Something significant came over me not long into my stay at The Refuge—A Healing Place this summer, where I sought residential treatment for my PTSD. I began listening to upbeat music again. Music that used to make me feel good, but that I came to find far too stimulating as I fell into a deep depression and my PTSD diagnosis went from severe to acute during the weeks and months leading up to entering more intensive treatment—after COVID-19 had reached the United States. I live alone save for my amazing dog and a gentle pair of doves, but the isolation of quarantine was too much for me. I plummeted. And those favorite songs turned into noise to me. So my playlist turned into prayerful songs that gave me hope for hope (which is different from actual hope) but also made me tear up. The music was slow. Some of it was sad. Particularly, Les Mis was sad.
At The Refuge, a friend reminded me that I loved Taylor Swift. I began to listen to her, and even sing along quietly when I was alone. And then I started thinking about the music that had made me happy in high school—some of it ridiculous yet fun (class of ’03 here), and some of it classic—songs that my big sister and I used to blast in her old manual car as we drove to and from school and all about town. She loved Tom Petty. She loved Cat Stevens. She taught me to love them, too.
When I revisited Cat Stevens, I was startled. In a memoir-writing class I had taken with Gotham Writers in Manhattan, the professor told us that music was a great way to bring us back deeply into memories, in detail and emotion. As someone who wrote my one published essay to an album of Lana del Rey, this made good sense to me.
And did Cat Stevens ever bring back memories! I was only looking for a boost; not for a journey back through my high school years. But the songs transported me. Stalling on the hill on the way home; taking the freeway to avoid that same hill; driving to the lake, which was our rural “beach;” and the old gold rush trails in the mountains—all with my sister, who was my best friend. We’d turn up the music and sing and sing. We played it loud even after we blew the speakers. In those moments, I felt free.
Free. I had been exposed to trauma from the time of my earliest memories, straight up to the present, chronic and severe—and I would experience, too, sexual trauma when I turned twenty. But before my twenties, I was already traumatized, although I hadn’t language for it at the time. Also during those years, I felt pangs of young love—unrequited, that is. I felt pressures to succeed in school, to go into the college of my parents’ choice. I was ashamed of my eating disorder and kicked off my anorexia at the tender age of sixteen. Then there was 9/11. Then my peers were off to Iraq. One of them died—my first kiss’s best friend. Another, the class clown, would show up at our high school reunion ten years later, incoherent in his incessant, disorganized speech; dirty, smelling of body odor; and begging everyone for wine. We shook our heads—he had been transformed, devastated by the war. What had happened to the young man of our adolescent years?
Ever on a quest to be stoic, tragedy all around me, I criticized my emotions and dismissed them as “teen angst,” even then.
Yet how could our adult sadness for our war-torn friend and our lost friend be less valid than our adolescent terror for all our friends going off to war not long after, one by one, they turned eighteen? How could the first love I ever experienced mean less than a date so fun and with such chemistry that I’m filled with hope for something meaningful today? And how could my trauma today mean more than it did when it began?
Listening to Cat Stevens’s Greatest Hits and Tea for the Tillerman there at The Refuge, and again now as I write this (just as the memoir instructor had suggested using music to take us back), from song to song I feel a different emotion, a strong emotion—emotions of the past, all present again. They feel real today, so mustn’t they have been valid then, too?
Wild World makes me think of singing with my sister in that old Ford. Can’t Keep It In reminds me of old hopes and my endless love of learning. Morning Has Broken brings back my love of nature and my birdwatching quests, nurtured from a very young age.
And then I stop, really stop, at Father and Son. I feel I might tear up. In this song, Stevens masterfully plays both parts of a father and a son, in alternating voices—one old, and one young.
Father: It’s not time to make a change. Just relax; take it easy. You’re still young; that’s your fault. There’s so much you have to know. Find a girl, settle down; if you want, you could marry. Look at me: I am old, but I’m happy. I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy to be calm when you’ve found something going on. But take your time; think a lot; think of everything you’ve got—for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
All the parental pressures of my teen years come crashing back to me. During my senior year, my mother and I argued daily, screaming over my decision to attend a university other than Brigham Young. My father dismayed that I wouldn’t find a good husband; my mother lamented that my decision was a poor reflection on her. These were my life decisions; and my mother and father did not accept them. I stood at a crossroads with zero support.
Son, in an octave higher: How can I try to explain? When I do he turns away again. It’s always been the same, same old story. From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now, there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away. I know, I have to go.
I’m younger now. There is a family crisis. My mother is raging. My siblings are disowned. My father wants me to live with him. Over and over I make the decision to live with him, to escape the chaos…yet over and over I am persuaded to stay. I remain surrounded by death.
The interlude makes me smile. Here’s where my big sister and I play the air guitar.
Then the father repeats himself, and I again hear the stern voice of my father, and my mother’s screaming—both so disappointed in who I am becoming.
Son: All the times that I’ve cried, keeping all the things I knew inside. It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it. If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know not me, now, there’s a way, and I know, I have to go away. I know I have to go.
Now I could be eleven, when my father first asks me to be his latchkey child; I could be fourteen, during the time my siblings are ostracized; I could be seventeen, preparing to leave for college. What I remember now is years and years of needing an escape, but never finding one.
Anorexia was an escape, somewhat. Later, alcohol. But nothing could erase my pain. Nothing could erase my traumas.
The emotional memories these songs fill me with—how could my present emotions mean more today than they did back then, simply because of my age?
My depression, anxiety, and disturbing nightmares were as real then as they are now. The PTSD I experience today because of experiences from years past means that those events were as traumatic then as they feel today.
Growing up is hard work. Learning who you are is hard work. Early romance is hard. Families are hard. And trauma is always hard.
Listening to his greatest hits today, Cat Stevens evokes so much in me. Maybe we shouldn’t dismiss what teens feel. Maybe they are already “living in the real world.” And we should listen to them.