By Jana Soeldner Danger
City & Shore Magazine
Shakespeare may have said that music is the food of love, but Paul Pellinger, a founder of an innovative substance abuse treatment center in Fort Lauderdale, says it can be something else: a path toward freedom from addiction.
“Most traditional treatment centers focus on fear of consequences and relapse triggers,” says Pellinger, chief strategy officer of Recovery Unplugged, which incorporates music into nearly every aspect of its program. “But addicts don’t care about consequences. They keep doing the same things over and over again, regardless of consequences. We use music to focus on recovery triggers.”
Recovery Unplugged does not discount tools like 12-Step programs, sponsors and AA meetings. “We use music as a catalyst to engage traditional methods,” he says. “It’s a non-threatening vehicle that appeals to the soul rather than the head.”
Recovery from addiction is a healing process, says Pellinger, who adds that he believes music has healing power. “Certain music appeals to the pleasure centers in our brains in a similar way to drugs and causes them to release endorphins.”
Pellinger, a recovering addict himself, says music has helped him in his own life. “I realized at a young age that music has the power to motivate me,” he says. “I sometimes had trouble expressing my feelings in words, and I think every client I’ve ever dealt with has experienced that. Music became a way for me to harness them.”
Patients in the program spend most of their days in individual and group therapy sessions that involve music. In the morning, there usually is one in which a group chooses an issue or topic relating to a specific skill set, such as the ability to change, to be open-minded or to have faith or hope. A clinician will then play music relating to that topic and display lyrics to songs that are specifically empathetic.
The sessions also address distorted perceptions patients may have. “Clients see drugs as the only way to survive,” Pellinger says. “We teach them to be open to new things and change their attitudes without confronting them. We try to show them how to wear life like a loose garment and let things roll off.”
Afternoon sessions involve members of a group creating a song of their own and performing it for other patients. “Sometimes a music professional might help them, and sometimes they do it by themselves,” Pellinger says. “It reinforces a sense of community, and when they perform in front of peers, it helps them deal with inhibitions. A lot of them have been using drugs for so long, they don’t know how to function unless they’re high.”
One professional who might help patients with their compositions and delivery is singer/songwriter Richie Supa, a longtime friend of Aerosmith who made numerous contributions to the band. His songs have also been recorded by artists such as Richie Zambora of Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and Pink.
Supa now serves as director of creative recovery at the center, where he uses his own recovery experience to help others. On Fridays, the staff invites guests from the community to sit in on a group musical session with Supa.
In the evenings, staff members drive patients to off-campus 12-Step meetings. “We want to give them a taste of what it’s like on the outside,” Pellinger says.
Skills and empathy
The Fort Lauderdale center has been open four years, and a second one in Texas opened a year ago. Pellinger credits their success to a professional staff that’s both skilled and empathetic. “Addicts are very intuitive about picking up on whether someone cares about them and is concerned about their best interests,” he says. “We teach clients how to get high using music instead of drugs.”