Drug addiction and mental health issues are things that society usually sees as hopeless cases, unfortunately. Musician and public speaker Jam Alker aims to break this stigma through the unique combination of music and recovery. Being a recovery activist himself, Jam uses songwriting to help people who are currently recovering from probably the lowest point in their lives. He sits down with host Timothy J. Hayes, Psy.D. to discuss how dedicating your life in service of others is the best way to find your own self-worth. Jam also shares some details about his own recovery story from using heroin, his life in the band The JAB, and the upcoming documentary about his life.
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Blending Music And Recovery With Jam Alker
Jam Alker is a musician, public speaker and recovery activist. Jam, welcome. Thank you for being here.
It is my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about what got you started on this path and what drives your passion?
The thing that got me started on the path was that I was evidently on my way to an early death by filling a needle with heroin and putting that needle in my arm day after day because I was miserable. I was miserable in my own skin. I didn’t know how to deal with life on life’s terms. I didn’t know how to live in reality. I had to figure out a way to escape reality because I wasn’t happy with who I was or how I interacted with the world. I knew I had to change. Years ago, I was in treatment. I was about to be released. Years ago, I did leave treatment after a 35-day stay in detox and in treatment itself.
When I got there, I had finally decided that I was going to surrender and try to do things a different way. I knew the way that I had been doing things myself or the decade or two before that wasn’t working. I knew that the next step for me was death and I didn’t want to die. I had a new beautiful baby daughter that I wanted to be there for and I didn’t know how. I was depressed. I was anxious. I had lost the ability to live in reality and I needed someone else to sit me down and show me how to do that. I surrendered, I checked myself into treatment. While I was there, along with the programs that the treatment center started to teach to deal with these underlying mental health issues that manifest for others in different ways, but for me, it was as addiction.
My counselor found out that I was a musician. I brought my guitar with me when I went to treatment and her and I started to think outside of the box. To her credit, she thought that it might be a good idea for me to do some of my treatment work as songwriting. That opened up an entirely new world for me. I’ve said it many times before that, at that moment, Nanette, my counselor and I came to some decisions that truly changed the entire trajectory of my life. I started to then use music as a way to process and heal some of the deep underlying traumas that had led to the mental health issues that had led to my addiction. As I began to write, I opened myself up to have a creative and spiritual experience of something that was greater than myself.
As I did that, I began to write, and as I began to write, I began to process the underlying traumas. I began to truly heal some of my deepest wounds. That was the beginning. I then learned that the best way for me to stay in recovery and to stay strong, to keep what I had was to give it away, to be of service and to help others. I knew that the most powerful way that I could do that was through my music. Storytelling is the most powerful form of communication. Jesus, the Buddha, our great artists now throughout time. The best way to communicate with people is through storytelling and songwriting is a compelling form of storytelling. I decided to use that and my voice that went along with that to try to use music as a way to create a platform where I could reach as many people as possible, but also using music specifically to try to help show others that you can use music as a way to heal and improve yourself.
In listening to some of your songs like the Fullerton Avenue Underpass, that’s what’s coming to mind as you’re talking about how you’re fixing the wrong fix. Having listened to some of these, I can feel how that would have been healing for you, writing them and sharing them. You mentioned that you did a talk at Google. How did that come about?
Someone who had begun to follow my story through social media reached out to me who worked at Google and she had some family members who had struggled with a substance use disorder as well. She asked me if I would join her to collaborate on doing a talk at Google here in Chicago. We got together. We started working on something and we went and did it there. It went well. We were invited to go out and do the talk at the Google headquarters out in Palo Alto, in Silicon Valley, in California. It grew from there. The music started to create this platform on social media that has then reached hundreds of thousands of people. One of those people was someone who worked at Google and had been through some things on her own and invited me out to be a part of it.
Was that 2019?
Yes, it was in the spring of 2019.
One of the things in that talk that resonated with what I try and help people understand, you were talking about the difference between losing something and giving it away. Can you talk a little bit about that? That was a powerful point. I suppose you should probably talk about as you were talking about that talk, who are you and what defines you?
What I say in the talk is, I began to talk about who this concept of who I am is. I talk about the fact that I have these albums that you can download on Spotify or get anywhere the music is sold across the world. The documentary that’s been filmed about me, I’m national touring speaker. These are the things that you’re told is who you are. What I have to remember, first and foremost, I am a person in long-term recovery. I’m a grateful recovering addict. If I forget that and start to put these things that are the gifts of my recovery, if I put those things ahead of it, what will happen? If I’m speaking to a group of people who are in recovery or from speaking at a treatment center to say, “Anything you put ahead of your recovery, what will you do?”
They’ll say, “Anything you put ahead of your recovery, you will lose.” I don’t agree with that. I will not lose those things. I will give them away. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it. I didn’t lose $500,000 in the couch cushion somewhere. I didn’t misplace some of my dearest relationships. I didn’t lose these things. I gave them away in bars, in basements and on the back streets of the west side of Chicago. That is something that I have to remember is that this doesn’t passively happen. This actively happens as a result of me putting other things ahead of my recovery.
Your understanding is that basically in running away from the pain, that you do those things that give away all of what is of value in your life.The best way to stay in recovery and remain strong is to give everything away and be of service to others. Click To Tweet
The thing that I am taking in and experiencing as pain is something that I am going to continue to experience. It is my decision in terms of the way that I synthesize it, the way that I process it, whether or not I continue to feel it as pain or I’m able to process it and transform it into a lesson in life. Something that is a discomfort that I can move past, but running away from these things doesn’t work. It doesn’t get the job done. These things have to be experienced. They have to be processed. They have to be moved through. That is the only answer. I talk about then how I’ve been able to use music, writing and active listening as some of these other techniques that I’ve learned along the way as a way to help me to deal with the process and work through that pain.
We’re talking about emotional pain here. Physical pain is an entirely different thing, but this internal suffering that happens, whether it’s based off of past traumas or something that’s happening in the present moment, that rather than accepting it as it is, trying to push against it, it’s this idea like you’re in the river and you’re pushing against the current. I used to do that constantly with all of the things in my life, “No, I want it this way.” Rather than accepting things as they are moving with the flow, not allowing that to cause that discomfort or pain. By allowing yourself to accept things as they are rather than the way that you would want them to be, it allows for some degree of peace and clarity within yourself, which gives you more wisdom and a better ability to deal with whatever the problem is that’s causing them discomfort or pain.
What are the tools that you would say you use most often in your recovery?
The tools that I’d use most often when I’m successful, and I talk about all of these things but I want to make it clear that none of this means that I don’t struggle. I struggle and I will continue to struggle for the rest of my life. When I do that idea of acceptance, which is something that is one of the core principles of the twelve-step program that I am a part of, this idea that acceptance is the answer to my problems. It’s what I was talking about. Experiencing the world as it is rather than the way that I would want it to be. It will never be exactly the way that I want it to be. A part of the disease of addiction is that you are a selfish, self-centered person oftentimes.
That’s one of the great things about being of services. It gets you outside of yourself and stops making you so completely ego-centered. When I’m able to do that, I’m able to see that the world is not going to unfold exactly the way that I wanted to, but the more that I can accept it unfolding the way that it is, the better that I can navigate things and the less discomfort that I’m feeling. That’s one of the keys, but that takes it to that next layer that I talked about in there, which is being of service. The key and the core of that in music and using music as a way to be of service to others is what has created my purpose. That is taking it down to the next level.
It is at the core all about finding your purpose and finding your purpose, I want to make sure that people understand who might be reading that that doesn’t mean that you have to do something like what I do. Touring the country with my band or with the speaking events and having the social media following and doing these things. That’s not what my purpose is. I’ve been blessed with certain gifts that have given me a larger platform than some other people might have, but I want to make sure that it’s not misunderstood and that’s what my purpose is. My purpose is to be of service to others. Most people struggle to find their purpose and understand what their purpose is in life. What I have found, in my case, as well as following the advice of any of the spiritual philosophical leaders, leaders in recovery that or motivational leaders that I do follow is that it almost always comes down to being of service to others.
You will find your purpose in being of service to others. The residual benefits of that mentally, physically, emotionally, the magic that starts to happen in your life is where it’s at. That’s the thing that keeps the needle out of my arm, the giving, wanting nothing in return, which is a big thing that I talked about in the Google talk, as well as in my documentary that’s going to be coming out soon. The idea of giving of yourself and asking nothing in return is everything. The joy, the happiness, the equanimity that exists as a result of being of service to others, wanting nothing in return. It creates the happiness and the contentment that drugs, fame and promise could never deliver.
That is the thing that I searched for my whole life. I’ve played in front of thousands of people. I’ve toured the world. I’ve done all of those things, that doesn’t do it for me. I’ve made and lost a ton of money. I’ve had lots and lots of accolades. When I’m focused on those things, all that does is make me want more. That wasn’t enough, give me more. You’ll never be satisfied focusing on those things, but that thing that I searched forever in the outside world, I couldn’t find the answer to. I’m unhappy, as a result, numbing myself with drugs and alcohol, particularly heroin. I had to find something to fill that initial void. The thing that fills it every single time is helping others. When you ask me what is the core? The core truly is being of service, find your best way through your own talents to go about being of service and watch what happens in your life.
One of the things that you said there at the beginning of that little beautiful talk was the idea of being selfish. What I know from all these years of working with people is that one of the primary things that makes anybody selfish is intense pain. When I’m in pain, it’s hard for me to focus on somebody else. I have to have a certain level of advancement like you were talking about, following spiritual teachings and reading things for years before I can get to the point where I’m in a real serious pain. If somebody comes by and they’re in more pain than I am, I can put mine aside. Most of the time, the pain makes me so selfish that that’s how I end up doing things that trample on others or trample myself when I’m running from that pain. What are some of the things that you have found that help dissipate the pain aside from being of service to others, before that, at that beginning of waking up and realizing you’re in such pain?
I had to stop. I had to surrender. The first step for me was realizing that after decades of trying to do it my way, the pain wasn’t going away. I was numbing myself in a way that was eventually going to kill me, but it wasn’t solving any of the problems. I didn’t stop using heroin because I hated it. I loved that feeling. The thing is that it doesn’t work. That’s why I had to stop. It doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t fix the pain. It does temporarily, particularly opiates, which are physical painkillers, but they’re also emotional painkillers. It only works for long and that underlying pain, the reasons, the causes and the conditions behind the pain remain. The first step was to surrender and understand the way that I was doing it wasn’t working and then opening myself up and allowing myself to be teachable.
Stop doing it the same old way and expecting a different result. I finally truly surrendered and started to listen to those who had what I want. This is one of the things, one of the cliches you hear in the twelve-step program is, “Find those who have what you want and do what they do.” When I say the people who have what I wanted, I’m not talking about someone who had a boat, a mansion, a beautiful car or something like that. No, I’m talking about the people who walked around with peace, the people who found happiness in the little things. That’s what I needed. How did they go about doing that? They did it by serving others. It’s by practicing gratitude for what they have, rather than longing for things that they don’t have.
One of my favorite teachers says it this way. He says people talk about the Law of Attraction in the movie The Secret and all of this manifesting stuff. He says, “I’ll give you something new to manifest. Why don’t you work on manifesting a way to be happy with whatever you have?” It sounds like one of the ways that you’ve come to do that is you’ve used the tool of putting good stuff in. You’ve talked about spiritual teachers and motivational teachers. It sounds like you’ve been active in reading or listening to a positive, constructive message.
I have to. That’s one of the things that the other people who have what I wanted also did, and by doing the work myself have seen that it does work. It’s also proven through neuroscience, the way that your neural pathways start to efficiently work together based off of the habits that you have in place. If you’re habitually thinking negatively, that’s the way your brain starts to wire. The neurons, they fire together and wire together. This is the reason why it’s suggested that you do 90 meetings in 90 days when you leave treatment and you’re in the twelve-step program. It takes that long of a continued practice and habit for things to start going that way.
If I don’t do those things, I know myself. I’ve seen it over with what’s happened with COVID and the isolation that’s happened as a result of that. In February 2020, I did a national tour. Since March 2020, I’ve been isolated and haven’t been able to do any performances of any kind except for a few virtual things. That has weighed on me heavily and it has put me in that place where I’ve started to have some of that negative thinking. Now, I have to work extra hard. Those neural pathways want to reconnect.
I had 20, 30 years of negativity of unhealthy habits. It’s easy to fall back into those things. I have to work extra hard to continue to rewire my brain in a way, as well as continue emotional resiliency, but it’s other things as well, it’s eating healthy, it’s exercise. I have to do all of these things to keep myself from falling back into a place of anxiety, depression, negativity, which I know will then eventually lead back to the pain being too great that my brain will say, “We can’t do this anymore.” I’ll head back to the west side of Chicago and I’ll be dead in no time. That was the core of this thing.By discovering your own talents and serving others, something good will come out of your life. Click To Tweet
We talk about gratitude. This is something that I’m grateful for. When I speak to other addicts, I say, “If you reached your moment of clarity, if you are at that point, thank God you are here. You’ve reached the point where you can change your life.” I am grateful that my mental health issues became so bad that my addiction took me to the point where I knew I had to change or I was going to die. If I had had some of these other issues but they hadn’t been as dire as they were, I might be doomed to a life of dissatisfaction, but without the consequences being so great that I truly was willing to change my life. In that sense, I’m grateful that I had the struggles that I did because it took me to the point where I had to change. I always try to make other people understand that if you’re in that place where you are in such a desperate place, that you’re finally ready to change. That’s great. It’s time.
I think about the album Sophrosyne and the video you have that on YouTube that describes some of the work and the request you made for help making that album. I’m also seeing the tattoo on your arm and wonder if you want to share a significance about that image, which is on the album cover.
It’s a dragonfly. Dragonflies are one of the most ancient species that still roam this planet. Spiritually speaking, they represent strength and resiliency and the ability to persevere through the most difficult of times. I thought that that was a pretty good symbol for me to use as a reminder of what I had been through and as a way to help motivate me moving forward. Symbolism is such an important thing. I thought it was a great symbol for what I was trying to communicate with that album and at that point in my life.
You mentioned another album that’s either in the works or is coming out soon.
After that solo album, I put together a band. The band was called The Jam Alker Band. We got a deal with Sony. We decided to switch it to The JAB, short for The Jam Alker Band. That album came out on February 4th, 2019, under the name The JAB. That was the same day that we started our first national tour, which lasted through until March 1, 2020. We came home and two weeks later the country and the world, but the country shut down at that point. I have a second album out under the name of The JAB, which is a little bit more straight up, blues-rock album, that’s out there as well.
I got to look for that. I hadn’t found that one. In doing the research for you, I was listening to songs like Junkyard, A Better Place, Crows, A Call To Arms and Fixing The Wrong Fix. I enjoyed your cover of What’s Going On. As an older person, that’s a song that I have heard a lot of people cover over the years. I think that your raw talent comes out there. Is there a particular song that carries a powerful message that you want to share? I was struck by the Fullerton Avenue Underpass.
A couple coming to mind, certainly Fullerton Avenue Underpass, which is about an actual underpass here in Chicago that I would drive by often. About a few years ago, there was a crack in the wall that salt stain was coming through and it ended up creating an image that a lot of people thought looked like the image of the Mother Mary. Pilgrims were coming from all over the city and all over the country to this image on the wall and leaving flowers. About a month after it first showed up, somebody came unfortunately and vandalized it and ruined it. Anytime you drive by there, there are still flowers under that crack in the wall where at one point they believe the Virgin Mary appeared.
Also, whenever you drive under that bridge other than seeing those flowers, you see a large population of people who are experiencing homelessness, who live underneath that underpass in their tents, out in the open and are begging there. There’s a lot of drug use that happens there as well. It occurred to me at one point that there are two different groups of people who congregate at that underpass. Those who are either using drugs or those who are coming to pay their respects at the Mother Mary. It occurred to me also that whichever population it is that’s coming there, they’re coming there to worship their own God in a way. That struck me. I wrote the song about a lot of the differences and similarities that happen with the devotion that occurs with strongly worshiping either one of those gods.
That was the point of that song. The other one that comes to mind is Crows, which is a song that I also wrote early in my recovery. It’s a story song about a broken man who’s sitting in front of a church and doesn’t understand what happened to his life. It talks about searching the outside world for answers that can only be found within. There’s a lot of symbolism in there that I think is strong and speaks to that universal, underlying discontent that a lot of people have. The things that we’ve been talking about since we’ve been sitting here. The dissatisfaction, anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, depression, and the way that we’re taught to find the answers to these things on the outside world, rather than looking to the inside where the true answers exist. Those are a couple of the songs that are poignant on the first album.
The images, I was impressed with, especially the Underpass video. I’m located here in the Chicago area. I heard the news stories about that, and I was aware of it. I wasn’t aware that people were still leaving flowers and things, but areal powerful imagery in your video about the people who are at least currently experiencing homelessness. What is it about your work that I haven’t even touched on and asked you about yet that you’d want to share with our readers?
I’ve referred to this documentary a few times. It is something that I’m pretty excited about, which is the project that is taking up most of my bandwidth. There was a filmmaker who followed me around. We did a trip out to the west coast where I lived as a child where I can trace a lot of my childhood trauma back to these places that were things that were never properly processed that I think were great indicators and motivations behind my addiction. We traveled around and made this other album in 2019. The filmmaker followed me around for the making of that, as well as a bunch of interviews and shows. The documentary is finally done.
The trailer got finished and it’s being shopped to several different outlets including the possibility of it ending up on Netflix. That’s still a bit of a long shot, but me being a person who has found that I set my intention and work towards that, oftentimes I’ve been relatively successful doing so, that I’m going to continue to work towards that. My goal with that, as much as it has been my goal with any of the projects that I work on is to build as large of a platform as I can so that I can be of service to and help as many people as possible. If the documentary ends up on Netflix, it has the opportunity to help more people on that large platform. I know it’s already helped a lot of people who have seen it, as well as the director of the film.
After finishing filming, while he started editing, he took a six-week break himself to go to treatment. He realized through the course of making the film that he had a substance use issue himself. He stops the film, went away to treatment and is almost a year sober himself. If it never does anything to help anyone else, the fact that the film in and of itself helped him is a blessing. That is a new thing that we’ve been working on and will be out. It’s hard to say with films depending on what platform it gets released on, but that’s something that I’m excited about. I’m going to be giving it away to be viewed at treatment centers. I saw a documentary when I was in treatment that helped to motivate me and put me on my path. I’m hoping that this movie can do the same for others. The biggest thing that’s exciting is that we have the film almost done and it’ll be out there in the world.
I know there’s a lot of great resources in the Chicago area. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Hostetler of Above and Beyond Family Recovery. Do you know that?
I was going to tell you if you haven’t talked to Dan yet. Dan and I have a mutual love for each other going on that is insane. The name of the film that we’ve been talking about is called The Middle Way, which is another story. I had him as one of the few people who have watched the film already. He’s going to name one of the rooms at Above and Beyond Recovery, The Middle Way, after my film. I’m going there and speaking. I have a non-profit as well that offers some different music-based services to people in early recovery. We’re starting to partner with Above and Beyond Recovery to get some of their clients into our program.You actually reach your moment of clarity when you hit rock bottom. Click To Tweet
I did a performance for their virtual gala to help them raise money since they weren’t able to do it live. Above and Beyond Recovery to me is a representation of what God is. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been more blown away by a program than I have been with Above and Beyond. The level of care, the level of dignity that they provide to their clients. I worked for treatment centers that are $30,000 to $50,000 a month to go to these treatment centers. I’ve been there, I’ve worked with them. You walk into Above and Beyond Recovery, it’s the same, feels the same as if you were walking into a $50,000 a month facility. The beautiful thing about Above and Beyond is that you don’t pay for anything there. The vast majority of their population are people who are also experiencing homelessness.
I’m so glad you mentioned that. I wanted to make sure that comes in. That was one of the big things about the interview with Dan and why I wanted to do it is because the quality of the programs is way up there and the cost to the participants is zero.
The dignity, the care that is given to these people who are some of the most vulnerable people in our population. I’ve been to other treatment centers that are either free or close to free. I’ve seen the level of care and quality, it’s not been great. Above and Beyond is entirely different. I’ve never seen anything like it. It is beautiful and like I said, whatever that thing is, that is God, that beautiful, omnipotent positive force exists there at Above and Beyond, I can tell you that much.
Didn’t they have a little weird thing, too? If you search for Above and Beyond in Chicago or Family Recovery Center, you can get some stuff, but the actual website, I’m trying to come up with that, do you that is?
I encourage people, if you put in your search engine the Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center in Chicago, it’ll take you to a whole bunch of links. I have to click on a few before you get right to their website. It was a fabulous thing to be able to interview them and learn about that program. I have to agree with the quality of the programs and the point you were making about the way people are honored and respected, and you can hear it when the participants are talking. I’m honored that you take the time to share with us. How do people connect with you? One of the things I did was follow you on YouTube, but what other social media things do you promote you want people to try and stay connected with you or your message?
One of the best ways to find the links to all the different ways that you can get in touch with me or follow the message is to go to JamAlker.com. If you type Jam Alker into Facebook, you can get to my public figure page there, where a lot of my stuff is disseminated from there. Go to my website, you can find the links to all the other sources for any type of media or information your heart desires.
I wish you all the best and good luck. I think you said you’re going to be going and doing some work with Dan at the Family Recovery Center.
I will be there to speak.
Thanks again for being here and thanks for doing what you do. It’s an honor.
It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jam Alker is a musician, public speaker and recovery activist. When he was in treatment for addiction, he rediscovered the power of music to heal and connect people culminating in the release of his first solo album, Sophrosyne. Since then, he’s made it his mission to share the healing powers of music. As a public speaker, he shares his recovery perspective and his music to educate communities, students, recovery organizations, healthcare providers and corporations about the stigma of addiction and the hope of recovery. In 2019, he was invited to speak at both Google’s Palo Alto and Chicago headquarters. He also performs with his band, The JAB, and continues to use music to reach others still struggling. As of November 2020, he is in post-production with Director Brian Hathaway for a documentary about his life story entitled The Middle Way.
- Jam Alker
- The Jam Alker Band
- Dan Hostetler – Previous episode
- Above and Beyond Recovery
- YouTube – Jam Alker
- Jam Alker – Facebook
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About Jam Alker
Music helped him to process the trauma that led to his addiction. “What I found out was that drugs were not my problem; drugs were my solution to my problem.” The new solution, he decided, would be music, and so he began to create songs from his experiences that explore the despair that can compel bad decisions, without judgment or condemnation, but rather with hope. In 2017, he released his first solo album, Sophrosyne, which gave him the platform to spread the message of recovery.
Since then, he’s brought together some of Chicago’s best players to create a new five-piece band, The JAB. The JAB’s first album was released in early 2020.
In tandem, his music helped him reach a community of those suffering and recovering from addiction and give them hope. He brings his recovery perspective and his music to educate communities, high school and middle school students, recovery organizations, healthcare providers, and corporations, about the stigma of addiction and the hope of recovery. In 2019, he was invited to speak about addiction and recovery at both Google’s Palo Alto and Chicago headquarters.
Most compelling is that it’s not just addicts and their families who find kinship through his music; his message of redemption hits home for just about anyone who’s discontent. “My story is not unique,” Jam often says. “Everyone has unhealthy behaviors they go to in times of desperation.” His music and his message can help anyone looking for guidance and inspiration as they start their healing process, whatever healing it may be.
It was music that helped him change his life — and it’s music that continues to keep him on his path, which allows him to make impactful and authentic connections with those who might otherwise be lost.
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