Could Music Have Saved My Brother's Life?

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 28, 2019

Guitar picks mark days of sobriety at Recovery Unplugged.
Guitar picks mark days of sobriety at Recovery Unplugged.  (Source:Matthew Wexler)

I'm sitting in a big room that's the beating heart of Recovery Unplugged's Austin, Texas outpatient clinic. And what's about to transpire will make me wonder if this transformative environment might have impacted my brother before a heroin overdose killed him at age 43.

Addicts and alcoholics, some with 90 days of sobriety, some just out of jail, are tucked into a circle of chairs, their features difficult to make out in the dimly lit space. They're dedicating songs to one another, as couples did decades ago over small-town radio airwaves. Bands perform here, too — there's a riser with a drum kit on it, along with some speakers and audio equipment.

To the people gathered here, the lyrics tell tales of survival. They're about addiction and recovery, deep pain and profound hope.

Participants begin to open up to one another, as Tony, the facilitator plays their dedications and gently encourages dialogue among them. The tense laughter eventually grows quiet, the responses more thoughtful. Gone are the masks they put on to face the world. Music, Tony explains, "has the power to bring us together as a community, giving us a sense of belonging. It breaks down the walls we build with unhealthy coping mechanisms so we can breathe."

The author and her brother, Gunnar.
The author and her brother, Gunnar.  (Source: Jill Gleeson)

How the Light Gets In

"There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," I think. The words are, appropriately, from an old Leonard Cohen song. And then I'm remembering my brother.

It's coming up on five years since Gunnar died. He was found in his bed in Boulder, Colorado, the needle still in his belly, his frantic dog by his side. A couple months ago, I lost my mom, too, her death undoubtedly hastened by her son's. Though he's strong, the merciless fact of Gunnar's overdose continues to wear on my 86-year-old dad. I see it grinding him down a little more every day.

Sometimes it feels like all I have left in life is loss. Those sentiments reverberate through the conversations in this meeting. But the interesting thing is that they're in past tense. These dozen or so beautiful souls, from all walks of life, are optimistic about their futures. This fundamental shift is accessed through Recovery Unplugged's utilization of music in addiction treatment, where songwriting, drumming performance, listening and live performances are an integral part of the recovery process.

Gunnar loved music more than anyone I've ever met. It consumed him, and he it, like it contained all of the joy he could ever feel, accessible anytime whenever he went to a show or turned on his iPod. He was part of the last generation of real Deadheads, people who had experienced Jerry Garcia playing live. He followed Widespread Panic everywhere, went to see dozens of bands every summer at his cherished Red Rocks. He knew a thousand people, maybe more, fellow music devotees who swamped his Facebook page after he died with heartfelt remembrances and declarations of love.

As I sit in on this Recovery Unplugged meeting, I consider that if Gunnar had sought help here he might have survived. Clients spend much of their time playing, writing or just listening to music and, to paraphrase Cohen, it lets the light in. Recovery Unplugged rates of client relapse are four to five times better than the national average. And so I can't help but wonder if this place might have given Gunnar the support he needed to stay clean.

Anthony Green's "Miracle Sun" plays. It's at once both pensive and bright, a jangly guitar providing a backdrop for the singer's raspy tenor vocals. A dark-haired, gangly boy requested the song, dedicating it to a blonde girl sitting near me. "I remember when you came in here," he tells her, "you were dark and reserved, and now you're a beam of light. And it's a miracle."

She smile and nods. So do I, but my tears are coming hard now. I'm thinking about Gunnar, about the time years ago he flew from Boulder to Philadelphia to take me to a U2 concert. We weren't so close then, the insults and irritations we heaped upon each other in childhood too fresh. Gunnar wanted to change that, so he jumped on a plane, paid scalper prices outside the Wells Fargo Center, and took me to see my favorite band. As we stood, arms around each other, listening to Bono sing "One" — listening to him implore, "Sisters, brothers... we got to carry each other" — every little bit of silly, stupid sibling rivalry fell away. All that was left was love.

It's a love that keeps on growing, despite my brother's death. I'm grateful for it, although it's more bitter than sweet, forever altered by his loss. I see Gunnar in each of these faces coming out of the darkness. It's not just the act of song dedications that move me, but the recipients' ability to accept and embrace their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Recovery Unplugged, in spite of its name, is electrifying.

Are you are someone you love facing addiction? You're not alone. There is help.
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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.