Not a straight line
Navigating ADHD, addiction recovery, and the music industry
As told to: Michael Rancic | Art by: Michael Rancic
For this issue we were approached by a musician who wanted to tell their story navigating the profession, addiction, and ADHD. They are not a writer, and felt most comfortable publishing this story anonymously, so the New Feeling editorial working group decided to structure this as an as-told-to style piece. This story was born out of several conversations and has been edited for structure and length.
When you’re starting out as a musician, there’s this myth that if you play often enough, and if you meet the right people, you are going to get discovered. The rest will just fall into place. That might have been how things happened back in the day, but the industry is very different now. Yet so much of the job still involves meeting people and being liked. When so much of that activity takes place in bars, it’s so easy to get carried away.
At 27, I woke up in the hospital with a kidney infection as a result of being incredibly dehydrated. I’d become addicted to not just alcohol, but nightlife, and the ways I felt like this lifestyle was helping to forward my career as a musician. Drinking alcohol and partying had become my life, and up until that point I was unaware of how it was affecting me. It’s almost cliché that another rockstar trope, “the 27 club,” is what snapped me out of a harmful pattern that was destroying my body, my brain, and my chances at having any actual success in this field. Unlearning those patterns and working to develop new ones has been essential to recovering from my addiction, developing my career, building my friendships, and living with ADHD.
I started playing open-mic nights in bars when I was 25 years old. There were a couple happening every week in my hometown. They quickly became what my entire week revolved around: I would start on Tuesday and then wake up on Wednesday hungover, and then on Thursday do it all over again. Then it’s the weekend. It was so easy to fall into that routine. Being a part of the nightlife scene, it just gets really mixed up with your normal life so easily.
It’s especially easy because at first, you’re meeting new people—you’re meeting bandmates, other people you want to collaborate with, potential bookers for shows—and you’re making music. It’s a fruitful period for making those first steps as a musician. Starting your night at 9 p.m. and going until 2 a.m. just becomes another part of your job. Most of all, it was fun. For the longest time you think, “Oh, I’m just a fun gal and I’m just having the best time being social, and I’m getting these work opportunities. This is great.” But the thing is, because I wasn’t doing the administrative work, the grant writing, and going to actual showcases, I was just wasting my time for many years.
I was talking to other artists who’d tell me that they don’t drink or smoke, and that they go to bed at 11 p.m., who were doing really well for themselves career-wise. But I never made the connection, or saw them make the transition to that lifestyle from the one that I was living. That’s the work that’s less visible, and more difficult to romanticize than staying out all night because it goes unseen. Frankly, it’s also boring and difficult.
Before I was admitted to the hospital for my kidney infection, friends were calling me to check in on me and I was like, “That’s weird,” but I didn’t think much about it. Even my family was worried. The hospital visit was truly my first wake-up call. I remember realizing that I was hungover every day. I was going into work hungover, and not being hungover was a special treat. After the infection, I really started to take inventory of my life and realized I could die.
Having a support system of friends that still want to be my friends even though I stopped partying like I used to, and who aren’t immediately judgmental about it, was so important to my recovery. The people who didn’t understand why I wasn’t still staying out all night on a Wednesday all dropped like flies. The friends that I have in my life today are there for the right reasons and not just there to enable their own behavior.
From family, friends and therapy, I am so lucky to have the support I do. But I also saw how my addiction was affecting my passion, which really helped motivate me to make the change. Even when I knew there was something wrong with me, I didn’t want to change right away. If I didn’t have music, I don’t know where I would be.
Trading one addiction for another
Music quickly became my primary motivation through recovery. I saw how drinking and partying were obstacles in the way of meeting my goals as a musician, but I didn’t realize that I was trading one addiction for another. I became hyper-focused on my career.
From songwriting to grants to releasing my first EP, I started breaking my career down into manageable goals. I think doing that really helped me understand the industry much better. At the same time, I was living off of the thrill of meeting submission deadlines, the high reward of having one of my applications approved somewhere, and finally making money doing what I love.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that I was chasing that feeling of reward because, as someone with ADHD, I have a dopamine deficiency. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that correlates to learning, motivation, and pleasure. This deficiency was causing me to overwork, because I was constantly seeking and anticipating that next rush of dopamine, and that was leading to panic attacks—I was getting one almost every day. That really damaged me in a lot of ways, and I went through a period where I was depressed for two years.
It took four years from my original hospitalization to getting an ADHD diagnosis. I was going from panic attacks to thinking I have anxiety, to depression, and so on. Each step is its own answer in a way, and helps provide clarity, but it’s a process. I’m not even certain my ADHD is my final answer. But so far it has helped me the most to know that I have ADHD. It’s a positive journey, but not one that happens in a straight line.
With ADHD especially, I’ve found a lot of like-minded people through the industry. It is a fun job: we get to tour, we get to travel. Our days are never the same. So it’s structured in a way to be very rewarding for people like us.
My collaborator also has ADHD, and has known since childhood. It’s nice to be around someone that found all of my behaviour normal. We’ve helped each other through our rejection-sensitive dysphoria. We help each other through a lot of things that we go through just because we’re the same.
navigating ‘the myth’ from the other side
When I was over-working, I was doing quite well for myself career-wise. Even though I was burning out, a lot of people started seeing me as this really dependable person, and I didn’t want to let them down. My best friend said, “Oh, I get so inspired by you. You’re so organized. Wow, look at all the things you’ve accomplished in music.” It was too much.
I struggle with maintaining healthy routines, mental health, my addiction, and they don’t see the work that goes into what I do. It takes constant maintenance because now I understand that my default is not being organized, calm, or sitting still. It’s being impulsive and chaotic and chasing that adrenaline and dopamine. Now I only take on projects that speak to me so that I can maintain a healthier relationship to my work.
Routine has been extremely important in my healing. I need to have a system in place so that I can be a functional human being. For me, I’ve also had to accept that being a professional musician isn’t just about having fun all of the time. It’s gonna be boring and I just embrace that it’s boring. Both recovery and being a musician involve doing a lot of the work that is not romanticized in the musician mythos.
I’m at a stage in my life where I feel good. The best way to describe it is that I feel like I’m actually healing my nervous system, and maybe that’s why I feel I use the word “boring” a lot—because I do feel bored sometimes— because it is very quiet and it’s peaceful. So that’s how I feel right now—I feel at peace and I feel like things are falling into place.
I’m not sober, but my relationship with alcohol has changed. I’ve worked with my therapist to find a solution that works for me. I don’t seek it as a coping mechanism anymore. Now I prioritize having fun with friends and people that I trust in my life. And if that means the planets align and I’m staying up until five in the morning, then it happens. But it’s very rare now, because I also prioritize going to bed or going for supper with friends instead of “Oh, let’s go out.” That fills my cup just as much as when I was hanging out with people that didn’t care about me back in the day. Now I have the energy to go on tour for three weeks and I have the energy to actually do the things that I want to do.
purpose and understanding
I had to trip and fall a bunch of times to figure out how to get to where I am. Understanding my ADHD and addiction has certainly changed my relationship to my art, but it has also given more purpose to it. When you’re writing grants and you’re having to constantly explain why you’re making art, it also makes you realize why you’re doing this.
I have to plan my creative moments. I’ve been learning to channel my impulsive instincts into my art—that’s the beauty of being an artist; you get to be impulsive in so many different ways. When you’re performing live, you get to be a little bit impulsive; when you’re creating you get to be impulsive in the sense that you can write whatever you want, you can do whatever you want creatively. There are still so many aspects of my job that I love, and where I can be myself.