The state of Florida has had a rough couple of weeks. Over five million people evacuated their places of residency for Hurricane Irma, which, as awful as it was, had promised to be far worse.
My town was not under mandatory evacuation at any point (although many of my friends were), but we booked it & schlepped inland. We shuttered up our home, turned off all of the lights, cleared off the porch, found sitters for our cats, and headed north on Wednesday night (September 6th).
As mentioned, Irma did far less damage to the state of Florida (not counting the lower Keys) than anticipated. For the 18-20 million of us who live here, this was a good thing. But because of power outages, road closures, continuing damage inspections, and sympathy for the millions who traveled elsewhere, my county school district was closed for 7 days. My family & I returned home on Tuesday, September 12th, unspeakably grateful for having power and no damage. Millions of others all across the state have been without power for over a week. Suffice to say, it has been a stressful experience for our entire populous.
So what do you do when you are stressed and your life has been uprooted and you believed for days on end that your home would be destroyed or friends & family could have gone missing because of the storm?
On our trip northward in a clunker, we got pretty poor radio reception. The CD player in the console didn't even work. And we traversed almost the entire state of Florida in evacuation traffic that extended trip. I drove the whole way and scantily preserved my sanity by singing badly, most notably to Toto's "Africa", which played multiple times in the span of our first four hour drive. For the remainder of our many travels, we were at the mercy of commercial radio programmers. Oddly enough, music that was programmed to "pick me up & make me feel good!" had the opposite effect.
When we got back home, I did an errand in our 14-year-old Toyota Corolla, where at least the CD player works, and pressed play on a mix I'd made myself almost four years ago. I exhaled deeper than I had in days. Instead of Smash Mouth & Justin Bieber, I drove along the tree branch-cluttered, stoplight malfunctioning streets of the town I live while listening to Jenny Lewis & Tom Waits. It made a huge difference.
Tastes are tastes, but I found that listening to music I was already emotionally attached to made a huge difference in my mood. It eased some of the intense stress I'd been under the week prior.
And I often forget that. How foolish of me, a musician, a music teacher, a would-be pop music scholar, forgetting that music can improve your mood. That it can soothe the savage beast, indeed. Singing, even badly, certainly soothed my daughter in her times of crying during the trip (although she was an absolute trooper).
However, the music I loved didn't cure anything. It didn't stop the anxiety many of the people I love felt throughout the week, it didn't save anyone's roof from blowing off, it didn't automatically make people act nicer to each other. (Frequent concert & festival goers can vouch for that; even great music will not automatically cause people to be kind.)
And as sorry as I felt for myself during our long, strange trip, I knew that we were not the only folks on earth experiencing migrational movement. Refugee crises have been occurring with increased frequency the world over just this past decade. I thought and read about Royhinga Muslims in Bangladesh, who have been making terrifying journeys that don't even guarantee them safety once they've reached their destination. There are still many Syrian war refugees who have found they were unwelcome in Europe for any number of unjustified reasons. Even in Houston, Texas, where we have friends & family, people have been floating canoes around a major American city to rescue others from their flooded homes. The stress of our trip manifested itself physically in me, but I couldn't stop thinking of those who had it far worse.
Could Jenny Lewis save them? Could Tom Waits heal their many mental & emotional scars?
Of course not.
Music can get us through. Music can help carry us on our journeys, and help to soothe & ease our pain.
Music itself is not a cure for PTSD, anxiety disorders, or any diagnosable psychological disorder or ailment.
I believe in music therapy. But music therapy is not the simple act of putting on an old Norah Jones record & lying down (as brilliant as Ms. Jones may be). It's not picking up & strumming a ukulele until you feel better. If you've studied music either academically or as a serious independent scholar, you know that playing doesn't automatically make you feel better. One of the best music therapy explanations I've found comes, oddly enough, from a Wayne's World-inspired meme:
I have had innumerable people in my life tell me that music works like therapy for them, and I wish I could go back to tell them that they probably should have seen a qualified mental health professional as well. Mental & emotional healing does not come from music alone. The music we love might make us feel healed, but what you learn later is that the job of healing from a traumatic experience or chemical imbalance has been left half done.
If you're feeling traumatized, stressed, saddened, or shook beyond what you feel you can control, call a therapist. Seek help. If you love Debussy or Erykah Badu, put that on the stereo in the meantime until you can access to a qualified mental health professional. Music to which you emotionally connect can keep you going, but it won't get you all the way to your destination. And for all of the demonization of psychiatric drugs, there are millions of people who depend on them to function (many of whom don't have the proper medication in the case of a catastrophic disaster, further complicating things).
You can't cure a cold by playing your instrument (sometimes that just makes matters worse!). Don't gloss over psychological & emotional ailments and rely on Stevie Wonder, regardless of his greatness, in lieu of a mental health professional.