I got sober and lost my mojo

I feel no pleasure in music. How can I get my talent back?

By Cary Tennis
Published November 29, 2010 12:01AM (EST)

Hi, Cary —

There haven't been letters dealing with artists since you resumed writing, off the top of my head. I enjoyed those! [There might have been one or two, but I can't find them right now, either!--ct]

I moved to New York to play music and write songs, following the sluice shoot of playing in a few different bands and eventually placing having my own band as the top priority.

Almost 10 years later I don't finish songs anymore or really pick up my instrument.

I still play shows, played one a couple of weeks ago, played three Fridays in September.

I associate my lack of excitement with music with my lack of excitement about living at all with my sobriety. I'm about three and a half years since my last drink, and I work a program.

Sometimes I feel such mourning for when I could just drink what I want, have the dreams I want of music, believably live a life of my choosing.

Why can't I have my music ambitions in sobriety?

I mean, yeah, I get it. I can. I can do whatever I want as long as I accept the consequences (as my sponsor says).

But why can't I?

It remains so hard to believe I deserve any good thing.

And the idea of deserving songs that I like, something I haven't accomplished in dozens' worth...

And the idea I could have any audience...

And the idea I'm not too old (36)...

These ideas, probably just because I'm stuck in the past (and is it even important what that is specifically?), are daily impossibilities in my mind.

I don't want to just go to another meeting and act like things are getting better. I don't have a job, have struggled to find one since getting let go in November.

I don't feel lovable, let alone experience that with anyone I've dated in years. And I just feel lost in terms of what I'm here for.

It gets dark. Suicidal thoughts become compulsive, even more, actually, than thinking about just taking a drink. I don't know if you can make anything of this, but I really treasure your insights.

I'm not doing a lot of editing here.

What do you tell someone suffering a lack of belief in something greater than themselves? Just ... be grateful? I try. And I try to make this a game of building faith.

Most moments there is such nothingness.

Thanks for whatever thoughts you offer, and know that I am hanging on whether you can address this at all. I just want it to get better.


Dear D,

Like you, I am an alcoholic in sobriety. I'm also a musician.

I can't fix your depression. But I can hang out with you and talk about what it's been like for me. And I can suggest that you seek treatment for depression, separately from and in addition to your sobriety program.

I mean, we're both just sitting on the bench, waiting for the bus of feeling better to arrive. And sometimes we want to get up and scream because the bus of feeling better is never going to come.

It sucks sometimes. But we don't let it get us down.

Because we're not doing this just for ourselves. We're doing it for all the other poor suckers who are also alcoholics and addicts, who are thinking maybe they'd quit if only life wasn't a total hell after you quit. We're doing this to show that life is not a total hell after you quit. We can laugh about this.

I mean, this is much better than it was, isn't it? Here I am answering a letter from you about how to get back into music and how to enjoy life.

If we were drinking, we wouldn't even be close to this good.

So this is a welcome chance to talk about my own experiences with music, and playing music in sobriety.

Drinking and drug use ruined my music career. That's a blunt statement, but it's true.

Basically, the same thing happened with music that happened with writing: I started out innocent, with a love of the thing and with talent, and I got hurt, and I got my ego involved and started doing it for external reasons, like it was some kind of con and not a sacred relationship, and got all screwed up, naturally, until I could hardly do it at all anymore, not well, not poorly, not at all, and then I hit bottom and was humbled and got right with the musical spirit again, and now I can do it with humility and confidence. I'm not back onstage yet, but I'm playing and enjoying it, and I think I'll be back onstage soon.

I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to this point, and maybe it won't have to take you that long if you can benefit from my experience. If you're anything like me, you've got to start playing what makes you feel better.

While recovering from cancer surgery, I found myself often alone in the middle of the night.

I found solace in playing the guitar. This was something I had lost.

I began to play again for how it made me feel, and that has made all the difference.

I had begun playing the guitar as an adolescent for the solace it provided. I was a lonely, moody kid, and the guitar consoled me.

But as I gained status from it in school and among my friends, I began to see it more as a kind of performance for which I would be rewarded by others. As this took over and the years went by, eventually I could no longer find the intimate personal satisfaction I had formerly gotten from playing. After a while, this deprived me of motivation to play.

In the middle of the night, alone and in pain, I rediscovered how music could bring me comfort. I found it pleasurable to practice scales and thus improve my ability to play, which in turn will allow me to return to playing for audiences eventually. Here is what it feels like to play guitar these days:

Do I like the sound that is coming out of the guitar? Do I like the way my fingers feel on the frets? Is there energy in my chest? Am I feeling something as I am playing? Is it feeling good? Do I feel stronger as I play? Am I breathing?

This may not be the right way to do it. But I was killing my musical spirit by trying to do it the way it was supposed to be done. I don't care anymore about doing it the way it is supposed to be done, or about impressing other guitar players. Am I feeling good about it? Am I liking what comes out? Is it helping me feel better? Is it helping me get over the blues?

Sometimes I can be "playing the blues" but not "feeling the blues." There's nothing worse than music empty of feeling.

There I go being judgmental again. I do have to stop the judgment and just listen to what comes out of the guitar, what comes out of my chest, what comes out of my fingers.

There is sadness there, too. I play sad. I do. I feel sadness when I play. It comes out. So OK. So that is what comes out.

I also have some anger. Because music instruction was murder. It was about authority and punishment. The music instructors were the scariest. They weren't kind, generous, fun men who wanted us to learn how to express ourselves. They were scary Southern Christian authority-type men, full of punishment and scorn. They would yell if you didn't do it right. So that was my introduction to music, and the joy of it was torn from me. So I hated going into music class. I was in the junior high school band and played trombone. Trombone!

Then I traded in the trombone for an acoustic guitar and took lessons from the brilliant Del Staton.

And that was amazing. That changed everything. I encountered the magic of the guitar. So then I practiced like mad and got good.

So for a while I was pure in my pursuit of music. But then when I moved to San Francisco, I lost my way. It will take a good bit of introspection to come to an understanding of just how I lost my way. It will take re-creating some of those scenes. But that is what happened. I lost my way and became addicted to drugs and alcohol.

I hate oversimplifying it like that. There were noble motives. It was not a simple matter. It is not like it was a waste. It is more like I went to war. Things happened too quickly to respond to or understand. We got shelled. It took time to recover.

Now I am back.

I'm enjoying playing again and I've begun to write songs. I find, after so much time, I sort of don't know how to write a song, structurally speaking, but songs are coming out of my chest. And I have to shape them. And music is coming out of me. I don't know what to call it. I go into music stores and play their guitars and I don't know what it is that I'm playing.

It almost feels like revenge. Not revenge, exactly, but sort of fuck you.

So my advice to you, my friend, is to find a way to play only for yourself, and rip into it. If that means putting on headphones and locking yourself in your room and turning off the lights and playing only for yourself in the dark, then do that. Dream it. Follow it. Let it take you. Do it for yourself.

Feel what you are playing. Play only what feels right. Put it down when you stop feeling it. Pick it up when you feel like it. Play what comes out.

Watch how you are standing and how you are breathing and listen for something in the notes; watch how you feel as you are playing.

Play for the dance of it. Sometimes lately when I am strumming, my hand feels like a dancer, like it is dancing on the strings. It feels fluid, relaxed, rhythmic. Actually play the music. Not the notes, but the music. I find if my hand wants to dance and move rhythmically, then that rhythm and dance will come out.

But not to take it too far. Dancing with my feet does no good. We still have to be able to control the instrument. It's not about dancing with your body so much as dancing with your hands, or your lips if you are playing a wind instrument. Or maybe it is like a painter who will dance with the brush.

What I liked about the punk scene was that we were all saying fuck you to the nasty authoritarians who had made us afraid of music, who had made us conform. But what I want from the music is not protest, but rescue. Now I'm after rescue. I go to the guitar seeking rescue.

Wow. I just smelled trombone oil. That was weird. I had this smell come back to me and the whole velvet case appeared, the whole gorgeous coppery-colored bell of the trombone, the slinky slide, the mouthpiece. Wow. I've been shopping for a new guitar and thinking about that old trombone. Seventh position was hard to reach.

B natural was always a stretch.

That could be a slogan: Be natural. It's always a stretch.

That Special Time of Year

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Since You Asked