International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

A Few Good Notes: Blending Music and Poetry for Veterans

Posted 28 May 2013 in StressPoints by Harold Kudler, MD

Mary Rorro is a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans in the New Jersey Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare System. A professional violist, Dr. Rorro performs for her patients and has created a therapeutic music program entitled, A Few Good Notes, which she is working to disseminate nationally. She also writes poetry, which she employs as a complement to care. A Few Good Notes has been featured on WXQR, the former classical music station of the New York Times, WNYC radio, the Dr. Oz website and in the book Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine.1 Her poetry has been featured in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, the Journal of Poetry Therapy and on the website of the Education Center at the Wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.2 

In reflecting on her efforts to link the arts with the treatment of PTSD, Dr. Rorro writes:

Veterans' stories of trauma, grief and loss inspired me to write poetry meant to help patients while also serving as a way to honor them. Some poems reflect themes of PTSD which many patients share including intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks. Others relate to more specific trauma incidents. The patients' often poignant, sometimes frightening narratives were compelling and weighed on me. Poetry became a venue in which I could attempt to first process and then articulate the overwhelming emotions my patients experience. I began to share my poetry with patients in hopes of helping them connect and progress in treatment.

The poems succeeded in helping me engage my patients and stimulated discussion about their military history and experiences. It opened a new dialogue on aspects of their stories which they might never have touched upon during a standard medication management visit. The poetry drew out memories, some positive and some negative, which had not previously been disclosed. Their realization that others were embroiled in similar struggles and that they were not alone helped many patients feel safe enough to open up in therapy. The poetry resonated within them on a deep, humanistic level which significantly enhanced the therapeutic relationship. Some patients went on to bring me their own poetry and we processed its meaning together.

Dr. Rorro shares two of her poems with the readers of Traumatic StressPoints, which she offers with the following words of introduction:

A few patients have commented that their nightmares are so vivid and violent that they play like a movie in their head. That was the inspiration for, "My Movie: An Original Documentary," which describes the recurrent trauma dreams which haunt countless patients. I framed these as a horror movie in which traumatic memories are captured reel after reel, each shot is all consuming and the horror lingers even upon awakening.

My Movie: An Original Documentary

The same movie opens my dreams
   every night

No one would want to see the stars
   of this horror premiere
 
Where only I and my traumatic
   memories appear
 
Frightening images sear the screen
   if I close my eyes tight enough

Could I then delete
   all the scenes

Alas, the pictures and frame remain
   the same reel after reel

I wish my mind’s lens would have
  a blind man’s focus

To filter out dark demons and familiar ghosts
   instead, the camera of my eye

Captures each mad scene
   in vivid, startling detail

Even awake my harrowed mind
   cannot escape this relentless film

The poem "Uncle Jim" deals with the doomed effort to mask the psychological despair associated with PTSD through alcohol abuse.  The imagery of music fading into a pianissimo parallels the man diminishing through the ravaging effects of alcohol.

Uncle Jim

Sad voices used to
say Uncle James was
never the same
since he returned
from war
 
Yet can any man remain
unchanged
from whom he was
before
 
Something is wrong with Uncle
James
silhouetted
shadows said in hushed
tones
 
Indeed, Uncle James' quiet
demeanor
belied cacophony
in his mind
 
Caught in a constant
rewind
replaying
dissonant chords of war
 
He was too depleted to
repeat
discordant notes
of woe
 
Imperfect rhythm of his
quivering voice
faltering, fading
into pianissimo
 
Jim Beam was his only steady
confidant
and conductor
who offered a muting tonic
he so eagerly
swallowed
 
No one else would ever
hear his song
of grievous
sorrow
 
Which he muffled and drowned
with
his silent
partner
 
Who would always listen
and always
follow

Dr. Rorro concludes: Many patients have requested copies of my poems saying they should be shared with other veterans as well as with civilians so that they can understand what veterans have endured. Poetry, within my practice, serves as a rewarding and creative means of connecting with patients, learning from them and deepening the therapeutic bond. I have witnessed the powerful effects the Arts can hold in helping veterans in their journey toward healing.

1. L. Wong, R. Vargas (2012) Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine. Pegasus Books, New York, NY. 

2. https://vvmf.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/poems-to-remember/ Accessed December 9, 2012.