Music, My Joy and Savior: Neither a Mother Nor Death Can Destroy the Power of Music

Photo of counselor Cat Saunders, who says "music is my savior"

“Life without music would be a mistake.”  —Friedrich Nietszche

By Cat Saunders

In May of 1976, at the age of 22, I’d just gotten out of Harborview Hospital in Seattle. It was my third trip to the psychiatric ward in a year. I was also anorexic and bulimic, and addicted to marijuana. I was not a happy camper.

I’d been living on my own since leaving home at 17 to attend college out of state. When my voyages into psychosis struck at 21, I was back in Seattle. I was halfway through the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Washington.

Following my third psychiatric hospitalization, I was too beat up to go back to school. My parents invited me to live with them for a year in Edmonds, where I grew up. Given the relationship between family systems and my various illnesses, it wasn’t easy to be back in my childhood home with my parents. I doubt if it was easy for them either.

The first three months I was there, I slept 20 hours a day. At some point, my parents and I realized that whatever was happening wasn’t going to shift without help. I remembered a psychiatrist I’d met in the hospital who seemed smarter than most, so I called him.

He was the first to correctly diagnose my illness as manic-depression, which was not well-known in the mid-1970s like it is now. Diagnostic labels can be destructive when they’re used to stigmatize people. But they can be a godsend when used with compassion as a tool to identify a condition so it can be properly treated.

In my case, the psychiatrist prescribed powerful antidepressants for several months. He also started me on lithium to keep my mood swings within normal range. After months of treatment, I was functional enough to work again. I took some time out from college to regroup.

Toward the end of that year with my folks, I was hanging out in my room one night after work. I was listening to a recording of Cat Stevens’ music, which I’d bought for $7 with money from my new job. During that difficult period, it was a tiny spot of joy for me to have music I loved. That recording was the only music I had.

My mother came in while I was listening and asked about it. When she heard that I’d purchased the music, she glared at me. She said I shouldn’t be spending money on something so frivolous when I had more important things to save for.

This was the same woman who told my doctors in the psych ward that she believed my mental illness was a punishment by God for being sexually promiscuous (which to her meant any sex outside of marriage).

In other words, her comment about my music purchase wasn’t the most shaming thing she’d ever said. Rather, it was the depth of my vulnerability at the time, coupled with the underlying message of her comment, that made my heart bleed.

I was 40 before I could buy music for myself again.

Fortunately, I’ve had many loving friends along the way who knew about this wound and treated it tenderly. They gave me music and cheered enthusiastically when I bought music for myself. They knew what I’ve always secretly known—that music is a necessity, not a frivolity.

Before I go, let me tell you one more story about music. In 1992, I went to Esalen for a two-week advanced intensive in shamanism. The intensive was facilitated by two of my longtime shamans, Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerman. I knew the training included a journey past the point of death, and I really wanted to see what my soul would be doing next.

That journey was by far the most awesome and life-changing journey I’ve ever had. It wasn’t at all what I expected. For me, there was no tunnel of light, no life review, no saints or dead relatives waiting to greet me. Although I’m not ready to say publicly what happened on that journey, I will say it doesn’t involve another dance on earth.

After I got home from Esalen, I journeyed again to talk with my shamanic teachers (in nonordinary reality) about my death journey. I told them one thing troubled me about my after-death journey. That is, I felt deeply sad about the idea of never hearing any more music if I wasn’t going to be human again.

With a twinkle in their eyes, they looked at me tenderly and said, “You haven’t heard anything yet!”

This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (May 2004) and updated in June 2017.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).