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L.A. O'Neil : Voices


On making a difference in the lives of others.

By L.A. O'Neil

Note: The following essay deals with sensitive subject matter (cutting). Proceed with care.

Sometimes, you just have to decide what's important in life. That sounds like it should be easy, doesn't it? In reality, though, deciding what's important forces you to look at yourself, the people around you, and how you spend the majority of your time. Just this morning, my husband looked at me and said, "You spend too much time at your computer. You need to get out." After I shot him the 'are you crazy?' look, I sat here and thought about it.

He's right.

That got me to thinking about how I make my living — I write and I teach music. Am I really making a difference in anybody's life? I mean a 'real' difference. Then I thought about one of my students — she's fifteen, incredibly intelligent and wants to sing more than anything. She tries, although I'm clear that her practicing isn't what it should be. Drugs, I think. None of that really matters, though — what really matters is what singing gives her. A sense of belonging? Getting recognized? I don't really know. What I do know is that she is in trouble. Not the kind of 'trouble' when I was growing up — you know, teenage pregnancy? No — she's in real trouble.

I'll call her Amy.

A couple of weeks ago, Amy walked into my studio and I could sense that something was horribly wrong. Without a word, she took her place on the couch and looked at me. Her face had a vacuous look; pinched, drawn and without life. I let her sit for a minute, and then asked, "Well?"

"I hear voices." What do you mean that you hear voices?

"They've been really bad today. I hear them in school." I let that sink in for a minute. Students tell me their feelings and I have to be very careful about how I respond.

Does your mom know? She nodded.

"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm in the bathroom — there's blood all over the sink." In the years that I've been teaching, I've learned that sometimes it's best to have a blank look on my face. Above all, I couldn't register any sort of alarm.

Blood from what?

"I cut myself."

Now I was concerned. Let me see your arms. There were scars, but not fresh. I've heard some stories in my day, but nothing like this. I asked if she were getting help, and she confirmed that she is seeing a psychologist . . . I'm thinking that might not be working out too well.

So I asked Amy if she were happy.

"Happiness isn't for me," she replied. "I think people are too happy, when they have no reason to be happy at all. I don't care if I'm happy — in fact, I don't care about anything at all." This was difficult for me to hear, because my husband calls me 'Pollyanna' and I'm one of the happiest people I know.

How sad that someone so young has such a jaded outlook on life.

I sat for a minute and it was clear I was thinking — my husband jokingly calls it a 'pained expression.' I wondered how much of what she told me was for effect and how much of it was true, but I had no way of knowing.

Let's sing! I jumped up and headed for the piano — it was a fantastic non sequitur!

The pain in her face was still there, but I thought I saw a flicker of emotion. I wasn't sure, though. Amy took her place beside me, standing to my right, and we worked on the song she wanted to sing for her theatre audition — it was lifeless and without emotion.

"Now sing like there's no one listening," I gently suggested. She looked at me and a couple of dance steps registered in her eyes. She began the first verse as she didn't care if anyone listened - then, something happened. Her voice became strong and the music began to feed her soul.

She did care. I could hear it in her voice.

One week later, Amy's mom called me to let me know that she wouldn't be at her lesson that week. She was a new inpatient at the mental hospital.

Finally. She realized she needed help.

And that she cared.

© 2011 L.A. O'Neil. All rights reserved.

Article written by L.A. O'Neill for April Jones, who first discovered green smoothies at the recommendation of a close friend and it has developed into a fun hobby teaching others how to get started. More »