One To Watch: Addicts’ Symphony

Rachael Lander

 

Tonight at 11PM UK Time, Channel 4 will screen the documentary Addicts’ Symphony.

The documentary showcases a project that took place last year, a collaboration between Big Mountain Productions and the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Discovery programme, to explore ways that music could help recovering addicts with prior musical experience.

From the LSO Discovery blog:

The project, Addicts’ Symphony, was the brainchild of the composer and musician James McConnel, whose 18-year-old son Freddy, an aspiring and talented musician, died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at the age of 18. James, himself a recovering alcoholic, was inspired to create the project by a determination to save others like Freddy from a similar fate, and a firm belief in the transformative power of music.

After a summer of recruitment, the ten participants came together for the first time at the beginning of October 2013. Led by workshop leader and composer Paul Rissmann and supported by LSO members Bindi McFarlane (violin) and Matthew Gibson (double bass), the group were reunited with their instruments; some having not played for 20 years, and some just beginning. All they were told at this point was that they needed to put together a performance.

This topic is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons. For a number of years I was a Patron of the London Symphony Orchestra, making financial contributions to support the orchestra’s work and subsidise the price of tickets so that other people from poorer backgrounds such as myself could experience the transformative, life-changing power of classical music.

But what I didn’t realise then was that I was to have personal experience of the ravages of addiction. I remember hearing discussion of a certain musician, an accomplished professional instrumentalist who played with some of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, who exhibited alcoholic behaviour and drank to manage and suppress terrible stage fright – a theme that is explored in the Addicts’ Symphony documentary. But I never for a moment thought that I would one day exhibit many of these same behaviours myself.

My experiences of addiction, treatment and recovery probably merit a blog post, if not a book, of their own. And I will leave that topic for another day, except to say that despite not being a professional musician, my career outside of journalism is similarly high-stress, and that music was a key part of my recovery as it has always been a fundamental part of my life. The healing, restorative power of music is well known, and music therapy was very much a part of my own personal treatment plan.

The Addicts’ Symphony documentary should be one to watch because it addresses an area that is often overlooked by pundits and policymakers when discussing our approach to addressing and treating addiction. Much of the current focus is on treatment among the economically disadvantaged, or the underclass – and after many years of denial, some progress is finally being made in this area. But little attention has been paid to the havoc that can be caused by addiction in people with high-stress and often high-profile careers, such as the world of top-flight classical music.

As I can now personally attest having been through the mill myself, and an official “service user” of some of the patchwork of addiction recovery services available in Britain, many of the treatments and options available are simply not calibrated to people from different backgrounds – say those with more advanced educational qualifications, professional careers, many of the middle class obligations (such as mortgage payments and other financial obligations) and a lack of offending behaviour.

That is not to say that all treatments on offer are inadequate – far from it. Indeed, I was personally brought back from the brink by taxpayer-funded services that were, for the most part, excellent. And yet there were many areas where my particular needs and circumstances diverged almost completely from those of my fellow service users, forcing me to improvise and strike out on my own without the safety net provided to others.

I will expand on these ideas following the screening of the documentary, but it is already clear that Addicts’ Symphony is an important contribution to the discussion about addiction in high-functioning people with high-stress careers.

From the testimony of Rachael Lander, one of the participants in Addicts’ Symphony and a recovering alcoholic herself:

To admit [my addiction] publicly may amount to professional suicide. However, I’m frustrated with the classical-music profession and the fact that stage fright is still a touchy subject, despite the huge pressures on musicians. My story is not unique. Many classical musicians struggle alone, masking their nerves with beta blockers and alcohol, ashamed, as I was. For some reason, it is more acceptable to admit frailty in the world of rock and pop.

All the way through filming, I was aware that my taking part might help someone like me feel less alone. I trusted the integrity of the documentary’s director, Dollan Cannell, from the moment I met him, and I knew I would have more strength to tackle my specific fear of orchestral playing in the company of the other addicts involved in the programme.

Together we composed our piece, Rhapsody of the Tamed, and performed it with pride with the London Symphony Orchestra last November. It was both heartbreaking and empowering to play a concert with the LSO and admit that I was full of fear. I didn’t have to deny or medicate my feelings. For once I could be honest and, in the process, the shame I’d had about myself began to lift. It hasn’t returned since the night of the concert.

It is wonderful to hear the story of someone who experienced the darkness of addiction and not only came out the other side, but was able – with help – to re-engage with the very profession that had been such a source of stress and a trigger for her personal issues. But outside the meeting rooms of twelve-step fellowships, such stories are currently too few and far between.

Not everyone recovering from addiction is able to take a permanent sabbatical from the sources of their stress and anxiety once they leave treatment – though this is always strongly recommended by many treatment providers as the best choice for a successful long-term recovery. Many have families and other obligations which demand that they re-engage with the world more or less on the world’s terms and at it’s pace rather than their own. And here, finally, is a documentary that – among other goals – points to a possible way forward, at least for one specific high-pressure career.

Never one to turn down an opportunity to listen to the London Symphony Orchestra in action, Semi-Partisan Sam will be watching Addicts’ Symphony tonight with great interest.

 

Cover Image: Cellist Rachael Lander, “Addiction in the orchestra: classical music’s drink and drugs problem“, The Guardian

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Going On A Trip And Never Coming Back, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan’s readers continue an excellent discussion on the merits of 12-step based addiction recovery programs. The personal testimonies and archived debates, all accessible here, are also very much worth reading.

The Dish

Reacting to some criticism of 12-step programs, a reader writes movingly in support of AA and NA:

For both of my brothers and myself, 12-step recovery programs have literally been the difference between life and death. My younger brother had recently switched from heroin to crack cocaine by the time he entered the Fellowships of NA and AA; my entire family was quite sure that if a drug overdose didn’t kill him, some of the people to whom he owed money would see to it themselves. Eight years later, he has a wife, a lovely daughter, and a college degree, all thanks to working a 12-step program.

As for me, my drug of choice was alcohol.

I had chronic liver pains by age 26, and my hands shook so badly my mother thought I had Parkinson’s Disease. I needed at least 12 beers a day to feel normal, and a minimum…

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Going On A Trip And Never Coming Back

Andrew Sullivan, as always, has done a great job of curating the web and coming back with some of the most cogent reaction to the tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not banal pronouncements from pundits and other celebrities, but a balanced look at the nature of addiction and relapse, from a variety of sources, many of them addicts themselves. Well worth a read.

The Dish

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s quick journey from long-term sobriety to relapse to death scares Seth Mnookin, who has struggled with alcohol and heroin addiction:

My first attempt at recovery came in 1991, when I was 19 years old. Almost exactly two years later, I decided to have a drink. Two years after that, I was addicted to heroin. There’s a lot we don’t know about alcoholism and drug addiction, but one thing is clear: Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.

In response to Hoffman’s death, Sacha Scoblic highlights the shortcomings of twelve-step programs and wonders if another approach could have saved Hoffman:

A big part of the problem is rehab itself, which is almost universally based on twelve-step work, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. But AA was developed in the 1930s, in the absence of brain…

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On Addiction, Ctd. – Philip Seymour Hoffman

philip seymour hoffman

 

While the world reels from the news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by probable heroin overdose, Damian Thompson, writing in The Telegraph, pulls back the curtain on addiction and endeavours to explain how someone with multiple years of clean or sober time such as Hoffman can appear fine (particularly to those on the periphery or observing through the media) in the run-up to a serious or fatal relapse.

Surveying the immediate reaction from friends and colleagues of the actor, Thompson writes:

“But he/she was doing so well … clean and sober for X months/years … really looking forward to their next project.”

This baffled reaction to a drugs tragedy is familiar to anyone who works with addicts. We’re hearing it from friends and fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was clean for 23 years before apparently checking himself into rehab last year. To stay away from drink and drugs for nearly a quarter of a century – and then relapse? Some people will be puzzled by that.

They shouldn’t be.

Indeed they should not be puzzled. Many of the people expressing such surprise may have been friends or acquaintances of Hoffman, but very few would likely have seem him up close and observed his behaviour day-in and day-out to a sufficient degree that alarm bells would necessarily have been raised. Clearly all was not well with the actor, as he had undergone 10 days in a rehabilitation facility last year following a relapse.

Indeed, this raises another point – sometimes it is those who see an addict regularly but not continuously, at intervals well spaced apart, who are best placed to spot signs of impending trouble or emotional relapse (that stage where addictive thoughts and behaviours are creeping back in, but before the person has drunk or picked up). It will be interesting in the coming days to see whether friends and acquaintances of this type had seen a worsening or intensification of mood or using in Hoffman in these final weeks.

Even experts can sometimes be wrongfooted, as Thompson rightly observes:

In Narcotics Anonymous, however [as opposed to someone in Alcoholics Anonymous under the influence of alcohol], someone can address the room loaded up on heroin, or (if they’re careful) cocaine, or with 50mg of unprescribed Valium inside them, and they can get away with it. One or two people in the audience may guess, but they don’t want to point the finger. There are nearly always active users at meetings. Indeed, if you’re an addict looking to score in a strange city, the local NA chapter is often a good place to start.

Damian Thompson does not subscribe to the disease theory of addiction, but fully endorses the description of mind-altering substances and addiction as “cunning, baffling and powerful” – a reading from 12-step literature with which any fellowship member will quickly become familiar. And in closing, he points out the degree to which this was surely true of Hoffman:

Not only is addiction cunning, in that it hangs around for years whistling nonchalantly and leaps out just when you think you’ve turned into a “normal” person, but hiding a drug habit makes you cunning. Far too cunning for your own good.

Our prayers and sympathies must go to the family and friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman who survive him.

The following is a scene from the film 25th Hour, a favourite film of mine and one in which Hoffman plays a wonderful role in the ensemble cast:

 

May he rest in peace.

 

On Addiction

The subject of addiction gets a markedly varied treatment throughout the yearly cycle. For the first few weeks of Christmas, it is written about quite seriously. Lots of people, newspaper columnists included, are at that time emerging from the festive alcohol-induced haze wondering whether the various embarrassing or compromising predicaments in which they found themselves might be symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. The topic then gets quite a fair and sensible hearing for a few weeks, vying for equal coverage with other stories like new years resolutions, dieting, and finding love in 2014.

In a particularly good year, you might get a few slightly more scholarly articles at this time, focusing on the science, medicine and psychology behind addiction; pieces that weigh the comparative benefits and efficacy of different treatment models for addiction, or written testimonials about someone’s personal struggle.

And then, after a few weeks have passed you get the nonsense articles, the pieces ostensibly about addiction but really an exercise in self-aggrandisement, treading rhetorical water, hitting word count targets and powering through a slow news day. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, gives us one of this variety. She gave up sugar for the new year, and you’re going to hear all about it:

If you’d asked me 24 days ago if I was addicted to anything, I would have laughed in your slightly-overfamiliarly-inquiring face. I don’t smoke, I barely drink. I have one coffee a day. My entire drug consumption comprises five puffs of whatever the kids are calling marijuana these days – the last three were consecutive, after which I went cross-eyed, puked up everything I’d eaten since 1984 and fell asleep for two days. So, no, I would have said, I am a slave to nothing and to nobody, bar my toddler and my mortgage provider. Bring on the dancing girls – I have this life thing licked. That, of course, was before I decided, on 1 January, to give up sugar.

Cue revelations of a first world problem of the highest, most profound order. Waxing lyrical about her love for chocolate, Mangan writes:

When my tongue is coated in that ambrosial mixture of sugar, milk powder and vegetable fat, when the glucose hits my bloodstream, when my stomach is filling with caramel, peanut pieces, shortbread, wafer or any of the multitudinous other vehicles the ceaseless ingenuity of man has created to deliver yet more deliciously the very emptiest of calories to my Stakhanovite digestive system – that’s when I relax.

Multitudinous? Stakhanovite? Really? Lady, you just like to have yourself large quantities of chocolate every day. Dress it up with all the pretentious phraseology you like, but it basically boils down to just that. It’s quite hard to spin the simple fact of liking chocolate into a full-length column about anything at all, let alone a serious topic like addiction, not to mention rather insulting to those who suffer from more serious and potentially devastating ‘real’ addictions.

There should be a public health warning on the label.
There should be a public health warning on the label.

Mangan casually mentions these “other” addictions, which she knows all about through the educational vessel of anecdotes:

It’s been both ridiculous and terrifying to see how closely my (not even complete, remember) sugar deprivation has mimicked what we will, for reasons of limited time and space, just have to agree to call here “real” addiction – to booze, fags, drugs et al. I’m craving the stuff all the time. I can literally feel – or feel I feel – a hollow inside me that only Cadbury can fill. I can’t concentrate. I’m foul-tempered. Oh, and I totally lied before about how much I usually eat. I can’t bring myself to tell you now, but it’s much, much more than one measly bar an evening.

Yes, of course when deprived of something that the body is used to – be it sugar and caffeine or alcohol and narcotics – some of these symptoms will be experienced. The only real difference between her need for chocolate and the need of an addict for their mind-altering substance are those small details hardly worth mentioning (and indeed not mentioned) such as broken homes, physical and mental abuse, poverty and debt, criminal records, social stigmatisation, and the inexorable toll of wasted year upon wasted year of human life.

For Mangan to say that the pangs of irritability and withdrawal she has been experiencing in any way “mirror” addictions of a more serious nature is akin to her claiming empathy with the homeless because she was once caught out in a rain shower without an umbrella.

The most urgent issue of our times.
The most urgent issue of our times.

But the main thing as far as The Guardian is concerned, I am sure, is that the required column inches were filled and the word count met. Lucy Mangan’s editor was pleased with a forgettable, cookie-cutter puff piece about someone finding it hard to cut down on the old baked goods after the excesses of Christmas, and gave blessing for its publication. And so now we can all have a little giggle about how Mangan’s sweet tooth makes her just like your funny neighbourhood junkie.

In future, however, it might be better if idle newspaper columnists facing the January blues, a slow news day and writers block tried to steer clear of their love of chocolate, or biscuits, or chocolatey biscuits, when grasping for ideas thirty minutes before the filing deadline.

I, for one, would be grateful.