Finding Normal: Balancing a Music Therapy Internship and being a COVID Sanitation Worker
by Ali Quarles, MTI
You may be asking how one can manage working and doing an internship at the same time, and I could give you hundreds of articles of interns who have done it. It’s common amongst interns to have to finance their expenses. What I haven’t found is the experience I am currently going through: doing an internship and working as an essential worker during the COVID-19 outbreak.
I hope by sharing my story, others in this situation will start to tell their own experiences that no generation of music therapy interns have ever had to do before: working during a pandemic.
Music therapy developed almost 40 years after the last global pandemic, H1N1 in the 1910’s, and the world has not experienced a major outbreak since. Though parallels can be drawn from COVID-19 to the HIV outbreak in the 1980’s or to the Ebola outbreak in 2013, COVID-19 is the first pandemic in 100 years that has kept people across the planet into lockdown in their own homes.
This is the first time in American music therapy history that supervisors, interns, and clients can’t see each other in person. How can the music therapy community manage without that in-person therapeutic relationship they develop with the clients’? How could supervision continue if there were no sessions for interns to take part in? Lastly, how was the intern who had barely saved up enough money to get through the usual 6-month internship supposed to afford the extra time they needed to get the 1200 hours to complete their internship?
So Here We Begin
All those questions I just asked you I asked myself too. I was on Month 3 of my internship when news broke out about COVID-19 and quarantine orders. Overnight, ¾ of my household lost their jobs or barely was working due to hours being cut. My caseload disappeared instantaneously, and I knew what I had to do. My supervisors would continue to assign us assignments online while I got my old job back at the grocery store.
I was hired as an emergency sanitation worker and became a COVID-19 screener for all the employees in my store. My uniform started out as a simple mask and quickly evolved into almost a medical-grade outfit. I worked those first three weeks of the pandemic, and it changed not only my view on people but my own view on life.
I saw the elderly coming in with grocery bags on their hands because they couldn’t find gloves. I saw mothers desperately looking for hand soap for their children. It was quite heartbreaking to watch. But through the heartbreak, I formed a new sense of compassion for people and I saw hope for our future. All I could do was give positive interactions and try to smile through the barriers put between us. As for the workload, It seemed manageable for the moment, being able to work the nights and do assignments in the days. Finally, Heart and Harmony got the news!
About a month after I started my job at the grocery store, Heart and Harmony received approval to provide telehealth to clients on Texas Medicaid waivers. Emails bombarded my phone about the excitement to start seeing clients again. Just like that, I had a caseload back on my agenda.
I shared that happiness with my supervisors, but I held that fear of me being overloaded close to me. I did what I needed to do. I communicated to both my internship supervisors and my work managers that I fully intended to continue working, but I would also be continuing my internship. A compromise was made that I would have two days a week off for sessions, supervision, assignments, and any other intern related things.
When this arrangement started, I couldn’t keep up. The perfection I wanted wasn’t showing to my managers or my supervisors. I couldn’t please everyone and I became my own worst critic. That’s when it hit me: I knew that my supervisors didn’t want perfection. All they wanted was to see me make progress and succeed.
So that’s it?
It would be too simple if that was the end of it all. I could tell you everything has gotten better since that realization, but that would be a lie.
What I can tell you is I found my new normal. 5 days a week I suit up in my medical grade mask and protect my community while the other 2 days a week I’m in my own bedroom doing my internship. I live on that compassion I’ve found working while doing an internship. I have always had compassion, but this experience has made it grow more. I found better time management skills, better communication skills, and I am actively working on my self-care skills.
I tell my clients this and I am going to take a sip of my own advice: you are your own biggest advocate and your feelings are valid. My story is far from unique, and I hope this keeps the conversation about this topic going.
To the 2020 interns: we are strong and these circumstances will make us grow not only as music therapists, but as people. We will make it through.