Well I picked up my bad habits
and they kept me running hard
I went against my better judgment
I even turned my back on God
“Last House on the Block,” Richie Supa
This is not a story about music therapy.
At Recovery Unplugged Treatment Center, music resounds so powerfully in everything that happens that it loses the outlier status it holds in traditional, lecture-heavy addiction treatment programs. It is unapologetically all about what music can do, in this place.
And what music has been doing for the past year-and-a-half within this Fort Lauderdale, Fla., outpatient continuum of services is shattering the mold for how to reach and inspire young addicts—the same people who frustrate other professionals whose treatment programs are bound by a more rigid mindset.
“As a clinician, I always thought it was ridiculous to use talk therapy for master manipulators,” Paul Pellinger, founder and chief strategy officer, says on a sun-splashed Friday afternoon from the Recovery Unplugged conference room. “Communicating to the head doesn't produce long-lasting change.”
Pellinger established Recovery Unplugged not to abandon traditional and cognitive-behavioral approaches to treatment, but to use music as the catalyst to break down walls and motivate meaningful and lasting change, giving those other therapies a chance. After the program with a maximum caseload of 32 had been open for a while, Pellinger encountered singer/songwriter Richie Supa, whom he had met many years earlier in a recovery meeting.
Supa, who toured with Aerosmith and whose songs have been recorded by a Who's Who of artists from Bon Jovi to Pink to Tom Jones to Willie Nelson, had been focusing more of his music in recent years on recovery, fueled by reactions from fans who had credited the Aerosmith song “Amazing” for saving them from another hit of the needle. Supa came on board as Recovery Unplugged's director of creative recovery, although he would need a little coaxing first.
“I remember he said to me, 'Listen man, I'm just a songwriter,'” Pellinger recalls. “I told him, 'You're going to be better than any clinician I have here.'”
Not your ordinary group
I kept the right ones out
And let the wrong ones in
Twice a week, Supa conducts group from behind his guitar in a corner studio space at Recovery Unplugged. On Tuesdays, the sessions take on a serious, therapeutic tone, exploring the emotional side of the disease. But this is Friday, or “Fri-i-i-day!” as Supa bellows to the young men and women as they form semicircles of seats. Visitors seated in the back of the room quickly realize they are not about to experience the group session they write about in textbooks.
Instead, one experiences a rousing cross between a jam session and a revival meeting for recovery. A group of young men who clearly are the program veterans in the room sit close to Supa and his three bandmates (all of whom are in recovery), shouting familiar lyrics to Supa's songs about despair and hope. Other participants along the perimeter sit quietly, but the music clearly moves them too.
Yet this takes on more than a 90-minute set list. Supa pauses at the end of songs to engage the group and remind them of parts of his own story, a 25-year drug addiction that “robbed me of my family, my self-respect, my musical dreams, and landed me behind bars for a while.”
From the songwriter's words to the group emerge pearls such as “The shame is being in the problem, not in being in the solution.” But some of it is lighthearted, too. At one point, Supa starts passing around an imaginary “music joint,” urging each client to take a “hit of life.” He reminds the group, “You can talk about it, you can joke about it, just do not be about it.”
Supa says of the sessions later, “I've dialed and tweaked the content,” but surprises always unfold. Sometimes a participant in group will say something that triggers the songwriter's gift, and he'll get busy writing shortly after the session. That happened to him at a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) convention when someone said, “All my life I kept the right ones out and let the wrong ones in.” That comment would give rise to “Amazing.” Supa now is working on a release of new songs, some of which have drawn inspiration from his experiences with clients.
Supa recalls the time at one of Recovery Unplugged's open mic sessions when a client's angry rap was stopped in the middle of the track, inciting strong reactions on both sides from the group. He describes what some would have considered a volatile scene as “a huge gift floating in the room,” telling the group at the time, “We're feeling life now. It doesn't matter which side you take. You all care.”
“I get lost with them,” he says.
There's a miracle just waiting there for you
When you're at the bitter end
You can learn to live again
In the Rooms
“In the Rooms”
Music takes a front-and-center role in everything done at Recovery Unplugged, a largely private-pay program. At intake, clients are asked about their favorite genre, artist and song, as part of the effort to understand them as individuals and begin to shape treatment accordingly. During treatment, a lyric will serve as the catalyst for discussion of a subject in process group. The lessons carry over after the program, as every client receives an MP3 player upon discharge and continues to draw from their treatment experience.
“Music is not an add-on here,” Pellinger says.