What the hell is going on around here, anyway? Where am I? Teaching? Playing? Dancing? Hiding under the sofa?
All that, and more, my friends.
So I went to Hopkins. No, wait. Let’s go back. In LA, I had the fantastic luck to work with a number of students with fairly profound brain injuries, only to then develop my own weird neurological zesty a few years later. My docs in California were stumped, and as I was considering graduate schools, I was also searching for the best diagnosticians to help figure out what was scrambling my days so badly. Hopkins had everything I was looking for: a customizable program coupled with what is considered the best neurology department in the country, if not the world.
There, I learned about how different genetic and external factors change the structure and function of the brain. At first, I directed my research towards the “wow music is cool and look at how the brain lights up when you improvise” side of things. Then I stumbled across an article about Israeli soldiers and drumming as part of a treatment for PTSD, and I was changed. I pointed nearly every assignment in every class (except the one about a Lindy Hop camp for kids at the Smithsonian) towards musical interventions for people dealing with PTSD and other anxiety disorders. You know me- I wave my flag all over the place and am not shy about my ferocious support for our armed services. I thought this kind of research might be a good way to put my money where my mouth is, and from there the shift began.
Nearly every day, I drive past Walter Reed and the NIH. Nearly every day, I interact with men and women in uniform, many of whom are freshly back from combat zones or are gearing up to go out to one. I’ve never met so many women who have deployed boyfriends or husbands. People ask me what I do, and if the subject of my research comes up, someone will inevitably find me later and tell me how their brother or sister or partner or child is having a hard time reconciling what happened over there with everyday life. They’ll also tell me they’re not doing so well, themselves. That their families were not ready for the away time and the difference in their loved one upon returning. Some bottle it up to avoid medical discharge, others are diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, don’t want therapy, don’t respond to therapy, become antagonistic, families sink into dysfunction or divorce while others rally and show a kind grit and tenacity seldom seen.
No one scenario is true of all returning soldiers. But for those who do come back touched by the invisible hand of combat stress, I decided I’d do whatever I could to show that I haven’t forgotten them after they get their ovation at the Caps game or I hear the rumble of a C-130 in the distance. Something substantive.
Music, it seems, is especially well suited to work with the plastic qualities of the human brain. There have been a few truly rigorous studies (and lots of less than rigorous ones) about what gets called “music therapy” and people with anxiety disorders and combat stress. I’ve seen some evidence that just plain music lessons- mostly piano and drum, for all kinds of temporal/spatial reasons- are excellent for aggressively addressing nearly the entire spectrum of PTSD symptoms, including things like feeling disconnected from the rest of the world, intrusive memories, insomnia, social anxiety, anger, depression, hypervigilance, and concentration issues. This kind of therapy also seems promising because it comes in through the back door: it doesn’t seem like something that “people who are mentally ill” need- it’s something we all like to do. One of the chief complaints I’ve heard in conversation is that the stigma of mental illness is just so pervasive. I have to agree. When I go to the therapist, do you think I enjoy pushing the button that says “Floor 7: Mental Health”? Hell no! I’d rather push “Gynecology” or “Excessive Farting Disorders” and take the stairs down to avoid the shame.
So anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I’m currently waiting for some meetings and lobbing my weirdly music-centric résumé around DC in the hopes that I’ll find a position that allows me to work with these folks on one end while I get the clinical side of things in order.
Yes, I still teach. But I’m culling the studio down to the students who actually work. Yes, I still play. Yes, I am still making the DVD. Yes, I’m still apprenticing at Potter’s. I’m quite enamored of the bow rehairing process, though I am truly crap at it. I’m writing up a storm for Strings. Mostly, I’m trying to make a go of each day and actually succeed at it much of the time.
Wouldn’t it be cool if I could help people with PTSD do that, too?
I’m glad you’re out there; it’s stressful to absorb others’ trauma. I admire your sense of service.
As a combat medic with the 2nd Infantry, I left the Army in ’08 fresh out of Iraq from our Garrison home in Fort Lewis, Washington (Now “Joint Base McChord/Lewis”) and moved to a new location (Boulder, Colorado), where I had no friends nor family. Been playing music my whole life, but playing alone wasn’t enough. I was beginning to display many neurotic behaviors — the mind ran away with neurotica, such as placing my vacuum cleaner behind my door every night… then realizing that there’s a good chance I wouldn’t hear it move across the carpeting, so I would balance a curtain rod on the vacuum, leaned against the door so that I could hear it fall. Trust me: I’m a creative person, but I can’t make stuff like that up. It didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t getting enough sleep anyway. I am thankful I had the mindfulness to decide that I needed a distraction from the self, and put one of my many-but-lesser-used instruments to good use (an Arabian doumbek) by responding to a craigslist ad: a Balkan brass band needed a doumbek player. It was that new member-of-a-band context that forced me to be more self-aware, and identify being an aspect of a greater whole, which got me out of my perceptual fear-based filter and self-absorbed behavior. I have much to be thankful for.
Now I work at the Denver VA Medical Center coordinating a Tele-Health clinic. Though I haven’t initiated anything with the hospital regarding music therapy, I do play in the stairwells quite frequently, and for palliative care patients and veterans in the Nursing Home Care Unit when I can (mostly now on Irish bouzouki, mandolin, or classical guitar (my primary instrument)).
In terms of initiating a program, I haven’t been privy to much of the policy or logistics of it. I do remember in my locale that a former veteran tried to initiate a Yoga program through the VA for the returning veterans, and my present Chief (of behavioral health) aided and put in 1.5 years of hard work writing proposals and doing the research, yet the VA turned it down. Thus it amazes me that they will hire psychologists to give veterans relaxation classes or discuss pain coping techniques with them, yet they can’t see the value of a healing mechanism so grossly similar (and incorporating body as well as mind) as in Yoga. If I had to guess, I would think that Music Therapy might be turned down on the basis that they have recreational therapists — music being one of the things they can do, but, from what I’ve seen, it’s really marginalized… and not focusing on musicianship.
Drop me a line sometime and let me know what you’re up to, if I can help, or if we can pool ideas.