I got my first guitar when I was fifteen. I have always loved music. In fact, I am quite convinced that in the darker periods of my life, especially as a teenager, music saved my life. I spent a lot of time in my basement in my teens playing my guitar and teaching myself to play by listening to my favorite bands. I tried to figure out the chords and sometimes could even make out some of the solos. I got good enough to impress some women when I was drunk at college – you know the sensitive and melancholy inebriated wannabe artist. I really relished that persona. But the dominant experience for me was one of loneliness.
In my recovery, music has been equally important to me as a source of healing and comfort. As I walked my path of recovery I have taken solace in being able to play music and sing, And write songs including one for my father shortly after he died. In recovery, my playing guitar has helped to heal the loneliness and allowed me to embrace aloneness.
Recently, at the Evolutions of Addiction Conference I had the opportunity to play in a band as part of the special gala honoring Veterans and some wonderful leaders in the field of addiction treatment in California. We played an acoustic set and then some plugged in rock’n roll. In the thirty-years I have been playing guitar I have played open-mic a dozen times, did my own little acoustic show at a coffee shop, and I was in a very short-lived band that had one show. But nothing like this. Ever.
Now, I am very clear that this is a band that had I been required to try out for it I would not have made it. The main goal was to have fun but I was plagued by anxiety. There was a specific song that I just couldn’t get as far as the pitch and timing for the singing. I was playing with professional musicians and, quite honestly, I didn’t know the first thing about timing, pitch, harmonizing, etc.
What was the source of the anxiety? I thought it was because I had fear about what people would think. I wouldn’t do it perfectly. I didn’t have any business playing with these guys. It was just me wanting to be the center of attention. There was just a constant background soundtrack of subtle self-judgment. The bottom line is it felt vulnerable. And it was new for me. Put me in front of 900 people to do a keynote – no problem. But 50 people for playing music? Man, the anxiety just grew the closer we got to the date.
I reached out to some friends for support and I maintained my primary purpose: to have fun and help others have fun too. It was a great success even though I was losing my voice by the time we got to that troublesome song so had anyone gotten video it would look like one of those bad American Idol auditions. Seriously. But I was okay with it because I was having fun.
It wasn’t until the day after that the magic happened. I had volunteered to help a friend with her workshop on Internal Family Systems (IFS).
As I sat there in the room she instructed me to think of something that gave me some discomfort. I immediately thought of the anxiety I had been experiencing leading up to the music. I said that I felt embarrassed and she grabbed onto it. “Let’s look at the embarrassment. It seems young to me.”
As she was talking to the audience what became clear to me was that there were two moments that all of that anxiety was encased in; it involved my father. They flashed before my eyes while she was talking with various members of the audience. The first was when I was fifteen or so. We were at the beach – my whole family. My father was drunk. “I have more talent in my pinky than you’ll ever have.” I was crushed. I didn’t know at the time he was drunk. I just knew that his words hurt me. I buried it down like I did with all of the assaults to my spirit that spewed from his alcoholism.
Fast forward to the other moment with my father. It was my 23rd birthday. My father was sober and I was as well. I had been waiting for this day for years. I could feel the happy ending on the horizon. All the tripe that Hollywood had been stuffing down my throat was going to actually become real for me too. We went to a recovery meeting together. He took all of my friends out for lunch. He, my mom, and I went back to my crappy little apartment. Something had me play the song I had been writing for them both. I was so nervous. I felt so shy. My hands nervously bounced on the guitar neck and my voice shook subtly throughout the whole song.
What I didn’t know was that would be the last time that I saw my father. Shortly after they drove back to their home in Maryland, my father relapsed and a month later he hemorrhaged to death in our family home.
As those memories came into my mind I began to weep – a gentle river of tears flowed down my face as I forgot about the audience in the workshop and simply looked into the gentle eyes of my friend and leaned into the pain. I felt those memories gently fall into place. You see at the end of day that is all a lot of attachment trauma is: an experience that hasn’t been correctly processed and integrated into our brains the way it should have been. And as men we carry that pain around with us for decades telling ourselves to get over it. Or it was so long ago, we’re adults know. Grown-ass men. But our brain doesn’t know time. And our spirit only knows that it wants us to be free of the pain.
And here is the amazing final piece to all of this that came to me through the clarity of the tears: As I stood there on the stage with the rest of my bandmates my little girl was on the dance floor dancing her a#@ off with her mother at her side. And she was smiling at me. She could have cared less if I was playing the right notes or singing off key. She doesn’t have a lot of baggage around worrying about what other people think. Or not being free to be who you are. All she knew was that her daddy was playing music. Music that he loves.