SPECIAL REPORT: Addiction and Treatment Options Designed for Musicians

“Creativity may be different after recovery, but it will not disappear.”

Ozzy Osbourne, Kurt Cobain, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Garcia, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash; this is an impressive list of talented musicians. While they have great talent in common, they have something else in common; they all struggled with addiction. Some initially used substances to spur or augment their creativity, or to help them cope with life on the road – they all found that eventually the substance took over. Once they entered the realm of addiction, overcoming the addiction proved hard; some succeeded while others did not. There are some special challenges facing musicians who want to overcome addiction, especially for the independent artist. Luckily, there are also many resources and solutions.

Many musicians feel that drugs aid their creative process and fear that life without the chemical muse will be daunting. Most people have a fear of the unknown; it is even more difficult when taking chances that may affect a person’s livelihood and personal identity. How much of a part did the drug play in the creative process? Without the drug, will the artist still be able to bring the same energy and insight? Is there life after drugs?

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In reality, a person will experience a change in ability and creativity, especially early in the recovery process. Excessive drug use (and I should point out that this includes alcohol, which is considered a liquid drug in the world of treatment) brings about chemical changes in the brain. There is a period of time when the brain is trying to get back into balance; during that period, many normal functions seem strange and difficult. Needless to say, creativity is likely to also suffer. Luckily, that period, while it may last months, is temporary. With patience, a person will get through that time. It is important that a person know this is normal and temporary. Creativity may be different after recovery, but it will not disappear.

Another challenge for the independent musician may be the cost of treatment. Many working musicians may lack health insurance that would help cover the cost of treatment. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), known to many as Obamacare, is helping to provide subsidized insurance for many people; a number of working musicians could qualify for either free or very low-cost health insurance. Another advantage of the ACA is that it creates parity between medical and mental health/addiction services, making sure that people have access to the help needed to deal with addiction.

It is always important to find a source of treatment that respects who you are and what you are about; sometimes musicians find this more difficult. Some addiction professionals may suggest “getting away from the lifestyle” of performing, and others may not understand what drives a performing musician. There are some treatment programs that specialize in treating musicians with addiction issues. One great example is Right Turn, based in Arlington, Massachusetts. The founder of Right Turn, Woody Giessmann, was a drummer for the Del Fuegos until addiction led him to make a change in his life. As a result, Right Turn incorporates creativity into the treatment process. Other resources include MusiCares, funded by the Grammys, and the website Rockers in Recovery.

Aside from professional treatment, there are self-help groups that can help people deal with addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are the best-known and easiest to find groups, but some members of these groups are too rigid in their thinking for many musicians to find comfortable. I suggest that folks shop around to find a group they find accepting as each individual group has a personality of its own. There are also groups like SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), and many others that can be found through an Internet search. All of these self-help groups have online meetings as well as “real-life” meetings, which can be helpful for the touring musician. While self-help groups are helpful, and some may recover solely though self-help groups, many still find that professional help is important.

The hardest thing in addiction recovery is maintaining the change. This can be especially hard for the independent, working musician. Many gigs are located in bars where alcohol and other drugs can be readily available. Many venues offer free drinks to the band, and many fans will send drinks to the musicians. Folks freely offer other substances as well. For a person in recovery, constantly being put in the position of having to say “no” can be difficult. It can also be difficult seeing people who are actively using the drug you are trying to quit. A familiar adage in the recovery community is to avoid people, places, and things. The working, independent musician finds that especially difficult. On the other hand, many musicians find that performing helps their recovery, as it puts them in touch with the core of their being, and helps them to feel whole.

Despite the challenges, many musicians have successfully overcome addictions while maintaining the life of a working musician. Though being a superstar with an entourage may help (you could carry your own AA meeting with you), many independent musicians have managed to remain working musicians while maintaining recovery. Woody Giessmann remains active as a musician, though most of his work now is within the recovery community. Stevie Ray Vaughan continued to record and tour after his stint in rehab. He was unsure if he could continue to perform at that point, but he not only did well, he thrived. Many others continue to make music as they build their recovery.

Drugs and rock and roll seem to be inseparable in the minds of many, but you can be a happy, creative, and successful musician and be clean and sober. The key is to find your path to recovery, and to follow it faithfully.


Gary Blanchard is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor in Massachusetts. He is the author of three books and speaks at national and regional addiction conferences. He was named MAADAC’s Counselor of the Year for 2014. Gary has also been writing songs and performing since the late 1960s.

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