Singer-songwriter Amanda Bocchi: ‘I don’t focus on staying sober. I focus on living’

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The first time Amanda Bocchi’s life went off the rails, she was fleeing Georgia escaping an abusive relationship to detox in her father’s basement in order to keep from giving birth to an addicted baby.

The Ties That Bind UsShe had accepted the measure of her own addiction, but while she had reached a point of desperation, she had no idea what might be on the other side of the darkness that had consumed her life, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I was sober for a year and a half after that, but I didn’t know about recovery,” said Bocchi, a singer-songwriter who frequently performs with her backing band, Americana Soul Flood. “I just knew that if I didn’t get clean, I was going to have a baby addicted to drugs. I was leaving a violent situation, so my mom came down to Georgia with a U-Haul, I moved into my dad’s basement in Virginia, withdrawing all by myself and I didn’t tell anyone I was an addict.

“This was still early, during my first trimester, and at this point, I had accepted that I obviously had an addiction. I knew it was screwing my life up.

“But I don’t feel like I ever entered into recovery, because I didn’t know about it,” she added. “I still thought (opiates) were the magic pill that made life less difficult and even enjoyable, and I dreamed about it every single night. I had these very intense drug dreams where I would try to do the drugs but I couldn’t, and it always screwed with my head.”

Amanda had a baby girl, started a new relationship and had a renewed commitment to her music career. It made it seem as if she had turned a corner. As many recovering addicts know, however, that calm before the storm lulls those afflicted into a false sense of complacency. After her second daughter was born less than two years after her first, she began using opiates again, and the façade of normalcy quickly crumbled.

Today, she’s been clean and sober for three years. Her recovery came about through stops and starts — short-lived periods of sobriety followed by intense relapses that brought her closer and closer to a final bottom.

“If it got bad enough, I would go to the hospital and get help there, but you can only do that for so long,” Bocchi said. “I eventually realized that I was going to die, and I didn’t want to die. I had two kids and things that I cared about, and I wanted to have a beautiful life. It took a transition of going from the belief that I was a separate human being and nothing was connected to realizing the divine spirit is in everything … that everything is a reflection of that … and that I’m also a reflection of that.

“That’s where my true awakening came from. It’s a process, and I’m still going through it, but the drugs are out now. Slowly, I’ve been stripping away all these things and dealing with my (mental illness) head on. My first year in recovery I spent doing DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It’s this giant knot I have to untangle, and it’s slow.”

Music becomes an anchor

Much of it, she said, has come about through making peace with her past. She was born in Washington State, and Bocchi’s mom left her biological father when she was 5 months old and moved to Roanoke, Va. Her mother married an English professor who wound up adopting Bocchi, and the family moved to Georgia when she was 4 years old, where her adoptive father accepted a university teaching position.

Life at home was far from idyllic, however.

“He had significant mental health issues,” she said. “He is bipolar, and he often went on this cycle of taking medication, and then stopping taking his medication He was also addicted to benzos (benzodiazepines). He would sleep all the time; at one point, I would say he was sleeping 15 hours a day. He would have psychotic episodes that occurred every six weeks or so.”

Although he now has a year of recovery under his belt and the two have begun to mend their relationship, for a sensitive young girl growing up in that household, it was the source of a great deal of trauma. Music became an outlet for her creativity and self-expression, she said.

“I started writing songs when I was really little, when I was 5 or 6 — it’s just something I’ve always done,” she said. “I picked out melodies and figured them out on the piano, and then I started playing guitar when I was 9 and just kept going in that direction.

“I loved country music; that was my first love, for sure. Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill … and Martina McBride was my biggest hero when I was a little kid. I even got my hair cut like her. As you can imagine, as a girl getting a very short Martina McBride haircut, I looked like boy for a while!”

By the time she became a teenager, the desire to share her music became too great. It was pointless, Bocchi felt, to write songs and perform them in her bedroom, and so her parents allowed her to test the waters of the local music scene around their hometown. By 15, she was a regular performer at area open mics, and while the adoration of locals was certainly an ego boost, the need to create music was something that sprang from within with an almost spiritual urgency, she added.

“It’s something that I can’t help but do, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact there’s nothing else I want to do,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to improve and be as creative as possible. I don’t want to be a shredder, and I don’t want to be the fastest guitar player or the most metal. I just want to be the best composer I can be for my art and truly say something, and that’s how music has served me this whole time.

“It’s always been a way that I’ve expressed my faith, my beliefs, my doubts, my bad experiences. Writing music is something that I have always been internally motivated to create.”

Drugs become an albatross

Drugs and alcohol didn’t enter the picture until her late teens, but there were early warning signs that she was vulnerable to their siren song. Every day of her childhood was spent under a cloud of impending doom, and while there was nothing illegal about what she experienced in her home life, it was unhealthy in ways she’s only started to reckon with since getting clean and sober.

Combined with genetic factors — her biological father is an alcoholic and an opiate addict, she said — drugs and alcohol, when she discovered them in her own life, seemed like the solution to all of her mental and emotional trauma.

“I created terrible coping skills throughout my childhood,” she said. “I started self-harming when I was 11, which was a giant red flag, and I was promiscuous all throughout high school. Although I wasn’t diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder until I was 26, I’ve been in counseling since I was 14. BPD is developed through long-term trauma that’s not acknowledged or validated. I had a parent who was verbally and emotionally abusive, who at times behaved very erratically, and we pretended like it wasn’t happening.

“Because of that, I developed a personality disorder. My emotional responses would become so intense because my reality was constantly being denied, but that was evidence of my parents coping skills. It’s not anyone’s fault, because we all have our own stories to work through, and we’ve come so far as a family. But that’s where the problem of addiction stems from. Addiction was my solution to my intense emotional responses, and when I was introduced to opiates, it was like, ‘Thank God! There’s the answer!’ It made everything quiet.”

A boyfriend introduced her to Oxycontin, and from the first bump of an 80mg pill, she was hooked — not on the substance so much as the escape it provided, especially given that leaving home at 17 after high school didn’t stop the emotional pain she felt.

“It was like the pain magnified — the loss of something I felt like I didn’t have, a healthy family dynamic,” she said. “When I did that first bump, I felt like I was floating, like things were funny for the first time, and I could breathe. It was like this body part I had been missing the whole time because of pain and agony finally reappeared. So I pursued opiates relentlessly from that point forward for the next 10 years.”

A vicious cycle

Courtesy of Sophia Clemmer

At first, she traversed the familiar landscape of functioning addiction. She majored in jazz guitar at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., attending every single class for four years — although she doesn’t remember much of it. She taught guitar as well, at least until her disease stole that from her as well.

“My granddaddy gave me this beautiful $2,500 Taylor 30th anniversary edition guitar for my 18th birthday, and I pawned it a few years later for $100 and lost it,” she said.

During that period, she also recorded and independently released her debut album, 2006’s “Cereal Box Murder.”

“I was really, really into Tom Waits and Regina Spektor at the time; I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, and I was obsessed with true crime novels and watched a lot of murder trials on Court TV, so it’s a very macabre record,” she said. “It’s a love story written from the perspective of surrealism. The album I’m recording now (tentatively titled “Organ Donor”) is pretty macabre also, but I’ve honed my craft, and I know what I want sound like.

“I’ve just matured. Back then, I feel like my voice was the best I could make it be — but now I have access to parts of my voice that were underdeveloped. That was 13 years ago, and I’ve worked very hard and I’ve become very specific in that time. I write out almost every single instrument part and produce everything down to a T. I know exactly what I’m trying to go for.”

That confidence and determination is almost unrecognizable from the young woman she once was — living from pill to pill, from fix to fix, watching using buddies overdose and almost die around her on a regular basis. That she found a way out, even if it wasn’t a permanent escape from addiction, is something of a miracle in and of itself.

“He was abusive and much older; he was 37, and I was 22, and he was really violent,” she said of that ill-fated relationship. “I found out I was pregnant two weeks after he’d hospitalized me for domestic violence reasons, and that’s when I ended up moving back to Roanoke to be with my family. He knew I was pregnant, but he kept harassing me and sending me crazy, drunk text messages, calling me all the time and threatening me, my mom and my family.”

During that initial year and a half of abstinence, Bocchi performed around the Roanoke area with the band Amanda Bocchi and the Body Parts. After her youngest daughter, Cleo, was born, she struggled for the next six years after her relapse.

“I probably used for two years without getting any help, and then for the next four, I sought recovery, but I couldn’t stay clean,” she said. “It was impossible. It took me seven hospital/rehab visits; my family spent tons of money on drug rehabs for me, from state rehabs to amazing, experimental treatment in the woods. I’ve done all the different types of treatment.

“I just think that the only thing that shifted was that I kept seeking recovery. I didn’t stop. I didn’t give up, which isn’t easy to do. A lot of people resign themselves to, ‘This is where I stay.’”

A spiritual awakening

Courtesy of Sophia Clemmer

For whatever reason, the last time stuck, but the trajectory of her recovery took an unexpected arc as well. During the last five years of her active addiction, music faded into the background, but when she got clean in 2016, that familiar urgency burst forth.

“I have such a huge bank of material I’ve written that I haven’t recorded yet, but those songs mean everything to me,” she said. “They’re pieces of my soul that I wrote reflecting that time period, and that’s why this body of work I’m going to release is going to be called ‘Organ Donor.’ It’s about my transition from heroin to heroine.”

That’s the title of a blog post on her website, incidentally, in which she goes into graphic detail about the end of her addiction and the beginnings of a new way of life. With three months clean, she sought work in the music field, and a Roanoake-area church hired her as a choir director.

“I learned over a two-week period how to conduct a choir!” she said with a laugh. “In my view, I wasn’t a Christian; I was agnostic, at best, at the time. Nine months later I was recruited to a leadership position in a larger church, and to be the songwriter and worship leader for a new service called Foundation, which was specifically for unchurched and de-churched people.

“I was instantly placed in the position of speaking in front of a group of people at church, and I started sharing my story. Then I started a blog about addiction and recovery, and that got some traction. People read it and asked me to come and speak about my experiences. I was asked to speak to women at the Roanoke Rescue Mission, to the homeless and to other addicted women, and suddenly, I found myself speaking to the same population I was in only a year and a half before.”

It wasn’t an instantaneous transformation — there were days early on, she added, that it was “agony to do anything — even painful to go to the grocery store.” But she remembered that she never failed to summon the energy to seek out drugs, and so as she put forth the effort to find that job, she began to realize that God was opening other doors.

“I just grew to the point that I could do things, that I’m not afraid to do things that are hard,” she said. “I’ve proven that to myself over the past three years. I fall down and have a down day sometimes, and my mental health isn’t great, but then I remember to rest. I have explored my spirituality a lot, and that’s become a deeper, purpose-driven life for me.

“I feel emboldened to make a difference and impact people’s lives in a positive way, through music and sharing my story in all of those things. I don’t focus on staying sober. I focus on living.”

Sobriety as a way of life

At this point in her life, sobriety is second nature. She doesn’t live in fear of relapse; in fact, a recent dental emergency landed her in the hospital, and even on Tramadol, she was reminded of just how miserable drugs truly made her feel.

“It was like going through the worst part of addiction all over again in the span of 12 hours,” she said. “I haven’t had a single opiate in nearly 3 years, so that was like poison to my body. I wasn’t normal for three days, I was afraid I was never going to stop feeling like that.”

All things pass, however, including the need to label herself as an addict. She doesn’t begrudge anyone using 12 Step recovery or its accompanying language, but she’s too busy living life and documenting it through music — the bluesy, seductive shuffle of the new song “Lips Like Poison,” for example; or “Not a Drill,” the slinky funk-ribbed collaboration with Roanoke rapper Harvest Blaque that she entered into the most recent NPR’s “Tiny Desktop” competition. She hopes to have “Organ Donor” completed by October, she continues to play shows around Roanoke and speaking to young people for the Prevention Council of Roanoke.

In other words, she said, sobriety is no longer work — it’s a way of life. It’s who she is, and it’s the version of herself that she always longed to be.

“I don’t identify as an addict anymore, because I feel like some of the culture surrounding recovery is limiting,” she said. “I don’t want to forget I had that experience, but I also don’t want to live in 10 years ago. I’m focused on feeding my mind in the present with positive content. I focus on my mental health — how to effectively manage the residual mental health symptoms that I have, and to do that, I implement a lot of healthy coping skills.

“I still have some coping skills that come out as automatic responses that I have to catch, but I work really hard at being sane. Insane, to me, means unhealthy, so I’m constantly trying to restore those neural pathways with opposite behaviors that create the life I’m I want to live.”

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