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Archive for the ‘music and healing’ Category

Sometimes I have trouble listening to my body, but for the past two weeks, a flare-up of colitis, knee pain and another round of additional tests and medications for my heart failure were bodily aggravations too loud to ignore.  I unwillingly admitted that I was in no condition to dance, much less enjoy some brisk walks through the neighborhood with my dog.  I was grounded, and I wasn’t happy about it.  Whether it’s due to aging, illness or other physical aggravation, having one’s life impeded by one’s body has profound impact on mood and perspective.  By the end of the first week, I was dogged by a gray cloud of self-pity, worry and the blues.

I’m not a trained dancer, far from it, but I love to move, and there’s nothing better than my dance class to elevate my mood.  Led by a joyful and energetic instructor, I join a group of women called “The Vintage Dancers,” all of them in my age group, to dance.  Don’t be misled by the name.  This is no ordinary group of older women.  Our hour together is fast-paced, aerobic, learning and remembering new routines, and fun.  While I no longer move with the speed or the ease I had in my younger years,  I move–and I laugh–a lot.  I leave the class feeling energized, lighter in spirit, and despite the medical issues that have dogged me for the last few months, I feel healthier, younger, and more optimistic.

A few years ago a friend of mine sent a link to a video of a young woman, Tiffany Staropoli, diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in May of 2013.  In addition to 3 surgeries, chemotherapy, a variety of alternative healing approaches, she also relied on her “personal brand of dance therapy,” and posted her video, “Dancing Through Cancer” on You Tube.

Her video went viral in no time–and no wonder!  I watched it three times through, laughing out loud at the unabashed exuberance and delight captured in the different scenes of Tiffany dancing to Great Big Sea’s “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.”  She was always enthusiastic, if not necessarily graceful.  But she had a point to make.  “Even with something as traumatic as cancer,”she told the interviewer, “it’s still possible to have a good time.”  When asked what she thought of her dancing, she laughed, “It’s terrible…I crack myself up.”  Well, she cracked me up too—her fun and joy was infectious,  undoubtedly the reasib the video has been viewed by so many thousands of people.

“I’m not a professional dancer,” Tiffany states on her website.  “In fact, I’m a decidedly HORRIBLE dancer.  But over the years, when alone or with my undeniably patient husband, I would break out into an awkward and often bizarre dance to add a little flair to the moment.  A sprinkle of goofiness to lighten the mood or crack myself up.  It always lifted my spirits.  So I told my husband to force me to dance when I started to backslide.  And record it.”  And he did.   The”Dancing Through Cancer”video shows Tiffany dancing at the surgery center, hospital, and chemotherapy clinic.  It shows her dancing when she wanted to and sometimes, when she didn’t, but “always, always, ending up smiling by the end of it.”

Call it dance therapy or just a personal love of moving to music,  I get it.  I’ve danced my way through more than one difficult life chapter.  Soon after my first marriage ended with my husband’s death, I often danced after my daughters were asleep, turning out the lights in the living room, putting Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” on the turntable, and dancing crazily around the room until my spirits lightened, and I had exhausted myself and was ready to sleep.   Sometimes I cried as I danced, but tears didn’t last for long.  More often, I cracked myself up, like Tiffany, even though no one was watching or filming.   During that turbulent and painful time, my daughters and I also danced together, devising crazy routines to seventies’ hits, even performing them for family and friends, with the result of everyone breaking up in laughter.  It wasn’t about dance as much as it was about fun and having a good time.  It was an important element in helping  ourselves recover from grief and loss.

Susan Gubar, in her article, “Cancer Humor,” offers some examples of finding humor to help alleviate the burden of serious illness and periods of hardship.  “Cracking up,” she says, “may be a better option than breaking down.” She tells of author Nina Riggs, who later died of terminal cancer, and her memoir, The Bright Hour.  Riggs commiserated with a friend also dealing with breast and together, imagining a business called “Damaged Goods,” that would feature a line of morbid greeting cards with sentiments like:

Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.

Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.

 All your phone messages about how not knowing exactly what’s going on with me has stressed you out really helped me put things in perspective.

 In-Between Days, a graphic memoir by Teva Harrison, is an honest account of living with cancer, but it’s peppered with illustrations that also convey the author’s humor.  In one, after describing how she had to be positioned on a mold to her body, then further immobilized by shrink wrap, Harrison wrote that she felt like supermarket sushi and created a drawing titled,  “On A Platter.”  “The gift of these creative works,” Gubar explains, is that “they foster a sense of community with the living…we are not alone in what we go through.”

When we’re up, we can’t feel down… In the difficult period of becoming a single mother in 1981, I remember singing along to “Twenty Mile Zone,” a song written and performed by the former Dory Previn, composed after her divorce from composer Andre Previn. She described a woman alone in her car, screaming at the top of her lungs while she drove.  She is stopped by a police officer and questioned, but very soon they are both driving down the road and screaming–she in her car, he on his motorcycle–each relieving their frustrations!  Singing along with Previn not only helped relieve the stress I felt, it made me laugh.

Each of us has different activities that help to elevate our spirits.  Art, music, movement, meditation, play, writing poetry, yoga or a walk along the seashore or a trail are just a few activities known to be beneficial to our well-being.  Sharing some of those activities with others  has the impact of cheering us up.  I think of the women’s choir here in Toronto who performed last week.  It’s not a professional choir, just a group of women who love to sing together.  Their sense of community, the energy and fun were enough to want to make me sign up and join them.  (In fact, I did.)

Remember, having a good time doesn’t deny the reality of cancer or heart disease, but it does help us cope with illness more effectively.  Think of Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live, Michael Landon, of Bonanza, at his final appearance on Johnny Carson’s show, or Jennie Nash, who wrote The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming.  Each reminds us of the importance of finding humor in our situation—and, despite everything, of having a good belly laugh now and then.  Like the Great Big Sea’s song says, “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down.  Having fun is good for us and infectious for those around us.  It’s essential to health and to life.

Writing Suggestions:

Write about the kinds of things that make you feel better when you’re down.  What helps life your spirits?  Is it something that makes you laugh out loud?  Does it make you smile in spite of yourself?  Give you solace or joy?  Laughter is good medicine, but so is any activity that gives us solace, pleasure, and happiness.

What activities give you joy?  Make you smile or laugh a little?  Dance?  Painting?  Yoga?  Singing?  Playing with grandchildren?  Watching silly movies?  Write about laughter, smiling, or just being silly, and why, when you’re up, you just can’t feel down.

Remember, laughter and having fun are contagious.  We all feel better for it.

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I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw

It’s the holiday season, and everywhere I go, there are various renditions of familiar holiday carols playing loudly, some of them beautiful, others nostalgic, and more than a few, at times,  ear splittingly difficult to enjoy.  Last night, however, we attended a candlelight Christmas service and for over an hour, joined in singing one traditional Christmas carol after another.   “I remembered them all,” I laughed and said to my husband as  afterward, we walked back to the car and the first snow flurries dusted the streets.  We said little on the drive home, the music still alive in our minds and igniting the remembrance of Christmases past and the people who shared the holidays with us.  It was the music, , triggering old memories, raising our spirits, calming us in a rush, rush world and creating in us a sense of shared humanity through song.  For awhile, I wished I’d taken those voice lessons or spent more time practicing my piano lessons.

Despite the fact that I love music, I never pursued a musical career.  Yet all the years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, dancing,  doing pliés to a piano accompaniment, or playing French horn in the marching band were actually more beneficial than I ever imagined they could be.  Not only can music enhance a young person’s self-esteem and academic performance, musical training can help protect mental sharpness and brain functioning.

During the last weeks of my mother’s life, before she died of Alzheimer’s disease, I witnessed the power of music to ignite long lost memories.  I visited her a shortly before her death, shocked at how unresponsive she was to my presence.  She sat listless in a wheelchair, her head bowed toward her chest, and mute.  I wheeled her out to the garden, placing her chair next to a towering bougainvillea plant, furious with red blooms.  At a loss, I took her hand and began singing a song she often sang to me in my childhood.

“Let me call you sweetheart,” I began, my voice quavering, “I’m in love with you…Let me hear you whisper…”

As I sang, my mother slowly raised her head and fixed her eyes on my face.  “Why, it’s Sharon,” she said slowly.

“Yes, Mom, it’s me, your eldest daughter.”  I squeezed her hand and wiped the tears from my eyes.

For a moment longer, she held my gaze,  slowly smiled and then as her eyelids began, again, to close, she murmured, “I’m happy.” before disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of her disease.  But I’m forever grateful for that small moment of recognition, somehow triggered by a long ago song.

Music has more than a few physiological benefits, and research has confirmed it can lighten mood, relieve stress and improve concentration.  But the benefits of music were known long before scientists began conducting research studies on its impact on health.  The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul;  ancient Egyptians and Native peoples incorporated singing and chanting in their healing rituals.  Just take a look back over history, and you’ll find the power of music acknowledged for its many uses:  to relieve stress, build confidence or  ignite enthusiasm, and even, you may remember from kindergarten, help children learn their ABCs.  Today, you routinely hear soft music as you sit in the dentist’s chair, intended to calm you before the drilling begins, or, in a shopping mall, the background of nonstop music playing –not just for pleasure, but to entice you to buy.

Music therapy, now widely used in hospitals and cancer centers, was initially incorporated by the Veterans Administration as World War II ended and young shell-shocked soldiers returned home.  Then, as now, it helped to promote healing and enhance quality of life.   Music, Dr. Oliver Sacks stated in his book, Musicophilia  (2008), is good medicine.  “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” he wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”

Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient. — Yehudi Menuhin, violinist

Music therapy is now commonly used in the treatment of cancer.  The effectiveness of its use with cancer patients has been documented in many studies supporting its benefits for patients, including reduction of anxiety, pain, fatigue and the beneficial physiological impact on heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.

There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music.  — George Eliot 1819-1880

Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music, for example:

  • Music aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing.  In fact, it can actually improve overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
  • It helps reduce stress and anxiety, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
  • Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease the nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
  • It relieves short term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
  • It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
  • Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.

As I write, I realize that I need more music in my life.  Here in Toronto, we’ve sung with the group, “Choir! Choir! Choir!” and are intent on doing it more regularly, enjoying the fun and the camaraderie music creates among a room full of strangers.  For three years when we lived in San Diego, I drummed–learning to play the djembe and later, the dununs, part of the family of West African drums.  While I joked I’d likely be in the beginner class indefinitely, each Monday evening was a time of laughter, joy, and community–all created through music and rhythm.

Music.  It’s good for your spirits.  It’s good for your health.  It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer as much as it matters that you have music in your life.  Whether it plays a therapeutic role in your healing or is imply makes you want to sing along, stand up and dance, or lose yourself in the memories triggered by any musical piece, it’s an important part of being human.  This week, as many of us begin celebrating Christmas or Hanukah, we will hear the traditional and even the less traditional music that is part of the holiday season.  Reflect on the music that is so much a part of this  season or any other important time in your life.

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. – Martin Luther

Writing Suggestions:

What role does music play in your life?  Has it helped you heal from physical or emotional pain?  How has music been beneficial to you in your life?  What memories does a particular song ignite for you?  What stories?  Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing.   Here are a few suggestions for writing:

  • Perhaps there was some particular music that helped to soothe your fears or anxiety during cancer treatment or another difficult time.  Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
  • Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
  • Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it.  Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing.  Do this for five minutes.  When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you.  Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.

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Don’t wish it away
Don’t look at it like it’s forever
Between you and me I could honestly say
That things can only get better

(From: “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” by Bernie Taupin; sung by Elton John, 1983)

It hasn’t been the best week for me. Nine days ago, my computer crashed. Went kaput. Left me like an ex-lover in the middle of an afternoon. No warning—or rather, none that I noticed, so caught up in my “to-do” lists that I gave the slower functioning of my machine barely a thought. Then it happened. I’d had a great meeting with a Toronto cancer support services organization and sat down to follow-up with a thank-you and a short description of my expressive writing workshops. I turned on my computer. Nothing. I tried again, multiple times, and still, nothing. Shock, disbelief and panic followed in short order. And despite three days in the computer repair shop, I was still unable to access important files or my email contacts. Any action I took seemed to complicate an already complicated recovery process. Frustration, stress, loss…all technology-related, which, in the greater scheme of things now seems trite, but by Tuesday, the turkeys had me down. I had a full blown case of the blues.

“I guess that’s why they call it the blues…” I kept hearing Elton John’s voice in my head. I was stuck in the middle of the blues, but I wondered, why are those periods of feeling downhearted and depressed called“the blues?” I love blues music, and I never leave a live performance feeling down. Quite the contrary.  So I did some checking. Apparently “the blues” originated with a 17th century English expression (“the blue devils”) related to severe alcohol withdrawal, but over time, “the blues” signaled a state of agitation and depression. Gradually, the blues turned into music expressing the singer’s passions and struggles.

Here’s the thing: According to Web MD, “sooner or later, everyone gets the blues.” It’s a fact of life. We all experience difficult experiences in our lives—loss, serious illness, financial hardship, the aftermath of natural disasters, and so much more. It’s normal to feel sadness, grief, loneliness, or malaise during those times. And the majority of the time, we are able to bounce back, pick our lives and ourselves up and begin again.

Everyday, everyday I have the blues
Ooh everyday, everyday I have the blues

(—B.B. King, “Everyday I Have the Blues”)

But what if you don’t bounce back? What if your feelings of sadness linger, are excessive, or interfere with your work, sleep, or even your recreation? Perhaps fatigue,worthlessness, or weight changes accompany your feelings of sadness. That’s more than “the blues.” You may be experiencing major depression, a medical condition that goes beyond life’s ordinary ups and downs. According to Web MD, Almost 18.8 million American adults experience depression each year, and women are twice as likely as men to develop it. In those cases, professional help and treatment are key to recovery.

The blues are common in cancer. Dana Price, author of “Block the Blues,” an article on the website, Cancer Fighters Thrive, says “considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatments: confronting mortality, managing financial stressors or job responsibilities, and the physical side effects of treatment and surgery trigger strong emotional responses—ones that may fall within the spectrum of anxiety and depression. Price notes that it is sometimes difficult for patients or caregivers to know if their “cancer blues” are normal or signs of a more serious depression and offers wisdom from Dr. Laura Sunn, psychiatrist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. “It’s not unusual for people to have strong emotional responses,” Sunn says. “In treating cancer patients, we’re aware that these responses may fall in the spectrum of anxiety and depression.”

It’s no wonder, considering the many concerns patients can face with cancer and related treatment. Confronting mortality, managing financial stressors and job responsibilities, and coping with physical side effects of treatment can all be significant worries. “If you’re suffering worry every day and losing sleep, this can lead to depression,” Sunn says.

When the worry and stress begin to affect your normal daily life, however, it’s time to seek professional help. .Left untreated, depression can be debilitating and, Sunn states, “result in a loss of hope.”

You got to help me darlin’
I can’t do it all by myself
You got to help me, baby
I can’t do it all by myself
You know if you don’t help me darling
I’ll have to find myself somebody else

(Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Help Me”)

What can you do if you’re feeling sad and depressed? These tips offered by the Canadian Cancer Society are helpful to any of us who may be dealing with the blues, whether cancer-related or due to other upsetting or stressful experiences.  Here are steps you can take:

  • Talk to family members or friends about these feelings or talk to someone who has had a similar experience.
  • Seek out positive people and events to keep your spirits up.
  • Eat well and be as physically active as possible. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosters.
  • Try to relieve tension with yoga or meditation.
  • Look to your spiritual faith for comfort. Talk to a spiritual leader or clergy member for help in hard times.
  • Talk to your healthcare team or your family doctor. They can refer you to a mental health expert who specializes in treating depression.
  • Ask your doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist about medicine to treat depression.

Well, as Amy Winehouse once said, “every bad situation is a blues song waiting
to happen.” Yes, even a computer crash. When the frustration overflowed yesterday afternoon, I knew it was time to stop. I shut the computer down, took a shower and belted out Elton John’s “I guess that’s why they call it the blues.” The song—and my horrible rendition of it—helped me rediscover my sense of humor. Later, my husband and I went out to a little jazz festival in Kensington Market, and as we stopped to hear the music, my trials with my computer malfunction became less important. We relaxed and enjoyed the music, and all the while, my blues began to fade. This morning, everything seemed much more manageable.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Have you suffered from the blues? What triggered the feeling? What did you do to help yourself overcome them?
  • Strong emotions accompany any upsetting event in our lives. Write about a time that an unexpected event happened to you: cancer, job loss, sudden loss of a loved one, a sudden break-up with a partner, or another difficult life experience. Try to recall and describe what you were feeling. What helped you through the shock, grief and loss.
  • Was Winehouse right? Is every bad situation the material for a blues song? What do you think?

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