The Important Role Music Can Play in the Recovery Process
Jim Smith looks at the impact music has had on him and his recovery and how it has become central to a life dedicated helping those suffering from addiction
Music has played an important part in my life since I was a boy. I remember the first music I heard on the radio (‘Children’s Favourites’) and the feelings it evoked in me.
Rock and Roll artists such as ‘Buddy Holly’, Eddie Cochran’ and ‘Elvis Presley’ were favourites of mine. When I was 14, an older friend took me to see ‘Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, Brownie Mcgee and a host of blues musicians at the Fairfield Halls Croydon. Their music had a tremendous impact on me, and to this day I still play, sing and listen to the blues.
One year later my cousin emigrated to Canada, leaving me his guitar. About this time (I was15) I took my first drink; the effect was powerful, in my case it was always one was too many and a thousand not enough.
During the next two years I met a professional guitarist who was, at the time, accompanying Marianne Faithful. He became a mentor and tried to help me progress in the music business. He arranged two auditions for me with well known artists, however my addiction was overwhelming and put paid to anything creative and good in my life.
There were several months spent busking on the streets of Paris, and many adventures, namely playing blues for Memphis Slim in a club
off the Champs Elysees but on returning to England things got worse.
In the next four years I was placed on probation, became unemployable (after 60 jobs) and went to Brixton prison for 30 days.
By 1969 I was drinking surgical spirit. This all time low point, in a way, was a blessing as I went to a Doctor’s surgery to seek help. He gave me information about Alcoholics Anonymous. I went to my first meeting in 1969 (I was 21 years old); I gained tremendous hope there and realised that I was an addict (in those days, the term was rarely used). It took almost seven years, after many hospitalisations (and being sectioned twice) that I was brought to a point in my life where I couldn’t go on any more. One day I was in Intensive Care, and, in a side room, found myself having an amazing spiritual experience, a profound moment. That was October 27th 1976, I haven’t had a drink or drug since that day.
I went to ‘Pinel House’ in Warlingham Park Hospital, the first rehab in the country, founded by Dr Max Glatt in 1952. I was there for three months, then I went on to ‘Trelawn’ a half way house for fifteen months. I was vulnerable in the early days particularly as I’d also come off Valium (cold turkey) after 12 years of constant use.
“My first performance, playing/singing sober, was at the rehab, in front of a sober audience. It was quite an experience, and the beginning of a long journey.”
For the first two years I played inside to friends and in my room. Then an old acquaintance took me along to a local folk club in the informal atmosphere of Ruskin House. I slowly lost that free floating anxiety and overwhelming sense of ‘self’.
For the next ten years I played at the folk club and also, on many occasions, AA and NA conventions and events. Then, after ten years in recovery I decided to work with people in a helping way. I started a counseling training course, and at the same time I joined ‘Barnardos’ as a residential social worker. Over the next thirteen years I discovered that music was an amazing way to connect with people, build trust, and act as a catalyst to access emotions. My work with adolescents in care was helped tremendously by my use of music.
During this time I started to do sessional work in treatment centres. I set up a Saturday morning group at Hayes Grove Priory, asking clients to bring along a piece of music/song that had meaning for them. I explained that I’d always been convinced that music impacts on people’s lives in a dynamic way; the group’s reaction evidenced this and valuable insights were gained. Whilst at ‘Barnardos’ I qualified as a social worker.
In 1998 my friend Brian was the manager of the ‘Coach House’, a second stage rehab in Surrey, he asked me to come over one evening to play to the residents. I played my songs, linking them with stories and shared experience from my recovery. The session evoked strong emotions and the group said they felt motivated and inspired.
Since then I’ve presented my session over the years in many rehabs here in the UK (just as an example I’ve been visiting ANA Treatment Services five times a year for over twelve years), South Africa and the USA. Other people have also joined me on the journey, Terry was a wonderful man who wrote songs, we played together for 18 months. Then Les, a friend in recovery and a great professional guitarist, joined the project. For the last year a Polish singer called Iga has been working with me. Iga is an adult child of an alcoholic. We go under the name of ‘Two Different Roads’.
In 2011 I was awarded the ‘Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship’, I spent two months in America visiting rehabs and places where music is being used in treatment/recovery. Music is an integral part of the programme at ‘Cumberland Heights’ just outside Nashville. The approach I use is popular there, they call it ‘Sing and Share’. I played there and at the ‘Betty Ford Centre’.
At the BF Centre, Patrick Haggerson uses Native American music, drumming circles and a range of diverse musical influences working with people in recovery.
I was once staying at ‘Villa Veritas’ a wonderful rehab in upstate New York; one of the residents handed me a piece of paper, it said: ‘Music is the soul of the earth embedded in sound’. He said he read it on the back of a 1970’s Clancy Brothers LP as a kid in Brooklyn and had never forgotten it.
I only started flying 14 years ago, due to losing many friends in a plane crash when I was a boy, so when I recall all the amazing things that have happened in my recovery (I have three daughters and I’m a grandfather) I’m reminded of the expression: ‘If we see what we’re part of it would blind us’.
Shortly after returning from America, I was offered a position
by the Westminster Drug Project here in London as ‘Musician in Residence’.
“Last year I hosted a recovery radio show on an Internet radio station, I interviewed a different guest in recovery on every show, asking them to choose several pieces of music/songs that had meaning for them. It was amazing how powerful and poignant these ‘life tracks’ were.”
I love it when I meet someone and they tell me that I came to their rehab some years ago, and they got hope and inspiration from my stories and songs, it makes it all worthwhile. I’m truly blessed, I love carrying the message in this way, my aim is to reach every treatment centre in the UK, so there’s more work to do!
My sponsor used to say: ‘The magnificance of ordinariness,’ I guess that says it all.