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[ Personal Narratives ]

The Healing Power of Music in Recovery

It thrills me. It calms me. It energizes me. Whether I’m on the go or at home, it’s always there for me.

Music is my recovery. And my recovery is music.

Whether it’s Kurt Cobain wailing on his sky-blue Fender Mustang guitar in a crash of heavy distortion, or Conor Oberst, waxing philosophic with his trusty acoustic, music speaks to me loud and clear. It is my saving grace.

I drank alcoholically for the better part of four years. And I barely listened to music during that time.

At my estimation, I’ve seen well over 600 live concerts since my first one in 1993 at age 13, when I saw Bon Jovi on the Keep The Faith tour.

The majority of the shows I’ve seen are punk shows, but some highlights have included Weezer in 1994 in a small venue, when their debut Blue Album was new, The Flaming Lips on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Paul McCartney at Lollapalooza 2015, a concert that tops them all.

My love for music compelled me to pick up an electric guitar sophomore year of high school, when I was obsessed with Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music were the highlight of my week circa 1994.

My favorite song of all time is “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. Something about the bright chord structure and the drums and keyboards never fails to lift my mood.

It’s a song I discovered later in my rock ‘n’ roll education. I’d heard it before, but there was something different about hearing it on the dancefloor at a Britpop party I used to go to in New York. Loud and happy. And of course, with alcohol.

I didn’t start drinking until college. Like most students at Iowa State and every school, I would drink to excess, sometimes to the point of getting sick, but it wasn’t a major problem. I wasn’t drinking every day, and my habit didn’t interfere with my work as host of a weekly radio show and as editor of the entertainment section of the university newspaper.

After a string of post-college music-related jobs, I landed a gig as a producer for MTV News, where I interviewed and wrote about A-list bands, including Green Day and the Beastie Boys.

Around 2006, when I started getting drunk every day, my passion for music dwindled. I virtually stopped buying records or paying attention to the music scene at all. When I went to shows — which was now rare — I spent the whole concert waiting in line either for beer or the bathroom. I wasn’t enjoying the concert experience like I used to. I was listening to the music numb. That spine-tingling feeling I once had when listening to music was nowhere to be found.

I got laid off from MTV in 2007, when the economy tanked. Right after that, my relationship of five years ended. I had lived with my boyfriend, so I moved out and got a one-bedroom in Brooklyn, where I would isolate, drinking every day from 5PM well into the morning hours, only to wake up at two and start all over again. I wasn’t looking for jobs. I spent all of my severance on beer and wine.

After a year on my own in Brooklyn, I moved back to Chicago. My drinking had escalated to two six-packs or two bottles of wine every night. Music was non-existent in my life. Instead, I was drinking and listlessly watching copious amounts of MSNBC, .

In Chicago, I met a new boyfriend, a fellow alcoholic. We barely ever did anything besides go to bars and drink at home. We almost never had sex. After a night out drinking, I’d show up for plans with my family in the morning, reeking of alcohol. Plus, I had massive hangovers. I’m sure my appearance was pale and sickly.

“Just Like Heaven” no longer had the same effect on me. When I was drinking hardcore, the bright giddiness I once felt when listening to it was replaced with emptiness. A black hole.

It was clear I had a problem. My family staged an intervention in January of 2012, and after three sessions with an interventionist, I agreed to go to rehab. I only succumbed after my sister told me that I could never see my nephew again if I didn’t go.

My sober date is Feb. 6, 2012.

While in rehab, I started listening to music again. Voraciously. I made a mix of songs that speak to my recovery and handed out CDs to my rehab group. I bought a record player and started collecting vinyl, everything from ‘60s jazz to classic rock to indie rock to EDM.

Now that I’m back on the music wagon, I find that it helps with my moods. If I’m feeling depressed, I’ll throw on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. That album is as happy as it gets and always puts a smile on my face. If I’m feeling angry, a dose of Metallica will help me blow off some steam.

If I’m feeling pensive, Belle & Sebastian is just the ticket.

In addition to being a recovering addict, I also have bipolar disorder — a condition that causes me to have episodes of crippling depression and massive, over-the-top joy. I’ve been stable since 2008, but I have other side effects. When I’m in a loud, cramped space like a party, sometimes the partiers’ voices will linger in my head long after I’ve left, like a jumble of vocal sound. When that happens, I’ve found that listening to classical music drowns out the voices. Once again, music saves me.

I can’t believe I ever abandoned music — my one true passion in life. Drinking robbed me of that passion, and I will never let it happen again.

Now I go to concerts all the time. Going to see live music is like going to church for me. Music is my savior and my cross-addiction. It’s what I do instead of drinking. It’s my life.

Conor Bezane writes The Bipolar Addict, a blog about the dual diagnosis of manic depression and addiction. He is currently writing a book titled The Eccentrics: The Bipolar Psyche and the Addiction Connection, Drinks, Drugs, Delirium and Why Sober is the New Cool.