Getting Through the Muck
By Taylorlyn Mehnert, MusicWorx Intern
When we experience something difficult, we often need to do a little “self care” – go home, take a bubble bath, and eat some chocolate. But recently I realized that, apparently, chocolate is not going to fix the long term effects of my difficult sessions (go figure, right?). Here is a great article about real self-care (not chocolate), but I want to address learning how to identify the when of self-care rather than the how. In the hopes that someone will relate or that it will inspire a new idea, I’ll share my journey of learning to sit in the muck with difficult moments in my life and the lives of those I serve in order to take healthy, mindful steps forward.
The days that make you feel like you can’t give any more of yourself without falling over are all too familiar for those of us who are caretakers in one form or another. I have found that I experience a lot day to day that sometimes has a significant, often unnoticed, impact on my life. Being able to acknowledge my experiences and remain mindful in the aftermath has taken me a long time. I didn’t even recognize that I could take action until fairly recently in my life. I experienced many clients I couldn’t get off my mind, feelings of guilt, confusion about the impact other sessions had on me and a lot of endlessly patient supervisors, mentors, councilors and friends guiding my realizations to get me to a place where I could create a more healthy mindset for myself.
Where I began…
Growing up, I played in a band with my and my best friend’s families. One of the most meaningful performances with that band was when a friend asked us to come to his home and play for his family just weeks before he would pass away from a brain tumor. We played our regular set, which eventually led us to a song which had the lyric “Don’t you fly away from me without leaving me with your song, for the morning is much too lonely and so quiet when you’re gone.” Singing those words while watching this man’s wife reach for his hand is a moment that has stuck with me. I wouldn’t be doing justice to the incredible people in my band if I didn’t note that they cried with me, checked in on me, and have since had many conversations about that concert. But if you asked me what I personally did to process it, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. If you asked me to label the feelings and thoughts I had in the moments, days, and weeks following that session, I wouldn’t have any idea. I mindlessly moved through a confusing swarm of feelings and reactions.The same could be said about the vast majority of deeply emotional experiences I experienced prior to college and my internship.
Where I am today…
That concert feels like a world away from where I am today. Recently, I encountered what has been by far the most difficult music therapy session I have been a part of. This session was for the family of an adolescent who had committed suicide a few days prior. My supervisor and I conducted a session with this patient and their family hours before their organ donation surgery was scheduled. Every detail of this session was burned into my head as we sang. However, as we left the session, my supervisor encouraged me to set up a plan for taking time to process in the coming days. Since that time, I have been able to consciously acknowledge thoughts as they come up; sort those thoughts into those conducive to positive processing and those negative thoughts that needed to be reframed; set thoughts aside when they aren’t appropriate (such as during others sessions) and set a time to come back to them; recognize when that experience is affecting the way I experience other sessions; recognize when thoughts are appropriate and when they are intrusive. I can’t change how this session is making me feel, but I can be more aware of it rather than just letting it happen to me chaotically.
Events may hit me in the moment, or may hit me years later. They aren’t always the big things, either! I have had experiences that should have been borderline mundane follow me around for years, and I have had experiences that should have been earth shattering that I easily processed and moved on from. Certainly, not everyone’s experience is the same as mine, but I wanted to share some steps that I take to monitor how something is affecting me:
- Check in with myself physically. If I am carrying extra tension in my shoulders, or my face, or my legs, it is quite possible that it has psychological origins.
- Check in with my thought patterns. Is there something that keeps popping into my head or something I find myself trying not to think about? Probably a good sign that I should think about it.
- Check in with my conversations. Similar to my thoughts, is this something I find myself bringing up often or wanting to bring up often?
- Check in with my ability to be open and honest about it. Often I try to avoid heavy emotional impacts. If I find myself thinking about something often but coming back with “but it’s fine”, there’s a good chance it’s not fine.
- Check for feelings of constant anger or guilt. I find them to be good indicators of unresolved and unprocessed emotions around a certain topic.
I have come a long way from where I started. I feel more comfortable with the difficult events that come up in my life and I am able to move forward and continue with my day or with my week. That said, I am certainly not perfect in my processing, and I don’t expect to be any time soon. I have had to be patient with myself and seek help from other people in my life- I owe a huge thank you to my supervisors and dear friends.
Because this process is so long and individualized, I don’t want to be mistaken for being in a position to give advice. I will, however, encourage readers to not only take time for self care, but to really give yourself some space to recognize what you need to process. Ultimately, I am hoping that this post will serve to bring awareness and conversation to this issue and that we can all find a way to support each other in becoming more mindful, healthy caretakers.