“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” – Martin Mull
Music has always been with me.
As a child, I would scour through my parents’ record collection and lay out the albums on the floor like shingles. Over-sized headphones cut out noise as I delved into the worlds of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, Lou Rawls, The Doobie Brothers and Queen. I absorbed everything—the random facts on the linear notes, the scratches on the vinyl, the soaring crescendos and the cover art. When I was ensconced in the music, nothing else mattered.
In my teen years, I continued to explore all genres, seeking to continually feed my hungry soul. Classical, jazz, blues, rock, death metal, gangsta rap, punk—all of these held a special place in my ever-eager musical heart. I devoured everything in sight. I played the flute in school at a high level, and was planning to go to the Royal Conservatory to study composition. I also played the bass and guitar (very poorly, I may add), attempted to play in bands, and dreamed of living a life surrounded by treble clefs and robust chord changes.
It all came down with a cymbal-crashing end.
Drinking and Not-Drinking Music…
I would love to blame it on my drinking, something I had started at 15 years old, but my dream ended when I found out I was missing many critical credits to enter music college. I eventually sold all my bass guitars and pedals and pretty much anything to do with my brief foray into the world of music. I ripped down the Metallica and Wynton Marsalis posters off my bedroom walls, but my devotion to music never really waned. Even after I realized I would not be creating it.
Music has always been the soundtrack to my life, in tune and in time with my heart. As my alcoholism deepened and took root, music reflected my fractured, remote spirit. At the same time, music was the only emotional lifeline I had. Detached from my own soul, music was the only live wire in my deadened emotional state. It amplified what little was there, and spoke for me when I couldn’t find the words myself.
I marked my life through the albums I played over and over again, through the songs I listened to morosely and repeatedly – mind fogged by too much wine or vodka. I can still pinpoint the valleys of my life through title tracks and intro bass lines. I cradled choruses when they touched me and hung my hat on angry lyrics and torrid snare drum snaps. Music was, and still is, a barometer of where I stand in the world. I am not alone in this, of course. We all carry our own soundtrack.
For many alcoholics and addicts, music often carries additional weight. We had our drinking/using anthems, our hungover songs, our sorrowful tunes, our spiteful tracks, and our I-don’t-know-what-I’m-feeling ballads. There are the songs that we draped over the hair shirts of our emotions. There are the “f*ck it” songs, we blared long into the night and drowned out the noise of our minds. And there are the songs that whispered to our spirits, the ones that spoke “The Truth”, that touched us in the place where we knew our lives were off the rails.
Solace in the Mood…
I always found solace in the mood of a song, rather than nesting in the lyrics. But for so many alcoholics and addicts, lyrics spoke for words unspoken, for emotions short-circuited by pain or neglect. It was interesting to listen to some of my drinking songs, stone cold sober. I also found myself purposely avoiding certain songs because they held a place that I no longer wanted or needed. But over the years I have re-connected with songs, and to my astonishment, found new and deeper meanings to them. Sometimes the songs are just simple reminders, but they touch me in a different way now that I am in recovery. In my own personal growth, I find that I am attracted to parts of a song I glossed over the first time.
I know some people in recovery who fear they may pick up again after hearing a certain song—they fear being “triggered”. I don’t believe in triggers per se, but I understand associations. For years, I couldn’t cook at home without alcohol being nearby. One of my greatest challenges in my very early sobriety was fixing myself a meal without having my usual numbing agent in hand. Eventually I was able to create new associations and it was no longer an issue. I feel that the same thing can be done with the songs we carried in our back pockets like special charms.
Music is forgiving—it bends, nestles in and around us, locks into our souls like nothing else does – a reflection of where I am now: accepting, content, grateful and seeing through the eyes of love rather than fear and anger. Oh sure I still love my Public Enemy and Slayer, but I don’t connect with the anger like I used to. I listen for different messages, and I can thrash out on insane, pile-driving tempos. Recovery still binds me to music, but through divergent avenues.
I can still be overwhelmed by a song, but now I sit with those emotions and know I am okay. I know I won’t be swept away from myself. I can listen to the darkest lyrics and know that the songwriter was only seeing through a phase of their lives, that those moments didn’t define their lives. Just as my life is not defined by the darkness of my alcoholism. My recovery is the same—I can lie momentarily in the darkness of a Morrissey tune, then glide into a rhapsodic “Hallelujah” chorus that leaves me floating for hours. I am transported more easily by certain songs than I ever was when I was drunk, because I see the authenticity and emotion in them more honestly, without the hysterics brought on by alcohol.
I know that as I move through the phases of life and my recovery, music will always hold a special place for me. It will remain to reflect how I see the world and myself. It will remind me that no matter what kind of day I have, I can always return to the present, breathe and just enjoy the sounds that bring my feet to the ground and my spirit soaring.
Music will always be with me.