Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Song of Recovery

I’m not quite sure what it is about artists, but they share a behavioral pattern with folks who work in the restaurant / hospitality business, in that a significant amount of them have or have had serious substance abuse issues.

The odds for long-term survival for alcoholics and addicts are slim; it’s estimated that recovery efforts (be they inpatient rehab, intensive outpatient treatment, twelve-step work, quitting cold-turkey, other methods, or some combination thereof) succeed at a rate of roughly ten percent.  But when someone can overcome their demons, there can be some genuine beauty: The late Lou Reed, for example, or Chris Cornell’s still-magnificent voice.

One such case is Nick Cave, who told me last year that he had “tried everything at least twice, and I liked most of it.” His preferred escape methods were heroin and alcohol, but after several – more than a dozen, in fact – cycles of abuse < rehab < relapse < abuse < rehab < relapse, he finally got sober for good in early 2000, coinciding with the birth of his twin sons. The album he and his band, the Bad Seeds, released the following year, is filled with songs pertaining to his new outlook on life as well, but there are a few nuggets that speak specifically to his recovery from addiction, and it’s one of those that I’m writing about today.

“Hallelujah” is, thankfully, not yet another John Cale-inspired cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic. Rather, it’s a song about having a lapse, but stopping it before it becomes a relapse.

 A counselor once explained to me the difference between the two: A lapse is essentially akin to veering off the road a little bit – you go onto the shoulder on the highway, but quickly correct your course. A relapse is like going into the ditch. For an addict, lapses are common, but it’s incumbent upon us to prevent those bad thoughts – those lapses – from getting worse and putting ourselves into a ditch. And that’s exactly what Nick Cave sings about in “Hallelujah.”

The narrator – Cave himself, almost assuredly – speaks about finding himself in a rut, with his typewriter “mute as a tomb,” and his “nurse” – his sobriety – having been given the weekend off. It’s a common situation for people in early recovery; we have a period of sobriety and then start to think we can relax a little bit. This is reflected in Warren Ellis’ omnipresent violin melody, which runs through essentially the entire song; the early repetition depicts the monotony and banality that the narrator feels, longing for something he used to have. And so the narrator goes on a walk, alone, without a coat, something his “nurse would not have allowed.” Essentially, he has forgotten the “we” part of recovery, or is at least choosing to ignore it, and starting to think it’s a “me” process, hence his pajamas clinging to him like a shroud. An early indicator of a potential relapse, after all, is isolation of self and rejection of socialization and assistance.

And then the temptation, the lure of a return to substance use, rears its head with all the subtlety of a cobra preparing to strike:

There rose before me a little house
With all hope and dreams kept within
A woman's voice close to my ear
Said, "Why don't you come in here?
You looked soaked to the skin."

Let’s call a spade a spade: When you’ve spent years using a substance, be it alcohol, heroin, cocaine, Diet Coke, whatever, and then you have to give it up and live life without it … it SUCKS. If it were easy, the success rate I mentioned earlier would be far higher than ten percent. And so, the temptation to go back to your drug of choice is ever-present. It’s so incredibly easy to give into that temptation. And the narrator seriously ponders it, despite knowing in the back of his head that it’s wrong…

I turned to the woman and the woman was young
I extended a hearty salutation
But I knew if my nurse had been here
She would never in a thousand years
Permit me to accept that invitation

Generally speaking, this is called a “crisis” moment in relapse prevention. As an analogy, a recovering alcoholic is standing at the front door of a liquor store, or an addict hasn’t just found the dope man’s number, but has a thumb hovering just over the “dial” button. The odds of preventing a relapse at this point are … well, not good. That being said, not everything is lost. Whether it’s calling a sponsor or another support network member, having the willpower to let the craving pass, what have you, it can happen. And our narrator – again, Cave himself – illustrates that.

Now, you might think it wise to risk it all
Throw caution to the reckless wind
But with her hot cocoa and her medication
My nurse had been my one salvation
So I turned back home

And so the lapse has been stopped, corrected, attended to, before it became a relapse. 

It's not over, of course, as the song ends with a haunting refrain:

The tears are welling in my eyes again
I need twenty big buckets to catch them in
Twenty pretty girls to carry them down
Twenty deep holes to bury them in

This is one of the most essential components of relapse prevention: The acknowledgment of pain and past wrongs is an essential part of recovery. We can't ignore what we've done ... but we can't wallow in it, either. It's fine to remember the past and to cry about it and to contemplate upon it -- as Captain Kirk said, "I don't want my pain taken away, I need my pain!" But we can't dwell upon it.

Addiction is a disease of mind, body and soul, and it takes serious, legitimate, long-term work to address it. But as Nick Cave wrote in “Hallelujah,” the temptation is and always will be present, especially when one starts to get lax or complacent – thinking “I’ve got this,” or “I know what I’m doing.” Down that road lies danger … but just because you start down that road, or veer towards the shoulder a bit, it doesn't mean you are definitely or conclusively going to keep going down that road.

1 comment:

  1. Just came across this now at the right time. Thanks for your thoughts. As a Nick Cave fan who has just doomed himself to recovery, this was really insightful and helpful.