This post was originally published on March 15, 2016.
I’m in awe, if not downright suspicious, of people who get sober on their own. It just seems impossible. AA meetings rooted me in a community while my sponsor guided me through a mysterious world of “steps” and “working a solid program.” However, if someone told me they got sober strictly by listening to music, I’d actually believe them. In my first few weeks of sobriety, I had music and podcasts piped non-stop into my ears. While music has always been important to me, I didn’t hear it the same way I did when I was chugging beer at concerts. I wasn’t actually listening when I drank. In those first weeks, I clung to music like some people held rosary beads.
There are dozens of “recovery song” lists floating out there, but most of them seem required to include Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers or any number of Eminem tracks. Nothing against those songs, but lists like that are wallpaper to me—they’re everywhere. Here are 13 songs (for luck!) that helped me through my struggles over the years. Maybe I’ve assigned meaning to these songs where there isn’t any, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. I use these as prisms through which to view how far I’ve come in sobriety.
Tell me there’s not a more rousing sobriety song than this. This isn’t even necessarily about alcoholism or addiction—it’s just about making a conscious decision to be a better person. The refrain “I didn’t even know I was broken until I wanted to change” could find itself at home in virtually any recovery memoir.
Singer-songwriter Frank Turner blew my doors off with this anthem, which comes off as something of a sober call-to-arms. He’s smart enough to know that the secret to repairing himself is to not be overwhelmed by the idea of it. “I’m trying to get better ’cause I haven’t been my best” is simple, yes, but it’s nothing without his equally simple, confident promise “We can get better because we’re not dead yet.”
99.9% of the time with a song, I assume the singer is addressing someone else but not when it came to singer-songwriter Mary Lynn. I listened when she said “Hey you.” This quietly propulsive song hammers ahead with a laundry list of everyday to-do items—washing your face, brushing your teeth—that serves as an instruction manual for how to actually be human. After decades of drinking, I needed the reminder. This song singlehandedly assured me it was time to stop beating myself up. I couldn’t shoulder the responsibility of living a sober life if I was weighed down by guilt. Mary Lynn’s song is as simple and inspiring as it is an ode to personal forgiveness.
This song is the equivalent of listening to a sunrise. When I first got out of treatment, I played it over and over again. Singer-songwriter Vienna Teng’s voice seemed to peek through the clouds and instructed me to “begin again.” When she sings, “Call it your 2.0, your rebirth, your whatever,” I did. I attribute this song to my sobriety as much as anything or anyone.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Michael Penn, but his stripped-down “Long Way Down” speaks to me on many different levels. It’s so raw and strained that it evokes exactly what I felt like in my most hungover moments. “If I wear apathy’s crown, don’t call me highness, it’s a long way down” reminds me that there’s always a relapse around the corner if I take any of this for granted.
Not the most obvious choice, but this is one of the absolute best recovery songs I know. While it’s ostensibly about the breakup of The Beatles, it’s also primarily about living in the here and now: “Forget about the past and all your sorrows / the future won’t last / it will soon be over tomorrow.” Anything that’s worth anything in life is difficult, which this song reminds me of every time I hear it.
I often wonder about all the lives of the people in songs and books long after the music’s over and the covers are shut. It took me 5,000 listens to this AM radio staple to realize it’s about a guy who just wants to settle down and stop partying. I like to think the protagonist’s friend finally followed his dream about “buying some land” and getting out of that city desert. (Bonus points for that epic saxophone solo, by the way.)
Call this one a touchstone for self-destructive alcoholics everywhere. Sobriety scares me for the same reason this song speaks to my doubts: “Did I build this ship to wreck?” It’s a question I ask myself every day in sobriety, but I’d rather take the chance out at sea.
Most days, I feel specifically designed to dash myself across the shoreline of my bad decisions. The more I build myself up in sobriety, the more I fear that I’ll ruin it all. Florence helps me remember that.
Aimee Mann’s voice is as glassy and fragile as it gets, but it’s equally strong and exquisite. I remember listening to this song in a parked car, bleary eyed, half-drunk and waiting for my son to race out of kindergarten. Instead of being eager to see him, I was ashamed and broken. This song always fills me with that same sick stab of melancholy: desperately wanting to break a cycle that kept me from being fully present and in the moment.
This one perfectly captures how I felt in my first few weeks of early sobriety: Kurt Vile’s mentally working out his life while he’s half-asleep here—his brain slowly coming to terms with his past. He labors through the lyrics—not quite here, not quite there. It’s like it’s hard for him to write a concise three-minute track, which is why it takes nine minutes to get anywhere. But, like me putting one day after another together, he shuffles forward. He has no urgency, no plan, and nothing to prove. It’s beautiful in its own sketchmarked, aimless way.
I remember hearing this song and fantasizing that someone was clawing their way to my rescue, begging me to let them in. Now that I’m sober, it’s flipped: I’m fighting against Peter Buck’s sickened reverb, imploring a sick and suffering friend to let me inside. It’s served two purposes at two separate yet distinct points in my life.
Most songs unfold like little short films in my brain. My first few weeks in sobriety come to mind here: white sky, snowy streets, bare trees. I became a character in the song itself: a man walking alone, wondering what was going to happen, not understanding why he was there. The lyric “Oh, I’ve seen how this whole thing ends / the honest man survives” is just a gut punch after decades of lying to everyone and expecting a different, happier outcome.
Gather up every emotion I felt as an active alcoholic—the social anxiety, jangled nerves, guilt, isolation, and the general bleakness of every single day—and you get the long, haunted stretch that is “Afraid of Everyone.” That’s what this song is for me: bottled dread. Sometimes just hearing this song is enough to keep me sober.
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