Just now I got slightly choked up listening to country superstars Alabama and teen pop boy band *NSYNC’s collaboration on the sappy “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” I even sang along: “Your love is like a river, peaceful and deep . . .”
Such moments are now more common in my life because I’m learning to feel my feelings without judging them—or acting on them to justify addictive behavior. I am a recovery miracle. I don’t care if people laugh at me for moments like this. I’m proud of my recovery—it’s not always peaceful, but it is deep.
I can’t believe I just wrote that. I’m not only a recovering addict; I’m a recovering snob, especially when it comes to music. I grew up immersing myself in my parents’ vinyl collection of ‘60s folk, in oldies radio, and in narratives of the classic rock canon—and later challenging the alleged superiority of that music and those narratives.
I have long indulged in arguments about music being “authentic,” but the more I read about the problems with such arguments, the more I challenge my own entrenched snobbery while also learning compassion for myself and my old ways.
It’s funny, though: the longer I’m alive, the more I come back to the music of my childhood, authentic or otherwise. And I can accept the music—and more importantly, I can accept myself.
As a child, I was diagnosed as autistic: socially disabled while possessing a practically obscene memory for music history facts, names, and dates. Today I can name a music history event of every year from 1909 until 2020.
Of course, as many autistics have found, having an extraordinary passion does not often translate into social skills, and I can recall a bountiful number of memories where I argued with other kids—and sometimes with teachers—about incorrect facts and apparently indefensible opinions.
And I loved to argue about music, dismissing plenty of music as “overrated”—often playing it in the background, without listening to lyrics or beats. I can’t count the number of classic albums I was initially disappointed by and later came around to appreciating.
I was never an indie music snob, but I acted like one around eighth grade, pretending to hear music I hadn’t. I look back at that phase of my life as having been pointlessly elitist—not that that elitism left me immediately after.
When I was in high school, I was obsessed with music reviews, occasionally writing a few of my own and expressing my opinions to anyone who would listen, including plenty of people who vehemently didn’t care.
But the highlight of my childhood was a music-centered school project studying hip hop and heavy metal under the supervision of the Chicago Tribune rock critic, Greg Kot, in tenth grade. I had so much fun, writing extra assignments. Kot wrote on my project evaluation that I did the work “with enthusiasm and verve.”
However, as Kot knew from me then calling in to his radio show, I was quite opinionated about music I loved—and especially music I didn’t. I look back and shake my head at having denied the greatness of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On because it wasn’t a collection of great songs; it was a concept album, after all.
While not everyone with strong opinions may be an addict, many an addict has strong opinions. And back then, I exhibited addictive tendencies that would carry on into my adulthood. When I was in high school, I started drinking a lot of coffee, which accelerated several trajectories of addiction. The constant bullying that I got made me want to numb pain any way I could.
And I did. Being on meds and told that I shouldn’t consume drugs or alcohol, I’ve never touched them, save for a few sips of wine as a kid—I know I dodged the metaphorical bullet on that one. (Speaking of which, as autistic, I can’t naturally understand metaphors, so using them has taken a lot of practice.)
But I found plenty of opportunities to act on other addictive habits, whether or not they appeared self-destructive.
And of course, when I moved out-of-state to college, everything got better for my social life and worse for my addictions. I overdid plenty of process addictions that gave me a chemical high—that elusive dopamine hit that proved ever-distracting from my academics and temporarily from haunting memories of childhood.
In my first year of college, I found out that people close to me had been medicating with addictive behaviors because they couldn’t stomach watching me suffer from bullying; that was necessary for me to find out, as it put many things into perspective, but at the time it didn’t help with my sense of victimhood.
And my own active addictions fed both my sense of belonging and my sense of isolation. I could be more social with some behaviors and utterly secretive—I thought—with others, compartmentalizing them—including from myself, to the point where I didn’t realize I had a problem with them for many years.
There’s a saying I’ve learned in recovery, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” In my case, I was only as sick as my lack of public boundaries and my supposed secrets, depending on the addiction. Both sides of that duality reinforced my SHAME: the feeling that I Should Have Already Mastered Everything.
College both challenged my sense of entitlement and reaffirmed it. I met my best friend, another music geek, early on freshman year, and the only real verbal fight we’ve ever had happened shortly after when I challenged his claim that “Nirvana started a revolution.”
The 1990s grunge icons may or may not have accomplished such a feat, but the relativist in me pounced on this idea, claiming that it’s impossible to generalize about influence because, basically, “all influence matters,” yada yada yada.
What garbage, I think now, but today I can look back with compassion for my fragile ego of the time.
A few semesters after that argument, I was taking an African History class when a student made the grave mistake of claiming that John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson died the year that Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe, 1980. “No!” I exclaimed. “Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died in 1984!”
Sensing that I could be easily agitated, the student said, “Are you sure?”
“Serious as a heart attack. Marvin Gaye died April 1, 1984, the day before his forty-fifth birthday. He was shot by his father. I read a biography of him in sixth grade.”
We went back and forth about this for half a minute, until our professor interrupted and asked me, “What are you looking at?”
My computer was there. “My calendar,” I said innocently.
The professor paused, and then: “OF DEAD PEOPLE?!” Everyone cracked up laughing, and for the moment, I saw the folly in my ways.
Nevertheless, there was never an isolated incident of my self-righteousness—no, my need to correct others and be correct proved typical.
That said, I was not only a jerk in college; despite my self-absorption, I gained my first real friends my age, learning to take a greater interest in others, though with plenty of times messing up at that.
When I walked at graduation in 2010, I remember my face turning bright red because when I walked on that stage, hundreds of people stood up and cheered for me. I never could have seen that coming, and a decade later, I’m still in disbelief that I went from having no close friends for the first eighteen years of my life to having that happen—and to an openly autistic, gay, Jewish, awkward guy who never drank or did drugs his entire time in college, no less. I’ll never forget that day.
But whether I was celebrating such an occasion or lamenting its absence, after I finished college my issues continued to surface. In 2012, I was living with my grandmother in Chicago, feeling aimless and lost with different issues in my life, struggling with finding work. After a situation made it clear that I desperately needed help, I joined a spiritual recovery group in August. I was in and out of that group for a few months, but early in 2013, I grew closer to that group and the people in it when something bizarre happened.
Around the time that I left an unbearable job at a grocery store, I heard a song that would change my life with how I interpreted it. I looked up a teen pop song that I had hated when I’d heard it in 2003 during one of my brief top 40 radio phases. It’s no masterpiece—of any kind—but I unsuspectingly played the song, and within my first listen in a decade, I heard something in it that surely few had:
Help me figure out the difference
Between right and wrong, weak from strong
Day and night where I belong
Help me make the right decisions
Know which way to turn, lessons to learn
Just what my purpose is here
It hit me like a ton of bricks. This song was about an imagined love, but I heard it as about something far bigger than me—some kind of Higher Power in the universe. I wasn’t a believer in any kind of god at that point, but in that moment, I became open and willing not only to teen pop, but also to the possibility that there was something out there that could indeed help me.
Simply put, I heard the Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter’s “Help Me” as “God, Help Me”: God, help me find just what my purpose is here.
That song singlehandedly opened a door in my mind to be willing to do things differently. I started going to meetings more regularly, sharing more openly about what I was going through, signing up for service work and gradually ingratiating myself to fit more into the group.
At the time I was dumbfounded that a teen pop song could have that kind of effect on my life, but music was always a crucial part of how I experienced the world and my circumstances. So, in the long run, it made perfect sense.
The following year, as I was getting more involved in that group, a couple of members suggested that I check out a different recovery group for other issues that I struggle with. I went to my first meeting in June 2014 and started noticing patterns in my life that I’d never noticed before. As that group had more meetings in Chicago, that fellowship changed my life and quickly became my second community I’d ever had—after college.
I was a wreck in many ways. I was in the middle of a fifteen-month severe manic episode due to a medication change that new insurance necessitated. I’ve always loved to talk, but this was a whole new quantity of words that I was fitting into sentences. My statements went on for minutes at a time due to pressured speech, as did long texts and e-mails.
So, needless to say, I alienated many people during this time. I wasn’t showering most days because I was sick, and that trend continued as I found and entered a graduate program for English. Initially, after the suggested six meetings of that recovery program, I announced that I didn’t qualify, and everyone said, “Keep coming back!” I realized soon after that I did—and I would not stop coming back . . . and talking.
While I can be hard on myself for the behavior that I exhibited, I’m grateful to say that multiple factors have since shifted how I act at meetings. One was the restoration of the better medication, ending the mania. But more than that, many people started noticing that I was showing up in a different way once I started working with a new sponsor in 2016.
My first sponsor in that program was great, but I needed a different approach after struggling with sobriety (and yes, they use that term in this fellowship) and nearly making a dissertation out of my list of resentments: at least 350 from my whole life—having an exceptional memory can also feel like a curse.
And yes, certain musicians, genres, authors and critics, and ideas about music met my prodigious wrath on the list, including smooth jazz. (It’s not a genre of music! Then again, what is a genre . . .)
My new sponsor was more structured and more based in traditional recovery literature and practice. When we started working together, I was willing to try whatever it took to get better, even though I hadn’t hit a rough bottom in that addiction.
“The God thing” was a barrier when I first got into recovery. I was raised Reform Jewish until I had a depressive episode at age ten and became a belligerent atheist for my adolescence and early adulthood. And as a gay man, condemned by much mainstream discourse on religion, for years I couldn’t conceive of having any god in my life.
Thankfully, multiple sponsors have made it clear to me that willingness to believe in something greater than myself is all I need to work these recovery programs. I’ve also heard the acronym GOD as standing for Good Orderly Direction. I can be undisciplined, so the idea of anything orderly in my life seems bizarre, but useful.
And I would listen to that Nick Carter song often to ground me in a sense of how my Higher Power was working in my life.
Still, the most relevant part of working the program this time around was when, going through my much shorter inventory of resentments (limited to 100), my sponsor said, “You’re very snooty.”
“Really?” I said.
Of course, I hadn’t seen things that way, but that statement made sense, what with resentments like “rockism,” a philosophy of music that I grew up immersed in, and multiple styles of country music—of which I am definitely a fan—including “Wal-mart country” and “alt.country,” for different reasons, though my part in these resentments was consistent: I’m judgmental, so it is not my business to judge such matters.
That fact may sound obvious, but to me, it was a revelation. I’d never thought of anything to do with judging music as none of my business. Maybe white male entitlement contributed to that level of snootiness, though my autistic memory may have actually made me right on some occasions.
Regardless, before recovery, I did not know how to back off from being metaphorically in-your-face with an opinion, which would be a minor development for some, but for me, it was monumental.
When I came to a point in recovery where I got my list of negative character patterns, surprise of surprises, snobbery and self-righteousness were among the first listed. My therapist perceptively noted that this list of patterns existed on a spectrum between an inflated and a depressed ego: “I am right, I am everything, and I know everything” coexisting with “I am wrong, I am nothing, and I know nothing.”
From there I worked on some of my snooty self-pity, or egomania with an inferiority complex. In different ways, challenging my negative patterns was a game-changer for me because it directly involved going against entrenched ways of thinking and acting for the first time.
I heard and read about contrary action and “acting as if”: doing the opposite of what you’re used to doing until it becomes easier. It was a life-changing practice. For me, it involves listening to others, including when I disagree; not having to be right all the time; and sometimes sitting in uncomfortable situations and reminding myself, “This too shall pass.”
I’ve tended to rage against or numb discomfort in any way that I can, so attempting contrary action daily against different patterns, including seemingly nonaddictive ones, can be rough when I’m hard on myself for doing things imperfectly.
But listening to others spew seemingly inane opinions about music proved a foundational way to practice doing life differently.
Nonetheless, the biggest area of my life where this made a difference was with a relative with whom I haven’t always gotten along. Regardless of whether or not they do the same for me, I work really hard to show up consistently for them, listen, and not judge their situation.
We’ve fought like the devil at times, but for the most part, that’s in the past. And my showing up differently has made a huge difference to both of us. We have a better relationship today. And part of that is me not feeling the need to be right all the time, like when we disagree.
I can let things go more easily. That is a recovery miracle.
And in the words of a song I would have mocked several years ago, I know that “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes.” (It’s Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.”) When it comes to apologies, I’ve sometimes mistaken metaphorical Band-Aids for amends, but thanks to recovery, while I don’t need to make amends for badmouthing smooth jazz, I have realized how to take responsibility for harm that I have caused.
I observe friends who chronically apologize without having done work on themselves to change their behavior, and all I can say is, I live differently today. I work actively to repair the damage that I have caused.
When I’ve done direct amends in recovery, the results have ranged from gentle dismissal (“You were never a burden; I just wanted to do what I could to help you”) to acceptance to chilling silence at a tombstone.
The process has been emotionally freeing, however imperfectly. I still struggle with guilt and resentment, but much less than I used to. Progress, not perfection, one day at a time.
When I look back on my life, I’m reminded of “the miracles, y’all, that got me here, make a grown man wanna cry happy tears.” I just lip-synced those words with this song playing in my headphones and made a triumphant fist.
The song, a mainstream country track called “If That Ain’t God” by Chris Young, is a recent addition to my recovery playlist on Spotify, which call my “Staying Present with Positive Music playlist.” It’s VERY eclectic, over 500 songs, and the healthiest playlist I listen to for my well-being.
There are plenty of songs on it about being proud of who you are, whatever that means: Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and any number of songs that don’t apply to my identity are on this playlist, which I like best on shuffle.
But there are also a number of songs about God or other Higher Powers, especially in gospel music and—occasionally—Christian rock. “He Knows My Name” by Francesca Battistelli was one of my top played tracks on Spotify in 2017, and I still like it. My idea of God—however defined, as accepting as I need Them to be—knows who I am, and whatever happens in this pandemic, I know that my Higher Power will take care of me.
And the somewhat more tangible reality that I feel today that others have commented on at meetings is that with all the self-absorption I’ve exhibited, I’m learning to both love myself and share for the benefit of others. I’ve become known at my meetings as someone who reaches out to newcomers to let them know that they’re not alone, no matter how much pain they’re in.
Given how I shared when I first got to these programs—I’ve referred to myself as a “jackass,” which others have kindly dismissed by saying things like, “You weren’t a jackass. You were a mess”—this ongoing outreach feels like an accomplishment, like real progress. I try hard to observe the recovery programs’ traditions at meetings, which means, among other things, avoiding discussing outside issues, irrelevant literature, or events to promote.
When I expressed concern that I had brought up an outside issue in a share, another long-timer, who knew me at the beginning of my journey in that fellowship, said, “I think you’re the least likely person here to break the traditions.”
I laughed and said, “Wow. That is a shift!”
My life has been all about shifts. With my autism, I struggle to adjust to change and transitions, but one of the bigger, surprisingly more welcome shifts is my imperfect turn away from music snobbery and the need to be right all the time.
I can appreciate the stories in mainstream country music, the beats in hip hop—I naturally notice beautiful melodies more than danceable rhythms—and, sometimes, the inventive use of Auto-Tune in top 40 pop.
And maybe I’ll learn to appreciate smooth jazz someday, but we’ll see. In the meantime, I think of my late grandmother complaining about hearing commercial Christmas music everywhere: “Enough with, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’!”
I’m still there. Progress, not perfection.
In 2019, I gave a lead speaker share at a spiritual retreat and closed it with playing part of my version of that teen pop song that’s been inspiring me for years:
God, help me figure out the difference
Between right and wrong, weak from strong
Day and night, where I belong
And God, help me make the right decisions
Know which way to turn, lessons to learn
Just what my purpose is here.
To be of service to others and to share my story and my love of music: that’s what my purpose is here. I’ve had to do a lot of work to get out of my own way, and this song helped enable such work.
People at such retreats and at regular meetings have called my leads and regular shares fearless, earnest, full of humor, and as evidence that I am learning to love myself.
Today I have more tangible recovery than I’ve ever had, whether in terms of abstinence or sobriety or in terms of my life having gotten better since I started recovery, including with dozens of publications.
Even more important, I’ve learned greater self-acceptance. In the words of the above song as I hear them, “I should know the Truth, but I’m too afraid so I have to ask, God, help me.” I’m closer to that T(t)ruth, one day at a time.
Some of my best friends and at least one ex are music snobs. That’s their right. But today I don’t feel the need to be right all the time. Now, that is a shift.
Lastly, here is my list of ten unmentioned songs I’ve learned to appreciate because of recovery and less snobbery (in no particular order):
There’s a reason this song has been called a “potent tearjerker.” One of the best story songs I’ve ever heard.
I have now two articles published related to this song: one about mental illness (which helped win an Honorable Mention in a national communications contest), the other about isolation and coronavirus. This song now means more to me than most songs, no matter how overplayed it once was.
A brilliantly written song that has come to mean so much to so many who have experienced death.
I don’t care what you say about mainstream country music; this deeply felt, sensual love song will be at my wedding, if I ever get there.
When I listen to this ever-direct, chatty, and brilliantly infectious pop song, I don’t care how problematic Taylor Swift’s behavior has been—at all.
One of the catchiest records that I have ever heard. I don’t care if people say this isn’t “real” country music; that argument’s garbage anyway. (That is for a separate article.)
A massive alternative pop-rock hit on VH1 that I hated hearing overplayed back in 2000. I welcome overplaying it now in my earbuds.
An exceptionally well-written country song that feels true-to-life.
Yes, this is formulaic “bro country.” I don’t care. Any music lover can relate to the thrill of a great song and wanting to rehear it.
This is very sentimental. It reminds me of a relative who has done everything for me. I make no apologies.
And with that, I’ll pass. Thank you.