If someone said to me “in one word describe your healing process” I would say to them “music.” Perhaps they’d expect me to say hard, or draining, or empowering, or emotional. And it is true, these words would describe my healing process too. But the most fundamental part of my healing; the one word which triggered my healing, and continues to guide me and play a huge role in my life…that word is music.
I used to hate music as a child. I was forced to play violin, with some psycho violin teacher, in some dark danky cupboard room. No thank you. Also at primary school the idea of a “music lesson” was to watch downright creepy children’s videos, and then sing along at the appropriate times. Boring, creepy, and not very musical.
However, one day at secondary school I was walking around *bored*. I was feeling miserable and fed up, angry at the whole world and their apparent blindness and unwillingness to notice there was something wrong. I was angry at how everyone thought I was attention-seeking through my self-harming. I was angry at how I was alone in this, and how I was watching everyone else with dreams, and that I never knew if my dreams would be possible – would I ever be safe? I was sad; it was home time, and it was my worst part of the school day. Not necessarily because it meant going home (in the end it didn’t mean this anyway, it meant going to rehearsals) but because I was forced to see all my friends, and classmates, and students everywhere suddenly fill with energy and joy at the idea of going home.
This is still something I struggle with. End of term, for example, was horrendous. I didn’t talk to anyone about it; I thought I’d sound stupid. But I watched my friends’ pack their stuff and go to a safe, happy home. I saw the facebook statuses. I see the constant reminders of normal families. I feel so happy for them, so desperately happy because they’ve no idea how special it is…but I also feel exceptionally sad. Only now, as an adult, I know how to cope with it and know it’s something I’m going to have to live with. As an 11 year old, it was something I *hated*.
So anyway, on this particular day, I’d watched everyone leave the school grounds and was now walking around, kicking stones, crying my eyes out and feeling angry. I hated feeling angry because I was sure that meant I was an abuser too. So I bottled the anger. I didn’t let the anger out.
I heard some random high-pitched sound. Lots of them, in harmony, playing a song. Music…of what I soon learnt to be steel drums. I was drawn to it, but as soon as I saw it was music I planned to stay clear. I hated music, remember? Only there was a spare drum…and the teacher could do with a spare hand…and knew I was good at rhythm even if I hated music…
Nearly ten years later and I teach the university steel band, after having spent the entirety of my school years playing steel drums almost every night, and taking part in some pretty bad-ass concerts. The music sounded great – a lot of fun, and I have made some wonderful friends.
What made me change my mind? Was it simply the sound it created? This was enchanting. I’d never seen such instruments before. Who knew a piece of wood with a rubber end and a shiny oil drum could make such beautiful sounds?
But no, that wasn’t what captivated me so much that my hatred for music was turned around.
I discovered that my anger was being vented. My tears were being listened to, even my internal ones. Suddenly I was able to hit something, but had to be careful to be gentle for the sake of the instruments. By hitting it, gently, I made music. I made a beautiful sound. My anger and sadness had turned into something beautiful. My anger was controlled – I couldn’t lose it and smack the drums – they’d go out of tune. My anger would cause damage unless I controlled it. So it was controlled, but not by forced restraint…but controlled because the result was much better. My sadness turned into happy, bouncy Caribbean music.
It was the most efficient hour of emotional therapy I’ve had to date 😉 And I was hooked. I remember sheepishly asking the music teacher if I could join (she knew I hated music and had been determined to change that). She rose her eyebrows and gave a smug, yet very happy and kind smile, and said of course. And that was that. The start of my musical journey.
That I guess is where my recovery *actually* started. I often think of the start of my recovery being from when I started university, or when the abuse stopped, or when the flashbacks started.
But actually, the starting of music…the starting of a release and a method to control and process my emotions safely; that was the start of my recovery, because it suddenly meant I wasn’t simply a sinking ship. I was a sinking ship but with me standing in the middle bailing water out with buckets. It meant my absolute breakdown (arguably around the age of 17/18/just before uni) was arguably delayed, and the pieces caught when I started uni. Music was what saved me through my teenage years.
Suddenly I paid attention in music lessons. And suddenly, I realised I could sing. Not greatly, by any means, but certainly not at tone deaf “good God stop singing before the window breaks.” I could sing in a choir, and blend in the back, and be safe in a crowd of far better singers. It also delayed hometime every night, and I didn’t need to sit and watch 1500 people bounce home merrily. My new circle of friends were people who largely wanted to stay and do music rather than go home. I wasn’t so lost.
Stepping into year eight, we had to focus on song-writing in lessons. I thought this would be a hideous idea; how could I possibly write a song? If it were so simple then why do only a few make it to fame? I was dreading it. Absolutely dreading it, especially as everyone else seemed to be looking forward to it. I was going to suck at the one thing which had turned out to be my saving grace, and I wasn’t sure I’d know how to cope with that.
“Just try not to follow pop clichés. You will all be feeling something. Or think of an event which caused a lot of emotions, either happy or sad. Those emotions can be heard through music. If you’ve never been in love – don’t follow the latest Rihanna tune!”
These words stuck with me.
I sat at the piano, having only had a few keyboard lessons, and pressed a note. And then another note, and another note. A chord. I had no idea as to what chord, but it sounded nice. Okay. Simple? Ish?
What would the song be about? I felt myself trying to shut off emotions immediately, leaving me powerless and clueless. I left the lesson with nothing. This continued until the performance week, where we had an hour to finish our songs…and then we had to perform them to each other after lunch. I was going to get a detention, I was sure, for doing no work. But I’d refused myself any emotions, and that left me unable to write a song.
My teacher, it turns out, had noticed and had been quietly observing (as they do). She came over and said to me “if there’s something you’re feeling, then it deserves to be heard. Even if it’s hatred for this project.” Then she left. I don’t think she realised what she’d done, or maybe she did. She’d given me permission to feel, and also told me that I deserved to.
Suddenly I was pouring out lyric line after lyric line. The main line in the chorus being:
“you ask me to feel, to feel what’s me. But what if I’m scared of what will happen to me?”
I know, 10/10 for creativity huh? 😉 but it got the emotion out. I sang the song, playing very simple chords on the piano (please don’t ask me what chords, to this day I don’t know). The message didn’t make it to the students, thankfully. They said “that was pretty Jade!” or “goddd soppy.” But my teacher watched me from behind the desk, her chin sitting on her hands, and smiled somewhat sadly, but with a lot of warmth in her eyes. A huge amount of warmth actually, with sadness dotted in.
Afterwards, she came up to me and said “well done” I looked at her shyly, nodded my thanks and looked down. She put her hand on my shoulder, and said “the songs can always be written.” And then walked off. She was a wise young woman, even if she wasn’t completely aware of it at times.
To this day song-writing is my most effective form of self-therapy. I can keep the songs in my head, or show them to people…it’s as I please. I can follow musical rules, or I can absolutely ignore them. As long as it sounds okay, who the hell cares? Not me, certainly. I can pour out the darkest, most desperate parts of my heart…and turn it into something far more beautiful than the emotion on its own. I can transform the emotion into music, and be heard that way. I can sing, and sing it passionately if I want to…and get the emotion out that way. It is a very striking and moving way to release emotions, whilst being controlled. There’s always a goal to work towards: finish the song. There’s always a result. The emotion is therefore, dealt with, to some level.
A few years later, I fell into the wrong crowd, and became the “stiletto” girl. I was sick to death of being bullied and teased, either for my height/hair colour/intelligence or all three. I started wearing heels, completely defying the school rules. Outside of school I wore short leather skirts, or skin-tight leather trousers, always with some crop top. My hair was very short, and peroxide blonde, and I had heavy black make-up on. I suddenly started doing rock music (anger management) and staying out late Friday nights to smoke god only knows what, drink horrendous amounts and wake up in a stranger’s bed. It was not a good look, or place to be.
Music again saved me, though. The rock music gave me a chance to explore the angrier side to me (sounds clichéd I know, but it’s true). I could yell down a microphone, competing with the drummer beating the living daylights out of his kit behind me, and to me this felt like a safe and sensible manner to release anger. Once this had happened, and I’d got my head around it, I left the bad crowd…and went back to calmness. (Of sorts).
6th form was a particularly difficult time. Suddenly I was juggling 7 a levels, rehearsals, 3 jobs, babysitting, being abused and generally trying to keep sane. My idea of a social life became simply rehearsals.
But my teacher had not forgotten the little girl who struggled to write a song, and then poured her heart out. When she discovered I’d been forced to take 7 a levels, she was furious with the staff in charge, and went to say so. I was terrified of what would happen; my family would annihilate me. (They did). But I was also amazed; absolutely amazed. This woman had stood up for me and my rights to a sane and functional wellbeing. She sadly didn’t win; the child protection officer was beyond useless. But she tried her damned hardest, and this was the first glimpse I saw of actually being properly worth something.
Her and my singing teacher became my strongest allies. I lost my voice after a nasty bout of pharyngitis, and it never fully recovered. Instead, my singing lessons actually became some kind of makeshift therapy lessons. I finally confided in someone; not about the full extent of it, I couldn’t remember half of it anyway…but I did tell them about the emotional abuse. Gradually.
Week after week I’d cry my eyes out on my singing teacher’s shoulder, and then she’d help me sing or song-write to get me back together again. She gave me a sense of purpose and worthiness I’d never had before. I was scared to fully believe it and never even came close to believing she actually felt me something of absolute worth. But she clearly found some teeny tiny bit of me worth something, and that was enough. My music teacher would talk to me often, or let me talk…and bless her, she tried. She reported concerns of emotional abuse several times, and was never listened to.
Towards the end of my time at the school, after leaving my grandparents, I had a nervous breakdown. Suddenly I could hear voices; lots of them, all shouting at me. I thought I’d gone mad. My singing teacher found me rocking in a corner of a music room, shouting “SHUT UP SHUT UP” and crying harder than she’d ever see me cry, apparently. She rushed over and her face was complete alarm when I told her what was happening. Some time after the event she confessed that at that moment, she thought I’d finally snapped. She thought I’d finally had a complete breakdown and would need to be hospitalised. At this point in time I’d also developed extreme OCD tendencies, and was still juggling a mad amount of work. She took me straight to the doctor, who diagnosed me with depression and said he felt I’d had a nervous breakdown, but thankfully not serious enough for hospital.
I got better, gradually…although how much of that was because my safe escape plan of “uni” was just around the corner, I don’t know. I continued to write songs, and hit drums, and sing with groups of people who were genuine…and my emotions stabilised.
Leaving that school was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The school, I didn’t give a damn about. They frankly hadn’t given a toss about me. But leaving the music department…*that* was horrendous. I thought my singing and music teachers were both unique heroes who gave some of me a bit of worth….but that they were on their own and I’d never find anyone who’d listen to me and value what I said again. I genuinely believed that although university might make me safer (ha), it would make me even more isolated. I would be lost. I had deliberately chosen the particular university I went to for it’s music department, but even so. My teachers wouldn’t be there, and nobody else would find me worth more than shit on a shoe. This is what I believed and expected, because this is how I felt about myself.
I cried my eyes out non-stop the day I left. There was actually I think a 40 minute hug between me and my singing teacher, with me just sobbing. I was scared, and that’s the absolute truth of it. I was scared I would have another breakdown but I’d be so on my own and I wouldn’t be able to cope. My music teacher said “Jade…stop it, please. You’re kind, caring and hard-working. You give people your time, you’ve helped us in music so much. You’re not worthless and nobody who *is* worth something will tell you that.” Her words were kind, but I thought it was just that; being kind, not being honest.
I went to university. I crashed headfirst into flashbacks and an eating disorder.
Me in November 2011 – “WHO THE HELL DO I SPEAK TO ABOUT THIS KIND OF STUFF HERE?”
I had joined musical groups, though was feeling very shy. But there was a teacher. So, based on past experience of music teachers generally being a good plan…I went to the teacher. This turned out to be a good plan; she listened to me, didn’t judge me, offered me advice and provided a lot of support, alongside other musicians.
The next 18 months have been the absolute rollercoaster of recovery, as you all know. I have been lucky enough to have my expectations shredded in front of my face – there are people here who are my allies. Sometimes I have moments of “maybe they only care because if I die then they have to go to court and that’ll take them time” and that’s a very sad place to be. But mostly I know that their care is genuine, and real. They are people I met through music.
Music as a whole at university has been extremely therapeutic. I now teach the steel band, so I help others project through their playing. I help others learn how to listen, and how to work together…and it’s really quite uplifting to watch the group grow. I also now do african drumming – VERY useful if you really do need to hit something very hard.
Song-writing was the turning point for me this year.
I am starting a project to try and set up a support group for abuse victims. To do this, I felt that I needed to “come out” as a victim; this was me trying to make a stand against the stigma and show the world I didn’t care. I wrote a song called “A Beautiful Beginning” (attached) and released it to the world on youtube.
But it didn’t feel enough. It needed performing. The story needed telling, properly. So, with a lot of anxiety and apprehension, I approached our choir. I told them about the project, and that I’d written a song about “it” and needed a semi-chorus. I then sang them the song, including the line “I was abused.”
It was the first time I’d ever told people who weren’t my close friends. I was shaking by the end of it, and waiting for people to tell me off or judge me. But they didn’t. Some were in tears, some were grinning from ear to ear. Several came up to hug me afterwards and congratulate me, and thank me. I was moved more than I can even try to describe, and trembling, and wanting to cry, and hug everyone…but equally wanting to run because it was suddenly overwhelming. My emotions were overwhelming me, and the realisation that I’d finally properly accepted the fact – and was open about the fact – that I was abused. I will never forget that rehearsal. Those people’s compassionate and moving responses is what made me realise I could definitely recover, and definitely do this project. To them I am extremely grateful.
A group of people formed a semi-chorus, and we performed it at three concerts. The first two I was terrified of getting something wrong, but on the last one…I relaxed. I looked around. I was stunned and touched to see that members of the audience were apparently weeping. I was also horrified that I’d made them cry, though was assured later that the tears were *good*. I watched the semi-chorus, singing alongside me…supporting me, fighting with me, singing the words “be free and let you love yourself” and suddenly I wanted to cry, right there, on stage. I felt the lump in my throat. But these would be good tears, because right there in front of me, with the audience, semi-chorus and supportive smiles of the choir…it hit me.
The world does not hate me. I am worth something. I really actually bloody am worth something. Even to strangers. I am surrounded by people who support me. By people who care.
This kind of revelation is emotionally very extreme. How had I only just realised this, I hear some of you ask? How by my friends sitting up to god-forsaken hours night after night to hold my hand, had I not felt that I was absolutely definitely worth something?
Answer: I don’t know. I guess the words of the abusers took a while to wear off. I never doubted my friends found something about me worthwhile, but couldn’t believe they just found “me” worthwhile.
But in that performance, I did. It hit me that it’s not just aspects of me that are worth something to people…but that actually people just find ME worthwhile. That, after 20 years of believing this could never be true, was the most amazing and special and beautiful thing ever to happen. That performance was just incredible.
As music goes, it was one of my worst musically written songs. But apparently this worked; the simplicity of the song got the message across more. By writing a song, it took the shock away from “I was abused” and allowed people to process it more gently. They could say “you’re song was beautiful, and I’m so sorry” without the need for awkwardness.
Music is extremely powerful. It has provided me safety, release, therapy, and friends. It has given me the opportunity to move an audience, by sending them a profound message, but in a beautiful way. It allows me comfort at 3am after a nightmare, or if my thoughts are racing I can beat a drum. If my emotions are high I can write a song. If I’m feeling lonely I can meet my friends.
Without music I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t even know if I’d even be alive. Over the top? I think not. There’s been more than one occasion where a suicide attempt has been prevented by song-writing, or the safety of a friend’s hug. Each time the abusers’ beat me to a pulp and left me for dead I thought “I have more than you. I have music. I have a story to tell, and I’m going to sing it one day.” And so I fought.
And through music, I won.
Here is my song; a recording with the semi-chorus should be coming soon, but here’s it with two very lovely backing singers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KCd5cY_iAk