Imagine a worst-case scenario with the flu — sniffles, chills, aching and vomiting. That's what it often feels like to withdraw from heroin and powerful opioids. Medication helps. But writhing in bed is almost always in order.
It's not the time most people would turn to songwriting, but as music therapy grows as a method to cope with addiction, it's being used in the depths of detox by a program new to Nashville called Rock to Recovery.
On a recent morning at the Buffalo Valley detox center on Dickerson Pike, 10 mostly young men are slouched on couches, alternating between staring at the floor and eying the tattooed guitarist in the center of the room. Phil Bogard, a former guitarist for Ingram Hill, is trying to gain their trust as some of them contemplate walking out.
"I think we've lost one of our lyricists," he says as one guy departs in silence. "It's ok, I've been there."
When Bogard was detoxing, he might have had trouble focusing too.
"If my eyes were open or shut, I was seeing skulls with maggots coming out of the eye sockets," he tells the sympathetic crowd. "I was just miserable."
Bogard is in recovery for alcohol abuse. He says he'd sometimes put away dozens of drinks a day while partying on tour with his band. Now, he's a full-time program manager and peer counselor — not a licensed therapist, just a guy inspired by his own experience to help other.
And he's basically using music as a distraction.
He counts quarter notes as a young man pounds out a bass part on the keyboard. Bogard orchestrates on the fly, handing one guy a tambourine, another a hand drum.
Daniel Wheeler of Lebanon reluctantly takes the microphone.
"Two days ago, I was throwing up and I'm still shaking," he says to Bogard's encouragement. "But I'm here, big baby."
Wheeler is on his second round with rehab, restarting another 90 days after seeing his heroin use again spin out of control. He starts scribbling down some lyrics, with his family weighing heavily on his mind.
"My sister is in heavy addiction, so I support her kids," he says, holding back tears. "It's a lot of pain, a lot of pain around that. She does her best. But that's one thing about addiction, it takes you away from your responsibilities. I don't care how much I've got to keep fighting."
This West Coast program recently launched in Music City, its first city outside of California. It's the brainchild of Wes Geer, who was a guitarist for the heavy metal band Korn and founding member of Hed PE. That's when he toured the world wearing dark eyeliner and his long hair spiked up like a star.
Now, he sports glasses and a crew cut. That's after going through a couple of bouts in treatment. While trying to kick heroin, he says he took his guitar and would end up writing silly songs with his mates in rehab.
After his rockstar days were done, he wanted to translate that experience to others.
"It was like, 'Well, if music worked so well in treatment when I was goofing around, how do I create a program that actually can be integrated into a treatment curriculum?'"
Researchers have argued that the act of creativity during detox has some benefits, but they've been difficult to measure. So although there is some science behind the program, the idea is mostly just to get everyone involved.
"Even the most depressed person, even the most dope sick person, we get them singing and playing music," Geer says. "We tap into that energy that is absolutely there."
The academic involved with the nonprofit, Constance Scharff, says there's no downside to what are known as "complementary therapies."
"I mean, what's the worst that can happen after a Rock to Recovery session?" Scharr asks. "Someone falls asleep in the back, someone doesn't want to participate? We didn't finish the song?"
Back at the detox session in Nashville, Daniel Wheeler is polishing his lyrics.
Thank God there's a way out.
There's too many people that I care about.
The problem is I need to fix me first.
Before I end up in the dirt.
Phil Bogard is trying to keep everyone on the beat and in tune, throwing in some of his talents every now and then to cover up the rough edges.
The group wraps up the song, tagging the chorus, a cappella.
I'm just looking for a way out of my past.
And I'm tired of feeling an outcast.
Not the smartest, but I can do the math.
What I need is a brand new path.
The guys circle up, arms draped on each other's shoulders, and commit to living in the moment. Wheeler, the lyricist from Lebanon, says that's hard to do.
"My mind races, ADHD, I live in depression. That's all stuff I'm going to work on in counseling and therapy," he says. "But that's probably the first hour that I didn't have that since I've been here in three days, so that's huge."