Letting Go of Denial, One Lyric at a Time

By Kelly Burch 09/28/17

“Addicts have denial. We say ‘I’ll stop next week,’ but next week never comes, or ‘I’ll use less,’ but using less never happens.”

Woman passed out on ground in green
“I’m playing Russian Roulette, you know the higher I get, but I swear I got this all under control.”

Singer and songwriter Richie Supa has had a career that would make many music lovers envious. In addition to his four solo albums and stint on Broadway, Supa has written songs for musical superstars ranging from Bon Jovi to Pink and Aerosmith to Ozzy Osborne.

Now, however, the 73-year-old is using his musical talent for a project that is much more personal: crafting songs to help others achieve and maintain sobriety.

I Got This by Richie Supa

“After living most of my life in the music business I’m now applying what I’ve learned to give back,” said Supa, who has been sober for 27 years. He is now the creative director at Recovery Unplugged, a music-based drug and alcohol treatment program with campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Austin, Texas.

At Recovery Unplugged, Supa writes songs about addiction and recovery in order to help clients identify their emotions and experiences. The music video for his single I Got This was released this week in partnership with Face The Music, a foundation aimed at increasing awareness of addiction and recovery.

The lyrics and video show the hubris and denial of active addicts, something Supa knows well from his own days of using.

“I wrote this song because I used to hear addicts and alcoholics say all the time, ‘I got this,’” Supa explains. In fact, he remembers using the line to justify his continued use.

“I knew it was time to get help for many years but I didn’t know how to reach out,” he recalls. “Addicts have denial. We say ‘I’ll stop next week,’ but next week never comes, or ‘I’ll use less,’ but using less never happens.”

Supa’s experience with addiction began in the 1960s. Like many people in the music business at the time, he experimented with smoking pot, which began as a harmless release. However, over time he progressed to taking pills and using harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, which he says “brought me down.”

“My disease of addiction progressed as I kept climbing the ladder in the music industry as a musician and songwriter,” he says. “The hard part was that I wrote a lot of very successful songs high.”

He feared that getting clean could impact his success in the music industry.

“I kept telling myself it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could write songs without cocaine. It became part of the process.”

However, when he walked into his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting in 1988 he realized that his fears were unfounded.

“That was my disease talking. God gave me the gift of song writing, not the cocaine.”

Supa didn’t write a song during his first year of sobriety, but when he was ready, the creative flow returned. However, he said that many musicians and other creatives continue to use because they worry that they will not be as creative if they are sober.

“There is a direct correlation between getting high and the music business. Drugs and musicians have been linked for years, way back to the early jazz and blues days,” Supa says. “The tradition was passed down and drugs became synonymous with playing music and being creative. I got caught up in that persona like a lot of people have.”

That tradition is still alive and well but Supa, along with his co-founders, are trying to establish a new tradition, using music to help people connect with the experience of addiction and ground themselves in recovery.

“Addiction has a very cunning way of attacking the body and the spirit,” he says. “Music therapy repairs the damage that the drugs do.”

Supa has written more than 60 original songs that are used in therapy at Recovery Unplugged. Therapy sessions typically begin with a lyric, which clients are invited to relate to their own lives. He said that listening to music is a very non-threatening way for people with addiction to connect to the reality of their disease.

“They’re angry, mad, sad, defensive and ashamed, but when we play music that talks about this disease it’s a very nonthreatening approach,” Supa says. “It helps break that emotional cycle. When an addict sits down and identifies with a song talking about drugs they get a little insight into what triggers the addiction and what makes them walk down that really destructive path.”

When he is writing songs about addiction, Supa reaches back to his days of actively using and draws from experiences over decades of sobriety.

“I go into my own heart as a recovering addict and God allows me to take my feelings out of my heart and capture them and put them on paper. I tell the truth.”

The video for I Got This shows addicts struggling to go about their lives, but ultimately unable to overcome the consequences of their addiction. "I’m fine, I ain’t worried, I got this" is the refrain.

Another striking lyric: “I’m playing Russian Roulette, you know the higher I get, but I swear I got this all under control.”

Supa says that people using drugs, especially with potent opioids like fentanyl being found in supplies across the country, are really putting their life on the line each time they get high.

“Russian Roulette is when you put a needle in your arm,” he says. “It’s like spinning the chamber of a pistol with one bullet in it and not knowing where it stops. You pull the trigger.”

Denial keeps people using even when the stakes are so high.

“The disease says you’re living on the edge but it’s okay. You did it yesterday so you’re not going to fall today. But you’re playing with your life. One shot of bad dope and you’re dead. Addicts don’t think they’re going to die until they do.”

The incredible danger of opioids is part of the reason that Supa and his partners are committed to trying a new form of treatment.

“The type of treatment that they’re getting today is not working. The relapse rate is ridiculous,” he says. “We’re trying a whole different approach with music and our success rate is way higher.”

When clients leave Recovery Unplugged, they receive an MP3 player loaded with all the songs that helped them through recovery. With that they are able to easily tap into their tools of recovery anywhere, at any time.

Supa says that he realized in recovery how much his drug use had taken away from his experience with music.

“I learned to appreciate the power of music once I had the opportunity to put the drugs down,” he says. “When I got high on heroin I misplaced the gift of music that God gave me. I started to not get excited about the music, but I got excited about the drugs instead.”

Today, he hopes to teach people in early recovery how to use music to fuel their recovery and reconnect with their inner selves.

“Music is the language of our soul,” he says. “Once you get into an addict’s head the healing begins, and that’s what music does.”

Music also has profound physical effects on people, lowering their heart rates, releasing dopamine and improving mood, all of which helps in recovery.

“Music is a drug and we try to get them addicted to the drug of music to the point where it becomes medicine,” Supa says. “That stops an addict from using long enough so they can separate the disease from themselves, feel emotional again and connect with themselves.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.