Sometimes, I overhear comments that hit deep, and remind me of stories that needs telling:
“I like the music too but my heart doesn’t hear in song.” –Ra Avis
When I was little, we had an amazing sound system in our living room, with dual four-foot high speakers. Our parents never let us use them.
One night, mom and dad were invited to a fancy dinner, which was to be held about half an hour’s drive away. They didn’t get many evening away from the kids, so they accepted. I was to be left in the care of my two older brothers.
Both brothers were interested in music, and had new a love for Metallica and Nirvana. The best speakers available to us were low-quality, second-hand things that didn’t have the fidelity to properly experience such nuanced music.
My parents left around sunset. When darkness set in, and my brothers were sure they had dominion over the house, they powered on the living room stereo and cranked up the volume knob. Music blasted out of its beautiful, four-foot high speakers till our windows shook.
I was playing with LEGO bricks, by myself, down the hall, in my room. My window rattled a bit extra, because it didn’t latch right. The noise startled me. I put my toys down, stood up, opened the door and walked to the living room. The bass made my rib cage hum.
With disdain in my voice, I asked, “Could you turn it down, please?” “No,” they responded, staring at me as if I wore my head on upside down. “Turn it down!” I demanded. They ignored me, looked away, and lost themselves in the beat.
I approached the stereo, angry about being dismissed, and hit the power button.
I started towards my room, but one of them stomped in behind me, and turned the stereo back on.
It was louder this time, as if in provocation.
I turned and confirmed the challenge in their eyes.
I went to silence the sound again, but this time they blocked me. We wrestled. It was sort of fun. I’m amazed at how temperamental my emotions were.
Against all odds, I wiggled past their grasping limbs, and got to the stereo on my belly. Unable to reach the control panel, I pulled on the power cable instead. It came free from the socket.
The music stopped, the silence broken only by the sound of our scuffle.
I smiled to myself, and then things got serious.
One of them picked me up, opened the door to our backyard, and shoved me out, hard. I hit the grass, but didn’t fall. I ran back and rammed both my hands into the door, right as it clicked shut. I tried the handle. They locked it. I slammed my palms onto the door and yelled. The stereo volume went up and their ability to hear me went down.
On the outside of the house, things were quieter; the thickness of the walls diminished the volume of the speakers.
It was night out, and I wasn’t dressed for it. The windows provided a glow that made it impossible for my eyes to properly adjust.
There was a gentle, cool breeze, but I didn’t appreciate it. My mind was entirely focused on the injustice of the situation…until I heard the coyotes.
Our house was in the middle of desert wilderness. The next closest house was too far away to see.
Coyotes are native to the area. They’re skittish during the day, but hunt in packs at night. Each weighs between 15 and 46 pounds, two of them could have easily taken me down without a fight. They weren’t scared of us, and occasionally left feces in our back yard…the yard I was currently standing in.
High-pitch staccato yips pierced through the bass of the song. A series of them sounded to my left. A moment later, I heard more to my right. A third echoed in the distance.
My perception of time became liquid, as the moments slowed down and then sped up. My mind narrowed to a point of clarity where nothing existed besides me, the predators, and a need to escape.
I ran to our side door.
I ran to the front door.
I heard the yipping again, and it was closer on all sides.
The coyotes were probably just curious, but as a child I assumed the worst.
My feet whipped through the grass and my hands rattled one doorknob after another. I was breathing hard and fast. I could still hear the low rumble of music leaking out from where my brothers were, but the real attention-grabbing noise was coming from me.
I tried the windows next, digging my little fingers in between the frames, and pulling. Nothing budged.
I kept trying. Half way around the house, I reached the window to my room.
I pulled on it.
I’d never been so thankful for that stupid misaligned latch. The glass pane swung outward with a little more effort, as its metal hinge-mechanism bent slightly out-of-place.
The music poured out.
I pushed the screen free from the frame and it crashed to the floor. No one heard it but me.
I jumped in and turned the window crank behind me to seal the opening. It closed, not all the way, but more than enough to keep the animals out.
I shut the bedroom door, so my brothers wouldn’t accidentally see me from the hall. I was afraid of being kicked back out to the coyotes.
I remembered the phone in my room. We hadn’t had it long. I don’t know how I got the number, or who I called, but I eventually reached our parents. I told them about the music, the fight and getting locked outside.
I asked them to come home.
I asked them to save me.
They said they couldn’t come. They’d parked in a small lot, and their car was trapped behind too many other cars to move. I’d be on my own until their event was over.
All I heard was they wouldn’t help.
I felt abandoned.
My parents said they loved me and then they hung up.
The tears came and didn’t stop. I sobbed and shuddered. Snot ran down my face. I flopped down on my bed and buried my head in a pillow, pulling the ends up over my ears.
The music continued.
I don’t know how long I laid there. A draft from the slightly ajar window reminded me of what was outside, to which I had been thrown. I wallowed in betrayal and abandonment.
Eventually, sleep found me. The four-foot high speakers never stopped their songs of dead hope.
I didn’t trust anyone in my family after that.
The next day, when I heard Nirvana playing quietly out of the second-hand speakers in another room, I was overwhelmed by anxiety, paranoia, and a feeling of helplessness. I ran to the other side of the house, shaking in terror, and covered my ears. I was experiencing my first panic attack.
Over the next decade, they became a regular part of my life. They were triggered by hearing alternative rock, grunge, death metal and any similar genre. If someone so much as turned on a radio, I became uncomfortable.
In high school, I joined the drama club. When we weren’t rehearsing or performing, the sound crew used the audio equipment at their discretion. I had a very talented and genuinely sweet friend on that sound crew, but she loved alternative rock more than anything else. She played it religiously on the loudspeakers, or maybe that’s just how I remember it.
We fought about it, a lot. I’d wait outside and focus on breathing, until she stopped paying attention. Then, I’d dart inside and turn the music off. She’d be upset when she found out, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I spent the minimum amount of time there as I could, even though I wanted to contribute so much more. After two years, I quit. I don’t blame anyone, I just couldn’t handle the anxiety. She’s still a good friend.
My panic attacks went unchanged like that until half-way through college. The worst of them finally stopped when I took a three-day, one-weekend course called The Landmark Forum.
My boss attended it before I did. He was a stressed-out entrepreneur, trying to make ends meet for his company of five people.
His girlfriend invited him to go, and grumpily, he went.
He returned a different person: generous, full of empathy and brimming with innovation.
A lot of my friends had attended motivational seminars before. They’d have life-changing revelations, which they’d forget a week later. This wasn’t that.
The following month, he tripled our company’s income, and showered us with emotional encouragement. I was in disbelief, but clients kept pouring in. When it didn’t let up, I asked if I could have time off, so I could take the course too. He said he’d pay for me to go.
I arrived at the center, early in the morning, for the next available session. The staff was suspiciously friendly, but professional. We met in a large conference room. One hundred and forty chairs faced a carpeted stage, all under fluorescent lights. On the stage was another microphone, a collapsible music stand supporting a heavy binder, a nonchalant man sitting in a director’s chair, and an impeccably-clean chalkboard on either side. A few more microphone stands were set up in the audience.
I sat in the back row, between two strangers, in a sea of sleepy-eyed people.
The man in the directors chair began speaking the moment his watch beeped the hour. His name was Roger Armstrong.
He told us there was a distinction between our interpretation of the personal-history and the physical things that actually happened. He said that our interpretation influences how we experience the present; An injury during childhood could lead to a phobia in adulthood. There is no way to change the past, he continued, but if we change our interpretation of it, it creates new possibilities for our future.
He asked us to pick a significant personal-event in our past, and to define our interpretation of it separately from physical event itself.
I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head, so I bounced ideas off my neighbors and eventually settled with the fight over the stereo.
I boiled down what happened to “I was locked out of my house, coyotes yipped, and my parents didn’t return when I asked.” I made it mean “I was betrayed, abandoned, and unable to trust anyone ever again.”
Roger asked us to set aside what happened, and to repeat our interpretations to ourselves until they lost significance. The exercise was similar to desensitizing myself to an ambient noise. He gave us half an hour. You’d know when someone had completed, because they’d start chuckling about how ridiculous their meanings were. No one needed extra time.
Roger then asked us to brainstorm new interpretations which other people might have developed given the same situation. We were encouraged to hold onto the ones that felt empowering.
I came up with, “My brothers were starved for more control over their lives, and loud music was an expression of that. They didn’t consider outside dangers, and would have been devastated if I was hurt. My parents loved me, but needed time to nurture their marriage, and coming home was out of their control.”
We repeated the new meaning in our head a few times. Roger suggested that we try on our new meaning as if it were a jacket, to see if it fit.
No one spoke, and he maintained the silence for a lot longer than I thought was reasonable. I didn’t really get what he meant. Our eyes were closed. I listened to my inner monologue, and got bored.
Then, I heard sobbing.
I looked up. A woman in the audience was actually sobbing. A lot of other people had wet eyes too.
Roger invited the sobbing woman to approach a microphone and share what had happened. Her voice struggled through spasmodic breaths.
She explained how she had held herself responsible for a terrible thing that had happened to her as a child, and that the change in meaning allowed her to let it go. She was able to love her parents again. I’m not at liberty to share the details of her story, but when she was done, half the audience was weeping.
The group’s empathetic tears turned into heaving sobs as people, one by one, got the emotional impact of their own new meanings. I was one of them.
We were all invited to form a line and share our story into the microphones. A lot of people went.
I was too shy.
However, I called my parents on the next break, crying joyfully into the phone. I told them about the fight over the music and what I made it mean. I told them about how my understanding of it changed and opened up new possibilities, like me trusting them again and experiencing their love. I said I wanted to rebuild our relationship as a family. We made a plan to do it. They accepted and shed more tears.
I called my brothers next, and they agreed too.
Some weeks later, I got in a friend’s car for a ride. We had a lot to discuss, so no one was paying attention to the stereo. Ten minutes into the trip, we hit a lull in the conversation, and my attention shifted.
Metallica, in its full glory, was rumbling through his speakers. It was the first time I’d heard it since I attended the Landmark Forum.
I glanced at the stereo display; it said it was playing from CD.
We’d been listening to heavy metal the whole time and I hadn’t even noticed. I tensed up, in anticipation of being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, but the panic never came.
Somehow, my reinterpretation of the past had removed those constraints from my life.
I haven’t had trouble listening to any genre since.
The quote at the beginning of this essay is something written during a Facebook Live video by my friend, Ra. It reminded me to tell this story and that although I’ve mostly overcome my fears, I’m left with an emotional void where an appreciation of music should be.
The panic attacks aren’t entirely gone; I occasionally get them when exposed to prolonged loud noises, but they’re far and few between. I realize it indicates I still have meanings to redefine and emotions to confront, but I look forward to doing so, and hope you join me for the ride.
Editing by TreeGoddess08.