How Kendrick Lamar Helped Me Through My Addiction Recovery

Kendrick Lamar DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar Facebook

The other day at 5:00 a.m. I found myself outside with a coffee and a cigarette. I wake up this early on a regular basis now – a symptom of PAW (post-acute withdrawal), which I experience as a recovering addict.

I’m 21 years old, and during the last year, I used cocaine, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances every day. I attended a treatment center for the last two months, and have been sober for two months and ten days. I feel like shit.

The mug I was sipping from was my dad’s. It says I’d Rather be Golfing! A lie, I thought. I’d rather be doing cocaine. Following that thought, I immediately called D, my sponsor.

D is 39 years old, has long, dangling hair, a thin face, a tattoo of the solar system on the inside of his right arm and a tattoo of an astronaut on his left. Like me, his DOC (drug of choice) was cocaine. A husband, father, and now a friend to me, D (after being sober for nine years, relapsing, and getting sober again) is approaching three years clean.

One night, while driving me home from a Cocaine Anonymous (C.A.) meeting in downtown Toronto, D asked me what kind of music I listened to. I skipped the “Oh I listen to everything” preamble and answered “Rap.” He asked me if I listened to Earl Sweatshirt. I told him I did and we blasted Doris the entire way home. He dropped me off and I quickly went to my room and hit the mattress. It was there I realized you could be cool and in recovery.

This time, when I called D, he greeted me in his usual chipper manner and asked if I’d heard of a group called Flying Lotus. I told him that yes, I have heard of him, and that he should listen to the album You’re Dead! He’s a brilliant producer and there’s a great Kendrick Lamar feature on there. He also did some work on Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, one of my favorite albums of all time.

Later in the day, I texted my friend Ali to give him my musical opinion that DAMN., Lamar’s latest album, is superior to TPAB. I listened to both albums frequently during active addiction, along with Yeezus by Kanye West. Together, these three records were the soundtrack to my year-long addiction. 

Yeezus was my binge, or spree, album during my addiction cycle. Listening to it, I felt powerful, without limitation. I felt like a God. That aside, my life was falling apart. I lost my job, my girlfriend, and many close friends.

To Pimp a Butterfly was the counter soundtrack during this cycle. Its social and political awareness made me feel grounded in reality and sobriety for a brief period, before I would get overwhelmed and turn back to substances.

The covers of the three albums say it all, to me. Yeezus is a blank CD in a blank CD case, with a red strip on the right-hand side; it is perfect for doing lines off of.

The cover of To Pimp a Butterfly has a black and white photograph of shirtless black men (Lamar included) in front of the White House, standing over a dead white man. The image addresses the relevant social issues of our time: racial injustice, white privilege, the prison industrial complex – issues I would know more about had I not dropped out of school to major in cocaine.

On the minimal cover of DAMN. is a picture of Lamar, who looked high-as-hell to me when I was using. Today, he looks painfully sober, like a dry-drunk.

Lamar, in my opinion, is the best rapper alive – and a fierce intellectual. Listening to DAMN. and looking at its cover, I think of him as a university professor who has given up. He’s imagined the photograph on the cover of To Pimp a Butterfly, and isn’t confident it will ever appear in a slideshow during one of his lectures.

Over the course of DAMN., a 55-minute lecture, he meditates on his many thoughts, feelings, theories, and suspicions. Sometimes he becomes so involved in them that he forgets where he is, and is only reminded when a student noisily gets up to leave early because he’s been made uncomfortable by the topic. He’s disappointed, but tries not to show it. He knows his dissection of each topic is both insightful and a banger.

I now listen to this album every morning as I transcribe old journals from rehab. In reading my old notes, I stumble upon feelings that I’d numbed through addiction. These days, in addictions counseling, I’m encouraged to look at those moods, feel them without resistance, and watch them go by. To just be. And let me tell you: this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Learning to live with myself, void of substances, is exhausting.

That’s the look I see in Kendrick’s eyes now. He’s stuck in his head, too, fighting thoughts and feelings as they go by. Listening, I realize I am no longer alone. I realize that my life – and recovery – has been about three things: Fear, Love, and God. 

FEAR. Being forced to feel scared me to death. I resented my environment because I wasn’t willing to properly accept life, and I blamed others for it. I couldn’t accept people, institutions, and concepts for what they were. I couldn’t see myself in relation to these large forms, so I was scared of them. In rehab, doing my self-inventory, I realized my resentments were formed by my fear of looking at myself and my part in these relationships. Drugs were the most convenient route for numbing this fear, life-destructive consequences considered. “If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that motherfucker up” raps K.Dot, knowing it doesn’t work.

LOVE. Not too long ago, I realized that I was in love at last. A girl entered my life and suddenly I wanted to be with her. We trusted one another. We made each other feel at our best. We noticed the little things about one another and fell deeper in admiration. But I put cocaine, my greatest love, above her, and it ended. How crazy I was to give that up for drugs? I was too uncomfortable in my own skin to love myself, and her by extension. I realize this now and have made amends her.

GOD. Upon entering rehab, I believed treatment to be a cult. “No way am I buying into this,” I thought. Less than five minutes into my first counseling session, I started bawling. I had been failing at life. I was an isolated shell. I was depressed and scared to death. I realized I could no longer live by my own means. I came to believe in the program, and eventually God, seeing it/him/her as something greater than myself, which I could never understand. But “what happens on Earth stays on Earth,” voices remind us throughout DAMN. I need to do my part. I can’t expect God to do anything for me without paying back.

I recently ordered a new copy of Yeezus. I hung it on my wall next to my length of sobriety chips. 24 hours. One month. Two months. It’s there to remind me of the past, so I never forget how bright my future can be.

Last night, D. picked me up and we drove to a nearby C.A. meeting. I played DAMN. front-to-back the whole car ride. He said m.A.A.d city was better, and we left it at that. We were headed to hear a speaker with nine years of sobriety sort his way through his thoughts, feelings, fears, theories, and suspicions. Still, after nine years. Damn. TC mark

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