Note: Since first writing this blog post, my music therapy patient badly bruised my wrists. Concern for my personal safety was part of the reason i resigned from that job-site.
I'm a certified music therapist lucky to live in beautiful Greenwich Village, NYC. One morning every week I join other well-dressed travelers crammed onto a ridiculously crowded subway train and travel to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. Climbing out of that station, I often meet teams of transit police guarding the stairways. On the sidewalk, I pass folks hurrying to work, begging for loose change, screaming incoherently, or asleep in drug-induced stupors.
A few feet down the block is my workplace, a day treatment center for special needs adults. These individuals, aged 18 to about 55, struggle with a variety of intellectual, physical, and emotional disabilities. A few of the folks I work with can read at a second-grade level. Most cannot read or speak clearly. Many move with awkward gaits, are wheelchair bound, hearing or visually impaired.
At 9:00, in an airy, open space, I set up a piano keyboard with a microphone, put out rhythm instruments, and a pile of song sheets. I prefer starting music therapy sessions with a Hello Song, singing each participant's name. Since I don't have a "group", but rather a parade of folks trickling in whenever their buses arrive and wandering through the session at will, I start with whoever happens to be there first and wants to sing. I always end the session with a Goodbye Song. The names of the individuals still in the room are inserted into the lyric, "Goodbye, goodbye to ______, I'll see you next week."
When I started working at this site, a woman I'll call Margot always sat in the sessions. Margot is about my same size and weight. I guess she is in her forties. She has no verbal language but is not shy. She readily screams, grunts and laughs. We always know how she is feeling. Margot loved a small glockenspiel, would sit at a table, move rhythmically to the music others were singing, and play random tones. I was told that she refused to participate in other activities, hated being touched, was easy to anger, occasionally violent, and might not be allowed to stay in the program.
During one session, we had a fire drill and needed to walk down three flights of stairs. On the way back up, Margot grabbed my hand and lead me up the stars. After that, the Goodbye Song began upsetting her. I would start singing. She would start screaming and push me off my high piano stool. She was very strong. It was frightening. Other staffers saw what was happening and pulled her away from me. Days when I had no support staff, I couldn't sing the Goodbye Song, for fear she would attack me.
This lead to her attacking me when I tried to leave the building. She never actually injured me, but came close. The program director tried explaining to her that it was just Goodbye for now, and I was not leaving forever. Margot seemed unconvinced. Other staffers protected me, taking Margot out of sight, so I could leave the building unscathed.
When I needed to change my program day, Margot was warned every day, in advance. The program director told me that she still went ballistic when I did not appear on my old day.
Finally, week-after-week, Margot mellowed. I did nothing different, but somehow she began to trust that I would not abandon her. Now, she sits next to me at the piano, frequently standing to pet my shiny blond hair. Each week she has become more affectionate, stroking my cheek and leaning her forehead against the side of my head, as I play. She helps me set up and take down my equipment, and understands when I ask her to get something from another room. The first time we were in a new room, I asked Margot plug the keyboard cord into a wall socket. She couldn't find the socket, got frustrated and dropped the cord, but did not get angry.
One night, I had an extremely vivid, emotional dream. I was petting a large, beautiful snow leopard. The leopard stayed still and allowed my petting. I enjoyed the feel of its soft white-spotted fir, but could not tell if it enjoyed the feel of my hand. I was acutely aware that, any second, the leopard could turn and attack me. I even stroked its jaw and felt its teeth. It did not react. The dream was scary but lovely.
Waking up and analyzing my dream, I realized that the leopard was Margot: silent, lovely, and quietly terrifying. Since that dream, I feel a deeper connection to Margot. Last week, she clearly said, "Hi!" The first actual word I had ever heard her speak. When I finished packing up my music equipment, we were alone. She held out her arms, asking for a hug. I held her for a moment and let her go. She smiled and left to get her lunch. That hug was a simple, normal exchange between two friends. For Margot, it was a miracle.
I will never believe my snow leopard will become a pussycat. I do feel she may have shifted to another of her nine lives.