The musicians’ song fades over the audience, which is seated in a bright blue room with guitars hanging on the walls. It seems like a regular show somewhere in the Live Music Capital of the World. But this open mic is unique. It takes place at Recovery Unplugged, an in-patient treatment center for addiction.
Many recovery facilities don’t allow music or anything else that could be an emotional trigger or a distraction during the recovery process. But Recovery Unplugged not only allows music, the East Austin facility encourages it.
“We find that when we use music as a positive trigger or a recovery trigger, the pros far outweigh the cons,” Dave Mariano, the facility’s communication director, says.
During their stay, clients have an opportunity to perform music, artwork and poetry every Sunday during the open mic sessions. Most of the creative works are centered on addiction and recovery.
The facility also uses traditional treatment methods like the 12-step process, but Mariano says music can reach people in ways these methods sometimes can’t.
“People are able to express themselves a lot more comfortably,” he says. “It’s a way to tap into emotions that some people don’t even know are there.”
The facility integrates music into almost every step of the rehabilitation process. During the clients’ stay, they wake up every morning to the sounds of counselors playing energetic songs. The clients also listen to music that fits in with the program’s themes of the week, like “honesty” and “hope.”
As the clients walk through the facility, they are met with the sounds of old '70s rock music, the Beatles and Sublime in nearly every room.
The songs are meant, in part, to inspire the clients to create and perform their own works at the open mic. The weekly event serves as a therapy and counseling session. The counselors prompt the performers and clients in the audience to talk about the topics in the music.
The facility is not just for musicians, and the discussions are aimed at getting everyone involved in the music-recovery process.
It’s these discussions and performances that make the facility unlike any other, says Eric Hill, 24, who has been to rehab nine times. Hill studied music in college, but says as his addiction worsened in the past several years, he felt disconnected with it. He says Recovery Unplugged reunited him with his passion and helped in his recovery. He hopes to one day use music to help others struggling with addiction.
“A lot of times when I’m going through deep, emotional stuff, I don’t know any other way to get it out other than to pick up the guitar, start singing or make a song,” he says.
While at the facility, Hill and Austin musician Ethan Yellak teamed up to write a song about what it feels like to struggle with addiction.
"I can see that the clouds are parting.
I can see that I’m broken-hearted.
Our love is pain.
Both of my arms are stained.
I can’t obtain these silver-plated dreams.”
Yellak says he hopes his lyrics help others in their recovery.
“A big part of the program is staying clean and helping others,” he says. “Being able to perform a song with a lot of lyrics that people can relate to, and that other recovering addicts can relate to, is powerful.”
Joy Along The Way
Connecting with lyrics about recovery is one of the most important facets of clients’ time at the facility, says Amanda Luan. She fixes her eyes on the performers in the middle of the sound room, strumming their guitars and singing. The band members’ heads bob to the dips and jumps of the music. The counselors hand clients bongos to play along. They say it’s crucial to show clients how to enjoy themselves in recovery.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in eight years,” says Luan, 30, as a song comes to a close.
Luan checked into her first treatment facility at 18. She says she drank the day she was released.
“I haven’t had any fun. It’s been just pure addiction and isolation,” says Luan, who has spent nearly half her life struggling with addiction. “It’s very depressing.”
She says she ultimately decided to go to a rehabilitation center because she wanted to be a better mother for her young daughter.
“I started getting more and more depressed because I felt like I wasn’t able to watch her grow,” Luan says. “I just tried to keep her distracted while I got messed up. And that’s messed up.”
Luan says one day she knew that she couldn’t do it anymore; she needed help. She got in the backseat of her car and asked her mother to drive from her home in Laredo to Austin. When she woke up later that day, she was already admitted into Recovery Unplugged and about to undergo detox.
Although she’s not a musician, Luan says Recovery Unplugged’s methods have helped her. She says counselors also aided her in pinpointing reasons for her drinking problem and what perpetuated her addiction.
“I love that they don’t just focus on the addiction itself,” Luan says. “They go a little further and deeper. They encourage you to look deep inside.”
Luan says she feels like she’ll never touch a drink again.
“I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “I love my daughter so much, and now that I’m more clear headed, that’s all I can think about. I’m dying to see her.”