Clean: 'Tipping the Scales' (9/20/21) | Clean | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clean: 'Tipping the Scales' (9/20/21)


Published September 20, 2021 at 10:04 a.m.
Updated September 20, 2021 at 2:37 p.m.

  • Joshua Sherman Productions
  • Benjamin Lerner
The high-pitched clicking sounds of an overworked printer rattled my eardrums as I paced around a small and well-decorated office. I was two years sober, and I was anxious and apprehensive about an upcoming musical performance.

As I frantically attempted to organize rapidly printing manuscript sheets into neat and orderly piles, I struggled to maintain my serenity and focus. My cousins had offered me the opportunity to perform with them at an upcoming benefit concert, and I had immediately agreed to their request without fully considering the scope of the work required. They had initially promised that the jazz charts they were sending me were both simple and intuitive, but a cursory glance had revealed that the pieces were far more difficult than I had anticipated.

As the mechanical whirs of the printer came to a stop, I looked down at the intricate musical notation and complex jazz scales on the pages with nervous dread. I had studied classical piano for more than a decade in my younger years, but I had never learned how to play jazz. As I carried the piles of paper up to the second floor of the music studio where I rehearsed in East Arlington, I was overcome with feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Two of the three cousins that I would be playing with at the concert were conservatory-trained musicians. The prospect of performing with them was reawakening memories of numerous opportunities that I had squandered due to my past substance use.

In the darkest days of my active addiction, my worsening chemical dependency had forced me to withdraw from a highly ranked conservatory program. In the years that followed, the consequences of my addiction had taken me further away from my musical aspirations than I had ever dreamed possible. Although I had managed to reclaim my sense of creative direction in recovery and secure an artist residency at a beautiful studio in southern Vermont, I still felt like I was underqualified to perform with my cousins.

As I sat down at the piano and began to play, I became increasingly frustrated by my inability to correctly interpret the charts. The clunky and discordant sounds of wrong notes and faulty rhythms served as unwelcome reminders of my incomplete musical education.

After an exceptionally clumsy attempt, I tossed the manuscript papers onto the ground and beat my fists against the piano bench in a fit of childish rage. I wanted to prove to my cousins and family that I was worthy of their approval, but I didn’t know if I had the skills and patience necessary to perfectly learn the pieces. It was then that I remembered what a friend from my recovery fellowship had told me when I was faced with a similar predicament in the past:

“Don’t compare your inside feelings to other people’s outside appearances. Nobody is perfect. We don’t have to try to be better than anyone else or live up to their standards. As long as we are willing to detach from our fear, put our best foot forward and try to do the next right thing, we can rest easy knowing that we have managed to live another day in the solution.”

After taking a moment to regain my composure, I picked up the crumpled manuscript sheets and sat back down on the bench. I had managed to tip my mental scales of reflexive self-judgment in the direction of acceptance and understanding, and I was finally ready to approach the daunting musical scales in front of me with clarity and patience.

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