No, I Do Not Have a Machine Gun in My Guitar Case

January is the classic time of year to make goals. It’s a fresh start to try something again, try something new, or accomplish the things you’ve always wanted to. It’s fitting that January is the month where music therapists aim to promote the profession through sharing videos and stories of patient progress and music therapy experiences through social media. I had my own goals for music therapy social media advocacy month. I had a wonderful story that would showcase music therapy depth. It was going to pull on heartstrings and highlight the importance of the patient-family-therapist triad. It was a long time coming and long-awaited.

And then it wasn’t.

Suddenly, the goals and visions I had for what I would accomplish first thing in 2019 were no longer. I was back to the drawing board. I felt a certain expectation for myself to uphold advocacy intentions for the profession of music therapy. I needed to make a new plan and to accomplish other, but equally great things.

Now it’s past January 1st, and I have no ideas. I told myself that I needed to make some time to make new advocacy visions. But if I’m being honest, I’m utterly exhausted.

Three years ago, I took a leap and applied to present a TEDx talk. I talked about what I knew and what gave me verve. I am still proud of what I shared and I’m honored that it continues to educate and inspire others, but it also gave me a wildly tiresome expectation of myself and my “role” within music therapy. Not only did I begin to require myself to be a full-time music therapist, but I suddenly expected myself to be the leading authority on music therapy education and advocacy.

Which is weird, because most days I hate when people ask me what music therapy is.

“Oh – that must be a machine gun hiding in your guitar case.” Hmm…I’ve never heard that one before....

“Wow, I wish my job could be all fun all the time.” Oh yeah, it was totally fun having a patient scream in pain at my face for the last hour….

“So, did you study music then?” ….No, I just fake it.

no, i do not have a machine gun in my guitar case

I’ve recently been reading a lot of writing by music therapy students and I’ve noticed a recurring theme when students address their self-assessed weaknesses. What continues to be present in every response is learning about “self-care”. Self-care is the buzz word for combating exhaustion, burn out, and dissatisfaction; but like any word, the more you say it the less it sounds like a real word. Self-care. Self-care. Self-care. I read these student writings over and over and I began to ask myself, what does this really mean?

I’ve been participating in a launching of a new program at work that focuses on providing psychological first aid to healthcare employees, which essentially means being willing to listen someone without judgement for as long as they need in order for them to regain their assumed resilience to move forward. As you can expect, healthcare workers experience what is known as caregiver stress, which is largely disregarded by society when taking care of those who are chronically ill or dying. I believe that the caregiver is one of the most under-researched and under-supported areas of not only music therapy, but healthcare itself.

In this program launch at my facility, we candidly discussed amongst ourselves what it feels like to passionately do your job while also feeling like you have nothing else to give elsewhere in your life. I was deeply moved by hearing others recount stories of crying in their car because they didn’t want their spouse to know how traumatic their day had been, as well as others feeling immensely guilty that they gave so much to their patients that day that they felt they had nothing left to give to their own children when they got home. We discussed the importance of protecting our loved ones from secondary trauma by keeping information about our day from them for their own well-being, but the toll it takes on causing barriers and isolation. From these comments, I began to question how you are expected to leave work at work when often there is no where to “put” it. Instead, these feelings/thoughts build inside you until you are unable to process it healthily and begin to doubt yourself. These feelings of self-doubt ultimately lead to compassion fatigue and eventually, burn out.

Where was that self-proclaimed self-care in these situations? It wasn’t. Because these people were exhausted.

I believe that music therapists are well-trained and equipped for being able to process their own feelings appropriately, which is not always the case with other healthcare professions. However, I hope that incoming students and other new professionals do not expect themselves to be above feeling exhausted, fatigued, or overwhelmed because they have “self-care.” Instead, I hope they, and all music therapists, are open to being transparent, honest, and willing to discuss the challenges they face and the experiences they witness within their work. Only then can you truly expect to process your own feelings and grow in your abilities to continue to care for and support others.

Everyday, I advocate for what I do passionately. Although I often want to roll my eyes in response to music-therapy-lack-of-understanding, I don’t. I explain what I do when asked. I stand up for my patients. I take the extra moment to educate staff why I did what I did in a session. I insist on being at the discussion table. I spend the extra minutes listening to a family member. I continue to think of new strategies. New goals. New visions.

And most days, it’s exhausting. But that’s always okay.

“Oh – that must be a machine gun hiding in your guitar case.” Ha! I don’t think my patients will appreciate that as much as the real guitar in there!

“Wow, I wish my job could be all fun all the time.” Some days are easier than others, but mostly, it is a lot of fun! Join us next time! 

“So, did you study music then?” Yes. I have two degrees in music therapy.

And I love it. 


*(And for those who have no idea what I’m talking about in reference to the machine gun in a guitar case, please see here for a brief explanation of this common gangster movie trope).

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