Dear James

Dear James

Issue 24 by M. Betsy Smith

When my son Justin first battled alcoholism, he used music to ease his agony. He played guitar and wrote sensitive, deeply personal songs during those difficult years. As a part of his recovery, he recorded a CD he titled Vinegar and Vigilance. It was apt. His songs told of his loneliness, his prayers, and of loves he lost. His deep voice quivered at times, but his lyrics and skillful guitar playing helped to carry him through to sobriety.

Several years later, in 2007, I was listening to his CD, and it hit me that I should try to sell his songs for him. If I liked them, others probably would too. They were good. Music had helped him to recover, but I believed his songs could do more, maybe even generate money to pay college loans and ease financial worries. So, with his permission, I sent copies of his CD to famous people, lots of them. I explained that, in trying to sell my son's musical manifestation of heartache, I wasn’t looking for a handout but payment for something meaningful and valuable. The songs should be played on the radio, or maybe they could become a soundtrack for a movie that portrayed an alcoholic’s struggle. I wanted them to be heard because I knew the lyrics would resonate with others who had suffered or were suffering with alcoholism or addiction. Both exact a huge toll. Justin lost six years of his life due to a disease he owned but did not want or ask for. I prayed there would be no more personal costs exacted for this disease, or for his sobriety.

I received one response to my shameless sales pitch, an autographed picture that said, "To Justin…Hang in, carry on...James Taylor." Of all the celebrities to whom I wrote, I knew James Taylor was intimately familiar with the power of music to heal because some of his song lyrics reference his struggles with alcohol, drugs, and mental health. He openly shares his history. At one time, I watched an interview where he gave credit to his father for saving him. He told the story of how his Dad drove straight from North Carolina to New York City in 1967, to get and bring his drug addicted son back home to North Carolina to recover. I can relate to his father's efforts to save his child. I don't know if James listened to Justin's songs. He responded to my letter; that was enough.

Justin had been sober for five years and was in graduate school in England when I mailed my letters and his CD. His grad school loans were a staggering six figures. However, I believed his education at Cambridge, and his studies in China, were worth the cost. With a world-class education he could do anything. I saw the glass as half-full. I didn't know the glass would break.

A hospital psychologist once told me that relapse happens, but the longer my son was sober the more convinced I became that it wouldn't happen to him. By the time Justin's sobriety had lasted for nearly ten years, it seemed he had truly conquered the disease. His daily efforts to live sober, his diligence, and his dedication to his studies resulted in great academic success, treasured friendships, world travels, and ultimately a good job. I didn't think he would ever lose his grip.

Then it happened. An unexpected job loss in 2012 totally derailed him and he crashed. He was angry and believed he had done all that he was supposed to do to have a good life, a good job, and be happy. He took the layoff personally, even though the company was to be sold. I could see the anger turn into depression as he became more and more stagnant. He collected unemployment benefits and could not muster any enthusiasm to look for a new job. After six months of idleness, he decided he needed a vacation and went to England to see some of his grad school friends. When he arrived, a group went to dinner and he had a glass of wine. Months later his friend Flora told me she questioned his order at the time, and he assured her one glass would be okay. It wasn't. She wished she had done more to stop him.

Intuitively I felt something was wrong when he called to tell me he was delaying his return from England because he was "sick" with the flu. I didn't believe him. His British friends later called me to confirm my suspicions. My worst fears were realized. He was actively drinking again. When he did come home, he avoided me. How quickly I fell into the old patterns of trying to help him. I searched for job openings, called him daily, wrote to his friends and asked them to reach out to him, all done with a sinking feeling and a profound dread of the likely devastating consequences of active alcoholism. I tried to stay hopeful that it was just a stumble, a glitch. I told myself he could reboot; he would turn it around because he had the tools available to him. He knew the value of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to help maintain sobriety by attending regular meetings, practicing the twelve steps, and sharing in the priceless gift of support within the fellowship. He had sober friends he could lean on 24/7. I fought my own doubts as my pep talks fell on deaf ears.

What I didn't fully understand at the time is the insidiousness of the disease. I now know that one drink is all it can take to trigger a physical compulsion and desire for alcohol. Getting that next drink is the sole focus of an active alcoholic. The mental anguish and desire override any rational thought; the intensity cannot be denied. Relapse can effectively erase the prior period of sobriety. It's a backward slide. The need to drink takes hold quickly with a fierce grip, making recovery hard to achieve. The compulsion drives every single thought and action. I had witnessed this progression too many times to not know the signs. I heard the lies, I saw the isolation, the lethargy, the financial risks, the selfishness, and his total lack of self-preservation instinct. It isn't that he wanted to hurt anyone, or willfully self-destruct; he just needed the booze more than anything or anyone—no matter the cost.

His depression fueled his decline as he dropped into a dark bottomless hole. Like Alice, I followed, trying to reach him. I knew in my heart I couldn't save him from his illness and the attending consequences that would include homelessness, injuries, assaults, hospitalizations, and incarcerations—but I had to try. I made his disease my disease. I was obsessed with my need to fix him. I didn't want him to lose all he had worked for. I didn't want to lose him again, so I went into the darkness too. Month after month I watched as he wallowed with feeble attempts to stop.

It was a year later, in 2013, when I finally intervened and reported to the police and the court that he was a real danger to himself, and possibly others if he drove. The police picked him up. I had to go to court and convince the judge of my concerns, and when I prevailed, the court ordered Justin to attend a thirty-day treatment program in a locked facility. Sitting in that court room and seeing my angry son in shackles was the hardest and most painful experience I ever had as his mother. I sent my son to jail.

When he was released from the program, he decided to move to San Francisco. He thought geography would make a difference, and he would be able to stay sober and find work. It was not a good move. From a distance, I followed his efforts to recover. He tried and failed many times with repeated detox admissions in various hospitals, jails, and clinics in a city he had gone to in search of a fresh start.

Being the mother of an active alcoholic is brutal, worse when he is homeless and thousands of miles away. Terrifying at times. Daily, I waited for any opportunity to help, anything that would make me feel hopeful, or empowered, even if it were only temporary. I sent clothes and phone cards to homeless shelters. I kept in contact with people in Alcoholics Anonymous who were willing to help us. I forged friendships with the staff at the Walden House residential recovery program—the only program I found available for alcoholic or addicted indigents. I regularly called the police and filed multiple missing person reports. I was losing my grip too. I had become as sick as he was. I didn't know how or if we would survive this disease. Finally, I sought mental health counseling and took a medical leave of absence from my job. I was lost.

It was in 2015 when I met James Taylor while Justin was wandering homeless in the iconic Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. I recalled writing to him nearly eight years earlier asking him to buy Justin's songs. I would never forget his was the only response I got to my mass mailing of the CD. It felt surreal that James and I were actually together in Massachusetts undergoing physical therapy at the same medical practice. We were comrades learning to walk again in the aftermath of knee surgery, being put through the paces. James rode the bike; I rode the bike; James endured the stretches and manipulation; I endured them. As we lay side by side on tables, taking deep breaths while the reward of heavy icepacks soothed our pain, I spoke with him. I didn’t want him to buy songs this time. The songs were no longer a part of the survival that was needed.

"Can I ask a favor?" I said quietly.

"It depends. What is it?" He didn’t look up from behind his magazine.

"I would like you to just say the words, Justin, don’t give up.”

"Can you tell me why?" he asked.

"My son is a homeless alcoholic in San Francisco. He is suffering, and I am afraid. I don't know what to do. He admires you and your music. He met you when he was working as a coordinator at the health spa in Lenox, and he said you were very appreciative of his assistance. I will tell him these are your words to him—and pray he will hear them."

"Okay," he said. "Here goes. ‘Justin, don’t give up.’”

"Thank you."

I was convinced he was sincere. I didn't mention Justin's CD, although I had a copy in my car. I had invaded his privacy and he was kind and gracious. That was enough.

We met a few days later but didn't speak. I could tell James didn't want to be recognized, given his hat was pulled low and his physical therapist was trying to block him from view. I respected that, but then he looked up at me and silently mouthed, "Don't give up." I felt this message was meant for me. I realized I was the one who didn't want to give up.

I sent Justin the encouraging words from James Taylor, "Justin, don't give up." I sent texts, emails, and left voice messages on phones that were missing and likely lost, stolen or sold. Somehow conveying the message from James Taylor became my new mission. I kept trying.

A year later, in early 2016, Justin was admitted for the fifth time to Walden House detox in pretty rough shape. He called and told me he was done, ready to fight for his life. He was tired of living on the streets, of being afraid, of trying to find something to drink every day, tired of physical pain from injuries, and the stomach issues that plagued him. Tired of being dirty and hungry, of sleeping on benches during the day because he was afraid to sleep outside in the darkness, tired of waiting in lines in cold and rain for a mat on a floor in a bug-infested shelter, only to be denied when it was full. He was tired of going to hospitals and jails, if only to be safe and allowed to get clean in places where his clothes and shoes would not be stolen. He was tired of being lonely and missing his family. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired. After a week in the detox unit going through a hellish period of withdrawal, he was admitted to the Walden six-month residential recovery program.

I was anxious for him to be successful this time. None of my prior rescue efforts—sending money, paying rent for sober homes, finding recovery programs we might be able to afford, setting up job connections, buying phones, paying legal bills, getting him names for AA contacts and support—none of it worked. None of it. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I couldn’t help myself. The face of his reality included no money, no insurance, the constant compulsion of addiction, and mental illness, all conspiring for repeated relapse. What I wanted and needed was a way to tap into his sense of self, to give him purpose, and confidence, something to allow him to help others so that he would have a reason and want to fight and survive. He is worth saving.

I also needed something bigger than my own selfish agony. I remembered music had been a tool to help my son get sober, but once he recovered, he had put the guitar down and left it behind with his songs full of painful memories; it was a part of his past that he wanted to let go. But James Taylor had survived and conquered his addictions, and he continues to play guitar, write songs and sing about his experience. I remembered the message to Justin from James, “Justin, don’t give up.” It had to mean something. He shouldn’t give up. The power of music could help Justin be sober again.

A good friend of Justin's, Kim Perlak, had helped organize the Veteran's Guitar Project, a highly successful and widely publicized music program in Austin, Texas, teaching guitar to veterans who were dealing with PTSD and substance abuse. I spoke with her about the program she was involved with, and she told me the participants and counselors in the Austin group found that guitar playing was helping with cognitive, physical, and emotional injuries, and the friendships formed in the group were meaningful as participants adjusted to a different life. It worked. Kim is now the Chair of the Guitar Department at Berklee College of Music and is still Justin's friend.

All through high school, Justin had been a great guitar teacher, earning his spending money that way. He loved teaching as much as he loved playing back then. Many of Justin's students still play guitar twenty-four years later. One guy, John, recently released a CD he dedicated to Justin thanking him for his instruction. My favorite student of Justin’s was an eight-year-old boy named Sam. Sam wanted to be like Elvis and play his junior size electric guitar while standing, with his arm moving in a full circle for each strum. Justin helped him to do that. Watching Sam take the Elvis pose and play guitar while smiling widely as he performed for me, and his father was positively joyful. Justin was incredibly proud of Sam. Sam had ADD, and his father told me that Justin had succeeded in getting Sam to focus when no one else could. Sam's father wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Justin when he applied to college.

I know Justin inspired his students, and he listened to them. He taught with great sensitivity, and he genuinely cared about teaching music. If I could find a way he could teach music to people in recovery, it might help him—and others. I became determined to make a music therapy program happen. When I tried to sell his songs in 2007, I could not have known that years later I would attempt to give music back to my son, desperate to have it help him recover again.

I realized guitars were going to be too big and expensive for my music program idea, so I researched ukuleles and discovered that good ones were made at the MagicFluke Company, an hour away from my home. I met with the company owners, a married couple, and told them of my hope to establish a music therapy program to help my homeless alcoholic son. They supported the idea fully, providing valuable suggestions, embracing me, and offering deep discounts and free shipping. I created a budget and mapped out the plan. Then I outlined my proposal for a music program and submitted it to the Walden House management team. They said they had little funds for creative outlets, but they felt, as I did, that music can heal. They admitted no one had ever offered a gift like this, and they gave me the green light.

I wanted to send ukuleles to the program on the condition that the staff would solicit Justin's help in teaching. That was critical for me, and my request was agreed upon. Now I had to find the money. I contacted everyone I knew and even people I didn't—my friends, Justin's friends, his former teachers, my coworkers, and a few medical professionals. Once again I was writing letters and emails, but not to famous people. This time I was not selling anything; I wanted to give something instead, to Justin and others like him—a gift of music.

Music is universal and I believe in the power of music to change lives; my belief helped propel the plan. We weren’t the only ones devastated by this disease, and I found people wanted to contribute. Word spread, and I began to receive checks, lots of checks. I collected nearly $7,000 in two weeks and sent fifteen ukulele kits and a $2,100 endowment to support what became the Music Therapy Program at Walden House.

I imagined a grand finale, a concert, a big finish ending on a high note—literally. A redemption. Though I didn't start with that thought, it blossomed as the donations grew. I called it the Ukulele Project. No one participating in the program would know where the ukuleles came from, especially not my son. Anonymous was best. It needed to be about the music.

The Walden House direct care staff embraced the whole idea and determined how they would approach Justin to help. As the clock ticked on Justin's six-month tenure, it took weeks to plan implementation, find a secure classroom with a locking closet for the instruments, and build schedules with the new music therapy program offering. Would Justin be able to participate and make a meaningful contribution? Would the person I wanted to help the most benefit from my efforts? Along with the nearly one hundred donors, I waited on pins and needles to hear something. I worried that I had taken money for an idea that might not work.

And then I got a call. On a Thursday night in March 2016, my son left me a voice message.

“Hey Mom…A counselor here is starting up a ukulele group and recruited me to help with teaching. I still have my songbook…should be wonderful!”

This was the hallelujah moment! Music could be the conduit for recovery. I remembered again my silent message from James Taylor.

"Don't give up."

In my thoughts I responded, "I won't, James. I won’t."

About the Author

M. Betsy Smith

Betsy Smith is retired after working as an insurance underwriter for twenty-six years and has begun her new career as a writer. She recently started piano lessons.