Addiction is corrosive. The longer you're under the spell of a substance, the more likely you’ll be stripped away to the skeletal - figuratively speaking. It ravages the parameters of self, the clarity and consistency of thought and feeling, and the ability to experience anything resembling natural positivity or joy, leaving you as an ashy pile of anxiety, shame and seemingly implacable regret.
At least that’s been my experience after kicking a decade-and-a-half-long addiction to an evolving cocktail of stimulants and depressants. I’m nearing five months since my last smoke or snort or slam, and while I realise this residual mental and emotional state is of my own doing, it doesn’t change the fact that, at the relatively young age of 35, I’m finding it almost impossible to foresee a future.
No matter how much I fight to grab hold of logic or rationality, or to place my situation in a grander perspective, some sinister shadowy thing insists on hogging the driver’s seat and chauffeuring my rusty ass into hopeless territory.
Today, however, I caught Addicts' Symphony, a documentary that follows 10 recovering addicts of varying ages and backstories while they attempt to reconnect with their forgotten, lapsed or watered-down musical talents in order to join the London Symphony Orchestra for a one-off performance.
The doco really hit home in more ways than one, and I better jot down why before that sinister shadowy thing returns.
The addicts' orchestra
Jules was one of the finest teenage classical violinists in Britain, but struggled with the accompanying anxiety. It didn’t help that her dictatorial teacher’s method of motivation included criticisms such as “I’m not surprised your mum left you - you’re stupid.” Turning to alcohol, the young prodigy almost lost her life to organ failure. She now lives a sober life but hasn't played publicly for over a decade.
Other stories are similar. Marco, another one-time star violinist-cum-boozehound, hasn’t even picked up a violin in 30 years. Andy, a percussionist clean for a year, lives with cravings for crack and heroin as well as an understandable disconnection from his 14-year-old daughter. Rachael the cellist saw her classical music aspirations destroyed by addiction after suffering such severe anxiety over a single note that she'd see black spots.
Composer, musician and recovering addict James McConnell devised the idea for “the addicts' orchestra” due to the loss of his own musical son to a dodgy shot of heroin. The hope is that these 10 individuals can come together and collectively lay their ghosts to rest, something that this recovering sod instinctively prejudged as a fruitless pursuit.
Although about music, it’s not really about music
For these talented musicians, the challenge of playing live classical music is less about once again braving performance and more about transmuting their suffocating pasts into a living future. The discussions in between rehearsals are arguably more important in meeting that challenge than the rehearsals themselves.
For different reasons, I’ve avoided any form of recovery group. “Narcotics Anonymous stresses powerlessness and a bowing to God”, “meeting other addicts would end up more enabling than empowering” and, of course, “the last thing that will stop me wallowing in my memories is to hear others wallow in theirs.” Going into rehearsals, the subjects of Addicts' Symphony express similar concerns.
By the end of the doco, it’s clear that without the group’s pool of experiences, without that cacophony of insecurity and pain, each individual would be more likely to remain in stasis.
The self-imposed sentence
Throughout Addicts' Symphony, my entire body shook and I knuckled tears from my eyes at regular intervals. Heck, even as I write this it’s as if some smart-ass chef has filled my abdomen with popping candy. I felt an undeniable kinship with and a deep empathy for these strangers from the northern hemisphere. Their words hit me on a physical level and perhaps their stories might help me articulate my own.
Their fears, while couched in musical performance, are more related to openness, love and self-expression. They are all chained to a boulder of the past, one that convinces them they’re defined by their mistakes and failures. Rachael palms both her watery eyes while insisting she’s a “defective person”, as no recent experience has forced a counter-thought. Fellow cellist Viv can’t face coming up with five successive notes to play for the group as that would mean those notes might actually mean something.
Why on Earth should anyone give a former-addict the time of day? Self-medicating is a weak pursuit - it relegates the user to sub-human status and all subsequent trauma is deserved. The price they should forever pay is to remain pinned behind the label of "recovering addict" with both hands locked into position over their mouths. These thoughts, while possibly boring and even annoying to outsiders, are all mainstays in the mind of the former user. And when articulated by others, sound like utter bull****.
Hey hope, what you been up to?
I don’t want to give away the ending of Addicts' Symphony, but the fact I’ve already mentioned it left me a hair more hopeful should give you an idea of what to expect.
At present, I’m shut down. I find it almost impossible to share how I’m feeling, mostly due to the fact that I caused this damage to myself – and that damage is the result of what is essentially a pretty selfish practice. The people in my life have their own problems, ones that aren’t self-perpetuated or unnecessary like addiction. I have no respect for where I’m at.
While of course I’m aware of the idea that there’s strength in turning to others for help, after Addicts' Symphony, I’m more convinced that the route out of hopeless territory can’t be a completely solo endeavour. If I want to see above the muck, and become someone worthy of love and joy and connection, I can’t just hole away and put off living until I no longer feel defective. Self-sentencing into isolation only prolongs the trauma.
It’s ultimately up to me, but without the group, there is no me. Hopefully I can hold onto that fact.
Addict’s Symphony is streaming now on SBS On Demand: