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The Magic of Music in a Psychiatric Hospital


Music is magic.

Some of the most beautiful moments in my admissions to psychiatric hospitals have involved music.

What made me happy was communal sharing of peoples’ music libraries, connected to a portable speaker, in the smoker’s courtyard. It made me ecstatic. My friend, a fellow patient, rapping Vanilla Ice’s, “Ice Ice Baby” with 100 percent accuracy. That sight is the eight wonder of the world, I assure you. Coming into the lounge and hearing blues blaring through the speakers as people tried their best to get through the day. Hearing an elderly patient, Wendy, playing a classical piece on the piano as I drifted down the hallway. Her aged fingers telling a story I knew I’d never fully know or understand.

There are too many moments to mention, but they add up and become a signifier of what helps people ease their struggles. The Dire Straits, Van Morrison, Miles Davis, Ed Sheeran, The Hollies, One Direction, Paul Kelly. Song after song, artist after artist, connected us in ways our words couldn’t. At 7 a.m. bleary eyed and preparing ourselves for another day, we’d sit in silence and someone would pick a song. There’s something beautiful about a group of practical strangers from all walks of life sitting around a phone, cigarettes and mugs in hand just… listening. Nick Cave’s smooth voice filling the air as we waited for another challenging day.

In art therapy, yesterday we spoke about the gap between art and words. The fact that art exists in a space where words can’t reach. That’s the very reason I do art therapy, because sometimes there aren’t any words in our spoken language to explain what you’re feeling or thinking. I think it’s the same with music. A certain string arrangement in Neil Diamond’s “Prologue” makes me feel the intrinsic connection I have to humanity. One note in Bowie’s “Life on Mars” makes my stomach drop so much, it makes me lose my breath. Artists put themselves into their music. Their emotions, thoughts, feelings, the things they couldn’t express in any other way. Sometimes we can all feel so different to each other, so isolated and “other.” But the connection that music brings out in people that says, “You’re not alone, I felt this too,” is life saving.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is it’s the little things. People say life is made up of a lot of little moments and a few big ones. I used to focus on the big ones, the ones that would send my anxiety spiraling into a panic attack. But I get it now. The little ones are so important. Charlie remembering you take decaf instead of regular. Mixing paints so an 80-year-old woman who wants to make art can, despite her painful arthritis. A cigarette handed out to someone struggling, a seat offered to another.

I’ll end this this on what I consider my Biggest Little moments.

In one of my past admissions I’d sometimes sit and smoke with a patient who had nothing. No iPod, no smartphone, no computer and give him his requested song of the day. I’ll never forget the gleeful look fought through his tired eyes as he was able to transport himself back to an easier time just for  or three or four minutes. He’d close his eyes and drift back to his 20-year-old self watching a live Skyhooks gig in a pub with his friends, rather than sitting on the concrete ground of a psych hospital. Time and time again, it was the most humbling experience to witness. Music plays with reality. It enhances it or eradicates it. It takes you somewhere or keeps you in the moment. It’s magic.

Follow this journey on Maddison Gray’s Blog.

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Thinkstock photo via Orla