When musician Jam Alker entered treatment in 2014 he took his guitar with him and began writing songs about his struggles. He discovered the creative process allowed him to lean into his feelings instead of trying to numb them. Now Alker takes his message of music's healing powers across the country, playing concerts, speaking to students, and leading workshops. He also works with Recovery Unplugged. You can learn more at www.JamAlker.com.
+ Read Full Transcript
The feeling produced by heroin was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.
It is not a high like smoking a joint or having a few glasses of wine.But it is a euphoria. At least in the beginning.
There is a rush of pleasure, warmth, contentedness. Everything feels like it's going to be all right. It feels like a mother's love.
That's how it starts. But it doesn't last
I grew up everywhere. I was born in England, moved to the States when I was three. A lot of violence, upheaval in my childhood. One of my first memories is my father walking towards me, sort of staggering, wide-eyed with blood gushing down his face, and my mom breaking a whiskey bottle over the top of his head to stop his violent advances.
Shortly after that, my mom picked me up on the way home from a friend's house one day when I was five years old. We got in the car. The next thing I knew we were in Las Vegas.
She then married another violent alcoholic. Spent a few years with him until he, in a violent rage, destroyed the house.
I thought my mom would grab me and my brother, put us in the car and take us somewhere else. Instead, she stayed with him, put us in a bus across the country to go live with my father.
Stayed with him for the next eight years, moving around the country. In that time I saw my mom two, maybe three times, till I was in 10th grade and my dad couldn't be violent towards me without me retaliating. So he sent me to go live with my mom who was in Chicago.
Moved in with her in 10th grade. Was on my own by 11th grade. Finished out high school and moved down into the big city, deciding that I was going to become a famous musician.
So I started playing in bands. Had some success. Did some touring, made some albums. And in that lifestyle there are certain things that are accepted, if not celebrated.
I'm talking about the distracting behaviors, the numbing behaviors, the desire to find comfort on the outside that I now know only comes from the inside.
My addictions were more my ego. Chasing after fame, after power, after prestige, after love, after relationships. Wanting people to love me to make me feel important because I didn't feel important inside.
I had that thing inside of me that so many addicts and alcoholics talk about: this hole in their soul, this hole inside of them that they've never been able to fill. This discomfort.
And we're taught that the answer to that hole inside, the way to fill it, the way to find that internal happiness is through external means.
And so I bought into that. I didn't know any different.
So then I thought it would be money. And I made a ton of money.
From the outside world looking in, you would think at that point that I had everything.
I was well on my way to becoming a millionaire. I owned a recording studio and a record label. I had toured the country, signed autographs, had music that had been played on the radio.
But I was miserable.
And then I was introduced to heroin, to opiates. And opiates are physical painkillers, but opiates are also emotional painkillers.
So that thing that I had been trying to fix, that hole I've been trying to fill it that I never been able to. I would not been able to fill that hole, but this at least numbed me to that pain.
It wasn't long before the money was gone. The property was gone. The recording studio was gone. The record label was gone. Many of my closest, dearest relationships were gone.
And I gave all of these things away, for heroin.
I didn’t lose half a million dollars on a couch cushion somewhere.
I didn't misplace that recording studio or that record label in the back of a cab in a hurry one day in downtown Chicago.
And I didn't misplace some of my dearest relationships.
I gave those things away.
In that 10-year period, I gave all of those things away because heroin, opioids, became all that mattered in my life.
So that's where I was.
And four years ago, I finally surrendered and checked into a treatment facility and I brought my guitar with me, honestly thinking it was just going to help me pass the time. I hadn't picked up my guitar almost at all over the decade in the deep dark hole.
I began writing again. I began writing about all of the experiences that I had been through, and all of the discomfort that I was going through there in early recovery.
I decided I wasn't going to get high anymore. That meant all of those things that I had been burying my whole life, all of the things that I had been numbing myself to, I was going to have to start to deal with those things. I was going to have to start to process those things.
Or I was in danger of going back out and I knew the next step for me was death. I had no doubt where I was headed.
So I picked up the guitar, and it's just my own form of therapy, I began writing. And I finally felt connected spiritually.
And things started to happen and I continued to cultivate that contact with the creative source -- whatever that thing is -- and I began to heal some of my deepest wounds.
I wrote a few songs. I started to share them with some of my peers in my unit, and some really significant, impactful moments started to happen.
You know, addiction is about isolation. Recovery is about community. And community can happen on a large scale coming together, but community can happen one-on-one as well.
It's empathy, when I feel what you feel, when you feel what I feel -- that connection, that is community. And that's what recovery is about.
And these guys in my unit with me started to come to me and say, "You're able to put into words some of the things that I'm feeling. Thank you.”
And I realized at that moment, that the only thing that ever truly filled that hole inside of me was helping others, being of service to others who had no way of repaying me.
I knew that this was my path.
I started a therapeutic music program using some of the music I had written in recovery where we do a lyrical analysis of one of my songs called Crows.
And the song, Crows, is a story-song about a broken man who's sitting outside of a church, sort of reviewing where his life went. He doesn't know how he ended up where he is.
But it's very open for interpretation. It's metaphorical rather than literal.
When I do the group, I'm trying to get the clients to start to touch on what their own traumas are, the reasons why they ended up there in treatment.
So I'll play the song, and I'll hand out the lyrics to the clients and we'll do a lyrical analysis.
So we'll read the first stanza, the first verse, which is In the front of the church on a concrete step, a low paid man rests his head. He sat down to catch his breath, can't quite figure where it went well.
And then I'll say, “Let's talk about that. Let's make up a narrative of what's going on. Why is he sitting on the step? What does the church represent? Why is he resting his head? Why is it a concrete step?”
And people will start to talk. And in order to create the story, to create the feelings, to create the images behind the story, they have to touch on their own experience.
They’ll say, “He's there because nobody loved him.” “He's there because he was kicked out of the house.” “He's outside of the church because of his resentments towards the church.”
Well, where are they getting these ideas from? They have to get it from their own experience.
“Why is he resting his head?” “He's tired.”
“Okay. It's a low paid man. Does that mean that he has to be poor monetarily? Okay, how else could he be low paid?”
“Spiritually?” “Nobody loves him.”
All of these things, and then people start coming out and they get excited about it and we create this entire narrative behind the song.
And at the end it's a very cathartic experience for these folks. And they love it and I let them know at the end that they just did their own form of therapy.
Now, if I were to have walked in and said, “Let's talk about when you were at your lowest and you were sitting there thinking, What is the point of life? Why am I doing this?”
Nine times out of 10, they're going to shut down and they're not gonna to want to talk about it.
But by doing it this way, it almost tricks their trauma into putting down its guard a little bit. It doesn't realize that it's what's coming out.
Oh, we're talking about that guy that poor broken man sitting outside the church. We're not talking about my experience.
And so it takes down the barriers.
And that's what you have to do in recovery.
You have to bring down those barriers and allow yourself to open up, be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Be comfortable being vulnerable and allowing these things out because these things, these traumas, are the things that we bury.
And that discomfort becomes unbearable.
And there's only so long -- particularly those of us who have substance use disorder, those of us who are sitting early in recovery, trying to figure out a way to manage all of this discomfort --there's only so long you can sit with that or try to bury it before that voice will come up: This is too much. We're just going to go out, just today. We can deal with it again tomorrow, but just for today, it is too much. I can't bear it. I need a drink. I need a hit. I need a shot.
And eventually that voice will convince you.
Or the other option is to learn how to process these things as they come up.
I'm Jam Alker and this is my story.