Twelve Steps: A Musical Exploration

This blogpost is a musical exploration of the Twelve Steps as utilized by people in recovery from various types of addiction and is the expression of two desires: First, my desire to share a potential session idea with other music therapists who work in the addiction recovery field and second, my desire to process through music the thoughts and feelings of what it is like to move through the Twelve Steps. As someone who has personally benefited from a Twelve Step program that focuses on emotional sobriety (Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families), this annotated playlist partially reflects my own recovery journey albeit from a different “drug of choice”. Listed below are the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and accompanying spiritual principles, three contrasting songs that support each Step or principle, and my brief commentary. What songs would you include?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. (Honesty)

Can’t StopRed Hot Chili Peppers
It’s Been AwhileStaind
One Day At A TimeEagles

Active addiction is characterized by powerless over a compulsion to abuse a particular substance or behavior resulting in negative consequences. Referencing compulsion amid other more esoteric lyrics (“can’t stop, addicted to the shindig”), RHCP perfectly captures this anxious energy in the music itself. For some people like Aaron Lewis (Staind) and Joe Walsh from the Eagles, it may take a special level of pain and desperation in order to get honest with themselves: “Well I finally got around to admit that I might have a problem”.

  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (Hope)

Bridge Over Troubled WaterSimon & Garfunkel
Drowning Man U2
The Way I Tend to BeFrank Turner

Twelve Step programs advertise as “spiritual but not religious” because although it is not necessary to ascribe to a particular religion to work the program, it is necessary for many recovering addicts to find hope in someone or something that is more powerful than their addiction, someone or something that can become their “bridge over troubled water”. Incidentally, none of these songs are explicitly spiritual songs to my knowledge, but I felt that they contain powerful imagery rooted in love: “For I have promised for to be with you tonight” (U2); “You could save me from the way I tend to be” (Frank Turner).

  1. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (Faith)

Jesus, Take the WheelCarrie Underwood
Learn to FlyFoo Fighters
Let It BeThe Beatles

Step Three is about surrendering control whether by letting it be (The Beatles) or letting it go (Carrie Underwood) and possibly one of the most important spiritual principles. On the bright side, we don’t have to do it alone if we choose to ask for help (“I’m looking to the sky to save me”). In the spirit of vulnerability, acceptance and surrender are two principles that I get to practice every single day of my life!

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Courage)

 Man in the MirrorMichael Jackson
Not AfraidEminem
What I’ve DoneLinkin Park

Okay, this is a tough one because facing the “man in the mirror” requires willingness and the kind of radical courage evoked in “Not Afraid”, the inspirational anthem for Eminem’s musical and personal evolution from drugs and violence to recovery. In my experience, facing my faults also requires a balanced effort to take accurate inventory without beating up myself for “what I’ve done” (Linkin Park). To quote Henri Nouwen, Dutch writer on psychology and spirituality: “I was forced to enter the basement of my soul and look directly at what was hidden there, and to choose, in the face of it all, not death but life”.

  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. (Integrity)

Confessions Part I & IIUsher
RegretsJay Z
Starting Over Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Someone once said that integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is watching. Even if no one else knows what I’ve done, even if I fear what others may think of me, “I’d rather live telling the truth than be judged for my mistakes” (Macklemore). Sounds like Jay-Z was busy living his regrets in 1996 but I’ve also learned that authenticity fosters more respect from the people that know me, not less. By the way, Usher’s voice could make any confession sound good.

  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. (Willingness)

Change My Way of LivingAllman Brothers Band
Fix YouColdplay
One Step CloserBon Jovi

“I’ve seen my heart of darkness”, sings Bon Jovi, but “I’m one step closer and I’m willing to try”. Many people recovering from addiction sense that they need the assistance of their higher power not only to kick the substance abuse but also to help them tackle their personality flaws. Since addiction is a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual malady, most likely their addiction will have taken a toll on their overall existence (“my life is in such a mess”). Are you willing to allow God to “fix you” (Coldplay)?

  1. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. (Humility)

Brand New MeAlicia Keys
ChangedRascal Flatts
Dead and GoneT.I. (feat. Justin Timberlake)

For some, Steps Six and Seven yield a spiritual transformation for individuals to be “changed for the better” (Rascal Flatts, alluding to baptism in this context). Actually, T.I.’s affirmation “the old me is dead and gone” is not too far off from St. Paul’s guidance to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Of course, it is up to us to do our part while practicing patience with ourselves. “It took a long, long time to get here / It took a brave, brave girl to try” (Alicia Keys).

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. (Love)

Cat’s in the CradleHarry Chapin
Dear MamaTupac
HurtNine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash

Although Harry Chapin’s tune does not appear to speak directly to the negative consequences of addiction, I’ve heard numerous recovering addicts say that they relate to similar feelings of guilt over neglecting their children during active addiction. Of course, this guilt could apply to any relationship, but Johnny Cash reminds us that one other important person we hurt is ourselves.

  1. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. (Discipline)

SorryJustin Bieber
On Bended KneeBoyz II Men

Making amends to the people we hurt can be an extremely difficult yet incredible character-building opportunity. Twelve Step programs advise people in recovery that the goal of the amends process is freeing ourselves by doing everything within our power to clean up our side of the street, no matter how big or small the mess. The key is to do it without reinjuring the other person (perhaps unlike Adele) and to keep the focus on ourselves (definitely unlike Justin Bieber). In my opinion, Boyz II Men came the closest to a true confession: “Gonna swallow my pride, say I’m sorry / Stop pointing fingers, the blame is on me”. 

  1. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. (Perseverance)

Gloria Estefan – Always Tomorrow
I Apologize – Aretha Franklin
I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart – Duke Ellington

The bad news is if we are human (we are) and if we interact with any other humans at all (we do), then we will screw up again. The good news is “there´s always tomorrow to start over again” (Aretha Franklin). Amends are an ongoing lesson in humility and perseverance, but they don’t always have to feel as dramatic as perhaps some of the amends necessitated by Step Nine. Simplicity (“told a lie”) and a sense of urgency before it is “too late to make amends” are two considerations that help me manage my personal inventory.

  1. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (Spirituality)

Courage to GrowRebelution
Don’t Stop Believin’Journey
Higher PowerBoston

If the Twelve Steps are a spiritual solution to a drinking problem, then recovery is active maintenance of our spiritual life for continued growth in order to avoid future relapses. All Twelve Step programs incorporate some version of the Serenity Prayer into their meeting format (and many also recite the Lord’s Prayer): “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. I have heard this prayer worked into pop songs by other artists such as India Arie, 50 Cent, and Macklemore, but Boston is boss.

  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (Service)

HomeBlue October
Humble & KindTim McGraw
Simple ManLynyrd Skynyrd

In recovery, “walking the walk” is immeasurably more valuable than “talking the talk” because for some people it is the difference between life and death. “Walking the walk” also comprises the oral tradition that “you can’t keep it (recovery) unless you give it away”, meaning that being of service to others is vital not only to the success of the program as a whole but to each member’s recovery. Plus, it feels good. In the words of Blue October, a Texas rock band whose members are in recovery themselves: “What a glow when you’re living true”.

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Exit to Eastern Orthodoxy 2.0

I grew up attending an evangelical Bible church of the fundamentalist variety. While it was evident that the members of my childhood congregation genuinely loved God and were devoted disciples of the truth as they understood it, I wondered why the faith of my youth felt insulated, even emphatically isolated at times, from the rest of Christianity at large. Exposure to the Reformed tradition through classical Christian schooling played an important role in challenging my theological paradigm so that by the time I graduated high school, I found temporary shelter under the more historic umbrella of Reformed Christianity. Nevertheless, I had questions about what exactly transpired between the first century and 1517 A.D.

When I got to college, I attended a Presbyterian church on Sunday mornings and a Catholic campus ministry mass on Sunday evenings. My theological paradigm was still Protestant, but I began yearning for rich, liturgical worship in addition to the truth about historic Christianity. Before long, I encountered Eastern Orthodoxy and instinctually exhaled a sigh of relief. I was home. General dissatisfaction with evangelicalism initially fueled my quest for something more historical, liturgical, and sacramental. Although I experienced a taste of these elements within the Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions, I ultimately came to believe that the fullness of Christianity lies within the Orthodox Church.

Evangelical narrative of church history left me dissatisfied. What happened between the apostolic era and the dawn of the Reformation? Evangelicals attest that the early church rapidly fell into heresy and did not recover until Martin Luther rescued her from the hands of Roman Catholicism almost fifteen hundred years later. Reformed tradition might be more generous to the early church, but still takes significant pause at what transpired between Jerusalem and Geneva. Orthodox Christianity claims that Christ’s church has been here all along, alive, and intact. Orthodoxy is “right belief” and “right worship” preserved by apostolic succession. In other words, the right people must protect the faith (via unbroken communion), and the right faith must be protected (Orthodox belief and worship). Jesus Christ established one church and promised that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Evangelical worship left me dissatisfied. All churches inevitably adhere to a worship template or structure, but most evangelicals dismiss liturgical worship as dry or “canned”, contending that prayer must be extemporaneous if it is to be sincere. Other Protestant traditions adopt elements of liturgical practice but still miss out on the full cycle of ancient services saturated in Scripture as well as the spiritual benefits of fasting and feasting throughout the liturgical year. The Orthodox Church worships the Lord in beauty and holiness in the company of His saints and angels. Since salvation is rooted in the Incarnation and culminates with transfigured creation, our encounter with God through worship naturally includes body, mind, and spirit. In my experience, it is much easier to pray surrounded by iconography, candles, incense, and Byzantine chant than four whitewashed walls and a projector screen.

Evangelical sacraments left me dissatisfied. My childhood church taught that baptism and communion are two purely symbolic ordinances with no real spiritual impact. The elements are not physical vehicles of divine grace, and the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative meal rather than life-giving bread and wine. The Orthodox Church professes that all of life is a sacrament in Christ who imbues every part of creation with the grace of the Holy Spirit. In particular, Orthodoxy is centered on one sacrament – the Eucharist – which is the “Sacrament of Sacraments” and the “already but not yet” heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God. In Holy Communion we partake of the mystical body and blood of Christ, the Eternal Passover Lamb, who transforms us into new creatures and unites us unto Himself. This is the healing of our soul and body, and this is why I exited from evangelicalism to Orthodox Christianity.

This is an updated version of a previously published article appearing most recently in Modern Reformation Vol. 27; Issue 1

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Nostalgia: A Soundtrack to Your Life

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in my experience with music therapy in addiction recovery. What is nostalgia? Is it healthy or harmful? What role does it play for recovering alcoholics and addicts?

I am 12 years old, in seventh grade. I am sitting next to my bus buddy who is absorbed in her game of Crash Bandicoot on Nintendo whilst religiously looping Good Charlotte’s 2002 album. I can hear the loud rock music pulsating through her headphones and eventually I ask her to let me cop a listen. It is my first uncensored exposure to music that is not religious or classical and perhaps my first crack at “rebellion” (my teenaged angst was rather lame). It was a ritual I looked forward to every day on the way to school and represented a time when life was hopeful.

I am 13 years old, in eighth grade. I am sprawled across my bed listening to a contemporary Christian singer Erin O’Donnell, my first CD obtained from a roller rink raffle, on the portable red Walkman that I am finally allowed to have in my possession. My over-protective parents are starting to loosen up, but I am a little apprehensive about this newly granted privilege that feels almost too good to be true. The album represented a time when life was exciting, and in retrospect, the calm before the storm.

I am 14 years old, in ninth grade. I am the only female in a van loaded with teenaged boys on a class fieldtrip somewhere in Pennsylvania. “Amish Paradise” by Weird Al Yankovic blasts from the car speakers accompanied by waves of riotous laughing, especially during the verse about “getting medieval” on somebody’s “heinie”. Despite the pervasive discomfort I felt at the time owing to my puerile peers, the chaos of my parents’ divorce, and my own adolescent skin, I couldn’t help but crack a genuine smile. To this day, it’s one of the few songs that has come to represent my youth as a whole – the good, the bad, and the ugly in all its glory.

Music has the power to evoke nostalgia (via a particular song, artist, or genre), striking reminiscent chords that are often independent of its “objective” meaning. Since I tend to select familiar, client-preferred music, most of my clients do have a pre-existing relationship with the songs they encounter in our music therapy sessions. For a middle-aged client, “In My Life” by The Beatles reminds him of how much he enjoyed listening to music before his addiction took over. For a veteran client, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel may stir up memories of staying hopeful in crisis. For a younger client, an EDM artist or contemporary rapper may remind her of the excitement of partying during active addiction.

I am an extremely nostalgic person. When I feel nostalgic, I feel a bittersweet longing that is equally pleasant and melancholic. Typically, I feel nostalgic for a particular time in my life, such as high school or when I was a resident of Philadelphia. I find myself yearning to return to that time, sometimes if only for the very reason that it is now gone. I resonate with the Portuguese term saudade, which is like nostalgia with a stronger emphasis on the melancholy. It is similar to grieving the loss or absence of something that will never return or never existed. For me, early 2000s pop punk does the trick.

People feel nostalgic for many different reasons. Some are even nostalgic for things they’ve never experienced directly (i.e. Colonial Era, Roaring Twenties, Woodstock, etc.). Like a child who dreams of adulthood, nostalgia for the imagined future has yielded phenomena like Steampunk (Victorian Sci-Fi) and PVC clothing (retro-futuristic fashion from the sixties). However, the most common themes among clients in addiction recovery appear to be nostalgia for a particular era such as childhood or young adulthood (when problems seemed fewer), nostalgia for particular memories or people (a family vacation or significant other), and nostalgia for “the fun times” during active addiction.

So is nostalgia a good thing? I would argue yes. Nostalgia seems healthy when it is a hunger for “home” or belonging, a time or place when things were right, the way they were supposed to be. Naturally, we all want to belong. Even if we never had the opportunity to experience authentic belonging, nostalgia for the way we feel things ought to be can drive us to make that our reality. If nostalgia leads a person to reconnect with her true identity, true beliefs, or true feelings that were lost in active addition, then maybe it is essential to recovery.

Nostalgia can be unhealthy when it becomes an obsession or craving for the elusive. Nostalgia, if unchecked, can morph into a toxic fixation on the past which we are powerless to change and could be disadvantageous, especially to people in recovery from addiction. Nostalgia that romanticizes history (South Park’s “member berries”) is a form of denial. Both nostalgia and addiction are temporary escapes from the present into a fantasy realm that is neither present nor past. Nostalgia, like addiction, can keep the addict disconnected from reality and ultimately trapped inside an alternate temporal dimension.

Music, while an effective time machine, also has the power to connect and move the listener through real time, liberating him from that foggy twilight zone between now and then. Since addiction distorts the addict’s perception of time, music therapy as an experiential medium structured in time seems like the perfect antidote. If we accept today, then we are free to progress, evolve, and create new experiences and memories as well as pay homage to the old ones. If we accept today, then we are gifted with the opportunity to heal from the past, find gratitude in the present, and hope for the future.

For those who wonder: How do I make peace with nostalgia? Try not to worry too much. Try not to overthink. Value the moment because everything will pass away. In the words of Green Day, “So take the photographs and still frames in your mind / Hang them on a shelf in good health and good time”. And if you choose to take them off the shelf when you are feeling homesick for the good old days, try not to ask why the old days seemed so good. Just remember that they were.

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Ali’s Ten Tried & True

Looking for session ideas? Check out this list of tried and true music therapy activities for clients in addiction recovery. Some ideas are original. Most are adapted from various sources that eventually wound up inside my music therapy toolbox. Enjoy!

Let It Be by The Beatles
Theme: Acceptance
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients identify people, places, things, and beliefs they feel attached to as well as which ones they want to let go of
4. Clients share answers with the group and discuss their own strategies for finding acceptance

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel
Theme: Stressors
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients sketch a “bridge” and “water” and label with stressors and healthy coping strategies
4. Clients share pictures with the group

Thank You by Dido
Theme: Gratitude
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients create “ABCs of gratitude” lists
4. Clients share lists

Soundtrack To My Life by Kid Cudi
7 Years by Lukas Graham
In My Life by The Beatles
Theme: Life story
1. Choose two songs
2. Distribute copy of lyrics and ask clients to underline or highlight significant words as they listen to the songs
3. Compare and contrast musical narratives
4. Clients create “soundtracks” identifying songs that represent childhood, parents, love, happiness, sadness, anger, and theme song
5. Clients share soundtracks and share recorded songs as time allows
6. Optional: provide art supplies to design album cover

Hero by Mariah Carey
Theme: Strength
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients sketch a scenario depicting themselves utilizing personal strengths
4. Clients share pictures with the group

Drift Away by Dobie Gray
Theme: Coping strategies
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute fill-in-the-blank lyric substitution
4. Clients work together to replace song lyrics with their own words
5. Group sings completed song

Times Like These by Foo Fighters
Theme: Living in the present
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute fill-in-the-blank lyric substitution
4. Each client individually replaces song lyrics with his/her own words
5. Read or sing completed songs

Behind Blue Eyes by The Who
Theme: Authenticity
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute “mask” outlines and clients write/draw their exterior/interior personas
4. Clients share masks with the group

Theme: Addiction & recovery
1. Clients create two playlists. First playlist contains songs that remind them of active addiction and second playlist contains songs that remind them of recovery.
2. Clients listen to first playlist while writing/drawing “active addiction” inside a mandala
3. Clients listen to second playlist while writing/drawing “recovery” inside a mandala
4. Clients share about their mandalas
5. Optional for individual or group collaboration

Theme: Interpersonal coping strategies
1. Clients brainstorm a list of ten positive and ten negative interpersonal coping strategies
2. Clients select percussive instruments
3. MT facilitates a series of group drumming experiences progressing in difficulty. Each “level” is passed by meeting goals tailored to the group’s needs (listening, patience, awareness, communication)
4. The group processes which coping strategies they utilized in order to “pass” the level

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Reflections on Music Therapy and Recovery

As I approach my two-year anniversary of practicing music therapy with PBMTI this week, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my experiences as a music therapist working in addiction recovery. What an incredible journey! The last two years have stretched me clinically and personally in ways I can’t even explain (although maybe I could through music). Having navigated the unique challenges that go along with working in the addiction setting, felt burdened, jaded, and helpless at various points in my career, and gone through ups and downs in my personal life, I’ve also learned and grown so much along the way as a music therapist and as a person.

This short reflection piece is the result of my experience as a professional in the field, experience as a person on her own journey to healing, and education on music therapy and addiction. It is a blend of clinical sharing and candid journaling. Some of my ruminations are lifted from a very insightful book Music Therapy and Addictions edited by David Aldridge and Joerg Fachner. Mostly, I hope that my openness about what I’ve learned from practicing music therapy in the context of addiction recovery will help others better understand the needs of this population and what music therapy has to offer.

I facilitate music therapy groups in various drug and alcohol rehabs in south Florida. The most important thing I’ve learned about addiction is that it is a dead end attempt at self-medicating emotional pain. Rather than effectively using other coping skills, addicts apply their drug like a “one size fits all” Band-Aid to avoid dealing with painful emotions. Eventually, the Band-Aid itself becomes the obsession and is reused again and again to cover up any and all uncomfortable feelings. Addiction is an inflexible coping strategy that eventually becomes a vicious cycle.

Since most addicts go to great lengths to avoid emotional pain, they also develop complicated defense mechanisms. Underneath, people battling active addiction seem to be emotionally fragile, mistrustful, and have low self-esteem at the root of it all. On the outside, however, they may portray false confidence and denial. The exterior and interior personas of a person in active addiction are at odds with each other and lack harmony. Therefore, clinical treatment can be difficult because authenticity and intimacy are the solution to healing.

Enter the power of music. Music therapy helps break through those complicated defense mechanisms in ways that traditional therapies by themselves might not. Music’s personalized, motivational, and holistic nature creates a safe space for therapeutic confrontation because clients tend to feel most comfortable being real when they are in touch with their preferred music. For example, I have found that a defensive nineteen-year-old in treatment for abusing psychedelics can feel far more comfortable exploring heavy issues in “Soundtrack to my Life” (Kid Cudi) than through traditional talk therapy without the aid of his favorite songs. People open up in the presence of their music.

Music therapy is especially effective in substance abuse settings because it is action-based. Music necessitates human response. In a recovery-based drum circle, a group of addicts are presented with a live music-making experience that depends on their responses to the music and to each other. In the “here and now”, they can make choices that will help them connect with others, build healthy relationships, and practice coping strategies via the music experiences. Here is a real opportunity for authenticity and intimacy: when music calls us, we must answer it. A professor in college once said something that I’ve never forgotten: How we are in music is how we are in life. Since musical behaviors can be compared directly with non-musical behaviors, the clinical goals that clients accomplish in music therapy are tangible to their wellbeing. Music therapy is a call to action.

That’s great, but what about when music triggers cravings? As a music therapist, I’ve struggled with this issue off and on. It’s no secret that music and drugs go well together and for many addicts they are powerfully connected. Electronic dance music (EDM), reggae, and rap are some of the major genres linked to the culture of substance abuse. I believe this is largely due to the associations formed than with the music itself, but the associations are still strong and unable to be ignored. So what’s a music therapist to do?

Recently, I picked up the book Music Therapy and Addictions (2010) edited by David Aldridge and Joerg Fachner. Unfortunately I haven’t found very many publications by music therapists on our work in addiction recovery, but this particular gem did offer some helpful perspectives. Ultimately, to listen or not to listen to “trigger” music seems like an individual decision. Some recovering addicts find that they need to give it up temporarily, some need to give it up entirely, and some become indifferent over time or discover that their musical palates have transformed while in recovery. It is a case-by-case situation.

I’ve concluded that while music can be triggering for people in treatment for active addiction, the fact that it is indispensible to many addicts presents the perfect occasion to reach them. If addiction is fixation on the Band-Aid, music can be a gentler, safer Band-Aid that replaces drugs as an alternative reward system. Additionally, when a client’s preferred music does not appear to be harmonious with his road to recovery, we may be able to highlight this discrepancy in order to attain insight. Whether it is a cause or reflection on a person’s recovery state, music in particular is an essential tool for addiction recovery when used carefully by a competent music therapist.

The last two years of practicing music therapy in the context of addiction have taught me quite a few things about the role of music in recovery, but I’ve also grown tremendously as a person. I’ve learned how to look past my own stigmas of addiction. I’ve learned that my clients are people with unique stories and challenges. If I am completely honest, I’ve learned that I am no different. I may not choose to cope with my emotional pain by abusing substances, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of self-medicating in other ways. I’ve become more familiar with the Twelve Step Program on a personal level and that has helped me better understand how to tailor music therapy interventions to support my clients’ specific recovery goals. I’ve also been challenged to improve my counseling skills because verbal processing is especially important in the addiction setting even when music is the primary vehicle for change.

Most of all, I’ve learned that the most important thing I can do as a music therapist working in addiction recovery is building rapport. Addicts can be cautious to trust others and believe that no one can possibly understand their emotional pain. This is especially important for music therapists who are not personally in recovery from substance abuse. Rapport building is the first goal for any therapist, of course, but in addiction recovery it is an especially vital goal since developing trust and healthy relationships are part of the solution to healing. Although several years ago I didn’t necessarily envision myself practicing music therapy in addiction recovery, it has truly become my passion. I am grateful for the journey I’ve had so far and look forward to what is ahead.

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Holy Fire

During the last week in April 2016, I had the incredible opportunity to make the long journey to the heart of Jerusalem for Holy Week and Pascha along with thousands of Christian pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and various other Slavic and Arab countries. While there, I was able to experience truly beautiful events that I felt are my responsibility to share with those who are curious, enamored, or maybe a little skeptical but open to hearing a firsthand account of Orthodox Easter in the Holy Land.

As many of you may know, the date of Orthodox Easter often follows the date of western Easter celebrated by Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians due to differences in the ecclesial calendars. When I arrived in Jerusalem, it had been four weeks since western Easter had taken place but Orthodox Holy Week had only just begun (and concurrently, Jewish Passover). In addition to ordinary tourists and locals, the streets of the old city were animated by Christian pilgrims getting ready for Pascha and Jewish pilgrims getting ready for Passover. This multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious epicenter invoked a truly surreal sensation of being caught up in a bustling spiritual intersection yet feeling like a spectating shadow.

What brought me to Jerusalem in the first place was a blend of intentions. For one, Jerusalem has always been on my travel list, even before I was an Orthodox Christian. More recently, however, I’ve been itching to do as much traveling as I can for adventure therapy and personal growth and so I simply decided to make it happen. I also decided that I would go during Easter because I wanted to see and experience the Paschal celebrations in the city where it all began. I wanted a personal encounter with the birthplace of the Christian faith, the ancient and rich traditions that grew out of it, and most importantly, I wanted to experience the same continuity with the resurrection that Orthodox Christians have been experiencing for the last two thousand years. Ad fontes in the fullest possible sense! As a bonus, my dad came with me.

I had also heard about something called the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Although not as well known in the west, this renowned miracle has been occurring every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the last nineteen hundred years. On Holy Saturday, the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was entombed, kneels down to pray, and then receives a miraculous light from God. He then spreads the holy flame to everyone present in the church. Like the fire that did not consume the burning bush or the three young men inside the fiery furnace, pilgrims who journey there to witness the miracle claim that the holy fire does not burn them. Intrigued by this ceremony, I had to investigate.

The first couple days in Jerusalem were amazing. Our visit was action-packed and we utilized every spare minute visiting the holy sites, exploring the corridors and bazaars inside the old city, and soaking up as much history as we could. I even stopped to get inked by Wassim, a Coptic Christian tattoo artist whose family has been tattooing pilgrims for over seven hundred years. One of the most memorable segments of our stay was the trek out to Bethlehem and into Palestinian territory where we beheld the infamous wall dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Truly unreal, but that is another story for another time. All in all, the first few days in Jerusalem were a tiring but gratifying prelude to what was to come.

On Holy Saturday morning, I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to make a phone call to my internet acquaintance Khader, a Jerusalem native and parishioner/subdeacon at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher who was also our avenue into the holy fire ceremony. The ceremony wasn’t supposed to begin until the early afternoon but pilgrims line up by the thousands long before the miracle occurs and sometimes camp out as early as Holy Friday. We discovered that the old city had already secured the main gates and blocked off most of the roads near and around the church in preparation for the crowds. Khader told us to meet him outside of the New Gate at 7:00 a.m. where those with special permits were waiting to enter (the masses at Jaffa Gate were already swelling). I quickly dressed and, dragging my sore feet and still jet lagged body, we hurried over to the New Gate.

By the time we arrived at the New Gate two minutes before 7:00 a.m., Khader had already entered through security and had to maneuver his way back to us because we could not enter through the gate by ourselves. Since we didn’t have special permits, it took us multiple attempts at convincing the Israeli police that we were here by Khader’s invitation. I was doubtful at first and began to worry that they wouldn’t let us through, but I guess if you argue with Israeli police long enough they eventually change their minds (and I think it helped that Khader was a local). This happened at multiple checkpoints along the route to the Holy Sepulcher, but each time we were somehow allowed to continue.

The streets were mostly empty except for the police, a few other VIP pilgrims, and loitering clergy. Other than the intermittent checkpoints, it was a relatively easy and quick walk over to the Holy Sepulcher. Khader led us into the Greek chapel and told us to wait inside a small doorway facing the outside courtyard. In a few more hours, the police would unblock the main entrance and we would be allowed to enter. We thanked him for his help and before parting ways he exhorted us: “God brought you this far. He will see you the rest of the way.”

Time passed quickly and before long the police announced the opening of the gates. Immediately, a herd of pilgrims descended on us like starving prisoners scrambling for their rations and so we found ourselves in the middle of the first mob rush. The next six hours were purgatory. Between waves of anticipation, excitement, shock, boredom, restlessness, fatigue, lightheadedness, irritation, claustrophobia, and many prodding elbows, I tried my best to preserve my sanity with lots of water and granola bars. At times we moved only inches at a time. At times we stood in the same position for hours unable to stretch an arm. I loathed the pushy pilgrims and the obnoxious old lady with frizzy blonde hair and bad breath in front of me. I started to doubt that the miracle was even real. I wanted the suffering to end and to return to the comfortable guesthouse to catch up on lost sleep, but at this point even that was impossible.

It was almost 3:00 p.m. when it finally happened. The pilgrims had been chanting hymns and shouting “Christ is risen!” in all possible languages for over an hour. I shouted with them until my voice cracked. Our exhilaration mellowed a bit after the lights dimmed but the air was thick with anticipation and I began to feel connected again with my Orthodox brothers and sisters. I made friendly conversation with a Greek and a Copt next to me. I don’t know at what point the authorities searched the tomb for hidden sources of fire or when the Patriarch of Jerusalem entered to pray. I couldn’t see when the light emerged from the tomb, but suddenly the long wait was over, everyone forgot about their exhaustion, and the pilgrims’ bellows resounded as the holy light made its way over from one person to the next. I grabbed my lump of compacted beeswax candles and turned on my iPhone camera, trembling with joy and astonishment as the light crept closer and closer. Within a few minutes, the holy fire ignited my wicks. I was afraid at first and hesitated to wave my hand through the flame. I remember gathering the courage to test the flame and then feeling stunned that I felt no heat. I looked back at the woman behind me who washed her face with the fire and she let me wave my hands through her flame. Everything else was a blur and seemed like a dream.

Within half a minute, the holy fire grew hot again and pilgrims frantically snuffed out their candles. Many of them had brought oversized bundles and torches that rapidly dripped hot wax as soon as the fire returned to its natural state. We exited the Sepulcher quickly after receiving the holy fire and I returned to the guesthouse to get some rest before the midnight Pascha service.

I’d like to think I’m a fairly levelheaded and objective person. Having grown up in an evangelical Protestant tradition with very little room for divine miracles inside our theological boxes, by default I’ve always approached such claims with caution. Since embracing Eastern Orthodoxy six years ago, however, I have become more receptive to the possibility of tangible miracles, especially since witnessing a myrrh-streaming icon several years ago. Long before our expedition to the Holy Sepulcher began, I told myself that I was going to be at peace no matter what I discovered. If the holy fire was a true miracle, then glory to God. If the holy fire was merely an exciting but counterfeit ritual, then I would still be okay with that. My faith would not depend on the outcome of this investigation, but I sure hoped it was true.

I didn’t even plan on writing anything until someone suggested that I should because many of you know that I was there and have asked to hear more about my experience. Am I a transformed person? Is my faith stronger? Would I make the long pilgrimage again to Jerusalem? It’s hard to say what I will ultimately take away from an experience I am still processing and will probably continue to process for a while, but I believe so. I believe that the holy fire was a vehicle for God’s grace and did something for me and the pilgrims who were there, even if I can’t quite put it into words. What I do know is that I am an Orthodox Christian who traveled to Jerusalem during Pascha in April 2016 to see this phenomenon and this is my firsthand account of the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! 

Holy Fire


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A Hard Lesson

Dear family and friends,

I regret to tell you that my marriage has ended mutually and peacefully. Although we are very sad and remorseful about the outcome, Jamey and I are on good terms with each other and have made the difficult decision to pursue different paths. We recognize how much we have learned and grown from this shared experience and ultimately are concluding that we will continue to learn and grow even more separately than we can together.

I admit that I have been procrastinating on writing this for a while because I was embarrassed and afraid. Although my close family members and friends already know this, many people do not and I feel that I owe it to you. If you have ever taken the time to read the things I write or interact with me in a meaningful way (many of you have), if you are a real presence in my life, if you were once a real presence in my life, even if you are just a distant onlooker, I want to publicly own up to my choices because it is the right and adult thing to do. If you have questions, feel free to contact me privately. In the meantime, I humbly ask for your prayers.


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