As trumpeter for the GRAMMY-winning Latin rock band Ozomatli, Asdru Sierra makes his bread and butter performing live, especially during the lucrative festival season. But as a recovering alcoholic, those same music festivals pose a potential threat to Sierra's eight years of sobriety due to the abundance of alcohol and other substances that are readily available at weekend-long concert marathons such as Coachella, Stagecoach and Outside Lands.
"When everybody's drinking and having fun … honestly, if [alcohol is] there in front of you, it's hard not to do it," says Sierra. "No matter how many days or years sober you've got, sometimes you're just having a bad frickin' day."
In response to the dilemma faced by recovering musicians and touring professionals such as Sierra, in 1997 MusiCares conceived a first-of-its-kind initiative called the Safe Harbor Room program. The concept entails creating "safe harbor" areas at events where music professionals who are in recovery can meet to grab a bite, shoot the breeze and even conduct 12-step support meetings.
"It's a place where people in recovery can stay a couple of minutes, or all afternoon — whatever they'd like to do," says MusiCares Senior Executive Director Debbie Carroll.
"It's like, 'Hey man, cool! You're part of this club? How long?' It's good to know that you're not alone." — Asdru Sierra on MusiCares' Safe Harbor Rooms
This year, the Safe Harbor Room program turns 20 — marking a full two decades of helping musicians in recovery since the first room was introduced backstage at the 39th Annual GRAMMY Awards telecast.
Sponsored in part by the Bohemian Foundation, MusiCares Safe Harbor Room support is available at most major music festivals nationwide, as well as select entertainment industry events. Already in 2017, Safe Harbor Rooms have been implemented at the winter NAMM show, South by Southwest, the Country Music Association Awards, not to mention the 59th GRAMMY Awards and the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year gala. Rooms will be available at many upcoming major music festivals as well, including Coachella, Stagecoach Festival, Sasquatch! Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, FYF Fest, and Riot Fest.
For artists and music professionals in recovery, a Safe Harbor Room at a huge event such as Coachella is a godsend.
"I love the people that go there — the musicians, the people who work with MusiCares," says Sierra, who played Coachella in 2007 and 2011 with Ozomatli. "It's like, 'Hey man, cool! You're part of this club? How long?' It's good to know that you're not alone."
Letting industry professionals know they're not alone on the road to maintaining their sobriety is precisely the point of the Safe Harbor Room program. In conjunction with MusiCares' mission of providing a safety net for music people in times of need, every Safe Harbor Room is attended by a qualified addiction recovery staff member. For an extra layer of reinforcement, MusiCares solicits the participation of licensed counselors along with volunteers with longstanding relationships in recovery.
"We've been doing this for so long that people know and expect that we're going to be there," says Carroll, a licensed clinical social worker with 30 years of experience in the addiction and mental health fields.
"People want to feel like, 'Hey, there are other people back here who know what recovery is all about,' or 'I could really use a 12-step meeting, so let me come back and check out the Safe Harbor Room for an hour, then go back and do what I've gotta do.' If somebody's at risk, they should reach out to us, because we're there to get them the support they need."
Whether it's a headlining concert, an awards show or a multiday festival, many events place artists in a freewheeling environment where well-meaning fans can be fawning and overly accommodating. According to Miles Adcox, CEO of Nashville, Tenn.-based therapy center and retreat Onsite Workshops, live events can impel artists to be "edgy," adopting devil-may-care attitudes that can result in overindulgence in alcohol and substances.
"Public professions produce abnormal circumstances, and abnormal circumstances produce high levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression," says Adcox, who has volunteered at several Safe Harbor Rooms. "Put all that at a festival with alcohol and recreational drugs, then it's like a pressure cooker.
"To create a space where you can get respite and colleague support in the midst of one of the most stressful environments possible is just great. It's not always someone walking in there because their wheels are falling off, though that certainly has happened. A lot of times they just need to connect with the part of themselves that desires to be balanced and connected to who they are, so they can create. They need a room where nobody's pulling on them, where nobody in the room is getting a percentage. A Safe Harbor Room doesn't require anything from them. It just requires them to show up."
Aside from helping take the edge off live events, Safe Harbor Room support can also ease an addict's entry into the uncertain new world of temperance. For those in recovery, the decision to go sober can be made more daunting by fears that abstinence might compromise longstanding relationships.
"For the newly sober person, the challenge is finding your way back into the mainstream —doing things for the first time in a long time without using drugs and alcohol," says Steve, a 63-year old recovering addict who requested we not publish his surname or profession. "Because we tend to find like-minded people, it's typical that you're surrounding yourself with other people that are likewise using."
Currently 27 years sober, Steve says it's comforting just knowing that Safe Harbor Rooms exist.
"When a sober person walks into the Safe Harbor Room, they know the people there have been through what they've been through, or what they are going through now, and they can talk about those things. If they're struggling today, they can talk about the struggle. It is a real sense of community."
"If somebody's at risk, they should reach out to us, because we're there to get them the support they need." — MusiCares' Debbie Carroll
For Ozomatli's Sierra, the MusiCares Safe Harbor Room program has even provided opportunities for discussion with his teenaged son and daughter, both fans of the pioneering ska-punk band Sublime, whose frontman Bradley Nowell struggled with addiction before his tragic death in 1996. As budding entertainers contemplating following their dad into music, Sierra says his kids appreciate the value of the Safe Harbor Room program.
"My kids asked me, 'Dad, what would it have been like if Brad Nowell had had this?" Sierra recalls. "I can only imagine what it would be like if Kurt Cobain was alive today and they had something like [Safe Harbor Rooms]. We've buried enough people to know how much this is needed."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and other distinguished publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)
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