When are you planning to recover the person you were always meant to be?... I remember hearing this question many years ago and thinking really hard about if there even was a "me" I wanted to recover. I had been miserable for as long as I could remember. I remembered seeing home videos of me when I was around 3 years old. I was always laughing and enjoying myself. My parents always said I was a happy kid. We are all born beautiful innocent souls until the world begins to warp us.
I was born and raised in New Jersey. My parents met at a Narcotics Anonymous dance in New York City and moved to Jersey to start a family. I am the second born of three, and both my siblings and I grew up with either addiction issues, mental health disorders, or both. While my amazing parents did the best they possibly could, growing up was rough.
My siblings dealt with bipolar disorder and their violent outbursts often led to the police at our door, neighbors on their front porches saying “here they go again”, and me held up in my room, waiting for the storm to blow over. By 2007, if there was a door still standing in the house, it had a broken frame or hole in it, from being slammed or punched. Being the middle child, everyone younger than me AND older than me in school knew whose sibling I was. That reputation would follow me until I graduated High School.
I dealt with severe bullying in middle school to the point where I ate lunch in the bathroom and often skipped class. By age 13 I began to experience clinical depression for the first time. It got to the point that I was taken out of public school and put in a program for adolescents suffering from addiction and mental illness. I had not yet touched a substance, as I had watched what drugs and alcohol did to my parents and my older brother.
I reentered public school in the 8th grade. In the first month of school, a swat team kicked down our front door and arrested by brother. Kids were bringing newspaper clippings to school. By the middle of the school year, the financial crash had robbed my family of everything we had and we lost my childhood home. With our family's reputation in town, the bullying I was suffering, and losing our home, we tucked our tales and skipped town. As we settled into a rental, my father was diagnosed with cancer, followed by a two year relapse. He thankfully survived.
I started high school in a new town, not knowing a soul, and determined to start over. What I didn’t know is that while you can change geographical location, you bring yourself wherever you go. My mind had been warped by the trauma I had gone through. I viewed the world and myself through dark lenses. I felt less than my peers and yet also this feeling of superiority over them. I felt like no one could possibly understand what I was going through. I became an atheist, kept very few friends, and finished school only because my mother wouldn’t have it any other way.
My journey with addiction stems from this same time period. While I never touched a substance until age 17, I was showing all the “isms” from a young age. My need to be loved by my peers led me to constantly seek attention from others, especially women. As early as age 10, friends were telling me that I think about girls too much. I didn’t listen. By age 11 I was convinced that my only purpose in life was to become a famous musician. It was perfect! I wanted people to listen to what I had to say. I wanted girls. Most of all, I wanted to show my town that they were wrong about me. I wanted stature in society. I chased this dream for over a decade.
I went to one semester of college before dropping out, loading up my car, and hitting the road, determined to show my music to the world. By 18, I was playing about 100 shows a year, all over America. But every time I would reach a major musical goal (album release, sold out shows, label signings etc) the high would not last and I would fall back into depression and misery. It was never enough! I could never reach a level of success that would satisfy my hunger. I could never find a girlfriend that filled the void inside of me. Alcohol and drugs began to help soothe this hunger.
After many years of touring all over the world, abusing alcohol and drugs, and battling my demons, at age 22 it all came to a head. I could no longer fight back the depression. It always came in waves, but this wave felt as big as the first one, when I was 13. I was on heavy mood stabilizers. I was also using a concoction of uppers and downers on a daily basis. I found myself winding up in hospitals. My nerves were so fried that I had a constant tremor. My hair began to fall out. I started stealing my mothers wine and some cough syrup from the medicine cabinet just to numb myself to sleep at night. I was unable to drive my car or go to work. I seriously contemplated taking my own life. How dark it is before dawn….
The year was 2016 and I had just spent 7 hazy days in a detox facility in Connecticut. Every day they had me try 2 or 3 new medications. I never saw a therapist. My insurance ran out before even a week. I had nowhere to go but back to my parents basement, the place I used to get high and contemplate death. My family called around and found a day program for me to go to. It was the same place I went to when I was 13.
I remember walking into that intensive outpatient, not having seen it in a decade, and immediately recognizing the smell. That smell brought back a flood of memories; all the kids I went to program with here that I’ve long since lost contact with, the kitchen where that older high school girl had thrown a fit; that kid who ran out the door and down the highway; and my first girlfriend who I met here and we had to keep the relationship a secret (you can imagine how that turned out…). The emotion I felt most powerfully though was remorse, self loathing, and despair. Here I am, back where it all began, back at step one. Even less than step one, step 0. I now not only had depression, but an addiction. I had no hope. I didn’t know how to live my life.
Through all of this, the only thing I could think about was how I had a month to get better before I had to go back on tour, with a bunch of guys who drank and smoked weed 24/7. My self worth was tied to my success as a musician. If I’m not out there gaining new fans and making money, then who am I? This is a question I would ponder for years and that I, admittedly, still have to ask myself now and again. Who am I? If my music career was gone, who would I be? Without the roles as brother, son, friend, student etc., who would I be? It would take me a long time until I was able to sit with myself and truly be at peace with nothing.
After I completed that program, I knew I had to do something. I was occasionally attending 12 step meetings and going to group therapy every day. But now group therapy was over and I was about to head off on tour, where I wouldn’t be able to go to my regular 12 step meetings. I was determined not to die though, and I knew that inaction meant death. I got a sponsor who I called every day while on tour. I got a therapist that did sessions with me over the phone while I was on the road. I took the medications I was prescribed by the doctor every day. Most of all, I did my very best to stay honest with my family and network and take direction from those who had lives I wanted.
My first two years in recovery were extremely hard. I had been on 18 different psychiatric medications in my life. A few psychiatrists gave up on me. I didn’t quit though. I found another one and kept going. I tried multiple therapists until I found one that I liked. I took a three year break from touring to focus on my personal growth. I eventually even gave spirituality, organized religion, prayer, and meditation a try, until I found what worked for me. I was slowly stabilizing and, as I stabilized, I was able to discover who I really am.
Being a touring musician right out of high school for almost 7 years, I never was able to hold down a good job. I worked kitchen jobs, coffee shop jobs, and delivery jobs mostly; the kind of jobs that I could pick up and leave whenever I needed to go on tour. Now that I took a few years off touring, new opportunities were available to me. A recovery friend of mine worked at a rehab and offered me an entry level job. I wasn’t very interested, but she persisted and I agreed to come on part time. The job was essentially to make sure the clients got to their group therapy sessions on time, took their meds, went to bed, and didn’t start fights. Ultimately, I was an adult babysitter.
Something strange happened though. I actually found I really liked the job! What I liked most of all was the close interaction with the clients. The counselors only worked a few hours a day, and would only see one client at a time. I was with the community all day. So, if someone was struggling with something and their counselor wasn’t there, I ended up listening to their issues and helping them work through it. I quickly became a full time employee at that rehab. I eventually started running some group therapy sessions too. After a couple years I was promoted and was running groups full time. I had learned through the 12 steps that I needed to help other people in order to stay sober. For me, it was more than just staying sober. I needed to help people in order to feel happiness and fulfillment in life.
I went back to school and got an associate degree in Human Services. I them got a certificate in Peer Recovery. I am still in school today, studying social work. I changed jobs a few times to develop new skills to help people. My new hunger was chasing the feeling I got from helping others with their suffering. I had a job for a year where I was handing out Narcan, food, and clothing to homeless addicts on the streets of Newark. I met some amazing people with heartbreaking stories. Working in the rehabs, I worked with a Harvard doctor with a Xanax issue, a professional hockey player with depression and a pill habit, and a mother whose daughter was killed by a stray bullet. Every walk of life I encountered, every story I heard, changed me. For so many years I had played the victim and thought that if others experienced what I experienced, they would be depressed and addicted too.
A huge part of my journey has been examining my past and present and rewriting the script. Everybody has trauma. It is part of being human. Today, I choose not to let my trauma define me. I chose to be grateful for what I have rather than being in a state of constant wanting. Today I take time to sit with myself and build self love. I am no longer defined by my music, my career, or my relationships. They are an extension of me. And if the “me” is sick or incomplete, it will affect the whole chain.
Many things led me to being a wellness coach. Most of my work has been in group therapeutic settings. I have always felt my strengths lay working with people one on one though. I am still pursuing my education to become a licensed therapist, but I don’t want to be constricted by the industry. Therapists are taught to not self disclose things about themselves to their clients. I remember I was struggling with an issue in my life that consumed me for a year. I spent every therapy session talking about it. I accidentally found out that the therapist I was seeing had dealt with the same issue in her life and never brought it up to me. I honestly felt betrayed! I believe it would have really helped me if she shared her experience with me.
I believe opening up to my clients (when appropriate) gives them permission to open up to me. The therapeutic approach works with many, but some need someone who can match their level of vulnerability. I shape my practice in a way that utilizes traditional therapeutic tools, without limiting myself to just those tools. Every individual is unique and requires something different from me. I only take on clients who I feel I can actually help. My mission is to aid people in becoming the best possible version of themselves they can be! If you are reading this, and you are ready to challenge yourself, I really hope you will take the plunge and reach out to me.
Matthew Ryan Smith