A Journey Through Music and Recovery From Addiction

By Matthew Greenwald 05/18/15

The Fix's music writer Matthew Greenwald on how music helped his recovery.


Fortunately or unfortunately, I have been in-and-out of recovery since the mid-2000s, both in detox and full-time residential programs. As a part-time musician, any involvement in music during the process has been a godsend on any level that I participated. 

My earliest experiences were going in-and-out of a local detox, doing the old "spin-dry" method (repeated two-week treatments every few months). The method never worked, I hasten to add, but it may have kept me alive until I was really ready to get clean. I did, however, manage to build a friendship with one of the counselors, who had been a professional musician in his past life. He somehow knew what I needed. On all of my visits, he managed to wrangle me a guitar to play (naturally, any I owned were in the pawn shop). It did more than pass the time. I found that I was able to express the angst I was going through in an honest, mostly non-verbal level. Process groups, as well as therapy, are keystones in treatment. However, to make a dramatic shift and allow an entirely other part of my brain and nervous system to participate in my recovery—in a wholly abstract way—was dramatic and life affirming.

I was very fortunate that the first real residential program I attended had a bonafide music department. The facility was faith-based, and presented services with music twice over the weekend, as well as having a couple of weekly music-related process groups. Thankfully, I also had a counselor who made sure that I kept up with my 12-step meeting schedule and standard treatment requirements; I would later learn the importance of this. But it was the music in recovery program that kept me engaged. I became an accountable, active member of a community. The overall effect of teamwork, from the sound engineers to production assistants and beyond, helped me become a part of the community—this galvanized my recovery in ways I never thought possible. 

Ours was a highly-active program, which provided music for religious services twice a week, music-based process groups, songwriting sessions, recording and engineering workshops, as well as instrumental and vocal instruction. I was an intern in the department, and was involved in most of the aspects mentioned.

Our Saturday morning services were the liveliest of all. It was essentially for residents-only, and was to a large degree more raucous than Friday evening’s service. The music was mostly rock and blues-based. I can give you a blow-by-blow account of how I was able to see the power of music affect one resident in a dramatic way...

A new resident had just entered the facility. She was from Canada, was new to the U.S., and new to recovery. She had just come off of a lengthy run with speed, and definitely needed some time to heal. During her first week, understandably, she was extremely quiet and guarded. The treatment center, which was, to say the least, unorthodox, clearly overwhelmed her. If that wasn’t enough, this near-rock show of a Saturday service was not only "out-of-the-box," but was verging on out of control. The residents were mostly yelling the lyrics of the prayers, and dancing on their chairs and in the aisles. This was a weekly occurrence. Watching her from the stage, I could see she was familiar with some of the prayers, and making a highly-self-conscious attempt at participating, but her sense of apprehension was more than apparent.

A couple of weeks later I was playing at another Saturday service; I hadn’t seen too much of this girl during the intervening period. The congregation and band were rocking pretty hard as usual. I thought about her, and was scanning the seats to see if she was still in the house. I really couldn’t spot her. My problem was that I had been looking for someone sitting down. A few minutes later, I saw her standing on a chair, fist-in-the-air, singing her little heart out.

I spoke to her afterwards and she commented on the fact that it was the music and sense of community that got her out of her shell, participating in her recovery and into action. Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t that the music was brilliant or executed with any real precision, in fact, the band often had the delicacy and refinement of a mule kicking down a barn door (not that that’s a bad thing). It was the sheer power of music being performed by, and for people, that moved her. She confided that it was this type of emotional catharsis that helped her get through the week.

Treatment isn’t easy; it’s not supposed to be. You’re constantly bringing up emotional baggage and dealing with buried resentments and insecurities in what seems to be endless process groups and therapy sessions. But the (mostly) non-verbal level of emotional transference that music provides can be a welcome, necessary and effective tool in the entire recovery process—especially for those in the early stages. 

As much as I enjoyed and valued the above-mentioned aspects of the program, it was in the area of working with newer residents that was the most beneficial to my overall recovery. Guiding people through the process, opening up doors to recovery, and being a true mentor were things I never thought I’d do. At this stage of the game, in my third year of sobriety, helping others has become a surprising cornerstone in my program, and remains a tool I can keep and need to use to this very day. It’s all about giving freely what I have found. Of course, this is talked about everywhere in 12-step programs, and for good reason. To relate it and put it into action in conjunction with my own artistic passion is more than just fortunate: it’s a blessing.

Matthew Greenwald is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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