Clean: 'Stage Fright' (10/18/21) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Stage Fright' (10/18/21)


Published October 18, 2021 at 12:36 p.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
The evening sun cast vibrant pastel shades on the edges of faraway mountains as I reclined in a folding chair near the banks of a meandering stream. I was three years sober, and I had taken the weekend off from work to perform at a benefit concert with my cousins in upstate New York. I was slated to go onstage and perform in less than half an hour, and I was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.

I took a last sip from my glass of water, then rose from the lawn chair and walked towards the stage. As I approached the keyboard, I pulled a stack of crumpled manuscript papers out of a plastic tote bag. After adequately situating myself, I stared off into the distance and tried to calm my raging brain with a series of deep and meditative breaths.

In the midst of my contemplative reflections, I saw my cousins standing at an outdoor bar several hundred feet away. Although I could barely make out their facial expressions, it was clear from their body language that they were not nearly as anxious as I was. After getting their drinks from the bar, they walked towards me and invited me to join them out in the field behind the stage. As we stood around and talked before the show, we exchanged sarcastic jokes while discussing the jazz charts that we were about to play. Occasionally, one of my cousins would reference a crucial music theory lesson that they had learned during the years they had spent at a high-level conservatory program.

Even though we were all performing at the same event, I still felt out of place and inadequate. During the worst years of my active addiction, I had dropped out of the collegiate conservatory program that I had been admitted into and opted instead to throw away my opportunities in pursuit of destructive chemical oblivion. Although I was several years sober and employed at a well-respected music studio, the consequences of my decision continued to haunt me.

As a large crowd began to gather in front of the stage, my heart palpitated as we took our positions and prepared to play. I didn’t know if I had the skills to perform at the same level as my well-educated cousins, and I didn’t think I had the strength to handle the crushing disappointment that would inevitably follow an unsuccessful performance. It was then that I remembered the wise words a member of my sobriety fellowship had once told me when I was faced with a similar predicament in the early days of my recovery.

“We don’t get sober because everything always works out in our favor when we do. We don’t get sober because everyone automatically respects us when we do. We get sober because recovery gives us the tools to handle victory and disappointment equally well, and we stay sober because living in the solution allows us to gain back the respect that we lost over the years that we were actively using.”

I felt my fingers begin to untense as my cousin began to play the opening bassline of a fast-paced jazz standard. I allowed myself to let go of all of my reservations as I played the first chords of my part. I understood that I had a long way to go before I was entirely ready to let go of my resentments and insecurities, but the time I had spent in recovery had given me the discipline to show up when it mattered most — and the courage to face my fears regardless of the outcome.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run towards the truth.
Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Benjamin Lerner is a recovering addict, composer, writer, musician and radio host. He has been sober since June 13, 2016. In his weekly column "Clean," originally published in Vermont News Guide, he shares his personal journey and lessons learned from his life in recovery. Columns published before July 12, 2020, can be found here. Newer installments are available on

Speaking of Addiction, recovery



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