Top 10 Songs About Relapses

By Paul Fuhr 03/31/17

In case I ever forget what it feels like, there are songs out there that recall not only the bleak backslide of a relapse, but also the triumph of tearing myself free from one.

Image: 
Florence + The Machine in Shake it Out
“It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back.” Photo Via

At my alcoholic worst, my life was a messy song draft: hastily scribbled lyrics on a bar napkin, unfinished thoughts, and placeholder words. Back then, that’s all my life really amounted to. I didn’t have the discipline to sit there for hours at a time, carefully crafting ideas or finishing anything that mattered. I’ve relapsed exactly once since getting sober—a black, guilt-ridden, stomach-lurching experience that I never want to go through again. I had enough searing panic and room-pacing anxiety to fill several lifetimes. And yet, that relapse defined my recovery. It put everything into context for me. I appreciated sobriety in all the same ways that Dorothy appreciated color when she arrived in Oz. Surviving a relapse made me better in all the ways that fractured bones heal stronger. And in case I ever forget what it feels like, there are songs out there that recall not only the bleak backslide of a relapse, but also the triumph of tearing myself free from one. Here are 10 tracks that remind me about going down that rabbit hole, then re-emerging stronger than before.


  1. “Entropy,” Grimes (feat. Bleachers)

An otherwise bouncy track from Canadian singer-songwriter Claire Boucher (who performs under the stage name Grimes) instantly recalls what it’s like to question what sobriety is all about while back in the throes of an addiction. “Did I even want it? Did I just assume how it had to be?” she asks, which echoes all the questions I had in those early, turbulent days of sobriety. When I first threw myself back into booze, all I did was figure out how much chaos and collapse I could get away with (“calculate the entropy/running out of energy”) while still appearing to be sober to everyone else. It was an exhausting exercise in futility that, like the song’s final lyrics, left me lonely.


  1. “Empty Bottles,” I Break Horses

A rousing, slow-building song that immediately reminds me of the first steps I took in my own sobriety. There’s a sense that the I Break Horses track is awakening to the idea of itself and that—yes, it can actually accomplish something it originally thought to be impossible. It’s a song that’s tentative and haunted by something, just as I was by my own relapse. And yet, by the track’s end, the character is as fully alive, engaged and inspired as I was when I put all my own empty bottles behind me.


  1. “Nitrous Gas,” Frightened Rabbit

By far the bleakest track on the list, it’s no surprise this group hails from the foreboding moors of Scotland. It’s the sound of newspaper-gray skies and surrender. Not only did Frightened Rabbit’s song arrive when I was living an unmanageable life of drinking and pretending to be sober, but it spoke directly to my own alcoholic self-loathing: “I’m just dying to be unhappy again.” This song reminds me that there’s always a part of my brain that desperately longs for desperation.


  1. “I’ll Believe in Anything,” Wolf Parade

What starts off as dissonant and chaotic, like a kid stabbing his fingers at a Casio keyboard, turns into a driving anthem about believing in any shred or scrap of hope out there. It’s exactly how I felt after my one and only relapse: I believed in anyone and anything that could help me “face the scary day” of a life lived without the crutch of alcohol. My first days following my relapse were as jumpy and scattered as the opening of this track, though I gradually gained as much confidence as this song delivers in its final, uplifting moments. Just like my recovery, its greatest strength is how it builds a strong melody out of an otherwise scattershot series of notes.


  1. “Landslide,” Fleetwood Mac

What’s become a musical staple from the 1970s—a stalwart single that’s been covered by everyone from The Smashing Pumpkins to The Dixie Chicks to the cast of Glee—is also a beautifully layered meditation on loss. The sobriety I’d put together after rehab—the “snow-covered hills” of the song—came crashing down in the landslide of going back to the bottle. And as “time makes you bolder,” I too came to understand that my sobriety is a fragile, delicate thing—all but guaranteed to come crashing down once again if I create the conditions for another landslide to happen.


  1. “Capsized,” Andrew Bird

Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird routinely crafts gorgeously layered, nuanced songs about heartbreaks, and this one isn’t any different: the main character exists in the shadow of a break-up and his life has become as capsized as a ship. And yet, this song also speaks to how I felt when I’d overturned my first stab at sobriety. It’s a deliberate yet breezy track about clambering out of the dark and paying attention to all the everyday occurrences (“another sunrise”) I previously ignored and took for granted.


  1. “Shake It Out,” Florence + The Machine

In my eyes, English indie band Florence + The Machine has the market cornered on rousing, dramatic songs about moving beyond chaos. In fact, this track perfectly captures everything I remember about my relapse, including the nagging sense of how “it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back.” When I started drinking again, I simply didn’t care about being sober or being drunk anymore. As flame-haired lead singer Florence Welch intones: “And I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t, so here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my road.” I was resigned to live in the “final mess [that] left me so empty” before deciding I could shake off the relapse as a blip on the radar.


  1. “Mess,” Ben Folds Five

Back when I was drinking, BFF’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was my least favorite. It was as inaccessible to me as a soundtrack to some unproduced play. That’s because when I was drinking, I wanted things to connect with me quickly and easily. Now, I see it as their most nuanced, ambitious record, with “Mess” serving as a gorgeous, airy ode to reconciling one’s ruined past and truly understanding “the mess I have made.” As my sponsor says, “There’s nothing alcohol can’t make worse” and that’s never truer than in this song. “But then things got complicated,” he says, “[and] my innocence has all but faded.” He also tries to shield “that part of me” from someone close, which is all I tried to do immediately following my relapse. The song, however, isn’t as uplifting as any of the others on the track—it lurks in a sad bubble of self-awareness. Folds’s main character, Messner, is aware he’s hurt people, but he’s also deliberately isolating himself to ensure it never happens again. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten in early sobriety—especially in the aftermath of my relapse. I simply wanted to be alone and torture myself with newfound feelings of guilt.


  1. “Weight,” Mikal Cronin

Certainly not a household name, singer-songwriter Mikal Cronin routinely manages to nail the art of articulating grief, sorrow and how to rise above it all. The opening lines of this track echo the regret I had immediately following my relapse (“I’ve been starting over for a long time/I’m not ready for another day”). I wasn’t “ready for the second wave” of sobriety that would be coming down the line, either. Instead, I was crippled with the song’s titular weight of anxiety and sadness. It’s a song that speaks to the fear of staring down the reality of sobriety after years of drunkenness: “I’m not ready for the fear and shame/I’m not ready for the waking.” And while I certainly wasn’t ready for those things, I experienced them and managed to deliver myself to happiness as a result.


  1. “Slippery People,” Talking Heads

Complex and meta, even by 1980s standards, this Talking Heads song features puzzle-box lyrics that seem to fold in and collapse on themselves. It’s an echo chamber of a song that recalls all the competing voices in my head following my relapse. Lead singer David Byrne opens as if he’s directly addressing my inner alcoholic: “What about the time you were rollin’ over/fall on your face/you must be having fun.” He understands that we all “lose our minds” but it’s the “slippery people” who help us get through it. In my case, those were the voices in my head and all the anonymous people I met in church basements who led me to sobriety. The song also makes a point of mentioning “backsliding” and how the slippery people are “gonna see you through” which, when it came to my experience, was absolutely true.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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