(My name is Mary Beth Orr. I am a professional horn player and currently 3rd Horn in the Grand Rapids Symphony. The following is my story in hopes it may be a helpful resource.)
Well, I have a dentist. I have a treatment plan. I’m home and starting this elusive process called “rest”. My day to day is sleep, try to eat, try not to crawl out of my skin with fear, dread, and panic about what may or may not happen to my career. That is what “rest” meant to me. It was pretty much just panic management. I mean, doesn’t that just sound like heaven????? Is that actually what healing is? Panic and dread management? It struck me and still strikes me how really miserable healing actually is. The word has such a positive and almost comforting connotation or association. But, the reality is, you pretty much feel like shit, both physically and emotionally until… well, until you don’t. I guess the assumption is that you are supposed to always be feeling a little bit better each moment of the healing process but I can tell you that ain’t even close to the reality.
Healing is constant, slow, torturous change. We sometimes talk about it in hindsight as if this transformative experience was such blessing and a spiritual awakening. If that is you, cool. You. Do. You. But that shit ain’t me. It sucks. In college musicians are eye ball deep in all our shortcomings in technique, artistry, professionalism, and overall just “suckiness”. It’s the point of getting an education. Get up close and personal with your weaknesses and make them stronger. So, you are absolutely and unavoidably uncomfortable and unsure of yourself the entire time. Yeah, there are some victories that make you feel like a badass, you drink some of your Kool Aid and then, BAM; 45 seconds later you’re slammed back down to reality of how far you have left to go. So, it sounds like I would be perfectly prepared for this awesome sauce overly romanticized “healing journey” of lifetime movie status. Right? WRONG.
You have control when it’s your education. Just practice more. Read an inspiring autobiography that helps you focus, or start taking beta blockers to help with performance anxiety, or literally anything positive and proactive to make you stronger. You’re always in the driver seat as a musician, even when you’re frustrated. We know how to practice more. We know how to dive deeper. We know how to refine our process. We don’t know and are painfully unprepared for the moment when all our control is taken away. INJURY. We are not prepared or counseled on navigating the discomfort, fear, and mistrust that accompanies healing an injury. And what happens when the injury is compounded all over your body and your brain. And your soul. This uncomfortable place where there is nothing you can do to control the outcome, when you must trust so many others around you because you have no idea how to fix what needs to be fixed, and then learning to trust your decisions when you’re spiraling and holding off the insanity that comes from your inability to control anything anymore. Ah yes, healing…. not peaceful at all, is it? In actuality, it is the literal growing pains of our youth. Bone stretching and aching to catch up with our chemicals, and our chemicals pulsing and surging to force those bones into submission through compulsion. That is healing. Growing and healing are UNPLEASANT.
As much of a blessing it was to heal physically extremely fast, it was very disconcerting to look normal, for everyone to compliment you on how well you look, and some ways physically feel, but yet not be…right. The idea of being blessed was a challenge too, and also the challenge to be overtly grateful. That sounds crazy, but it was very real for me to be very intellectually grateful, intellectually aware of how lucky I was to be alive, loved by so many, and cared for in so many ways. But, I couldn’t FEEL it. In actuality, I couldn’t really feel much of anything. This was part of the concussion and subsequent brain trauma.
My chemicals were wrecked. For much of the summer while I was waiting for the verdict on my career and thus the future of my soul, (no exaggeration) I had severe trouble sleeping more than a few hours at a time, having visceral feelings of any kind, and connecting with others. My sleep was plagued with violent nightmares. Nothing was regarding the accident and still have no memory of anything past going to sleep the night before. I can recount a dream in particular that still haunts me. I had to watch one of my beloved pups being hit by a car. And trigger warning – it wasn’t just being hit. I saw them viscerally torn apart in slow motion and it kept replaying over and over. It was one of those dreams that you feel stays on repeat the whole night. Every time you close your eyes, it is the same. It would happen sometimes when I was awake as well. It was possible the violence in the nightmares was my subconscious working out what it won’t allow me to remember, what my body was still holding on to, and an alarm to the erratic chemistry going on in my brain.
In terms of sleep, I consulted with my doctor and developed a sleep protocol. This was a very specific diagnosis and treatment plan for me so any medications I share are not meant to be applied arbitrarily. (Please always communicate with your doctor or therapist). Taking 10-20 milligrams of propranolol (my beta blocker) and magnesium, was something she recommended with lavender and chamomile tea daily before sleeping. Reading something completely different than my reality was also helpful in putting myself in a different mental state before nodding off to dream land. I took advantage of naps and sleep whenever I could without judgment until my night time sleep stabilized. Part of it was just accepting what my brain was doing and why it needed to manifest those nightmares. So, with each nightmare I again felt like I was moving forward. Each nightmare was an active step further along the process to recovery and one less nightmare for the future. The less I dreaded them and the more I found acceptance, my consciousness shifted and they began to dwindle.
But the daytime? A whole other set of deep challenges in the shit show I like to call healing. In fact, I really feel it more accurately describes what that process feels like for me. And yes, that is present tense. Because 4 years later, the healing is still ongoing. My inability to feel was surreal. It is an odd thing to feel as if you’re watching yourself in your own life as if you were a ghost. I could recognize I was doing things I enjoyed but couldn’t actually take that feeling into my body and feel as if it was real. To exist without emotional connection and sensation is incredibly hard to describe and incredibly lonely to experience. I found myself not wanting to socialize or be around even my closest friends because I couldn’t match their energy, reactions, or emotional engagement in any way. I couldn’t help but feel pressured to and felt guilty and even more uncomfortable that I couldn’t.
Part of the solution, was accepting there wasn’t one. I know that sounds like bullshit. But to be more specific, I had to accept I wasn’t the one with the solution; that I wasn’t SUPPOSED to be feeling or experiencing anything other than what I was. I had to tell the people I loved what my limitations were, and why I felt like I needed to pull away. I put myself in situations where I wasn’t the focus so I could absorb the experience rather than engaging in it, i.e.…. local concerts, movies, group dinners, shopping trips, outdoor activities, etc.…. I could do intimate exchanges with close friends because they accepted where I was. When I was presented with a situation that shifted focus toward me, I found ways to shift it back. “Oh my gosh, how are you? How are you feeling? Is everything healed? What’s happening with everything?” response….
“Much better but complicated. What’s going on with you? It’s been forever!”
It gave me the strength to handle the exchanges that made me uncomfortable so much more. And again…. it’s a wonderful thing for people to ask how you are. Showing me they cared and were happy for my recovery was always so supportive and beautiful.
But, if I’m honest, I frequently hated it. It made me angry. My limitations made me furious. Talking about it made me want to punch things. And then I felt incredibly guilty for having that very visceral flush of feeling. Especially because it was the only emotion my body would actually let me experience. This made me want to retreat. I just didn’t have the skills and resources within myself to outwardly reciprocate or engage. I had to let go of the guilt and be open with those closest to me. It set me free in a lot of ways.
As I promised, this blog, this place we come to for connection and affirmation in all our shit, will be an invitation through my experience. The challenge of that experience was and continues to be about trusting myself, owning my own experience, and not apologizing for it. I’m hoping that by sharing my “shit show” with all of you, by validating my own you may feel more able to validate your own. What is holding you back? Is there space you can give yourself to help set you free, to let your healing be truly yours? Excuse me…. let your shit show be yours.
So much more to talk about. Until next time friends, be well.