Commentary: Why Recovering Early in Life is a Launching Pad for Success

Matt Butler

“Recovery is a platform for following your dreams. It’s really not the other way around,” said Matt Butler, 31, a singer-songwriter who broke out last year with his album Reckless Son and the song “Just One” composed for the documentary Generation Found. “Whatever it is that you want to achieve with your life, whatever you want to create, whatever kind of relationships you want to form, it starts with recovery.”

Butler is among a growing number of teenagers and young adults who struggled with addiction and made the choice to enter treatment at a young age. While the horror stories make for splashy headlines, there are thousands, if not millions, of people who have recovered as adolescents or young adults and gone on to lead amazing lives with successful careers.

“People, especially young people, think it’s the end of their lives when they have to get sober,” comments Butler. “They think it’s the end of fun, or it’s the end of their dreams. There is this myth there are certain professions or career tracks that are closed off to someone who’s sober – whether that’s being a musician, working in fashion or the restaurant business, or even high-stress jobs like becoming a lawyer, surgeon or pilot. In my experience, that’s just not the case. Recovery and sobriety are not a burden. They are a launch pad.”

After Recovery, Rediscovering His Passion

Butler began writing and playing music as a teenager; he also began his struggle with drugs, alcohol and depression as a teenager. He had some early success in his music career, touring the U.S. and Europe with a band, but always heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol. “My story definitely got very dark in my mid-twenties, and then I had a moment of grace where I was able to ask for help. I was directed to Caron Treatment Centers by the HR department of the advertising agency where I was working.”

When Butler got sober, it made him realize how much more he loved music. The drugs and the alcohol were gone, but he found he still wanted to write songs and perform. He started playing music full time about two years after he started recovery, then wrote an album of songs about his experience in active addiction and his path to recovery. Butler now tours extensively, playing at high schools, recovery centers and prisons, in addition to coffee houses and nightclubs.

“For me, the tools of recovery are what allow me the opportunity to live my dreams. I am currently in this incredible adventure, and it’s all because of recovery. If all I wanted to do is drink alcohol and do drugs, I don’t need to be a musician to do that. Addiction is not exclusive to any particular job, and, once in recovery, there is nothing to hold you back from taking on any career.”

Butler’s songs about addiction and recovery resonate with students and young adults because many of them recognize their own struggles with addiction and recovery in his music. Addiction doesn’t discriminate against age, but then, neither does recovery.

The Challenges of Recovery as a Teenager or Young Adult

“Younger people in recovery do face different challenges than those who are older. Peer pressure is felt much more strongly at that age, their identities are not necessarily fully formed, and they confront a daunting number of life transitions as they face adolescence, graduate from high school, go to college, move out on their own, launch a career, date and get married, even start a family,” said Mylene Krzanowski, vice president of Regional Recovery Care Support at Caron Treatment Centers. “It is a time of tremendous change, and every transition can be stressful.”

But there are an increasing number of resources dedicated to supporting young people in recovery. Generation Found, for example, focuses on recovery in high schools and youth support services, specifically in Houston, Texas. The larger story behind the movie is what is being done and what can be done to support teenagers who are actively struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism.

For colleges and universities, the growth in the number of collegiate recovery communities has been astronomical, in large part due to seed funding from the Stacie Mathewson Foundation, the initial funder behind Transforming Youth Recovery. There are around 150 collegiate recovery programs nationally, and most of these have begun in the last five or so years.

Similar support networks are there for people in their early and late 20s.

“This population just really wants to get on with their life; they want to feel normal,” said Krzanowski. “A big part of that is changing their identity from a drug or alcohol user to somebody in recovery. They also need an opportunity to develop skills of self-reflection and personal accountability. If they are empowered to make changes and they’re accountable, there are going to be huge opportunities available to them, whether that is going to college or pursuing a long-held dream after treatment.”

Working Around Trigger Situations

Recovery has made it possible for Matt Butler to pursue his dream, but being on tour can be a challenge for someone in recovery, just as it can be for anyone in a stressful situation.

“One of the challenges on the road is physical,” says Butler. “Eating, drinking and sleeping right. I try keeping a watch on it, because I know poor health and stress can be a gateway to other tricks of the mind.”

Butler also stays plugged in with his support network back home while on the road. “Being on the road feels like a dream. People treat you like an honored guest everywhere you go. It’s a really seductive feeling. One of the ways that I hold myself accountable is to stay connected with the people who are important to me back home.”

Butler hasn’t had a problem working in nightclubs and other environments where alcohol is served. “I really don’t experience those cravings anymore, the result of having done a lot of the work in recovery. With trigger situations like that, you have to learn how to be honest with yourself about what your motives are for being in certain places.”

Butler does draw the line at being around cocaine. “I don’t have to be around that, and I just leave if that’s ever the situation.”

As a nod to his personal and professional accomplishments, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will be honoring his album and will name him as a Leader in Mental Health Awareness in November.

Butler’s advice to those looking to pursue their dreams of working in a challenging career? “You have to pace things. I wouldn’t recommend to someone who was six months sober to do some of the things that I do now at 4 ½ years sober. It’s very important to do the internal work on yourself before you put yourself into certain situations. You have be ready to handle them.”

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