The Magic of Music in a Psychiatric Hospital

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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.

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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

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When Depression Is an Unwelcome Houseguest: A Poem

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Depression came for me, then for my son

and now for my daughter.

She is 13.

Depression visits often,

but her favorite time to stay over is on a Sunday night.

She wraps my girl in a gray blanket, like a cocoon

and puts her in a dark corner.

Her deep eyes stare off into space, unable to sleep

and she rubs her hands together

until that soft spot between her thumb and pointer becomes raw and bleeds.

“What are you sad about?” Depression asks.

“I don’t even know,” my girl cries.

Depression sits even closer when others say,

“Just try to be positive.”

“Try harder to be happy.”

Then Depression takes my girl’s drawings away.

The only thing she once enjoyed.

Finally, it’s time for her appointment with Healing.

His office has a soft chair.

Healing wears a suit and dress shoes

And a chunky gold ring on his finger.

He speaks gently with her, then puts down his clipboard

And says,

“You don’t have to do this alone.

If you had a broken leg, would you not expect a cast?”

Healing squeezes my girl’s hand

And passes her a little blue slip of paper

That will save her life.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The Garden of My Life: A Poem on Depression

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Depression plants itself within me
without warning,
It flourishes,
Without water, without sun,
Without a second thought to the lump in my throat.

It’s a weed that trips me up
In the garden of my life
I fall hard in the dirt,
And it weaves and winds its way through me,
ensnaring any hope or joy or faith it can find.

I panic.
I scramble
desperate to halt the growth.
This toxic weed spares no mercy
Invading the terrain of my life

Seedlings of hope are carefully tended to
Watered with tears,
My tears, my parents’ tears, my partner’s tears.
But we all know that
flowers don’t survive floods

So we get down on our knees
And yank it out of the ground
Sweat pouring down our brows
Knees stained from the dirt
It feels good to do something

Yet it grows back twice as fast
And I don’t recognize this garden
So we pull in the professionals
Who stop and stare at the damage
They tell us what we know

There is not a way
To kill the weed
Yet keep the flowers
So I lie down in the ruins
And pray

I used to be a garden
Of sunshine and laughter and the sort of flowers that bloom all year round.
I need to change my metaphor soon
Or I’ll lay down my trough
And I’m not ready for that yet

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What a Trip to the Dentist Taught Me About My Depression

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With a trigger warning to anyone who, like me, hates any mention of teeth or dentistry.

I don’t usually think of myself as a depressed person. Although I was first diagnosed with dysthymia and major depression in 2000, when I was 22 — and have become known among my family and friends as someone who is quick to advocate for treating mental health problems — I realize that somewhere along the way I had started to think of myself as “cured.” After all, I had been doing exactly what the first psychiatrist prescribed: therapy and antidepressants, in various combinations, for 17 years. Both worked well for me. I had arrived at what Annie Wright recently described here as “high-functioning” depression. Compared to several of my family members who have experienced anxiety attacks, manic episodes and severe depression, I know myself to be lucky in this regard.

But recently something happened to make me remember: I went to the dentist. Now, like most people, I hate going to the dentist, but this isn’t a story of acute anxiety. I hate going to the dentist because I don’t brush my teeth. I mean, I do sometimes, but it has been my deep dark secret for years that I am the kind of person who does not brush their teeth twice a day, or once a day, or maybe up to a week. Fortunately, my genes have provided me with relatively healthy teeth and few cavities up to this point, which is what has allowed me to stay in denial about the effects of my lack of self-care.

It is not that I don’t know I should brush my teeth. I know it’s disgusting not to. The reason I don’t brush my teeth is that I never developed the habit of doing so, and the reason I never developed the habit is because of depression. Depressed people notoriously have trouble with habits of all kinds, especially when the benefits of those habits are not immediate but long-term. When you’re depressed, it is difficult to imagine yourself in the future. It is hard enough to get through the present. It takes me conscious effort to put the dishes away after dinner, or get rid of old food in the fridge. That last fact always reminds me particularly of my father, whose depression went mostly untreated throughout my childhood, and who would insist that the leftover vegetables in the fridge were there because the multicolored mold was pretty.

But eventually, the future catches up with you. Because I don’t brush my teeth, whatever stray bits of food get stuck there become calcified into tartar, and it has built up underneath my gums, where I can’t see it but it can still do damage. It has gotten to the point where the tartar is starting to eat away at the bone, putting me, at age 39, in the early stages of the gum disease that eventually makes old people’s teeth loosen and fall out. The dental hygienist took detailed x-rays of every tooth. She projected them onto the large-screen TV, like some horrific piece of modern art, and the dentist came in to explain them to me. “See this? These long lines here? That’s tartar.” He saw my blank look and reached up and touched the screen for emphasis: “Tartar doesn’t usually show up on x-rays, so you know this is bad. See how some of these lines have little spikes coming out? Those are between your teeth and your gums. That’s why you’re feeling pain.” It is the accumulated tartar — not new cavities, as I feared — that makes my gums and teeth so sensitive that it is painful to brush them; pain makes it easier to procrastinate teeth-brushing, which makes the problem worse and the cycle continue. As many times as I read and hear about how mental illness manifests itself physically, cumulatively, it can be difficult to see in myself.

I’ll always remember something a therapist once told me, that there are two distinct aspects to treating depression: the feelings, and the behavior you develop to cope with the feelings. It’s the behavior — in my case, messiness, lack of self-care, oversleeping, and extreme procrastination — that sticks with us, even when the antidepressants have been effective in taking away the feelings of disproportionate sadness, hopelessness and insecurity that prompted those behaviors. You can’t start working on modifying those behaviors while you’re still depressed. And conversely, you shouldn’t expect antidepressants or whatever to do the work of making you brush your teeth. That’s one of the reasons talk therapy and psychopharmacology can work together.

Only rarely do I feel that sudden onslaught of despair that was once the hallmark of my depression. But I wonder, now, what other habits — or lack thereof — have built up over time, in places I can’t see. Currently, I’m awaiting my appointment for what my insurance company euphemistically calls a “deep cleaning” at the dentist’s. What it really is: my very kind hygienist numbing my mouth, pulling down my gums, and chipping away at years of tartar. She calls this “scaling,” and the mountaineering sound of this word feels apt. For the last two days I’ve brushed my teeth twice a day, like a “normal” person, and yet it feels like I’m summiting Everest every time.

The trick will be not only to keep up the habit, but to do so without becoming overwhelmed by the years of neglect I can feel in my gums. I think of myself as someone who should “know better” that depression is an ongoing condition and requires constant effort. But painful as it is, I’m grateful for the physical reminder that what I do — or don’t do — now, in this moment, will manifest itself in my future life, for better or worse.

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Thinkstock photo via dolgachov

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When My Medication Doesn't Save the Day From Depression

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My medication has been saving my life for the past month now. I finally found one that works. I am grateful every day for those two pills I take in the morning.

Today was different though. I woke up at 5 a.m., which is no different from any other day considering I deal with a multitude of sleeping problems. I fell back asleep at 7 a.m. and woke up at 10 a.m. I’m exhausted, fatigued and I have absolutely no energy to do anything, so I grab a cup of hot coffee and my medication to hopefully save the day. After I chug my cup of coffee, I decide to lie in bed.

At this point, I should have known something was wrong because after three months of partial hospitalization, I got myself out of the habit of napping to avoid life. Yet I fall back asleep and wake up at noon and that’s when the depression hit me like a train. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no motivation and I was completely and utterly exhausted even though I had slept a total of 12 hours. Immediately my mind goes to the fact that I have to be to work at 3:00 and I already know it’s not a possibility.

I go back downstairs and suggest to my mom that my allergies are really bad and I’m just getting used to a shift in my sleep schedule because I work second shift now. This is a complete lie because I’m the opposite of a morning person and wake up every night around the time most people are starting to feel tired. She knows. “Katie, it’s alright to feel depressed,” she replies. Sleeping and the fact that I am a terrible liar are the most obvious signs of my depression. I call out of work because I know I cannot turn, lift and enlighten patients with how I feel today. So I lie in bed, feeling terrible about calling out, because depression is not considered a sickness to most people.

I would rather be sick with the flu than be in bed with depression. My depression makes me feel hopeless. All day I’ve been questioning whether or not my medicine is working anymore. After so many trial and errors, I feel like giving up. I lie in bed alone all day with no reason or explanation for my family. When you’re sick, at least they want you to lie in bed and get rest. My depression makes me feel empty. As I lie in bed, I can’t even bring myself to try and get up because it’s just not worth it.

My therapist has helped me understand depression’s psychological effects with the comparison that it is like wearing sunglasses. You always see the worst outcome or possibility in terms of future perspective. Everything is always shaded instead of sunny and bright. Even with the psychological reasoning behind depression, the physical symptoms of depression cement this illness into so many individuals. It cements to the point where it effects our everyday lives and we cannot just “get over it.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Why 'Good Days' Are Sometimes the Hardest When You Live With Depression

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Last weekend was good. We took a mini road trip as a family, stopped for ice cream, enjoyed a ferry ride and ate good pizza in a park in a neighboring city. It was a day of good tunes on the car stereo, fresh spring breeze blowing through open windows and my children playing happily.

I wanted to die. I imagined ways to hurt myself as the kids sat enamored by the small ferry carrying us across a serene lake. I choked back tears as my kids begged me to push them on the park swing. I longed to return home and curl up in bed even though taking the kids on this adventure had been my idea.

Somehow, the sheer pleasantness of the day made my depression worse, because everything was good, except me. Life was fine, but I wasn’t.

My depression doesn’t care that the situation is good, that my kids are smiling or that the sun is shining. Depression isn’t about my circumstances, it’s about my brain. It is a dark fog settled on every surface of my life, ripping it of joy and meaning.

These supposed-to-be pleasant days are some of the worst in my depression. I feel guilty for not feeling good, chastising myself for not being able to make myself feel whole and happy. I become afraid that joy will forever be distant and outside of my grasp. It feels like if I can’t enjoy these most basic pleasures, what hope is there for me to ever see joy again? I exhaust myself putting on smiles and feigning excitement for the people around me, dragging myself through the day.

I know in my head that depression is an illness, that it has more to do with what is happening inside me and little to do with what is happening around me. That sunshine and music and good pizza don’t really remedy depression. But in my heart I long so badly to be able to snap myself out of it that I bury myself in guilt in shame when I don’t succeed. Sometimes, the good days are the hardest.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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