Clean Date: June 1, 2018
From: Chicago, IL
"My childhood, I’ll put it this way.. The first time I ever went to see a therapist, they said ‘describe your childhood.' I started out with ‘well it was a fairly normal childhood.’ I went on my spiel, told them everything, and at the end of it they said ‘what part about that seems normal to you?’ There’s a lot of trauma in my childhood. The running theme came to be, regardless of what happens or what hardships I encounter, don’t give off the appearance that something’s wrong.
I was very lonely as a child, but tried to convey to the outside world that everything was fine. My parents were two people who found themselves in a situation that they couldn’t really handle properly. As a kid, you don’t understand that. But as an adult, I realize people make mistakes and they were just two humans being humans handling it the best they could. There’s no resentment there for the strange childhood that I did have. But, at the same time, when as a kid I couldn’t go to either parent with my issues, I had to start facing it alone early on. I thought that made me strong and that made me tough. When I encountered other conflicts down the road, whether it be addiction or with relationships, or even just trying to navigate adulthood, I figured I’d been alone up to this point. And everything I do will be alone from now on. That way I don’t let anyone get close, no one can hurt me. I can handle anything. I found a sense of strength in that, but it came to be that facing things alone brought me to the weakest point that I’ve ever been in my life.
I would say in terms of addictive tendencies, it was more so the idea of coping mechanisms, you know? It was: things aren’t great at home, so I’m going to be the best football player or best skateboarder I can be. Things are going really bad here so I’ll use something else to distract from those problems. Anytime something came up in my life, I tried to justify it with either being good at something or using a different kind of behavior. Create a problem over here so this won’t get as much attention in my brain. Alcohol is perfect for that. And as a kid, I used violence and stoicism and just acting out in general to distract from what was really going on. I carried on that behavior and into adulthood into my addiction.
Music is a great example of using different things to justify my behaviors or distract people from reality. Not only can you carry on as a musician while abusing substances, but it’s not uncommon. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, the ‘27 Club’ people, I idolized them. The ‘live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’ mentality. I thought the romanticized idea of being an artist and just running it off rails and being an addict gives your art more credibility. I thought there was something very beautiful about that. As I moved on late in life I realized what would really be beautiful, would really be cool, would be being able to see Nirvana play today or ten more Jimi Hendrix albums. That would’ve been cool. But I was able to use music to say ‘I’m a daily drinker but I’m a musician so it’s okay. Everybody does it.’ I was able to go not just with music but with everything else. ‘I’m a daily drinker but I’m getting A’s in all my classes. I’m a daily drinker but I’m making all this money. I’m a daily drinker but I’m doing better than this guy who doesn’t even drink at all.’ So I could continue my behavior. It stems back to the childhood thing of ‘yeah things are really, really bad but you won’t be able to tell because I have all this external success.’ I used that to justify it all.
In terms of when my addiction kicked off, it’s hard to pinpoint the actual date or year because the first time I ever got drunk I was 14. I knew then that was what I wanted to do all day, everyday. People talk about it as ‘it just feels right.’ I was searching for something to be outside myself, to not be me, and that was the perfect way to do it. Once I left Chicago to go to California, I went to Loyola Marymount University, I used the college lifestyle as a way to hide in that lifestyle. ‘It’s college, everyone parties.’ Not like I did, but I could blend in easier. It wasn’t as apparent that I was living so far outside. It was just blending in and being able to be like ‘this behavior’s not that far off. I’m not a homeless guy on the street, I’m just a college kid having a good time.’ Even though from 18 I was drinking a bottle of liquor a day, clearly an addict.
During my active addiction, I basically destroyed every relationship that I ever had. People didn’t want anything to do with me. I was a violent drinker, I was reckless, and I was not somebody you’d want to go out on the town with. I was so miserable that if I’d see anyone having a good time, I’d need to bring them down to my level. I destroyed my band that I was having moderate success with in LA. I couldn’t show up for practice or recording sessions. I absolutely destroyed my health. At 24 years old, I was hospitalized for alcoholic hepatitis. I didn’t think that was possible. Alcoholics, I thought, 40/50/60 years old and that’s where your health problems start kicking up. That’s when the liver starts going. I was 24 and close to cirrhosis. Addiction took everything in life that I loved because there was no room for anything else. It was just the bottle for me. Everything else was gone. Addiction took my music; such a huge huge part of my identity, the thing that I draw my life force from. I didn’t touch a guitar for years. If someone were to tell me when I was 18 or 19 that at some point I was going to put down that guitar and not pick it up for years and just drink everyday, I would have said they were insane. Turns out, I was the one who was insane.
After I got sick in Los Angeles, I moved back to Chicago and stopped drinking for about a month. I picked it back up and tried some ‘controlled’ drinking, but I had no exposure to recovery. I was too scared to reach out for help, but also I wasn’t one of ‘those people.’ I was just someone who drank too much and needed to control it. About a year into me being back in Chicago, I was back to drinking a bottle a day, got fired from my job, basically cut off all contact with the outside world, and I said ‘okay, I’m going to wean myself off and everything’s going to be okay. I’ll just do what I always do and handle it by myself.’ But I just couldn’t stop drinking.
I woke up one day, and there wasn’t enough left in the bottle to stave off the sickness. I was too sick to go out and get another one, so I went into alcohol withdrawal. Badly. I got to the point where I was laying there and, I’ve never been suicidal by any means, but I was laying there and I thought ‘I think this is how it ends. I’m gonna die like this.’ I felt if I fell asleep or passed out, that would be the end. After the acceptance that that might be where it goes, I thought of who would find me there. I knew it would be either my mom or my sister, and I knew I couldn’t do that to them. I was okay with dying right then and there, but I couldn’t do that to my family. I called an ambulance. I went to the hospital and detox, and a few days later was my first exposure to a treatment center and IOP [intensive outpatient] group.
One of the biggest things that took and still utilize from the treatment experience, was connection. Connection in being around people of a similar circumstance, people that want to help each other, just goes beyond anything I could do on my own. For the longest time, I thought it was up to me and the only way out of a bad situation was facing it head on by myself. But the problem is, I am my own worst enemy. When I face problems head on by myself, I end up usually putting myself in worse situations than I was in when I set out. But when I get different minds together and people that know what it’s like, and actually process these feelings, it’s a lot easier to face not just the small things, but the biggest things. That connection and eliminating that feeling of loneliness, there’s amazing strength in that and I utilize that daily within the band, within the rooms, with family, with everyone.
I tell people I don’t listen to music to feel happy, or to feel sad, or to feel any kind of way. I listen to music to just feel. Period. I spent my whole life trying to suppress every emotion that I had in my body to give off the appearance that everything was okay and just kind of flatten me out. When I listen to music, it allows me to get in touch with those feelings whether I like it or not. If I’m carrying on in my day to day and something’s going wrong, I can still put a smile on and mask it. But if I hear that song, that blues song or that ballad that hits those heart strings, I can’t help that it gets me right in the soul. As a songwriter, that was my only expression of truth for the longest time. I would write these songs and record them and my mom would listen to them or a friend would listen to them and say ‘this is really sad. Are you okay? What’s going on?’ I would always say ‘oh it’s just a song; it’s just a story.’ But in actuality, it was my therapy. Songwriting was a journal. The only way I was able to express what I was really going through was through those songs and that music. I can’t hide from it when I hear it and I can’t hide behind it when I write; it’s the one expression of truth in my life.
In May of 2018, I relapsed. It was my sixth hospital stay in eight months. I was in a revolving door, in and out of detox working dead end jobs, just trying to appear normal. I kept relapsing. It was not sustainable and I was miserable. This very last time, I was in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago, detoxing yet again. But this time, I finally had enough. The concept of finding your purpose, finding something that makes you happy, kept coming up in these groups when I was in this detox center. I decided that’s what I was going to do. I called my job a couple days into my detox and I quit. I knew I had to get back to music. Music is the only thing that’s ever made sense to me. I would play on the street if I had to.
So fast forward a little bit, and I am in PHP [partial hospitalization]. I wanted to pop my head in and see what the arts meeting was about. I saw this guy standing there that I recognized from posters in the rooms and around town. The posters said ‘Musician in Recovery - Jam Alker.’ Musician in recovery? I didn’t really know that was a thing. I didn’t know there were recovery benefits or recovery events, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I had to find a way to meet this guy somehow, because he was doing exactly what I wanted to do. But I recognized this guy in St. Joe’s and he said ‘Hi, I’m Jam.’ I told him I knew who he was and I’d been trying to meet him for a long time. He gave this music group and we processed a song of his, and it was brought up that I was a musician myself and that I play different instruments. Jam asked me if I play bass, and it wasn’t really my main thing, but I played it. He gave me his number and told me to call him when I got out of St. Joe’s. My nerves were shot! I called him up and told him I thought he needed a professional session bass player and I wasn’t the guy. He said ‘No, I think it’s a really good opportunity for you so learn these songs. Come to my house in two days.’ All I did for 10 hours each day was just learn those songs on the bass. It was the best distraction I could have from some of the alcohol withdrawals.
I showed up to Jam’s house, and he said ‘You actually learned the songs, man!’ He could tell I was serious about this and told me they’d be on the road in a week. That was the start of our adventure. We toured that entire summer and now we’re here.
Being on a national tour can be a ton of things. A lot of times it’s grueling, and not a great experience, but luckily the group of guys I’m with has made it one of the best experiences of my life. These boys are my brothers, you know? We’ve encountered so much warmth and generosity in every city that we’ve gone to. It’s gone better than I ever imagined.
Playing for the clients at Recovery Unplugged is what I set out to do. This time around, when I quit my job in detox, the idea was I would find a way to help people using music. I figured that would be the most effective method. I’m able to play my song ‘Just in Case’ and explain to people who are fresh in recovery that this is a song basically saying that we’re not bad people trying to hurt others. Everything that’s happened, it wasn’t done with malice. I’m able to express that message to people who might still be feeling all that shame and judgment, to get the point across that you can start healing and start making your amends. That you are not a bad person, just a person who maybe made some bad choices and came on some hard times. Being able to get that message across is so important to me cause shame nearly killed me. And if I could do my part in repressing that stigma and repressing that idea of shame, that’s all I’ve ever wanted from music. Money, accolades, whatever. Whatever happens with that happens. But what I really want to do is just help people use music the way that I’ve been able to use it to help myself.”