Ohioans share how music aids recovery from opioid addiction
Words by Valerie Royzman| Photos by Jana Life
AMY, RECOVERING ADDICT
Ayear from now, Amy sticks the key in the ignition. She turns the volume up a few notches, spins the dial to 91.3, a new favorite on nights like this. Ringo Starr’s voice fills the car: “Sometimes this world can be a hard place / We wonder where we go from here.” As she speeds through the beat-up Akron roads, she hums along; her body radiates with warmth. As Starr belts out from the scratchy radio, “Give more love / It’s what we know we need more of,” she glides into an empty parking lot, listening to the beat, reflecting on how far she’s come.
She taps fingertips across her tattoos — from large lips spill musical notes, flowing across her arm, along with the words “Music is the sound of life,” — in rhythm with the beat. An indescribable feeling of euphoria fills her body. This time, the feel-good sensation isn’t from snorting heroin. It’s from the music.
Amy says she was addicted to heroin “for a long time.” She’s buried the memories no longer worth remembering. But she’s been clean since 2015. The ride wasn’t smooth.
Amy left the Akron-area Oriana House Residential Correctional Center in late March. She was directly sentenced to the halfway house as part of her recovery from heroin and Percocet. After a life-saving arrest sent her to prison for six weeks, she set out to get clean all on her own — she remained drug-free for 11 months before her relapse on Percocet.
Without the daily fix, she risked feeling dope sick, an ugly sensation she describes as aches all through the body and painful nausea. She moved out of the home she shared with her mother, got high with friends, stopped working and quit her greatest passion since childhood: basketball.
She chased dope because it practically became her lifeline. Amy says while addicted to heroin, she needed it just to feel normal.
“I didn’t feel good if I didn’t get high, honestly,” she says.
When her life spun out of control after heroin became a daily part of her routine, she says she felt terrible keeping it from her mother, and admits she put her through a real-life hell.
“I was pretty good at keeping it from her,” she says. “I felt terrible because I was so good and successful at a young age. I felt like I let my mom down. Who wants to tell their mom you’re a heroin addict?”
Unfortunately, Amy’s story isn’t unlike many others grappling with the fast-growing national epidemic.
According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March, overall emergency department visits for suspected opioid overdoses increased 30 percent in the U.S., from July 2016 to September 2017. During that same time, the Midwest took the hardest hit, with overdoses surging by 70 percent.
For Amy, music clears her head and helps re-prioritize her goals in life. Before, as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning, her agenda was to get high.
“With the heroin, I had to do it, or I didn’t even get out of bed, pretty much,” she says. “I got up out of bed to go get it. And I knew when I was going to get it. … I knew already in my head I was starting to feel better.”
Like a broken record, she started her recovery once again, this time with help, but says she’s proud of the difficult journey and how far she’s come in her 34 years.
Music wasn’t the only solution in her road to recovery, though it’s been her favorite. She is currently participating in the Vivitrol program, used as part of treatment for drug- or alcohol-dependent individuals. The prescription allows Amy an injection once a month, aimed at preventing relapse when she made the decision to stop using, a sudden shock for her body.
Amy calls the non-addictive injection her safety blanket, mostly because it protects her from spiraling back into a destructive lifestyle. She says she hasn’t thought about using again since her last injection one month ago.
Though music can trigger bad memories, Amy has learned to avoid songs that spark unwelcome memories, and instead focus on tunes she calls “booty-popping” anthems because they brighten her mood. Right now, it’s DJ Khaled’s “Do You Mind.”
JESSICA YODER, TREATMENT COUNSELOR AT ORIANA HOUSE
Jessica Yoder, a treatment counselor at Oriana House’s chemical dependency treatment center, met Amy during the first phase of the intensive outpatient program (IOP) part of her recovery, where Yoder works with clients from all walks of life in the world of opiates to identify coping techniques and kick-start their new road to restoration.
Yoder sees a wide range of drug abuse from clients. From meth to heroin, drugs considered a better “bang for your buck,” and even pills, she’s seen it all. Lately, she says fentanyl seems to be coming up frequently, and a lot of the time users don’t even realize their drugs are laced with it.
“I do see people who have been introduced to this epidemic through a prescription that they got from a doctor and became addicted through that,” Yoder says. “Sometimes they’re buying pills of the street. Sometimes they’re using heroin because it’s financially more viable for them.”
Yoder says Vivitrol is essentially an opiate blocker that deters cravings for their problem drug.
“It binds to the receptors in your brain so if somebody on it did decide to use an opiate, they would feel no euphoric effect from it,” Yoder says.
Although the injection may cause physical discomfort at first, the mental reaction turns people away because the injection inhibits the effects of opiates. Yoder praises the program, which includes a three-month, therapy-driven transition for clients when they feel ready to halt injections, but mentions the negatives too.
If clients aren’t careful, there’s a greater chance of overdose “because they feel like they aren’t getting high, so they do more and more, and it’ll overtake [their] heart or nervous system.”
During someone’s time with IOP, Yoder talks to clients a lot about the different aspects of their addiction, detailing the difference between biological, psychological and mental health-related parts.
Yoder says the process needs to feel holistic, though, and sometimes other more personal tools are useful – like music. While she hopes clients will utilize the cognitive behavioral therapy skills she teaches during IOP, she believes there are other methods clients may be more inclined to apply, especially in the beginning.
“If they have a tough day or we talk about a tough topic in treatment, they can go back to the facility and [music’s] something they can do,” Yoder says. “They can put in their headphones; they can have quiet time; they can reflect.”
With Amy, Yoder notices music plays a key role in preventing her recovery from veering of course. Discussing social skills and having interventions on the whiteboard is required and beneficial, but in her short time at Oriana House, Yoder has noticed music comes up frequently in conversations with her clients.
Yoder says it’s important to show her clients “you don’t always have to do these very clinical things.”
While Yoder works with clients in phase one IOP and after-treatment, part of phase three, she suggests they listen to Rock and Recovery, a regular nighttime show on 91.3 “The Summit,” an Akron radio station. The show is targeted toward helping anyone in recovery from an addiction, from opiates and alcohol to gambling and sex.
Rock and Recovery partners with the Summit County Recovery Court and Oriana House, where judges assign clients to programs such as counselors like Yoder, who can only recommend the radio show as a complementary piece to clinical treatment.
The reason? Not every client has access to radio. Amy, for example, isn’t allowed a phone or access to social media during her time at the correctional facility. She is only given a player and headphones with limited access. While music is a saving grace for her in the facility, which she says feels a bit like jail because of the strict rules, she can’t gain access to the radio show until after she leaves.
For other patients, some living at home and attending IOP meetings in group and individual settings with Yoder, a more versatile variety of music is available.
Though Yoder is sad to say it, relapse is all too common among those trying to turn their lives around after opiate addictions.
It’s a true reward to witness recovered clients visit her, but a lot of the time, people re-enter the world just to be sucked back into the gripping epidemic. She recalls a trip to New York City in July 2016. As she walks through Times Square, she sees a headline flash, revealing the number of overdose deaths in Northeast Ohio from opiates.
“I just remember standing there, and the person I was with … they were like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I just looked at the TV and I said, ‘That is like a half-hour from where I grew up,’” says Yoder, a Cleveland native.
Not unaware of the power opiates possess over individuals, Yoder still never could’ve predicted the crisis would’ve gotten this harrowing – and it isn’t over yet.
In 2016, more than 63,600 died of a drug overdose in the U.S., according to the CDC. The Ohio Department of Health reports the unintentional deaths claimed 4,050 lives in Ohio, a 32.8 percent spike from 2015, some of these lives being Amy’s own friends.
Though music isn’t the end-all solution to dissolving an addiction, those in recovery, like Amy, along with counselors and mentors like Yoder, are realizing its potential in taming the monsters lurking over the nation.
Yoder says while enduring a crisis like this, people want to feel supported and connected to something, whether it’s knowing people recognize that an addict is struggling or someone is acknowledging their family member is having a hard time — that’s a really key part of it.
“People want to listen to music to have some sort of emotional identification with it, and I think that having this radio program definitely helps with that, that sense of wanting to feel connected to something outside of yourself,” Yoder says.
GARRETT HART, PROGRAM DIRECTOR AND CREATOR OF ROCK AND RECOVERY
Garrett Hart settles down in his safe place, headphones on and head perfectly cocked, ready to go on air. This is where he finds his bliss.
“From Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of modern addiction treatment, this is Rock and Recovery,” the show’s introduction echoes through the radio. “Recovery rocks.”
Bruno Mars’ sugar-sweet voice harmonizes: “If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea, / I’ll sail the world to find you,” transitioning into the chorus, “You can count on me like 1, 2, 3 / I’ll be there.”
After the song plays, positive messages like, “Take a break from stress; let it go” and, “No one heals themselves by wounding another” follow suit. The show features interviews and further encouragement from figures sharing their stories of recovery, including musicians, athletes, therapists and case workers.
Hart, program director and creator of Rock and Recovery, noticed a serious spike in listeners as the opioid epidemic grew bigger and more frightening than itself. He says when he signed on in 2011, he was aware of the problem, and his goal was to try to make it better the only way he knew how — through radio.
“We had no idea it was going to engulf the entire country in this incredible tragedy that involves so much death and so much loss,” Hart says. “It’s not just the addict’s life who is disrupted but everyone who loves that person — people who are related to them, their friends, their co-workers — everybody is affected by this tremendous burden, this tremendous problem.”
The show plays a 300-song list ranging from classic rock, country, R&B and some modern-day pop, which has grown through the years. Tunes are carefully selected to convey positivity for listeners, most of whom are recovering addicts. Others are parents and siblings holding on to the harmony of hope while their loved ones bear the brunt of the crisis.
Hart acknowledges the show isn’t going to necessarily empty a detox bed or cure someone of their cocaine addiction, but if it can provide a sense of relief in the next five minutes and help the listener feel better about themselves, he’s doing exactly what he set out to do, and calls it “the most rewarding work” he’s done in his 44 year-long broadcasting career.
He says the show meets people where they are, and unlike people, music doesn’t have the predisposition or judgement to present to listeners.
“The idea is that with the music and the messaging, we are positive but not preachy,” he says. “We’re inspirational but not religious. … We allow them to listen and take from the experience which is gonna be helpful to them.”
JUDY K., SPOUSE OF RECOVERING ADDICT
Through email and one-on-one interaction at community events in Northeast Ohio, Hart hears from devoted listeners like Judy K., whose name has been modified to ensure privacy. Judy herself isn’t an addict; however, she is the spouse of one, who heavily relied on meth for 25 years.
Her husband attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, for addicts, while she’s involved with NarAnon, an organization specifically created for family members. Here, she frequents events and sets up information tables to raise awareness on addiction and break the stigma associated with it. Judy and her husband, now 21 years sober, keep their recovery separate to maintain a strong relationship, though the one thing they bond over is listening to Rock and Recovery together. For him, recovery is a matter of life and death, but for her, it’s more for maintaining her health and sanity.
“We listen to the songs together and just think about our roads and our different paths that we each have, and what we’re trying to do individually and as a couple,” Judy says.
She says the realization that her husband had to clean up his past, meaning his recovery was top priority over their love, was painful at times. In the beginning of their marriage, she was bothered when he told her his sobriety was his number one priority, and she would always come second. Through the years, she’s made peace with it.
“I learned that if I said, ‘No, you have to stay with me,’ or ‘You have to put me on top priority’ or whatever, instead of staying clean and sober … I learned after a while our relationship would’ve never worked,” she says. “Because I cannot stay with an active addict. I can’t. As a spouse, I know our finances would drain and I know that I cannot watch somebody die.”
Outside her marital ties to addiction, Judy mentions her 70-year-old brother is a Vietnam veteran and alcoholic who refuses to get sober, and several members at NarAnon have recently lost family to heroin — the first time she’s witnessed this after attending for 14 years.
Rock and Recovery holds a place in this daunting epidemic though, and it feels like it was made for Ohio communities, she says. Individuals in recovery of any kind often feel isolated from the world, practically writing their own elegies, and the show reassures listeners they aren’t alone in this.
“I think that to have a radio station that will play something to the community is showing that ‘We are there for you,’” she says. “‘We understand what you’re going through. We understand that there’s an epidemic. We understand that maybe a song that we play can help put your mind at ease, can help you get through this next 24 hours.”
THE POWER OF MUSIC
The epidemic is like an utterly terrifying symphony that never seems to end, luring people in and consuming them whole as they drift between addicted, sober and sometimes dead. Through this chaos, Judy says it’s important to fight, even when society is quick to judge.
DJ Khaled on full blast wherever she goes, Amy now works at Burger King and visits her mother as she tries to stay as far away as possible from heroin, “the devil.”
Hart has found success in his show, reaching listeners not only in different states, but on an international level, too. He is currently negotiating the broadcast of Rock and Recovery on terrestrial radio stations across the country, expanding from his local roots.
Yoder left her life in Boston to come back to the Buckeye State, inspired by the novel “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” to aid addicts in recovery. She’s been with Oriana House since 2017.
Judy continues to break the barriers surrounding addiction in the community, sharing the radio show with everyone she encounters who is struggling. Frustrated by the embarrassment surrounding addiction, she hopes one day the nation organizes marches or falls into a movement to end the stigma.
If you haven’t been an addict yourself or been cursed with a firsthand experience of a loved one, you can’t relate, all these voices seem to echo. It’s vital to remember there’s nobody to blame, Judy says, and no fingers to point when someone is aching with addiction.
“You’ve gotta remember that there’s nothing wrong with being an addict,” she says. “It’s the way that person is. And all you can do is love an addict.”