Writer and lecturer Susan Cain wrote almost the entirety of her first book, Quiet, in a small café in Greenwich Village, Manhattan’s erstwhile bohemian capital, known for its storybook brownstones and cobblestone streets. "It was this café that attracted artists, writers and academics from all over the city, and I was there all the time," Susan told me. Perceptive as ever, she soon noticed a group of people who came to the café every Tuesday and Thursday like a sacred, unbroken ritual. To Susan, the people "seemed so soulful and so alive", as though filled with "an intense awareness of life’s joys and sorrows" embraced in equal and interactive measure. Eventually she learned that they were coming from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, held twice a week at a church down the street.
Years later, Susan has not been able to stop thinking about the members of that AA group, so much so that she made their awareness the subject of her latest book, Bittersweet. In it, Susan speaks to our shared human experience of poignancy and longing – that precious holding of ever-passing time, that homesickness for a place we know yet have never been. This "bittersweetness" is the reason why we tear up at weddings and why the movies that make us cry so often win Best Picture. Musically, it is the reason why we can’t get enough of James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain" and Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now", no matter how many times we listen.
"It’s hard to put into words what I experience when I hear this kind of music," Susan writes in Bittersweet. It is not so much sadness, she tells us, as it is an "outpouring of love" for every human who has ever lived. It is a keen awareness of life’s fragility and impermanence, yes, but also a deep sense of "communion and awe" – that very same "twinship of joy and sorrow" that she observed in that AA group all those years ago.
Though she does not address substance abuse in her book, Susan believes that individuals who struggle with addiction may have a natural inclination toward the bittersweet. "I think it’s often people who are extremely sensitive to joy and sorrow who fall into addiction in the first place," she told me. As I opened up about my own path to sobriety, she was unsurprised to learn how much I’ve relied on bittersweet music. At times it has been the one thing holding me back from complete despair.
Over the past few years, more and more rehab centres have begun to invest in music as a tool to help individuals in recovery. This "music therapy" tends to lean away from top-charting hits that can trigger nostalgic reminiscences of a booze-filled past and more toward songs that are gentle, meditative and tender. Research suggests that such music can do wonders for our bodies, reducing pain, lowering blood pressure and stimulating the brain’s natural production of dopamine. On an emotional level, it can also encourage trust, enhance self-esteem and offer healthy means of self-expression. Through this "emotional catharsis" we are able to connect to our innermost feelings, healing wounds that would otherwise be untouchable.
We are often told that sobriety is a catalyst for deeper healing. What we are told less often is that we have to listen to our wounds in order to heal them.
If you are participating in Sober October, you may have encountered what might be referred to as an "Instagrammification of sobriety": this idea that a life without alcohol is one of endless sunshine and rainbows, in which we are automatically prettier, skinnier and a lot more productive. We are told that the initial phase of intense, white-knuckled anxiety is only a prologue to the best life we’ve ever known. Mind you – in many ways – this is true. Sobriety has made me infinitely more receptive to the joy of seeing a best friend get married, the wonder of swimming in the ocean or the awe of looking into the eyes of my golden retriever, who never leaves my side. Yet it has also made me more vulnerable to the pain of a burning world, the death of a beloved family member or the baby in my womb, who was lost to me before I ever got to hold her.
We are often told that sobriety is a catalyst for deeper healing. What we are told less often is that we have to listen to our wounds in order to heal them. Exposed and weaponless, we have no choice but to sit with the pain that inevitably comes with our present life, together with the pain that haunts our past. Sometimes I cannot help but reinhabit the body of that little girl who so often felt unlovable amid the cacophony of hateful screams. Though I am physically nowhere near the pain of my childhood, it remains with me like a weight around my neck or a devil on my back or, worse, "a devil in me".
It is here – in this space of gnawing, punitive isolation – where bittersweet music can be a lifeline. With each haunting melody we are told: "You are not alone"; with each reverberant lyric we are able to produce a fellowship of humans, all striving to transform their pain into something beautiful. From Elton John and David Bowie to Florence Welch and Pink, the world knows no shortage of musicians who have struggled with addiction. As a society, we tend to buy into the fallacy of inebriant creation, which posits that we need to be drunk in order to unlock our most imaginative selves ("most of your favorite composers were probably drunk"). Yet for many musicians, being "smashed" has a rather expedited (and too often lethal) half-life.
Known at one point to drink three bottles of wine a day, Susan’s favourite musician, Leonard Cohen, often claimed that alcohol was the linchpin of his creativity. When I shared this with Susan, she lovingly resisted: "Far be it from me to dispute Leonard’s own self-assessment but he was producing some of his greatest work right before he died, when he was completely sober." To her, Cohen’s genius stemmed not so much from alcohol as from the pain he was trying to run away from. In the end, his best work was not so much a defiance of pain as it was a harnessing of it – a creative offering of the pain he could no longer numb.
When so offered, bittersweet music has the power to suffuse the parts of us that feel most broken. Coupled with our own pain, it becomes not only a crucible of healing but also an invitation to heal the pain of others. Harmonised to this soundtrack, sobriety can (and probably will) take us to the depths. But it is only by going to these depths that we are able to touch the sky.
I believe Sober October could not happen at a better time of year. With summer gone, the leaves have taken on the most brilliant shades of yellow and orange against a crisp, blue sky, now fragrant with scents of apple, pumpkin and kindling fire. Soon the leaves will fall, preambling the imminent cold of winter. It is a transition that many of us will try to delay or outmanoeuvre, even as our souls beg for it.
Just like bittersweet music, October’s interplay of light and shadow invites us to a new way of holding our joys and sorrows as two sides of the same coin. With each flip, the copper and nickel erode, revealing beating hearts and "holy tears". We are made less armoured but more soulful; more vulnerable but more alive.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, please contact Drinkline on 0300 123 1110.