Emma’s Story: How music therapy “helped me through this hard time”

New Relationships
My parents were separated when we were nine, and I was always very open to them being in relationships with other people. I wanted them to be happy of course. But after a few years my world was pretty much turned upside down. My mum found a partner very quickly. They seemed incredibly well suited for each other, and they seemed very happy together. He soon became a huge part of my brother’s and my life as well. We went on vacations together, spent time with his family, and I was perfectly happy with all of this. He fit into our family. He was very respectful of my dad, and never tried to pretend he was anything he wasn’t. He genuinely loved and cared about us, and we loved and cared about him too.


Crossed Boundaries
After about three years my mum bought a new house, and he moved in. Everything continued to go well. He was always very affectionate with me, and this never bothered me at the time. Eventually, after about three and a half years of his being a major part of our lives, he would ask me if I wanted massages. I never thought anything of it, and then one day I was getting out of the shower, and he stopped me in my tracks heading upstairs. Still with my towel around me, he asked me if I wanted a massage. I didn’t particularly, but I trusted him and I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I said yes. I lay down on the bed, and he ended up touching me very inappropriately everywhere on my body…and I mean everywhere. At the time, my only response was confusion. I didn’t understand. He was just giving me a massage right? A massage I didn’t even want… I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do, so after a while of lying there helplessly I just said I was done and walked out. That night I was thinking about it a lot, I was still very confused. I thought that he would never harm me in any way. And that night I still didn’t want to believe otherwise. “What he did wasn’t wrong was it?” I thought to myself. After that night he went out of town for about two months for work, so I just told myself I would forget about it by the time he got back, and it wasn’t important.

While he was gone everything was normal, I thought about other things and went on with my daily life. And when he got back we were all very happy to see him. I felt a little bit uncomfortable around him sometimes after that point for many months, but I covered it up completely both internally and externally. I covered up all of those strange feelings that I didn’t understand. I still wanted to believe he was perfect for my family. I almost felt embarrassed, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I just wanted to pretend it never happened.


Revealing The Truth
Then one night when I was with my dad, the discomfort was feeling particularly potent and I was having a really bad day. I was crying. I wasn’t only crying, I was screaming too. I was telling my dad everything that had been bothering me, and eventually I told him that I had been feeling uncomfortable around my mum’s boyfriend lately. He then got very concerned and asked, “But not… physically, right?” I didn’t know what to say. I tried to spit out certain phrases, but it was very hard, and all that came out were tears. My dad eventually dragged the truth out of me about the massage that night during the summer. This was about 5 months after the actual event. If it weren’t for my dad and our close relationship, I might not have ever said anything about it, or would have kept it in for much longer. I don’t think I really realized how wrong what had happened was until I actually spoke up about it. And if I didn’t, it could easily of happened again and again. It was really important that I told the truth. I should’ve done it much sooner. This was very hard for my family. I had so many different feelings about it. I knew at that point that I was never going to see my mum’s boyfriend ever again. Someone who had been a very prominent figure in my life for four years. I had so many mixed emotions about it. How could this person that I cared about so much, and trusted with my life, have done something so horrible? I had so many questions that I was never going to get answered by him.


The Immediate Aftermath
A couple days later, the police showed up at our door at 7am. I had to tell them everything that happened so they could file a report. It took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that my mum’s boyfriend could go to jail, and that he had committed a real crime. I also couldn’t imagine ruining the relationship that my mum was SO happily invested in. It broke my heart. Now I know that I was not ruining anything. In fact I was saving everything, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time. This was all very overwhelming for a thirteen year old girl like me, especially one who’d never really experienced any conflict before. It took my mum a little while to process all of this, and her boyfriend stayed in the house for a few weeks, which wasn’t easy for me. We were not allowed to go anywhere near her house for about six weeks, so our dad had full custody of us for this time. My mum would come over to my dad’s house often, but it was very hard to talk to her knowing that the man who caused all of this was still there with her. As much as my mum believed me and supported me, she also had a very hard time accepting what happened, and she was in denial, as a lot of parents are when this kind of thing happens. No parent wants to believe that anything like this could ever happen to their child. At the time I didn’t understand this. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by her. Like she chose him over me. Now of course I know that was never the case. It just took her a while to grasp and come to terms with what happened. I can’t imagine how she felt. I’ll never forget the day he admitted what happened to the police. He admitted that the massage became inappropriate in nature for him, which still gives me chills to think about. My mum’s feelings immediately switched, and he was forced to gather his stuff and leave the house immediately. I remember my mum telling me that she just sat on the stairs crying, saying “You broke my heart!” as he left. This made me cry, for her and for me.

For those first few weeks after I revealed what had happened I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I stomped a lot.  My family was all very supportive. My dad always told me that if I needed to scream, I should just scream, and if I needed to stomp, jump up and down, and cry, then so be it! I called these times my “upsets.” They pretty much consisted of a decent amount of time in which I could not control my actions or emotions at all. I would just scream and cry with sadness, and a lot of the time, fear. Even fear of things that didn’t exist. I would often end up curled up in a ball on the floor. As a kid growing up, every once in a while I would experience one of these upsets, but for a good few weeks after the truth came out about what happened, I was having them pretty much daily. These times were really scary for me, because I couldn’t help feeling like there was something wrong with me, or I was insane. My dad had to bear the brunt of every single one of these. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be able to explain how grateful I am for how he handled everything. I don’t know how he always dealt with them so calmly and lovingly. He was always right there by my side, and we just took it day by day.


The Stuart House
It was good to get my emotions out. And at that time I certainly had a lot of emotions I NEEDED to get out. My parents then found the Stuart House, an organization that provides therapy for children who have been subjected to abuse. I went every single week for almost a year. It was really nice to have someone there who could understand and recognize everything I was saying. I went through many ups and downs while I was there. For a while I felt quite sad. My therapist at the Stuart House, Julie, told me to draw and write about my feelings, so I did. One picture that was probably the most memorable to me that I drew is of me, sitting by myself in a giant tornado of scary and overwhelming thoughts. And that’s how I felt a lot of the time. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt completely crazy, like no one understood how I was feeling. I would leave my classes to go to the bathroom and just sit in the hallways. I had very little drive. I didn’t know what had happened, and frankly I was very scared. Very scared of the person I thought I was becoming, and everything around me. Suddenly talking about the future brought me to tears. I was scared of failing at life, being completely lost in the dark pit I was in forever. I didn’t know how to escape, and I found myself feeling very suffocated.


Musical Therapy
Music really helped me throughout this hard time. It was a way for me to connect to the lyrics, and feel absolutely any emotion completely freely. Two of the songs that made the most impact on me at that time were Cough Syrup, by Young the Giant, and Gravity, by Sara Bareilles. At the time, I really related to the theme in Cough Syrup of wanting to run away from life, and leave all of the cares in the world behind me. During that song, I did feel like I was escaping, and running away, just through a different form. Gravity was another very potent song that will always be very special to me. It talks about feeling tied up and trapped, and not being able to go on with life without being dragged down and suffocated. A very powerful lyric is, “Set me free, leave me be, I don’t want to fall another moment into your gravity.” This was expressing that desperation inside me to be left alone. Left alone from all the thoughts, scents, touches, memories, words, and more. Wanting to never spend another second worrying, crying, dwelling. The climax lyric of the song is, “One thing that I still know is you’re keeping me down.” During this point in the song, when I heard the words “keeping me down” I always stood up, very tall, every time I listened to it. I wanted to physically show my fight against these words, and prove to myself that I was not going to let this keep me down, and crush me, even if I felt that way. I needed to show myself that I could get past it.


It was always helpful for me to allow myself to feel whatever I was feeling. Because let’s face it, you can’t force your feelings away! You can push them down, and kick them under the rug, but that’s no way to live life. Anything you feel is justified by something, and even if you have no idea what that justification is, you still can’t help what you feel. So go ahead and feel it. That’s what I did. I allowed myself to fully feel whatever I wanted to. I’m not saying it was pleasant, because most of the time it surely wasn’t. But after a while I learned that sometimes it’s okay to feel completely crazy. That doesn’t mean you are! Some parts of life ARE completely crazy. Like this one was for me. As I coped with everything that was going on  around me I just allowed myself to get through every step and stage of the process, and every feeling I needed to feel.


My Mothers Response
At this time I was still in the full whirlwind of everything going on, but one thing I noticed was that I felt like I never saw my mum get really angry about what happened to me. Part of me really wanted to see how furious she was, and how much she hated him, but she wouldn’t show it. Eventually my mum’s ex-boyfriend’s court resolution was decided, and all of a sudden she became very angry.  She talked about how he deserved so much worse, and wished that he suffered more. When she said these things it was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. I finally saw what I needed to see, and knew that she hated him. I got that reassurance that I needed and finally felt like my mum and I were a team. Now my mum’s and my relationship is so much more special than it was before. She is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met, and even though it took her a little while to figure out how to handle things at first, she always gave me nothing but unconditional love. For that, she is my hero.


The Clothesline Project
At the Stuart House, I continued to let out all my emotions, fears, anger, etc. And then the UCLA Clothesline project came along. The Clothesline project is an event that UCLA does every year, where people who have been abused decorate a shirt with whatever they want to, relating to their abuse. They can express themselves with writing, poetry, pictures, quotes; everything you could imagine. They are then put up on clotheslines on the campus to share with the world! I decorated my shirt, mostly with lots of angry, sad, and scared statements. I found this to be a very cathartic project. Going to the clothesline project at UCLA was one of the most memorable experiences throughout my journey. I walked around the campus, reading other people’s stories, some very similar to mine, and some very different. But most of the underlying feelings were the same. It was both very reassuring to see these people feeling the same way as me, but also very upsetting, seeing that SO many other young women and girls are being put through this every single day. This really struck a big chord in me and for a while I felt all of these sad and fearful emotions very strongly. But I’m very glad I felt them, because it helped me grow, and the more I felt these emotions, the easier it was for me to heal. I felt so betrayed, furious, scared, and powerless, and the more I let out these feelings everyday, the less power they had over me in my daily life.


Leaving The Stuart House
When fall came along I knew that my time at the Stuart House was coming to an end before Thanksgiving. This prospect was very overwhelming to me. Julie had taught me so much; the idea of not going back was scary. The Stuart House was like a big family. I remember doing a lot of art. Some days I would be sitting on my phone, and the volunteers there would ask me if I wanted to do arts and crafts. A lot of the time I said no. They won’t help anything! I’d rather just sit here and mope. I thought these silly thoughts to myself in my head, but eventually I would just give in and say yes, and every time I did, I never wanted to leave. There was something very grounding about doing arts and crafts there. I could just be completely unselfconscious. I never had to worry about being judged by anybody. And the arts and crafts always made me smile.

When my time came around to go, I was very sad, but I also knew that it was time. I had evolved so much with Julie throughout the course of that year there, and I knew other kids needed her more than I did. Something that made me feel better about leaving was that my parents made sure that I had a new therapist to switch to right after I left Julie. This made it less scary. Instead of going straight to a two wheel bike, it was like putting training wheels on first. The last day at Julie’s turned out to be very heartwarming and focused on the improvement I had made. Julie and I made a bracelet together. There were many colored beads, and each color stood for a word to do with my progress, like success, safety, courage, affection, etc. We each took turns picking a bead and explaining an experience, strength, or growth of mine that fit into one of those categories. I now have a bracelet that represents my entire journey there, and it is so incredibly special to me. No one would have a clue that this tiny little bracelet could be filled with so much. After I left the Stuart House, I felt a lot more stable. I now had learned so many tools and had many tricks up my sleeve to calm and control myself if any bad memories or thoughts were triggered.


The Snow Globe
Something very important that I always remember is a snow globe analogy that Julie made for me. At the beginning of my experience, when the revelation of what happened had just been made, everything was all shaken up and all sorts of feelings were everywhere, like all the snow would be when you shake a snow globe. But as time goes on all of the snow slowly settles to the bottom of the globe. The feelings are still there, and still a part of you, but they aren’t in your daily thoughts. Then every once in a while something may happen, or a memory may cause the snow globe to get all shaken up again. But that’s okay. Each time everything gets shaken up, it becomes easier to slowly let the snow calm down to the bottom again. I kept that in mind as I left the Stuart House, knowing that it was okay to still get upset.


Healing/A New Me
Moving on didn’t turn out to be as difficult as I thought it would be. I met my current therapist Talia. But before I continue, I just want to clear a few things up. A lot of teenagers think that going to a therapist is a bad thing, and means that you have “problems” or are crazy. And I want to make absolutely clear that there is NOTHING wrong with talking to someone about things that make you sad, angry, or even happy! There’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of “you” time, just to talk about you, in a space where you can freely talk about anything you please! It doesn’t mean you’re not normal. For me, it’s very comforting and confidence boosting talking to Talia. I really connect with her and feel comfortable around her. Though it’s incredibly important to like the person you’re talking to, because if you don’t then what’s the point? It’s okay to try a couple different people and see who you like the best. Just make sure you find the right person for you! Someone who you feel comfortable around, and who makes you feel good. At first it was very different for me, because unlike the Stuart House it wasn’t all based on the abuse I had gone through. We started out by talking a lot about self-confidence. She’s been helping me focus much more on the positive qualities that I like about myself, rather than the negative ones. I’ve now realized that other people may not even notice the things I don’t like about myself.


Helpful Techniques
There are so many things I can do now that help me when I start to feel scared or sad. I try to live my life more day by day, without worrying so much about the things that are coming. As much as life can get more stressful and difficult as we grow up, I’m trying to think more about the excitement and good things that come along with it too. Being present-focused has really helped me stop worrying so much about my future. And now I can take little steps everyday. A couple months ago I was feeling really overwhelmed and sad, and I didn’t quite know why. As I was falling asleep I knew I really needed to cry. I decided to listen to a song and give myself those few minutes to just scream and cry everything out. Afterwards, when the song ended, I washed my face and took some deep breaths. Then in my head I thought of all of the great qualities that I have and the things I like about myself. This made me feel so much better, and believe it or not even made me cry happy tears. This process was really helpful for me. I also try to do a lot of art when I don’t feel that well. I’ll often draw something pretty, that makes me feel pretty. Or I’ll write a list of qualities I like about myself. It’s so important to give yourself love. There’s no one else out there like you, and you are special.


Where I Am Now
A while back, I used to imagine, almost daily, my mum’s ex-boyfriend walking into my school, or him finding me while I’m with my friends. I used to imagine this scenario in every way possible–him being angry, wanting to hurt me, wanting to try and fix things, and what I would do. At the time, this was quite traumatic for me to think about. I would get very shaky and afraid at the thought of it. I didn’t know what I would do if it ever happened, or how anyone would respond around me. A part of me wanted it to happen, so I could see how I would react. I wanted to know what I would say to him.

Now, I still often play these scenarios in my head, though it’s totally different. The power that they had over me changed. It doesn’t ever affect me any more. He does not hurt me any more. He does not keep me down any more. This does not keep me down any more. I’ve realized how much I’ve changed and how strong I am now. I’ve realized how many people around me care about me and how much safety there is everywhere around me. I am so lucky to have all of the wonderful friends and family that I have in my life. And I think it is just as important to realize that THEY are also very lucky to have ME in their lives.

There are so many beautiful people out there in the world, I’ve seen it and I know it! Instead of being sad about the initial experience that occurred, I have gotten to a place where it makes me so incredibly happy to think about how much stronger and more confident I am. Here I am now, and I stand SO tall.