Sunday, September 8, 2013

Adjust your medication – you can sing ...

I love that feeling in my gut, but I have to watch myself as it is often followed by a tear or somesuch. For it happened again today at Seaview Clinic, my private mental health ward. Sadly, it doesn't happen all that often.

This is a rave about singing, about our societal delusion that we can't sing, about doing music in a mental health ward, and about Sam's singing. Click on the link to have Sam serenade you while I ramble on...

The Musical Mental Health Context
Seaview, where I have worked as a musician every Friday afternoon for the last 5-6 years, is the last vestige of my previous vocation as a mental health worker. The vibe at the weekly session really depends upon who is in, and with what illness symptoms. Suffice to say that I can tell the predominating mood or illness - even one person in a 'high' phase of bipolar disorder can shift the mood of the room, and of me. The strategy at these times is generally to try and 'keep a lid' on things, though not too much. I enjoy a bit of joyous mania as much as the next person!

However, if most people are in there to have their medication adjusted for depression, then my role is more one of holding a mood of quiet respect, joy, hope and optimism. It's relatively easy to do when music is your primary tool, and when one is accepting of the vagaries of mental health and has an appropriate modicum of 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. It is a sad indictment on broader society that mental illness is still so marginalised in our communities. (So here I am, concealing identities, even that of the clinic!)

Seaview's patients are rarely 'florid', and have relatively mild symptoms. The public hospital system is universally acknowledged as being the more out there 'nuthouse'.  Here is also a place for 'drying out', and I find that the people with substance abuse issues are more natural, and even display a sort of guilty pleasure and cheekiness. It's a funny mental illness that one. The mental illness you have when you don't have a mental illness, or when you are trying to self-medicate your way out of one. I suppose I don't understand it, not being much of a drinker. But I do get the sort of intouchness that these people have with the edginess of life, and the aforesaid cheekiness.

Oh the joys and privileged safety of the privately health-insured. Coal miners who are drying out from their marijuana addiction so they can keep their 150 grand a year job; doctors who quietly reveal their vocation; school teachers who are cautious to acknowledge that they know me from another context.

And then there are the age differences. As a musician I appreciate having a diverse repertoire, part of my sanity preserver. There are the old ladies who enjoy an old Tin Pan Alley tune; the occasional school kid who likes more modern pop; my peers who revel in a fondly remembered rousing pub version of Khe Sanh (then marvel for the first time at the lyrics of a man returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder). And then there are the young funksters who like some ACDC or 'folk metal'. (What the hell is folk metal??!!!!).

Just your average everyday girls. "There but for the ..."
So today, after a couple of months of not having any funky young women attending my one hour music session, I am deluged, with engagement. I'm sure they are on the ward frequently, but are often way too scared, cool, or unwell to come out of their musical bedroom, or reluctant to pull away from the computer screens (large and small) which provide such wonderfully isolating and individually tailored satisfaction.

Three young women impress me. The girl with the straight bob haircut who likes ACDC and aspires to playing banjo; the blue haired one who plays fiddle and likes 'folk metal'; and the gorgeous Sam who stole my heart. They all steal my heart in different ways, not least because so much potential and talent is often submerged in anguish.

All the girls are somewhere between 17 and 25 I'd reckon, but it's so hard to tell when everyone's skin is so smooth and fine, especially in contrast to mine.

When asked about whether she plays an instrument, Sam immediately volunteers that she sings. I comment how rare it is that people admit to singing, then I ramble on about how much I hate that our culture says that you have to be famous to sing, even to be allowed to sing. It is a dramatic, yet rarely acknowledged symptom of a society-wide cultural mental illness. It is a malaise that many other cultures do not suffer, a delusion they do not know.

I think we need a mental health program for us to get over our greatest delusion – that we can't sing. 

Not singing.
Ha! Tom Waits can't sing, nor Mark Knopfler, Leonard Cohen; let's not even mention Sir Bob. Shockers, the lot of them.  But they deliver. Heart and soul theft is nigh, regardless of throat nodules and other biological impediments.

Nevertheless, the attacks on our ability to sing are constant and replete.

My family says I shouldn't sing. 

                My husband says I will break mirrors. 

... and just as bad ...

Boy you can sing! You should go on The Voice!

My blah blah bullshit bullshit.


We can sing. We should sing.

But anyway, back to Sam.

I sing. At funerals.
She had sung at funerals for the family, and played flute until Year 8. But that sounded like a way to get into the school she wanted, and once the school admission was approved, music seemed to be relegated back to the cupboard.

So Sam could sing. Listen to her.

The first whispers encouraged by me.

The feeling in my gut.

Listen to her.

Can you hear the tones?

         The nuances?
                 The relatively unaffected inflections ... not yet perverted by copying too many US pop princesses?

... Listen to her ...

... don't you love it?...

... don't you love her? ...