Clean: 'Loosening Up' (7/1/22) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Loosening Up' (7/1/22)


Published July 1, 2022 at 11:29 a.m.
Updated July 1, 2022 at 11:30 a.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner

My shoulders and hands were painfully tense as I sat in front of a large grand piano. I was four years sober, and I was in the middle of a fast-paced and lively recording session at a music studio in East Arlington. I had been called in to play piano parts for multiple songs that a studio client had written, and I was struggling to maintain my composure. I had spent several hours creating a series of detailed musical reference sheets, but I still felt vastly underprepared.

After adjusting a pair of padded headphones around my ears, I leaned toward the piano and waited for the familiar click of the metronome to count me in. I was in the process of laying down a foundational piano track for a catchy and upbeat tune, and I was finding it difficult to get in the groove and loosen up. I had managed to master the basic melody and chord structure of the song, but my playing style was still stiff and rigid.

As a classically trained pianist, I had prided myself on my ability to learn complicated piano pieces and play them in a mathematically precise manner in my younger years. After foregoing my artistic aspirations in the worst days of my active addiction, I had managed to slowly rebuild my musical skills in recovery. The work that I put into my creative reeducation served as a concrete manifestation of my commitment to sobriety, and it allowed me to reach new levels of artistic confidence. Although I was very proud of my newly regained focus and dexterity, I found myself trapped in an ironic predicament: The disciplined and robotic playing style that I had perfected in sobriety was poorly suited to the task I was faced with. Controlled hands and consistent rhythm would not suffice. I had to learn how to relax without the aid of any addictive chemicals.

As I prepared for another round of recording, I thought back on all of the instances where I had been held back by crippling mental and physical tension. For my entire life, I had been plagued by anxiety, which was amplified whenever I encountered high-pressure situations. I closed my eyes and ground my teeth as I attempted to escape my mental prison of edginess and apprehension. I didn’t know if I was capable of letting go of my worries and living in the moment.

It was then that I remembered the priceless words of a dear friend from my recovery fellowship:

“When I was early on in my journey of sobriety, I held myself to high standards of discipline. Initially, my high-strung mentality helped me make significant strides in recovery. As time passed, it began to have a somewhat detrimental effect. I was unable to greet my life’s challenges in a flexible manner. Eventually, I realized that in order to stay sober, I had to allow myself to relax and learn to go with the flow. Recovery teaches us that it’s important to live life on life’s terms. Sometimes that means buckling down and putting your nose to the grindstone — and sometimes it means getting over yourself and loosening up.”

After taking a moment to shake out my arms and clear my mind, I leaned into the piano and let my hands move freely across the keys in a way that I never had before. Recovery had given me the ability to move past my unsustainable behavioral patterns and given me a feeling of freedom that I had never experienced in active addiction.

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