Brandon Parkhurst didn’t so much come to the end of addiction’s road as he did drive through the guardrail, his life hurtling into the abyss in so many shards of flaming debris.
That he managed to grab the edge with a couple of fingers is a miracle in and of itself, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. That he managed to pull himself up — with the help of a sober network and some recovery tools — is something akin to divine intervention.
“I had been trying to get clean, but then I went on a nine-month free-for-all, and I was literally about to die,” Parkhurst said. “I rolled into this meeting that I had been going to for a year, and my skin was this greyish-green color, and my eyes were yellow and sucked way back in my head. I was always sweaty or freezing, and I remember never being fully dry — literally. I was always damp or greasy.
“My buddy had this treatment center up on this mountain, and he told me, ‘Just come up and detox,’ so I went up there and fell asleep for almost 48 hours on my back, sitting Indian-style, almost. And while I was asleep, my legs, due to gravity, gently came all the way down and popped out of the socket. So I woke up, and I rolled out of bed, and I couldn’t move. Here I was, 36 years old, crawling to the bathroom, and I had this moment of clarity right there.”
Lying there in pain, having lost control of his bladder and unable to walk, he had a vision, he added. It was, literally, one of life and death.
“I saw two roads: one was immediate relief with getting loaded and potential jail or death, and the other road was a lot of discipline and work with the potential to have a good life,” he said. “What I noticed was that I had been trying to find my own road in the middle of these other two roads, and that it would never work. The longer I tried to stay in the middle, the worse it got. That’s when it became clear to me, I’m in. I’m all in.”
Love from the gutter
These days, Parkhurst is a trauma therapist with his own company — Artist Warrior King. He’s the San Diego program administrator for Rock to Recovery. He’s working on his own singer-songwriter-oriented album, plays with the rock ‘n’ raga outfit Indigo Mystics and is still active as the guitarist/singer for the SoCal indie rock outfit Kut U Up. His life is worlds apart from his days in addiction’s wastelands, but it’s also a far cry from the void of crushing loneliness he felt throughout his childhood.
“When I was 12 years old, I found a joint in the gutter when I was walking to school, so I went with a couple of buddies, got a six-pack of beer, fired up the joint, drank two beers and when it hit my system, I was like, ‘Holy shit, you guys, we found it! We found the goods!’” he said. “I remember saying, ‘Dammit, I needed this when I was 5 years old!’ I had an emotionally unavailable, verbally abusive father and an overbearing, controlling mom that made it all about her. I wasn’t getting the love I needed at home, so when I smoked a joint, all the sudden I got all the love I needed.”
He had, he thought, found nirvana. Even the act of peeling an orange for 45 minutes brought him joy, and when he woke up the next morning, he was hit with an immediate longing.
“The first thought that entered my mind was, ‘That was amazing, nothing bad happened, no one knew and I didn’t get in trouble!’” he said. “And then the second thought was, ‘I want to do more!’”
What he discovered was that, in the beginning, drugs made music more fun. His father was a musician, and Parkhurst was raised on the classics — the Beatles, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac — and with instruments always around the house, he taught himself how to play piano and guitar. Around the time he started smoking weed, he began to write his own songs, and the dope seemed to make his process more creative … or so he thought.
Looking back, he pointed out, there was something else going on.
“A 12 Step program teaches us that we drink and use because we like the effects produced by alcohol and drugs — but what was the effect produced when I was 12 years old and smoking that joint? I didn’t have to feel that (stuff) anymore!” he said. “That’s what I always tell people in meetings or treatment centers or wherever who find themselves asking, ‘How did I get here?’ You used drugs and alcohol so you didn’t have to feel anymore. After 24 years, I had to get all of that out of my system, and then I had to start feeling all that (stuff) from when I was young.”
From living rooms to arena stages
Like most addicts and alcoholics will tell you, Parkhurst readily admits that those early years were fun. He grew up wanting to be a professional skater or surfboarder; the carefree vagabond existence of rock ‘n’ roll grabbed him early on, he said, and after high school — during which time he formed his first band — he and some buddies threw themselves into Kut U Up, a group equally influenced by Southern California pop-punk and the dissonant roar of grunge drifting down from Seattle.
“When Nirvana came out, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’” Parkhurst said. “We loaded up in a 1974 Econoline van with three gears and played small all-ages shows at people’s houses all over the U.S. for $50 or something, just enough gas money to get around the country and make it back home.”
Parkhurst and his bandmates, Brenan Rasch and Chris Cote (the modern-day lineup also includes Matt Amador) eventually caught the attention of Blink-182, which recognized kindred spirits in both the music and proclivity for on-stage insanity, Parkhurst said.
“They literally said, ‘We want to bring you on tour with us just to entertain us, and we want to film it and make a documentary and give that band the ultimate break,’” Parkhurst said. “For two months and 52 shows, we opened for Jimmy Eat World, Green Day and Blink-182. I was 24 years old, and we went from touring in a van playing these small shows to literally playing sold-out arena shows and stadiums.”
In the beginning, Kut U Up served as the unofficial court jester of the lineup, sandwiched on side stages or slots shortly after the doors opened. The major label rockers on the bill, however, soon realized something: These dudes could play, and when Kut U Up was firing on all cylinders, fans were eating out of the palms of the members’ hands.
“As the tour progressed, we became extremely close with Green Day and the other bands, and we made this movie called ‘Riding In Vans With Boys,’” Parkhurst said. “Over the years, it’s become what some people describe as the second best musical documentary behind ‘Spinal Tap,’ and we had everything at our fingertips. We were on MTV, and we had major record labels telling us, ‘You write songs, and we’ll put out a record and send you on tour.’”
Drugs and alcohol, however, had other plans.
“The crazy thing is that I had fun for all these years, then all the sudden, really quickly, it got not-so-fun,” he said. “I crossed that invisible line we always talk about in recovery, and I started getting consequences. Very rarely could I drink and use without having consequences, and it all turned on me. The thing that had made me feel so free and creative switched it up and made me a prisoner.”
Trapped in the spiral
Parkhurst recognized he had a problem when his old friends with whom he partied began to drop out of the lifestyle one by one. They were faced with the same consequences and pulled the rip cord, choosing to straighten up and move on with their lives. Parkhurst found himself justifying and rationalizing, and back home in Encinitas after “Riding In Vans With Boys” came out, a close friend who was drunk and high one night shot himself.
“That was very traumatic, and I kind of spiraled,” he said. “From 26 to 29, I didn’t complete the album we needed to make. I went and spent all my money and isolated and began shooting heroin. I pushed the world away from me.”
At 30 years old, he came out of a three-year heroin/cocaine/booze bender and realized that he needed to clean up his act. It was easier said than done, however, and he spent the next six years in and out of drug and alcohol treatment centers, going to 12 Step meetings and trying to find that middle path between abstinence and moderation. It was, he pointed out, a fruitless endeavor.
“In hindsight, I always had an internal ‘no’ to the complete process of recovery,” he said. “I might be in a treatment center listening to a counselor talk and saying, ‘Yeah!,’ but somewhere inside of me, I was saying, ‘I don’t need that. I’m not doing that.’ And I would hold onto that one piece. Other guys (in the program) would be like, ‘If you do, A, B, C, D and E, you’ll have 20 years clean, too!’ And I would think, ‘I’ll do A and B, but I’m not doing C, and I’m not doing E because that’s some weird shit!’”
Around the time he had his revelation on the mountain, he had an epiphany. He was at a meeting, complaining about wanting to get loaded, when another individual in recovery told him, “You don’t want to get loaded. You just don’t want to feel how you’re feeling.”
“I was just like, ‘Oh …,’” he said. “That kind of opened things up for me, and what I realized with this was that the cycle of going in and out of the program was because I couldn’t handle my feelings. Whenever I was feeling any anger, I would run to my dealer’s house and get loaded. Anger, sadness, fear, even if I had some joy or pleasure and my life was going good, I couldn’t handle whatever it was, and I would get loaded.
“That’s when I realized that recovery is about feeling the deeper stuff of what’s going on. It’s not about the addiction or the alcoholism; it’s about the pain underneath. And I wasn’t willing to look at those places, and I wasn’t willing to give up my ‘no’ to recovery.”
A new beginning
When he finally did, he threw himself into the suggestions. He emptied his phone of old people and surrounded himself with men in the program. He went to meetings every day, called his sponsor daily and “put my foot on the gas pedal and didn’t take it off,” he said.
“I’ve had a zillion moments of clarity, but for some reason, this was the one,” he said. “Then I also made a decision to seek outside help and get into the work of some of this trauma stuff.”
He went to school to become a trained trauma therapist, and when Wes Geer started Rock to Recovery in 2012 as a way of bringing music therapy to those struggling with addiction or other mental health issues, Parkhurst was the third member of the team. It was a “God moment,” he said, and it opened doors of community that he’d previously been emotionally unable to walk through.
“We got connected, and then all of the sudden I started to become part of something,” he said. “I started playing guitar again and playing shows again with Kut U Up. I started getting into meditation, and that completely opened my life up. That’s when I started getting into Indian music, and from that, we started Indigo Mystics. I became passionate about this kind of music, and so far, we’ve played three sold-out shows.”
It also opened the door to new material that doesn’t fit either band, songs that are solely from the scars of his soul and the healing light of his spirit. He’s thinking of calling his solo record “Ten Million Moons,” because the music comes from a place of deeper connection to the world, and the universe, around him.
Ironically, the glut of creativity comes from the same seeds of spiritual surrender from which his recovery sprouted.
“For me, what had to happen was that I had to say, ‘I don’t care about music right now,’” he said. “I had to trust that I would be able to play music again at some point, because I noticed that with the desire to play was an ego that was keeping me from getting clean. So I had to stop worrying about writing songs or even playing; it got to a point where the guitar hurt my fingers when I played, and it was clear to me that I was going to have to trust that I might never play music again.
“And because I trusted, I made it over this hump, so to speak. And what that hump was, was getting connected to spirit, and once I got over it, I started picking up the guitar again. Now, I can’t explain the feeling of getting on stage and playing music. It’s 10 times better than heroin.”