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Image: Music Therapy Offers New Hope for Addiction Recovery
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We’re in the middle of a drug-addiction epidemic in the United States, and increasing numbers of overdoses — and fatalities — have a lot of people worried. Many addicts are in and out of treatment centers and go right back to drugs and alcohol.

But Recovery Unplugged Treatment Centers have been reporting remarkable success using an innovative form of music therapy to treat addiction and help recovery.

Only about 7 percent of clients leave the centers’ facilities in Fort Lauderdale and Austin before completing treatment programs, according to Paul Pellinger, certified addictions counselor. The national average, he says, is 42-45 percent.

Richie Supa, famed songwriter and director of creative recovery at Recovery Unplugged, says the key to the organization’s success rate is the way the program uses music to speed recovery from addiction.

“Music does several things to the brain and the body,” Supa explains. “Everybody likes music and the lyrics. We didn’t invent the wheel, but applied it to addiction recovery.”

Pellinger explains that a growing body of evidence suggests music has unique and powerful impacts on the brain — not unlike the effects of drugs. Researchers have found it can ease depression and combat Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.

Studies have even shown listening to music fires endorphins — neurotransmitters generated in the brain’s pleasure centers — which can generate feelings of euphoria during exercise and other activities in ways comparable to exercise and psycho-pharmaceuticals.

“There is science behind music [impacts],” Pellinger says. “It lights up the brain like a hit of cocaine.

The center’s use of music starts before the client even arrives, Pellinger explains, and when they leave it goes with them.

Interviews conducted before arrival help the center to pinpoint a client’s music interests. When they are picked up by a driver, their favorite music is magically playing in the vehicle. When they leave treatment, they go with an MP3 player and earbuds.

“Focusing on consequences doesn’t really help an addict,” Pellinger says. “We need to communicate to the soul, not the head.”

The center’s success, Pellinger says, is based on several key principles. First of all, music helps to establish rapport with clients.

“If you don’t have this, you’re not going anywhere,” he says. “If they are still having trouble expressing ideas, there is probably a song about it. This provides engagement for them to start thinking and talking. Once we get them to talk about ‘their truth,’ I can help them re-frame it and normalize feelings.”

“We also use music as an anchor to help people remember things,” Pellinger said. “If I asked you what you had for lunch yesterday, you probably couldn’t tell me, but you could probably tell me what your favorite songs were years ago. This helps clients associate and remember.”

One of Richie Supa’s songs, “I’ve got this,” refers to the tendency of addicts and drunks to shrug off help. Former clients have talked about remembering those lyrics and being able to change behaviors. Clinicians are taught to communicate to the head, but music helps people remember what they need to do to stay sober.

The vibrations of music are also important in recovery. “People in post acute withdrawal are jumpy and have aching bones. The vibration of music penetrates the body and acts as a calming factor. Vibrations are equally as effective as Xanax if you let it work for you,” Pellinger says.

Eighty-five percent of the clients who treated by Recovery Unplugged are not musically trained, Pellinger says, but everyone still responds to music.

Supa’s involvement in Recovery Unplugged came after 26 years as a drug addict. When he went into recovery in 1988, he started writing a song called “Amazing” for Aerosmith.

The huge success of this song helped Supa see that he had done much more than write a good song. “Amazing” reached a lot of people who needed help, he says.

“People tell me that this song saved their lives. That planted a seed way back then,” Supa notes. “I know the dark side and I know walking out of the shadows into the sunlight. My new album, ‘Enemy,’ touches on all the emotions.”

Supa had been playing at detox centers before Recovery Unplugged, and started to see emotional responses to his music.

“I knew I was making a connection,” he says. He developed a one-man show called “Recovery Unplugged,” and when he met Pellinger, who has been an addictions counselor for 29 years, they knew they were on the same page.

Pellinger’s treatment center, then named “Harmony,” was renamed Recovery Unplugged and Supa became director of creative recovery.

“We got amazing results with music,” Supa says. “We allow clients to sing along and it provides a sense of unity. Music is non-threatening and when I deliver a message the clients don’t sit with their hands across their chest. There is no psycho-babble.”

Supa has invited his friend Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, among other musicians, to participate in programs at Recovery Unplugged.

One former client, 2 ½ years clean, is Doug Tibbs, also a musician.

“All the stories are similar,” Tibbs says. “You come to a fork in the road and you are going to die, or you’re going to get your life back.”

At Recovery Unplugged, Tibbs played with Supa twice a week.

“I had been in other places that were like hospitals, and Recovery Unplugged was the complete opposite,” he notes.

“Music is universal,” Tibbs says.

Supa agrees.

“The greatest thrill for me is when a parent hugs me and says thanks for getting my kid back,” Supa adds. “If you want to find yourself, lose yourself in helping other people. This is a rebirth for me.”

For more information about Recovery Unplugged: 954-703-6152.

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