By Ali Sailer, MT-BC

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in my experience with music therapy in addiction recovery. What is nostalgia? Is it healthy or harmful? What role does it play for recovering alcoholics and addicts?

I am 12 years old, in seventh grade. I am sitting next to my bus buddy who is absorbed in her game of Crash Bandicoot on Nintendo whilst religiously looping Good Charlotte’s 2002 album. I can hear the loud rock music pulsating through her headphones and eventually I ask her to let me cop a listen. It is my first uncensored exposure to music that is not religious or classical and perhaps my first crack at “rebellion” (my teenaged angst was rather lame). It was a ritual I looked forward to every day on the way to school and represented a time when life was hopeful.

I am 13 years old, in eighth grade. I am sprawled across my bed listening to a contemporary Christian singer Erin O’Donnell, my first CD obtained from a roller rink raffle, on the portable red Walkman that I am finally allowed to have in my possession. My over-protective parents are starting to loosen up, but I am a little apprehensive about this newly granted privilege that feels almost too good to be true. The album represented a time when life was exciting, and in retrospect, the calm before the storm.

I am 14 years old, in ninth grade. I am the only female in a van loaded with teenaged boys on a class fieldtrip somewhere in Pennsylvania. “Amish Paradise” by Weird Al Yankovic blasts from the car speakers accompanied by waves of riotous laughing, especially during the verse about “getting medieval” on somebody’s “heinie”. Despite the pervasive discomfort I felt at the time owing to my puerile peers, the chaos of my parents’ divorce, and my own adolescent skin, I couldn’t help but crack a genuine smile. To this day, it’s one of the few songs that has come to represent my youth as a whole – the good, the bad, and the ugly in all its glory.

Music has the power to evoke nostalgia (via a particular song, artist, or genre), striking reminiscent chords that are often independent of its “objective” meaning. Since I tend to select familiar, client-preferred music, most of my clients do have a pre-existing relationship with the songs they encounter in our music therapy sessions. For a middle-aged client, “In My Life” by The Beatles reminds him of how much he enjoyed listening to music before his addiction took over. For a veteran client, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel may stir up memories of staying hopeful in crisis. For a younger client, an EDM artist or contemporary rapper may remind her of the excitement of partying during active addiction.

I am an extremely nostalgic person. When I feel nostalgic, I feel a bittersweet longing that is equally pleasant and melancholic. Typically, I feel nostalgic for a particular time in my life, such as high school or when I was a resident of Philadelphia. I find myself yearning to return to that time, sometimes if only for the very reason that it is now gone. I resonate with the Portuguese term saudade, which is like nostalgia with a stronger emphasis on the melancholy. It is similar to grieving the loss or absence of something that will never return or never existed. For me, early 2000s pop punk does the trick.

People feel nostalgic for many different reasons. Some are even nostalgic for things they’ve never experienced directly (i.e. Colonial Era, Roaring Twenties, Woodstock, etc.). Like a child who dreams of adulthood, nostalgia for the imagined future has yielded phenomena like Steampunk (Victorian Sci-Fi) and PVC clothing (retro-futuristic fashion from the sixties). However, the most common themes among clients in addiction recovery appear to be nostalgia for a particular era such as childhood or young adulthood (when problems seemed fewer), nostalgia for particular memories or people (a family vacation or significant other), and nostalgia for “the fun times” during active addiction.

So is nostalgia a good thing? I would argue yes. Nostalgia seems healthy when it is a hunger for “home” or belonging, a time or place when things were right, the way they were supposed to be. Naturally, we all want to belong. Even if we never had the opportunity to experience authentic belonging, nostalgia for the way we feel things ought to be can drive us to make that our reality. If nostalgia leads a person to reconnect with her true identity, true beliefs, or true feelings that were lost in active addition, then maybe it is essential to recovery.

Nostalgia can be unhealthy when it becomes an obsession or craving for the elusive. Nostalgia, if unchecked, can morph into a toxic fixation on the past which we are powerless to change and could be disadvantageous, especially to people in recovery from addiction. Nostalgia that romanticizes history (South Park’s “member berries”) is a form of denial. Both nostalgia and addiction are temporary escapes from the present into a fantasy realm that is neither present nor past. Nostalgia, like addiction, can keep the addict disconnected from reality and ultimately trapped inside an alternate temporal dimension.

Music, while an effective time machine, also has the power to connect and move the listener through real time, liberating him from that foggy twilight zone between now and then. Since addiction distorts the addict’s perception of time, music therapy as an experiential medium structured in time seems like the perfect antidote. If we accept today, then we are free to progress, evolve, and create new experiences and memories as well as pay homage to the old ones. If we accept today, then we are gifted with the opportunity to heal from the past, find gratitude in the present, and hope for the future.

For those who wonder: How do I make peace with nostalgia? Try not to worry too much. Try not to overthink. Value the moment because everything will pass away. In the words of Green Day, “So take the photographs and still frames in your mind / Hang them on a shelf in good health and good time”. And if you choose to take them off the shelf when you are feeling homesick for the good old days, try not to ask why the old days seemed so good. Just remember that they were.