I arrived at this hospital yesterday. When checking in, I told them I had been feeling suicidal. Someone put me in a wheelchair and brought me up to the 4th floor: the psychiatric ward. Someone else went through my belongings and found a pair of draw-string pants and pulled out the thin, cotton strip that would cinch around my waist. Did they really think I would kill myself with that?
Then, I was shown to my room with a single bed, the only window looking out at a drab grey building. I was told someone would check in on me every fifteen minutes. Instead of this unnerving me, I felt a great sense of relief. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a long time.
The next day, I meet the other patients. There’s Andrea, who has obviously either been here for some time, or has come here before. She shows me “the ropes”: where to do laundry, where to shower, what time meals are. She rooms with Jasmine, who appears to be about Andrea’s age and it’s clear they have formed a friendship. One time, I hear a commotion, so I poke my head out of my room. Jasmine is in a wheelchair and Andrea is pushing her hard and fast down the corridor. They are both laughing and whooping it up and I find myself smiling a much-needed smile.
Then there’s Oscar with his droopy mustache and shuffling walk, who hangs out often with the waif-looking Toby; the two of them often having private conversations.
And then there’s Henry, who is wall-eyed and Asian, whose black, untended hair stands straight up. He can’t bear to look anyone in the eye and his whole body language is apologetic. He exudes both sweetness and confusion.
Victor is the only patient I am afraid of. He exhibits that kind of behavior that you see on the street that you want to avoid. He stands in a corner and argues with someone – someone the rest of us can’t see. Sometimes his voice becomes louder, turning to rage. Because I am so very anxious, and because there often seems to be no orderlies around, my fear escalates. I wring my hands; will he become violent? Will he unleash his violence on someone here? Me, even?
The other patients and I keep our distance from him. We all, excluding Victor, gravitate to one another, forming a kind of short-term family, while he remains a loner. I don’t know about the others, but I want it to remain that way.
But on my third day here, something changes that.
We are all gathered in the community room, including Victor. We take our places – Victor in the corner arguing, the rest of us sitting around the table, loosely interacting.
The TV is on, as usual. Today, someone has put in the DVD “Ghost”, which we look up at occasionally. Then the famous scene comes on with Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel, while Patrick Swayze comes up from behind, puts his arms around her, his hand joining hers. Then the familiar song, “Unchained Melody”, by The Righteous Brothers starts up, enhancing the scene.
Suddenly, Victor stops arguing. He turns from his corner and walks towards us and looks at the screen. He listens for a second, then opens his mouth and starts singing. His voice is full. His voice is tender. His voice is full of feeling. He knows every word, and every word is pitch-perfect. His gaze, usually hard and glazed over, becomes bright and clear, his blue black face is beatific and glows with an inner light. He is angelic.
The rest of us watch him, our jaws dropping. We are transfixed. We can’t believe what is happening. We know we are experiencing some sort of miracle.
And then the song stops – and when it does, Victor’s demeanor changes, and he turns away and goes back to his corner, resuming his argument.
For a full moment, no one says anything. We are stunned into silence. For a full moment we drop our roles (and our guard) and fall into that silence.
And then the moment passes. Patrick Swayze removes his arms from Demi Moore. Andrea and Jasmine look at each other and giggle. Oscar and Toby exchange glances. I bite my nails, my nerves returning. Henry hangs his head, as if embarrassed to be alive.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Now, looking back at that incident, I realize many things. The first, most obvious realization is that music has the power to heal, if only for a few minutes. Everybody knows this, to a degree. If I’m feeling funky, I can, for example, listen to Al Green’s “Belle” and my whole mood shifts. When his beautiful, soulful voice enters the room and for some time afterwards, I feel uplifted, changed.
The second realization is that for as long as “Unchained Melody” lasted, Victor was no longer “other” – someone to be feared and avoided. For those few minutes, he became a part of our weird, dysfunctional family. He became a part of us, and we were a part of him.
For years afterwards, I thought about that incident and wondered about Victor: How did he get that way? Why was he so angry? Was it purely a “chemical imbalance”? What was his life like before he came to the hospital? Did he live on the streets? Does he now? Did he ever fall in love, have a family?
Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know he is my brother of sorts. I know his metamorphosis made me believe in miracles. I know I want beauty to be always a part of his life.
And, wherever he is today, I hope he is singing.
Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers/Produced by Philles Records (1965)
There are times when dealing with our health concerns that surrendering comes into the picture and becomes a quality that would serve us well to cultivate. When we are waiting for our test results from the laboratory or wake up with a migraine on a day we planned to get a lot done, we learn to give up control and let go. We have learned from the past that pushing ourselves in this state only increases our pain and that worrying about the outcome of our test results only causes us more distress. Often, excruciating symptoms can bring us to our knees and give us no choice but to relinquish control and surrender.
The act of surrendering is a humbling one. We are reminded that something bigger than ourselves is holding the reins and that by recognizing this, we find a way to allow our life to unfold, instead of forcing our will onto it. Twelve-step programs have developed the slogan “Let go and let God” and turning it over to a higher power greater than oneself, when we end up getting too much in our own way to do us any good. For those uncomfortable with the word “God”, they can exchange it with the concept that we are not always completely in charge of our circumstances and may have to put into place a different way of handling our present challenges, than worry and agitation.
The act of surrendering doesn’t mean we roll over and give up and do nothing. It means we allow energy to move through us and not manipulate it, thereby allowing The Great Mystery to unfold and leaving room for spirit to come into our life. When we become open like this, our intuition can be tapped, new solutions can come to us or just the understanding that for now, maybe all we need to “do”, is rest or putter around in the garden that day or get some support from a friend.
Surrendering control may be something we have to do over and over again, if we are particularly anxious; like waiting for those test results. Surrendering takes practice like any other spiritual discipline and we may need constant reminders. We may notice that the way we are going about finding an answer to resolve our health issue has become too obsessive, i.e., going from one practitioner to the next without taking time to reflect on why this might be happening in the first place. It may be better for us in this case, to slow down a little and recognize that underneath this behavior is fear, and we might be better off to explore that fear and see what that has to teach us, rather than go about our health care in a frantic, grasping way. When fear rises again and again, surrendering can become the anecdote that calms us down.
Story on Surrendering
When I was in my twenties, I lived communally on land, with a small group, during the 70’s. I loved living there at the time, but for various reasons, the community was breaking up and individuals were moving on. I was unhappy with this idea, but I had no choice but to move on, too. I realized I relied on the others to be there in case of a seizure, but who could I rely on now? On top of that, with the stress of the dissolvement of the group and the stimulation that came from living communally, I had had a few seizures and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t take care of myself. Appallingly, it seemed to me, my only option was to pack up all my things and go stay with my parents – the very people whose way of living I felt estranged from and who I felt lived the opposite to what we had been trying to create on land, where I had been living. Not only that, but I needed help packing and couldn’t fly on my own – my mother had to come and get me! For a young woman out in the world on her own, developing new ideologies with others that branched away from the norm (with a lot of judgement towards others, I might add), this was beyond humiliating!
Once at my parents’ house, it took months for me to fully recover. Not only did I have to put aside my youthful ideals, but I had to let go of the elemental independent way of living we all usually take for granted. Most of the time, I couldn’t prepare meals for myself; my mother did. I couldn’t drive, so I had to rely on my father to get anywhere. Some part of me knew I was fortunate; that I had loving parents who could take me in, but my false pride wouldn’t allow a full appreciation of this fact. I chafed against their ways that I perceived as outdated and steeped in sexism, but felt I had to keep my mouth closed, because I was reliant on them for my basic needs. At times, I resented this, making it easy to resent them.
Although I wasn’t very good at it, I was forced to surrender. I had to put aside my beliefs and my prized independence in order to get my needs taken care of. I felt ashamed and humiliated to be in this position, and because of this, couldn’t fully give in to the feeling of surrendering, which made everything that much harder.
More than twenty years later, things have changed a great deal. I am more apt to be honest with myself about my limitations and needs, although, there often seems a layer of resistance before I let go and accept my circumstances. I no longer carry around the arrogance I used to have in my twenties that made me feel I was somehow more evolved than others. Having had to, time and time again, ask for help over the years, has led me to replace humiliation with humility and a letting in of others in my life I may not have otherwise, which expands my spiritual path that much more. When we only let in those who have the same ideology and lifestyle as ours, we develop a narrow way of being and living. I believe I have a more developed sense of gratitude in general, because of having to let others in, by way of caregiving for me. All this I’ve gotten from the gift and act of surrendering.
Sleep deprivation creates a kind of hunger – the body can’t help but want what it needs. I think of those who are starving for food and I think there must be a similarity there; a craving that persists, no matter how much you long for it to be different. You can’t help it – you won’t feel satisfied until you get what the body needs, whether it be sleep or food or to be pain-free.
Anxiety is like that unwanted relative that shows up on holidays. She is your Aunt Sadie or Tio Julio or your cousin Tamala or your great uncle, Malif. They tell crass jokes in front of your children or talk too loud or too long or get a little more drunk than you’d like, or they don’t help out with the dishes, or they stay too long. Or, they have breath like aged cheese and spill wine on your favorite tablecloth, or eat too much and belch loudly, or complain constantly. But somehow, you know they should be there – they are a part of your family. You know they must have special gifts, but you can’t see them. You know they have something to teach you, but you can’t figure out what. On rare occasions you notice something in them that strikes you positively, which surprises you: they can sing sweetly, or they saved an animal’s life, or they once volunteered at a hospital. And so, when the next holiday comes around and they make an appearance once again, you welcome them, because after all, they are family, whether you like them or not, and there’s no changing that. Just as there is no changing that they will always rub you the wrong way. Anxiety is like that.