“Music became my addiction”: Chicago Musicians with Substance Abuse Disorders In The Time Of The Covid 19 Pandemic

The Covid 19 pandemic has been very damaging to many people who suffer from substance abuse. According to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who were diagnosed with an SUD are more likely to suffer severely from the virus and have it turn fatal because of the significant negative impact that addiction has on the body. Due to the virus shutting down many entertainment venues and putting live music on hold, a majority of local musicians have also suffered. How are musicians who suffer from substance abuse coping in such trying times? Joseph Brunker, lead vocalist of local bands Primal Moon and Over The Sun, spoke with me on how creating music has helped him throughout this pandemic as well as his recovery. 

Joe started doing drugs when he was only in eighth grade as a way to cope with the harsh bullying that he faced at school. He started to binge use a variety of drugs when he was in high school and went down a path that eventually led him to become homeless. When asked if music played a role in his recovery, he said that “It helped me express myself in ways that I didn’t know I could. [It was] truly cathartic.” Joe says that he started writing songs when he checked in at rehabilitation center Teen Challenge in 2009 and has not stopped creating since. “Music became my addiction,” he says. Music became Joe’s vice, and he feels that it is a constant in his life. Joe states, “It [music] is the only thing that stayed besides my family.” 

Due to stress and isolation caused by the pandemic, many former addicts are tempted to use again. Despite how addicts are especially vulnerable to the virus, there has still be an increase in use. In a recent survey done by Addiction Policy Forum, they found that 20 percent of the participants reported that themselves or their family member has used since the start of the pandemic. They also found that many people are not getting the resources that they need for their recovery due to the pandemic. Joe discusses with me how he has been drinking more than he would like recently. When asked about how he is getting through the pandemic as a former addict, he says, “I have been able to work out the plans for new songs, record those songs, and plan to launch them.” Although life is hard for Joe right now, he says that will not want to go back to the chaotic life that he once lived. When talking about his life without those substances, he says, “It is better one day without it than 1000 days with it.”Currently, Joe has been sobered from his former vices for 11 years. He is thriving in two successful projects and has new musical releases on the way. 

 Joe focusing on music has helped him cope in such a difficult period like musicians of the local band Broken Robots, Tony and Kat Baker. The two met when they were at low points in their addiction when Kat encountered Tony panhandling on the side of the road. They both instantly bonded over their passion for music and struggle with addiction. They both decided to receive help and entered rehab at Haymarket Center in 2016. Tony and Kat Baker have been in recovery from a heroin addiction for four years. Kat says that music has prevented her from relapsing in difficult times. Due to a skin condition that she developed that severely lowered her self-esteem, she says that music kept her from returning to her former vice. “Art is where I can go to feel the confidence,” Kat says. Kat says music is a “healthy distraction” and allows her to address her stressors with a clear mind.  Similarly, Tony discusses how music became an outlet for his pent-up emotions and a healer for his traumatic experiences. “I was putting my aggravation and transferring it into something healthy,” explains Tony.  

Kat and Tony Baker jamming out in their band Broken Robots!

Addiction has impacted Tony’s musical experience. Due to heavy heroin use, his arm is deformed. He has had to learn guitar in a different way due to not to being able to move his middle finger. Kat and Tony explain that although drug use is romanticized, it has severe, life-long consequences on the body. Although substance abuse has made it more difficult to play his instrument, Tony still finds comfort in music. ” Music has allowed me to successfully, in a positive way, transfer my addiction to something useful. Therefore, saving my life. It is a pretty grandiose statement, but it is true, “ Tony elaborates.  

One thing that the two emphasize is that addiction is not a choice. Tony debunks the false beliefs that people have on addicts when he says, “We are not trying to get out of something. We are not trying to make excuses for poor behavior. But poor behavior leads to a disease. If you do not look at it as a disease, you are screwed.” Tony and Kat strongly believe that it is vital for addiction to be de-stigmatized and choose to tell their story in order to increase other people’s empathy. Through their music and by sharing their experiences with others, they spread the message that addicts should not be villainized, but they should be cared for.  

Joe, Tony, and Kat talk about how music has been there for them throughout their recovery as well as in the pandemic. You can find Joe’s music with Primal Moon here and Over The Sun here. You can find Tony and Kat’s music with Broken Robots here. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can call 1-800-662-4357 or go to https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. You are not alone.