There are some things that just belong together: peanut butter and jelly, the moon and the stars, Johnny Cash and June Carter, you get the drift. Something else that usually goes hand-in-hand is alcoholic beverages or drugs with live music. This is the story of my relationship with these two. Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m an alcoholic — an alcoholic in recovery. I have been sober for almost six years and I want to share a little bit of my journey with you.
Music has always been a vital part of my life. Classical Minnesota Public Radio was on 24/7 in my home growing up. At the age of seven, I walked across Fairmount Avenue to my friend’s house for my first sleepover. Erin had the radio on WLOL and that entire night my mind was completely blown by the top 40 music I was hearing. People singing, not in Latin? Electric guitars? Tempos like I’d never heard. When I returned home, I begged my mom to get my first cassette tape, Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Knowing Haydn’s high baroque pieces and understanding the humor in mom’s “Chopin Liszt” hanging on the refrigerator to remind her to pick up cheese and milk suddenly made me feel less-than. I was so uncool. I had to play years of catch-up, and in my seven-year-old brain, that meant I would never be as cool as the other kids. Even though I now was listening to what my friends were listening to, I had this black-sheep complex.
That feeling became a constant throughout my life. It followed me like a shadow and said hurtful things. I felt like a bird with clipped wings. Rarely did I feel comfortable in my own skin or around others. The first time I tried alcohol, all those feelings magically disappeared. I grew taller. I became smarter, and finally felt I belonged somewhere.
Fast-forward to 15 years later: my submission to drugs and alcohol had become a new way of life. I discovered I could not continue drinking without suffering extreme consequences. It was no longer an option for me to live in this manner. At the outset, I had to change everything about my life. Any trigger had to be eliminated — and sadly, this included music. The way I listen to music is by feeling it. When I was newly sober, feelings were difficult to navigate, and sometimes that familiar guitar riff or indelible melody brought me right back to that feeling of being stoned or drunk. Music is powerful in that way.
With a couple years of sobriety under my belt and a new toolkit that helped me move through life without reaching for the bottle, I embarked on a journey to reclaim the things I had once loved, music being one of them. This process was tough. Instead of jumping right back to my favorites, I had to approach it differently. The best way to get over a painful memory is to overwrite it with a new experience, and a lot of the music I loved brought me back to the person I could no longer be.
When I had about a year clean, I started doing yoga. It became a daily practice, and the music that accompanied the classes began to build new associations in a safe environment. I asked one of my favorite teachers where she found the music on her playlists and she said The Current. Without this sounding like a shameless plug, I got into my car that day, tuned my dial to 89.3, and it’s been there ever since.
And just like that, music was back in my life. Knowledge is powerful. It changes your perception. Understanding more of the way I function as a person makes everything I choose to do a richer and deeper experience. I would say that I used music, in my addiction, as a vehicle to escape. Without drugs and alcohol, music became more of a companion and not an enabler. I listened more consciously.
As my successful reintroduction to music moved forward, the next step was to attend a live show. Although I had two years of sobriety, I knew this was going to be more difficult than putting my headphones on and taking a walk by the river. Live music has components of my previous lifestyle that I would not be able to avoid. I knew there would be people drinking. I knew there would be people using drugs. I had to prepare myself and stay safe, but I had to see if I could do it. I chose Festival Palomino at Canterbury Park to get my feet wet. (In hindsight, what the heck was I thinking??) I enlisted some friends who were sober to meet there. The lineup was outstanding: Father John Misty, Laura Marling, Benjamin Booker, Shakey Graves, and Trampled by Turtles.
The instant I parked my car, the music filled my ears and my heart leapt. I almost couldn’t contain myself. Finding a spot on the lawn and allowing the music to wrap around me, feeling as if I was in a snow globe was all I could focus on. I rushed through the gate, the building, and finally onto the racetrack. Stopping to text my friends to see where they were, I was immediately jolted into reality. The smell of a joint, the jovial drunken slurs, the volume of people doing all the things I could not became overwhelming. I stood still in shock.
My phone pinged, bouncing me out of my sober stupor. “We’re on the right side of the stage, near the soundboard.” I wove in and out among pot and beer, cocktails and pills. Finally finding my friends, I collapsed on their blanket, stuck my head inside my shirt and just cried. It was the kind of cry that shook my entire body, gasping for breath, but wanting no one to see me falling apart. It scared me. I had to protect myself. I missed Laura Marling. I missed Father John Misty, and when Trampled by Turtles took the stage, I was done. I didn’t see the point in staying there if I was disassociating in order to keep my sobriety. It was exhausting.
A sadness swept over me. Could I never hear live music ever again? Was that part of my life is over now that I had chosen sobriety? Had I made the wrong decision? While I had developed a new relationship to music, recorded music and live music were two different things.
In time, though, with the help of sober friends who went to shows, I was able to reframe my expectations of attending music. I am able to go to shows now. I often even go alone. The un-sober people no longer suggest to me what I cannot do, but how far I’ve come. Sometimes it does become too much — but I am not handcuffed, I always have the choice to leave. I have so much gratitude that I have been shown these options so that I can attend shows.
Music has become spiritual for me. I think it always has been but it has morphed into something I seek to fill me — a higher power, if you will. Some people say that I’ve traded my addiction to substances for an addiction to music. Here’s the thing about being stark raving sober in the body and mind of an addict: you look for the high in other places. You look to feed that pleasure part of your brain in a different way. Food, shopping, exercise, anything. Sometimes it becomes more about the obsession than the actual effect it has.
Here is where I am today. I cannot go one day without listening to music. I have nine shows to go to this summer, including two festivals. In my car, at my house, walking through the skyway to get lunch, any moment when I don’t have to talk to people, there is music playing.
Is this because I don’t want to be with silence? Is it because I’ve reached a level of music appreciation where I want to experience as many harmonies, voices, instruments and arrangements that I literally need to keep headphones on for the greater part of my day? Or, is this truly an addiction? My capability to decipher whether it’s truly a passion or just another escape from being in my brain is difficult. All I know is that music is back in my life, and even though I’m the minority as a sober person at concerts, that’s where I belong.
Sarah Eldred works in the development department at MPR and shares an equal passion for music, dogs, and running.
On Aug. 5 she’ll be reporting from Hazelfest — a festival that “brings together people affected by addiction and the general public to celebrate recovery, spread hope and smash the stigma associated with substance use disorders and mental illness.” This year’s performers include Lizzo, Har Mar Superstar, Communist Daughter, and DJ Last Word.