“Sometimes, I like to turn the music up so loud it hurts my head.” He had a distant, far away look on his face.
“And why do you do that?” She watched him expectantly, but patiently. She looked quite comfortable meeting his gaze, as she sat in a white wicker chair, one leg folded beneath her, her shoes off, giving the intended impression of casual attentiveness to her client.
He closed his eyes, not seeing, but feeling… feeling the pulsing drive of the base deep in his head and chest. Hearing the music, the guitars, the drums…
“Why…” he reflected. He’d never thought about why before, only the way it made him feel. With his eyes still closed, remembering so clearly how he’d felt just a couple hours ago, he was almost transported to earlier that afternoon, as he’d sped almost 100 mph down the freeway, stereo pumping out as much volume as the cheap factory speakers could muster, hands clutching the wheel, oblivious to anything but the road in front of him and the deep, primal thumping he felt in his chest.
Arriving at his answer, he took a slow, deep breath and opened his eyes.
“Because it gets inside me.”
“What gets inside you, the music?”
He looked away from her gaze, staring at a large painting on the wall, seeing but not seeing, his focus soft. Now there was silence, but not an uncomfortable one. She was just giving him time to process. He knew that.
After a few more seconds of being completely lost in this sensory memory, he was beginning to wrap his head around it.
“It gets inside me, pounding, pounding, pounding... I can feel it. I feel it in my stomach and head, in my heart and my chest. In my chest most of all”
He paused here, making a fist and tapping lightly near his heart, searching for just the right words to convey the concepts and feelings he was trying to articulate.
“It’s as if it’s actually inside, pounding me from the inside, trying to beat its way out of me”
“How does that feel?”
“It feels… It feels good.” He said simply, wondering what she would make of that.
She thought for a moment, making a discrete note on the pad of paper in front of her. She was always discreet when she jotted her little notes, never wanting to seem as if she weren’t paying attention.
“I assume we’re not talking about classical or country music, are we?” She asked smiling.
“No.” he agreed with a slight chuckle.
“Angry music then?”
He thought about it for just a moment. He didn’t like to be stereotyped or for people to make certain assumptions based on what they saw of him on the surface. He felt his mood darken, he’d come to expect a little more of her than that.
“Some of it is,” he answered honestly, “but not all.”
“Tell me about the music.”
He’d been to enough therapists in his life to know she probably had no idea where to go next, so was just going to let him ramble on and on, letting one thing lead to another, until he finally started divulging some deep dark secret about an abusive childhood, an overbearing father, an alcoholic mother, or some crap like that. Most likely she was assuming that the repressed pain and anger of this probable childhood was finding a much needed voice in his choice of music. He didn’t fault her, it was a safe path to take, but for whatever reason, he’d come to trust her more than the other therapists. There was something honest and sincere about her, as if she actually cared about him as a person, not just a client, and she had surprised him once or twice with her insight and instinct. It was for this reason and this reason alone that he gave an honest answer.
“Some is very angry. You know, the typical teenage angst that somehow a drugged out group of men now in their 30’s never let go of.”
She smiled and nodded.
“But it’s not that it’s angry, it’s that it’s hard. It’s loud.”
“Is it always that kind of music, or do you vary it up?”
Smiling, “It pretty much stays the same.”
“What about the lyrics? Do they mean anything to you, or is it just the music?”
God, how he hated where she was going with this.
He thought for a moment, watching her, wondering how to answer, never willing to give too much away.
“Some of them do, and some don’t.”
She waited, allowing him time he didn’t take, to elaborate.
When it was clear he had nothing more to say, she asked, “What were you listening to earlier today?” The question seemed almost casual, as if she were truly curious, not probing him clinically, but he knew too, she was likely fishing around, trying to find something to sink her teeth into.
She gave a slight smile and nod of her head, once again writing something down on her notepad, this time giving her attention to the paper.
Curious, he answered, “The new one – Minutes Away.”
“I like that one.” She said. She thought for a moment, looking over her notes, then asked, “What were you feeling first, anger or hurt, when you turned the volume up so loud?”
This question surprised him a little. Had he mentioned either emotion, or did she read that in him? Perhaps she was just assuming once again. It was a good question though, and it got him thinking. He’d been upset, no doubt, but even he hadn’t known exactly what was wrong with him when he’d first put the key in the ignition. Even though he was pretty sure she was taking the predictable approach, he closed his eyes and tried to put himself back in the moment, to recapture what he’d been thinking and feeling earlier that afternoon.
He loved music. He had his whole life, and yes, since his teens, he’d been drawn to the grungy, angry, petulant, self indulgent, self deprecating music of the alternative world. The room was quiet as he easily recalled the song he’d played at least 4 times on his way to his session today. It was easier for him to recall his feelings by reliving the music than it was to just remember what he was feeling. Sitting there in an overstuffed chair, eyes closed, he had no trouble bringing the memories back from his subconscious. He didn’t just hear music, he saw it, he felt it, maybe even tasted it. It was so much more than just a casual auditory thing for him, but rather an experience that involved his entire body. He saw the music, the guitar riffs, the chords, the drums… he saw it as impressions in his mind, he felt them as waves, sensations, vibrations that wove themselves throughout every nerve and muscle. He was imagining the beginning of one song, how it started slow and soft, with a bit of an ominous feel to it, then how a simple drum beat was added, allowing it build slightly, still rather quiet, still somewhat detached. But then, after only a few bars the guitars kicked in and exploded with 2 scratchy, electric notes that always lit up his brain like 2 bolts of lightening. 3 guitars and a wall of drums ignited in his brain and his body like a nuclear bomb, expanding his very being with the force of the explosion. The louder the music, the more explosive the bomb, the more explosive the bomb, the deeper inside him it would reach…
Startling himself with how lost he’d been in his own thoughts, he forced his eyes back open and looked at her.
“Both.” Taking a deep breath in an attempt to slow his now racing heart, he said. “I was angry and hurt.”
“And you feel better listening to the music so loud, or does your mood stay the same?”
Feeling the calming release that washed over him once the music began to pound its way out of his chest he answered honestly, “Yes. Generally I do feel better.”
“And just now, as you were reliving that in your mind, what were you focused on the most?”
Not answering, he looked at her, with a look of slight confusion, feeling a bit vulnerable, unsure of how much to tell her.
“I doubt it was the words…” she said as her voice trailed off, obviously trying to capture some thought or idea in her own mind.
“Were you focused on the music, or how the music made you feel?”
That was another interesting question, once again, something he’d not given any thought to. He thought he’d known where she was going with all this, but now he wasn’t so sure, and didn’t like being unable to control the direction of her questioning. It didn’t take too long to answer though, “Well, both, but mainly on how it made me feel I guess.”
“Thank you Max.” She gave a simple nod, and turned her attention again to her notes.
He watched her. She was the one lost in thought now, nibbling unconsciously on the end of her pen. She’d used his name, and he knew from past experience this was a method therapists would employ when trying to establish rapport or convey sincerity to their client. By using someone’s name, it tended to draw them deeper into the conversation, making it more personal, more meaningful. Unlike most of his other therapists, she rarely used him name. When she did though, he always felt it was sincere and honest, as if she were really just saying his name, and not using some technique she’d been taught. It was one of the things he’d liked about her.
She adjusted slightly in her chair, and he could see that she had an idea in her mind, but by her barely perceptible nervous fidgeting, she wasn’t as confident about her line of thinking as she wanted to be, and he could tell she was formulating her words carefully.
“I do believe you can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to…” she began.
He suppressed an urge to roll his eyes.
“But I don’t think many people understand why that is. Most people assume that if you listen to angry music it’s because you’re angry, or sad music it’s because you’re sad, and while there is a superficial truth to that, I personally believe there is something deeper and more meaningful to it.”
He waited, curious.
She paused, and though it could easily have been a calculated silence, he knew by the way she was tapping her pen ever so slightly on her thigh that she was still a bit unsure how to proceed, and this too made him curious.
Not wanting the silence to drag out too long, she took a breath and said,
“We know you have anger issues, it’s why you’re here, so it doesn’t take much to make that connection does it?” It was a rhetorical question he knew, so he just waited, listening to what she had to say.
“Why you have anger issues is important, but I really think there is something here, something to this with the music.” Another, shorter pause, and then, “I think there are 2 things going on here.”
“And what 2 things are those, Allison?” He asked a little smugly, feeling suddenly just a little uncomfortable with the look on her face.
“The first thing is that while I do agree with the classical interpretation of your identifying with the anger in the songs, and feeling a sense of belonging, a sense of being understood by listening to it, but I think there is just as much value in looking at the music you don’t listen to.”
That was different. He’d never heard that before.
“The music I don’t listen to?”
“Yes. The love songs, the light, fluffy stuff that makes people smile and want to cuddle up with someone special.”
“You mean that shit Delilah plays?” He seemed offended.
“Yes, exactly that shit.” She fired back.
“I don’t like it.” He said plainly.
“I know you don’t. And I also think I know why.” If she was still unsure of her line of thinking and the direction she was leading him, she was faking it well. Her voice and her posture both conveyed that she was in control of this conversation right now, and that she was beginning to lead him down a path he may not want to follow.
“There is no ‘why’ I don’t like it, I just don’t. Just like there is no ‘why’ I don’t like the color blue. It’s personal taste, that’s all.” He could feel a defensiveness start to creep into his voice, but didn’t quite know where it was coming from.
“Maybe, but I still think there is something to it.” She looked at him. “I think you stick with the angry stuff because it’s safe.”
“Safe? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It allows you to stay right where you. Angry. You can wallow in your own pity and self deprication, and it doesn’t push you, it doesn’t challenge you to be uncomfortable.”
“Challenge me to be uncomfortable? You’re not making any sense.” He retorted, but the experienced, analytical side of his brain was sending up red flags that made him nervous.
“The love songs, the inspirational songs, the artists that deal in hopes and dreams, these are all symbols of what you feel you’ve never had, and feel you never will have, because you don’t believe you deserve them. So it’s easier, and less painful to surround yourself with what you are willing to deal with, what you are willing to face, than to look into a world that represents everything you believe isn’t for you.”
He smiled a thin smile, shaky smile, but felt a heavy, emotional feeling suddently burst in the pit of his stomach.
“It’s easier to continue feeling sorry for yourself than it is to look deep inside. To look at ‘why’ you think you’ll never have these things, because when you start looking at the why of things, you may not like the answers. Answers that have only to do with you. Not your mother or your father, not some abusive rotten childhood, or some other convenient situation you’d like to dump your issues onto, but you. I think the anger allows you to keep the truth at arms length, again, where it’s nice and safe.”
Somehow she’d gone completely opposite the direction he’d guessed, and he still didn’t know where this was going to end up
“And what absurd truth would that be?” He was agitated now, finding it difficult to sit still, and to continue making eye contact with her. But by looking away, he would be the one to break contact, subconsciously admitting weakness or submitting to her, something he was not willing to do.
“How much you hate yourself. How much you blame yourself for things that really were out of your control, but that you’ve never been able to let go of. How much you hold yourself responsible, and how you’ve never been able to forgive yourself for being weak, for being a victim, for being a child… for never being able to just love yourself.” Though her voice had been strong and forceful when she began, she ended this last sentence with a soft gentleness that told him she knew how piercing her words might be, and that she cared how much her words may wound him.
He opened his mouth to tell her how insane that was, but stopped and just looked at her. He realized he was clenching his fists and his whole body had grown tense. He also knew she’d picked up on this. If he began arguing and defending, she would take that to mean she’d ‘struck a chord’, and as there was no validity whatsoever to what she was saying, he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of thinking she was right. Forcing his hands open, breathing slowly and deeply, and softening his brow, he said,
“That is an interesting theory, but I think you may be off base with this one.”
“Really?” She asked, raising one eyebrow.
She just watched him now. He was trying to regain control of this conversation, but her gaze still made him uneasy.
“But I said there were 2 reasons.”
“Yes you did.” He was uncomfortable, and wanted the session to be over.
“You said the music just gets inside you…” she trailed off a moment, and he sensed she was unsure of herself again.
“You said the music gets so deep inside you that it feels like it’s pounding you from the inside out, and that feels good to you.”
Regretting his ill-timed candor, he admitted, “Yes I did.”
“I think it’s the same thing.”
Confused now, he said, “But I thought you said there were 2 reasons. If they are the same thing, that would be only one reason.”
“It’s the same thing, but 2 different reasons.” He decided she was stalling, and his own confidence grew a bit. His need to control these sessions, these conversations was something so deeply rooted in him, that after so many years of therapy and a parade of therapists, he was generally quite good at it, though by now, he was almost completely unaware he was doing it.
“On the surface you are hiding. Just below the surface this music is safe for you, representing your ability to bury things you don’t want to admit, allowing you to seal doors you don’t want to open. But deeper below the surface, down in the places you have far less control over, something in you is crying out, practically begging you to pay attention to it”
His bristled at the suggestion of there being any part of him he didn’t have complete control over. He felt his heart begin racing again, and his face flush hot and red, but he did not speak. He would not be giving any more away to her today.
“I believe that part of you is what needs the music. It’s not the music itself, not the lyrics, not the message it may or may not convey. No, for this part, it is just the feeling.”
He fidgeted slightly in the chair, sweat breaking out on his upper lip.
“The louder the music, the deeper inside you it gets, winding its way into places you’ve not allowed your mind to go for quite some time now. The guitars, the drums, the base, they drive deeper and deeper inside you, until the music no longer feels like an external thing, but rather something the is originating from you – from those deep, dark recesses of your heart. That place where all the hurt, the pain, the fear, the anger, the self loathing… things you’ve pushed down for so very long in your life, that you’ve forgotten they even exist.”
His ears were starting to ring now, and there was a heat behind his eyes he hadn’t felt it a long time… tears? How long had it been since he’d allowed himself to cry?
“But they do exist, don’t they? Things like that don’t just go away Max. No matter how hard you try, they never go away. And since you refuse to let them out consciously, your subconscious has found a way for you.”
He couldn’t hold back now. The tears would spill over any moment, and this was simply unacceptable, so he looked away, eyes darting quickly to something that didn’t exist, high up on the wall to his right, blinking away any wetness that threatened to spill. He wanted to storm out of the room, to tell her how incredibly incompetent she was, that she was obviously a bit too green for a client like him, that it had been a mistake for him to trust someone with so little experience as her. He wanted to do this, saw it happening in his mind, but his legs betrayed him, refusing to stand. So he sat, jaw clenched, feet planted firmly on the floor, fingers raking the arms of his chair nervously.
“I think that when you can finally get the music up so loud it feels like it’s pounding its way out of you, it’s touching all those things you keep bottled up inside, touching the things that no one else ever sees. The music can go deeper than you’ll ever allow any therapist to go, deeper than you’ll even allow yourself to go. Don’t you see? This is a release for you. Something inside you is trying desperately to get you to acknowledge all that’s trapped there.”
She paused here, and this time he knew the silence was calculated. He’d underestimated her up to this point. Though he may have played therapy like a game most of his life, she obviously did not.
“Do you feel it, when the music is so deep inside you? Do you feel it wrapping itself around everything you’ve denied for so much of your life?”
He was teetering on an edge, and he had a choice to make. He’d been in and out of therapy since he was 17 years old. And he was a smart lad. Though there’d been therapists along the way that had made valid points here and there, some who had gotten closer to his issues than others, none had ever reached him. They’d always been too soft to really push him, never able to provide him a good enough reason to tear down his defenses and expose himself to them. Many had been in the right ball park at times, but none had really ever understood him or been able to read him. In fact, he’d pretty much given up on therapy, and for the last couple years had been just drifting through life, waiting for something to happen that would either inspire him or kill him. He’d not cared much which. The only reason he was here now was because of an ‘altercation’ with an asshole cop and a judge that believed in second chances. 12 hours anger management or a week in jail. It had been up to him.
He’d chosen her because she’d seem fairly harmless to him, having just graduated the year before. Her voice was pleasant and lighthearted on the phone, and he’d taken her for just another lonely woman with a misguided sense of nurturing and desire to ‘fix’ the world. He was only just beginning to understand how wrong he may have been about that.
She was looking at him, waiting patiently for his answer.
Did he feel it? He allowed himself an indulgent deep breath, and closed his eyes, once again, bringing forth the feelings and images the music elicited in him. Tentatively this time, very carefully poking around inside himself, realizing how frightened he was at what he might find, he stood just on the outer fringes of that place within him. For a brief moment he could see it as if he were standing on a precipice, looking into a dark, murky pool of blackness and pain. And for just a moment, he couldn’t hear the music, but he could feel it. The deep vibrations of the base, sinking low in his spine and in his gut. He could feel the snare and base drums firing off like gunfire, beating against his chest wall, as if it would soon tear him open from the inside out. And the guitars, like lightening across his eyes and knives through his heart, opening wounds he thought were too tightly scarred shut, and he realized that yes, yes he could feel it. And in that moment he realized too, he’d felt these things before. Long ago, before he’d learned to protect himself, before he’d learned to hide, and to close himself off from the feeling, emotional world around him. And suddenly the simplicity and truth of what she was saying began to sink in. He did feel it. When he could get it so that it felt like the music was exploding from inside his own body, he did feel. And as the tears began to roll down his cheeks one by one, he was astounded to realize it was the only time he could feel. Anything.
She’d hit it. She had nailed it. She’d found a way to the place he’d so carefully, skillfully, almost artfully hidden from the world his entire adult life.
He didn’t open his eyes, and she didn’t ask him to. To do so would break the reverie, would hinder the process and pull him out of this place he’d fallen into. This place he’d buried so long ago that it smelled rotten with age, and yet somehow felt new and unexplored and the same time.
As the hot tears ran wet tracks down his cheeks and dripped from his chin, his whole body softened. Though he did not say a word, he knew that for now anyway, he was giving himself to her. If she could lead him, he would follow.
It was as if she sensed this, as she said simply, “Good. Now, let’s begin.”