When one thinks of the relationship between drugs and music, the rock star lifestyle comes to mind. But for the estimated 23.5 million Americans who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, life is far less glamorous than a rock star’s. Kyle Swiatlowski struggled with an opiate addiction for the majority of his 20s.
“This was when it was at its peak,” he says. “I got clean when I was 26. I was strung out on opiates of all forms. I was using daily. I was living to use and using to live.”
He tried multiple recovery programs and became numb to the process — until he found Recovery Unplugged, a treatment facility that combines traditional and cognitive behavioral rehabilitation approaches with music.
“The music allowed me to stay in the moment and really get involved in my own recovery,” Swiatlowski says. “It was empowering.”
Outside the music box
Music therapy can involve listening to music, singing, writing or reading lyrics, playing instruments, watching live music and moving to music.
“Every person is engaged differently, and the benefits of music therapy are endless,” says Ian Jackson, primary therapist and program coordinator at Recovery Unplugged, which has locations in Florida and Texas. “Music can provide people with physiological responses, such as increased heart rate to get pumped up or decrease in stress for relaxation.”
Addicts should turn to this type of therapy to get an “outside-the-box approach” to treatment, Jackson says. “Many people may not be musically inclined, but everyone has a favorite song they can relate to,” he says. “We use lyrics from songs they like to help them speak about their feelings.”
The sound solution
Music therapy can help cure addictions across the board. But addicts should avoid music closely associated with past addictive behaviors. This can trigger addictive responses rather than help them process away from them, says Joffrey S. Suprina, dean of the College of Counseling, Psychology and Social Sciences at Argosy University.
“If they are caught in the anxiety state that often triggers an addictive response,” Suprina says. “However, if they are motivated toward substance use to stifle emotions such as grief and loss, sad songs may help them release those emotions and thereby diminish the drive toward addiction.”
Swiatlowski listened to different genres depending on his mood. “If I wanted to get myself excited or pumped up, I would listen to some sort of EDM music,” he says. “If I wanted to relax or get out of myself for a while, I would probably listen to a band like Incubus.” After completing his own treatment, Swiatlowski now works as an admissions manager at Recovery Unplugged.
No single treatment is the same for every patient, and struggling addicts have to find what works for them, says Dr. Michael V. Genovese, chief medical officer at Sierra Tucson rehab center. And skeptics should keep an open mind.
“I view music therapy as one approach that works in concert with many other ways of addressing addiction, including psychotherapy, medication and mindfulness,” Genovese says.
Although what he and his colleagues do can sometimes be intimidating, “incredible change” happens to Recovery Unplugged patients as they move through the program, Swiatlowski says. “Everyone has music in them or can find the therapeutic value it can bring. Music can be whatever you need it to be in the moment. It can be a time machine, it can help open you up to new ideas, and help you work through any tough times or situations you encounter.”