Sunday, 12 January 2014

Music, my own special TARDIS


I have always loved music, playing it, singing it, listening to it. Emotionally, of all my pastimes, I have found music the most evocative in terms of conjuring memory. When I was growing up I was selectively mute for many years. Music became the way that I expressed myself. It helped me to survive. I just didn’t speak to adults, I had one friend in school who spoke for me. After my first year at school, aged 5 my friend was taken from me as they put us in different classes. Due to my non communication I was labelled as ‘remedial’, requiring ‘special help’. When teachers started to ask questions about my physical and emotional welfare, my parents took me and my brother out of our local school and we then attended a private school in the city centre. In 1970s Northern Ireland, child protection was a taboo subject. During this period, from the age of seven, I discovered the joy of playing music. I would lock myself away with my piano and play for hours on end. Then in my teens, I learned to explore every nuance of my pain through other people’s music, again, locked away with my stereo/radio for hours on end. Perhaps, an extension of my choice not to engage with the world around me.

It is when I attach personal feelings and memories to my music that I believe it finds its real power. Music has the power to lift your spirits, to articulate your grief, to take you back to specific times in the past. In a sense Music, along with the sense of smell tends to be the most powerful of ‘time machines’, usually with a default to the past.

It was at this point that I found music to be a potential obstacle to my recovery. Mindfulness training and DBT exercises were focused on bringing me to and keeping me in the moment. However, one of my true pleasures in life was in danger of inadvertently causing me to ‘time travel’ to the past. I didn’t want to lose out on one of my real pleasures in life, just because of my overwhelming emotional responses to it. Not every memory is painful and it’s important to acknowledge that, even before recovery, my life was actually made up of shadows AND light.

Because of my tendency to use music as shorthand to express important emotions, it follows that when trying to build up the skills to manage my overwhelming emotions more effectively, I needed to find a way to either use it as an aid to my recovery or lose it by limiting my exposure to it.

It occurred to me that the waves of emotion evoked by music, had a tendency to recede if I focused on the music itself, rather than use the music to unpick my emotional scars. So I recognised that the way forward was to perhaps treat the emotions evoked by music in the same way that I had learned to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings which arose during mindfulness exercises in DBT skills group.
In practice, this means that my focus is not on the emotional impact of the music on me, but is on the notes themselves, the instruments and voices listened to. When my feelings arise and are in danger of taking me into the past, I notice them, then return to my musical focus. Listening mindfully is an excellent practice, simply because music is all around us and could become a problem, with songs evoking flashbacks and unwanted feelings and thoughts in all sorts of environments. It has taken me some time to extricate my emotional memory from music and learn to enjoy it as it is in each moment. Equally, music can express emotions effectively so that it can soothe, or change emotion, or help us to ‘sit with’ painful emotions. For me the important factor is about ‘when’ I am feeling the emotions: am I ripping the plaster off painful feelings from the past, or am I experiencing sadness, grief etc. in the here and now? In which case, music becomes an aid to observe, describe and then let go.