, and appropriate modelling interfered with my ability to develop my social skills – particularly when it came to interacting within a group. I was also bullied and ostracized at school, which further limited my ability to practice social skills in a peer group. This in turn had a harmful impact on my mental health. I don’t know to what extent this hypothesis can be generalized, but we’re social creatures and society is the environment we have to adapt to.

Lack of social skills means we need group therapy and opportunities to practice interacting in structured group activities, so we can have some semblance of support in developing those skills. Actually, part of why I like tabletop gaming so much is because most games structure group interactions and lend themselves to turn-taking, so everyone gets some opportunity to be the center of a attention – seen and heard – for a short time.

Most of the psychological services I’ve been able to find in my area focus on the individual. Individual therapy, opportunities for individuals to submit their creative works to be posted online, classes individuals can attend and learn from that may provide some opportunity for group interaction, but that isn’t the primary focus. I have enough individual stuff going on, I really need to work on my social skills in a group. Why can’t I find one?

The answer is: because I’m afraid to find one. There’s a support group that meets weekly that I could be going to, but I keep finding some excuse not to go. I have briefly joined and enjoyed participating in at least 3 additional groups I can think of right now, I but stopped showing up after just one or two meetings, even though I’d had a positive experience.

I don’t know if it’s that I don’t fit in or I don’t want to fit in, or something else entirely. Maybe I want to abandon the group before it has the opportunity to abandon me – or worse, consume me. I don’t want being part of a group to mean losing my autonomy.

Being in a group situation takes all of my energy; I feel like I need to be at my best to come out of it feeling anything other than drained. To put it in terms of Spoon Theory, interacting in a group takes so many of my spoons that I can only do it on days when I have more spoons to begin with; most of the time it requires me to borrow spoons from the next day. Just getting out the door on time looking presentable can take several spoons. Sometimes, by the time I’ve introduced myself, I just don’t have the spoons I need to follow a conversation, navigate the complex thoughts and emotions that fill the room to the point where I don’t know which ones are actually mine, formulate responses, and get people to pay attention and listen to what I have to say. How can I develop social skills for interacting in a group if I don’t have enough spoons to exist in that group, never mind trying to learn something?

I need a group activity that restores spoons, such as creating music or art. Music in particular is a completely different way of interacting: you’re listening and “speaking” simultaneously, so everyone gets heard. You are a part of something bigger than yourself, you can hear it and that makes it so much easier to feel and internalize. Every part matters, even – no, especially! – the supportive, “background” parts.

I have less experience with art, but being creative is energizing. Focusing on my own artwork gives me a socially acceptable way to back out of the group activity a little bit to recharge without leaving it completely. It opens up the possibility of positive interactions, such as commenting on an aspect of someone else’s artwork (e.g. use of color) that I like. People are more likely to have and express more positive emotions that I don’t find overwhelming – I might actually get a high off them. I can also communicate something visually, so I don’t have to rely quite so much on the verbal communication I find so challenging.

Trying to find an arts-based group geared toward mental health in my area has been like hitting my head against a brick wall. Either I don’t know where to look, or they just don’t exist. I could reach out for help; that might be my best chance of actually managing to find something.

There are quite a few art-related groups in my area on Meetup.com; the difficulty I’m facing is selecting one I feel comfortable joining and might actually go to. Looking at some that seem promising, I feel like I’m going to cry because I simultaneously want to join in the fun and question my ability to do so. Will I be accepted?