Chicago’s Jam Alker finds a second life as a recovery evangelist through music

Jam Alker musician in recovery
Courtesy of Karen Rettig

Play guitar, get girls — at some point, every guy who imprints on a rock ‘n’ roll record and sets out to be a part of that lineage recognizes the allure.

The Ties That Bind UsJam Alker was no different, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. But that potential for physical attraction was undercut with a gnawing need for it, a longing to fill an internal pit of emptiness that’s oh-so-familiar to recovering addicts and alcoholics.

“Looking back in recovery, I see that for what that was, and I talk about it a lot now,” Alker said. “I’ve done a lot of work on myself in my recovery, and I realize that a lot of the issues of my addiction — the numbing behavior, the sedation, the distraction — are the result of my childhood trauma. I never felt wanted; I had an alcoholic, violent father; and a mother who didn’t want me to be around very often. I lacked that attention and a mother’s love, and that led to attention-seeking in my teens.

“You can very flippantly say that I picked up guitar to get chicks, or because I loved music, but it also followed that it was a way to fill that empty hole inside of me. I thought that if enough girls liked me, that if enough people liked me, it was going to fill that hole inside of me that told me I wasn’t good enough. But no matter how much success I had, it never did.

“That pain and discomfort that came from never being filled led to the numbing behavior of my addiction,” he added.

Angst, aggression and rock 'n' roll

Jam Alker musician in recoveryMusic, however, gave him a way out. In October, Alker will mark five years clean and sober, and he’s a nationally respected musician, speaker and recovery activist who had put music on the shelf for a decade before he entered an addiction treatment program in 2014. Looking back, he said, music represents his first love, that purity of the spirit that spoke to him on a primal level when he was a boy.

His father gave him a copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and his cousin introduced him to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Together, the two albums — one a psychedelic tour of the mind and heart, the other a brutal slab of visceral energy — set the stage for a future in music.

“Sgt. Pepper” resonated emotionally — the sadness, the loneliness, the intensity of emotions that so many addicts and alcoholics feel on such a grander scale than their “normal” counterparts. But “Back in Black,” he pointed out, tapped into a deep well of visceral aggression, that simmering pushback against the darkness that a 9-year-old boy felt just as intensely but could not articulate. They were, he said, the Scylla and Charybdis between which the ship of his soul found itself.

“I didn’t understand what was going on, but I loved it, and I did know that was going to lead me to want to really perform,” he said. “In my early teens, it was a combination of a lot of different music I was listening to. Punk rock was a very early inspiration because of the angst of the early teen years and the aggression of punk, but it was also easy.”

A friend taught him to play a power chord, and punk came easy — bang on the E string, he said, and scream over the top of it, and he was part of the tribe. But by that point, Alker was well on his way to becoming an addict or an alcoholic. He was 8 years old the first time he got blackout drunk, he said — and he loved it. By the sixth grade, he had smoked weed and tried cocaine, and by the time he hit high school, chemicals had become an escape.

“By the time I was a freshman, I had tried everything you could possibly find other than heroin and crack: lots of hallucinogens, lots of speed, cocaine, weed,” he said. “Anything that could get me outside of my natural state of being, which was one of complete and utter discomfort. I’m a member of a few of the different (12 Step) fellowships, and there’s one that has a saying about being restless, irritable and discontent, and I vibed with that really hard.

“I’ll tell people sometimes that I feel like I came out of the womb restless, irritable and discontent. That was my natural state of being, and that continued on all the way until I was in a place where I was actually able to find recovery and deal with the underlying causes and conditions.”

Success and the illusion of 'functioning'

Jam Alker musician in recovery

Courtesy of Karen Rettig

Like a lot of young musicians, it was easy to justify at the time as part and parcel of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

“As far as I was concerned, I was going to be a rock star, life was going to be a party and eventually there would be enough applause, enough autographs, enough attention from girls to finally soothe that aching inside of me,” he said. “What I know now is that’s a promise that can never be fulfilled, just as drugs are a promise that can never be delivered. You cannot fix a problem inside by outside means: You must go inside to do the healing.”

At the time, however, he still had a few years before those recovery principles would be revealed. As his musical horizons expanded, he got into other genres — metal, R&B, soul — and his songwriting expanded. After high school, he tried college before deciding higher education wasn’t for him, and so he moved to Chicago and started a band. The group didn’t headline arenas, but Alker was always savvy about the side hustle. He dabbled in real estate and made some money, eventually building a studio and starting a label that signed a bigger talent, for whom Alker began to play bass.

That led to more touring, this time to bigger audiences, and rock ‘n’ roll began to pay the creative and social dividends he’d dreamed of as a child. With greater success, however, came more hedonism, and Alker threw himself into those trapping with abandon. At first, he said, he was the quintessential definition of a functioning addict, and because rock ‘n’ roll is often an acceptable vocation for such individuals, it was easy for him and his peers to look the other way.

“But all that means is that you know how to make money while the rest of your life is in shambles,” he said. “I was still able to function and make quite a bit of money, but things changed quickly when I was introduced to heroin. I talk about how, in my childhood, I lacked a mother’s love and female attention, and that’s what I like to tell people who have never tried heroin what it feels like: It feels like a mother’s love.”

The inability to stop using

With heroin, he said, that restlessness vanished. The irritability disappeared. The discontentment evaporated. He was, he thought, finally free to be comfortable in his own skin, and the internal maelstrom of self-loathing and self-doubt were quieted by the emotional anesthesia of that drug. It’s relief, however, was deceptive: While other substances at least allowed him to get by temporarily, heroin was like pulling up the emergency brake on a car going 75mph down the freeway.

“Once I introduced it into my body and my emotions, my soul and my being, I was completely unable to stop regardless of what the consequences were,” he said. “And it just continued to grow. I took more the next day, because it felt great at first, but soon I was spending $200, $300, $400, $500 a day just to not feel bad.

“I had built a little bit of a real estate empire here in Chicago, and that started to go away, along with the recording studio. I started to pawn the equipment I had, including my guitars — anything I had, I started to convert to cash, always for pennies on the dollar, and I ended up transferring that to China white, which ended up going in a needle, which ended up in my arm.”

If music was his first love, heroin was the temptress that led him to lose his mind and abandon her. For the next decade, he didn’t pick up his guitar, because every ounce of energy was consumed by the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more — and eventually by the tug-of-war for his soul that those afflicted find themselves in when they try to stop.

“I tried all this stuff on my own: ‘Once this happens, I’ll stop.’ ‘This weekend, I’ll stop.’ ‘On my birthday, I’ll stop.’ ‘When the sky’s blue, I’ll stop,’” he said. “What finally happened was that I was told I was going to be a father to a beautiful baby girl, and I thought, ‘Yes! This is the thing! There’s no way I’m going to be a junkie if I’m going to be a father.’ But in that 9 month period, I overdosed, I fell off behind the wheel of my car, I did all of the dumb shit that an incredibly addicted heroin addict does.”

The end of the road

Courtesy of Karen Rettig

When his daughter was born, he quit cold turkey, determined to rely on the routine of dedicated fatherhood to stay clean. By that point, he had to get an office job, but the prospect of living life on life’s terms was too overwhelming for a guy who had been shooting dope for 10 years.

“I realized it had been a decade since I had lived without being high, and I didn’t know how to live without it in my system,” he said. “I didn’t do any work; I would show my face long enough to leave, and by the third day, I realized I had no idea how to do anything without being high. I remember going to my car and screaming and crying: ‘You cannot get high! You have a daughter now!’ But then that little voice spoke up and tried to get me to go to the West Side of Chicago.

“That voice said, ‘You have this job. You have a daughter. You cannot lose this job. And you cannot do this job without getting high.’ It was a two-hour battle, but I eventually went to the West Side and bought a bag, and at that point, I realized there were no more lines in the sand to draw. It was truly bigger than me, and I needed to reach out for help.”

There, down in the abyss, he had a realization: An addict’s “bottom” isn’t a physical place. It’s a moment of spiritual clarity where the spirit cries out in surrender, and for Alker, that was his. He went to see his doctor, confessed to hoarding and trading his Suboxone prescription for heroin, and asked for addiction treatment. The doctor put him in touch with an addiction counselor, and so began a long, slow, six-month process of committing to get help and reneging on it.

“For the first six months, I was still getting high, but to my addiction counselor’s credit, he had to work on me until I was beaten into a state of reasonableness,” Alker said. “I would say, ‘I’ll start the process, but I still have to do this and this and this.’ I wasn’t willing, but over the course of the next six months, he took down my boundaries and my walls and helped to show me how important it was. And so on Oct. 13, 2014, I went to treatment.

“It was a full, on-both-knees surrender, because I had done everything I could do on my own, and it hadn’t worked. So I completely surrendered, I became willing to shut up and I listened to everything they told me to do. And that’s when my life totally started to change.”

Music as a lifeline

It was almost an afterthought on his way out the door to the treatment center: He grabbed his remaining guitar, thinking it might help to pass the time. During one of his treatment sessions, an inpatient counselor asked if he was a writer. When he explained his musical past, she saw an opportunity, Alker said.

“God bless her soul for thinking outside the box, but she gave me the opportunity to do some of my treatment work as songwriting,” he said. “I had already started to think about it in poetic form, but that gave me the opportunity to sit there, and the permission to sit in my room with my guitar, and I just started to write again. It was a form of therapy, because I was writing about guilt, shame, remorse and amends I was going to have to make, and that’s when I really started to heal.

“That, plus the component of being told there was a spiritual element to a recovery program, that I had to connect to a power greater than myself … that combination did it. I found that power manifested to me through music. I felt like I was a conduit, an old radio that finally got tuned to the right frequency, and that music started to play through me, almost.”

He doesn’t use the term flippantly or with any sort of disregard for more conventional notions of spirituality, but for Alker, the process can only be described as magic. Words began to flow, chords began to play themselves almost, and the music he created in treatment resonated on a profound level with his peers. And, he added, it served as a blueprint for what was to come.

“I shared the music with some of the guys on my unit, just a sort of ‘Hey, check this out,’ never thinking it was going to turn into anything,” he said. “If you had told me more than four years later I’d be doing the stuff I’m doing now, I would have said, ‘No way.’ But I shared it, and it stuck. I shared these things they hadn’t found the words to express yet, and I realized as I continued this process, it was all about giving back and being of maximum service. And I saw it was an opportunity to be of service to others.”

And that, he added, became the lighthouse by which he would guide his ship.

“I left treatment with a clarity of purpose I’d never had in my life — using music to evangelize the healing power of it through treatment and recovery,” he said. “I didn’t care about money anymore, because I knew this was what I was supposed to do. This was my happiness.”

A singleness of purpose, with a side of rock

Courtesy of Karen Rettig

And so Alker was reborn in the light of recovery. Material success — the thousands of screaming fans he’d played to, the thousands of dollars in real estate profits, the studio, the label — had never filled that cavernous pit inside of him, but service work? Giving of himself? That was the spiritual balm he had sought all his life. And, he pointed out, it’s the embodiment of the 12th Step.

“I’m truly happy helping somebody who has no way of paying me back,” he said. “That’s the thing that fulfilled me. The one drug that delivered was being of service, and music was the way to be able to do that. I’m blessed to be able to put it into a poetic form with a melody, and when I realized that, I was no longer regretful for my past. I was grateful for my addiction and what it put me through, because I needed my pain to authentically find myself and use that as a way to help others.”

Over the last couple of years, he’s become an advocate for a number of recovery organizations, most recently the treatment program Recovery Unplugged. He recorded and released a 2017 album, “Sophrosyne,” a searing, seething collection of rock songs that simmer with the darkness from which he came and the beauty and light in which he now lives. Three of the songs on it were ones he wrote in treatment, and all of them were conceived and put to paper during the first two years of his recovery.

“It’s been an amazing experience, touring the country and playing clubs and some of the biggest recovery festivals,” he said. “I’m also a public speaker, and I’ve spoken all over the country — last month, I spoke at Google headquarters. When I speak, I do a combination of ‘Storytellers’ and recovery, in that I tell stories and weave in songs, and I travel the country doing that.”

He’s also in the process of filming a documentary about his recovery journey, with a focus on how music has helped him heal, and how he now uses it to help others do the same. He recently completed pre-production on a new full-band album and will hit the road this fall for a national tour.

He doesn’t tout these accomplishments to boast. They are all, he pointed out, blessings bestowed upon him because of the new way of life he’s found in recovery, and they’re available to anyone who follows a similar path.

“The most important thing people need to understand is that it’s not about the material successes that have come in my recovery, but the emotional and spiritual successes that have come, and as a result of those, there have been monetary successes,” he said. “That is a byproduct of living a life in which I am centered; living a life that is happy; living a life that is completely devoted to being of service to others.

“I want people to understand that my happiness, my contentment, is not a result of this stuff. Those things are great, but those are not the things that have brought me happiness. The gifts of recovery are about knowing my purpose and being of service to others. That’s what keeps the needle out of my arm, and as a result of that, I’ve been able to receive these other gifts.”