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Clean: 'Learning From Others' (6/6/22)


Published June 6, 2022 at 12:27 p.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner

The sounds of cascading piano flourishes and syncopated bass lines overwhelmed my senses as I stood in front of a massive set of speakers. I was three years sober, and I was in the middle of a long and intense recording session at a music studio in East Arlington. I had been called in to serve as a consultant for a high-profile project that my producer was working on, and I was struggling to resolve a challenging musical puzzle. He had hired a talented musician to record an additional part for a song, but the melody line the musician had come up with did not perfectly complement the underlying harmony. As I listened to the song play, the cognitive engine within my mind kicked into overdrive. I had always prided myself on my ability to quickly analyze music, and I had been given a perfect opportunity to showcase my skills.

As the song came to a conclusion, I decided upon two alternate options for the melody line that would work within the constraints of its chord structure. I presented my producer and the engineer with the musical sequences, then sat down on the couch with a beaming smile on my face. I had managed to effectively navigate a high-pressure situation, and I was excited to hear the fruits of my labors come to life on the recording. After my producer presented my suggestions to the musician, he recorded them both in a disciplined and efficient manner. I could hear that the notes I had chosen were mathematically correct, but I could tell that my producer was still unsatisfied with the new recordings.

Following a brief moment of silence, my producer spoke to the musician through the studio intercom in a calm and collected voice: “That sounds better, but it’s still missing something. Let’s try something different. Can you play something modern and jazzy? I want to create a unique feel with this song.”

As I listened to his words, incapacitating feelings of disappointment and inadequacy began to drag me down into a pessimistic funk. In a matter of minutes, my prideful musings had been replaced by doubtful ruminations. I wanted to prove my worth and convince everyone else around me that I was right, but I knew that the limitations of my musical skill set would prevent me from doing so. I felt crushed and worthless. I didn’t know what to do. It was then that I remembered the wise words of a friend from my sobriety fellowship.

“After spending a long time in recovery, many of us are able to develop mental tools that allow us to accomplish things we never thought possible," my friend had said. "Although the clear and sharp perception that we reclaim in sobriety is a priceless gift, we shouldn’t let our newfound power turn into egotism or stubbornness. The truth is, we can learn a lot more by staying humble and open-minded than we can from remaining stuck in our ways. Sometimes it’s best to just take a step back, enjoy the ride and admit that we are not the ultimate authority in all matters. By surrendering our willpower, we are able to remain grounded in our sobriety program and take things one day at a time.”

After freeing myself from my need to prove my intellectual superiority to the people around me, I relaxed my posture and watched the scene unfold with a newfound sense of patient humility. Recovery had given me the ability to detach from my egocentric fears, learn from others and remain grateful and present in the moment.

Always remember:

Keep moving forward.
Run toward 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