For proof of the fulfillment of recovery’s promises, Sonny Mayo needs only to look at the 17 years he’s been clean and sober.
It doesn’t matter which of the two main tomes those promises come from: “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness,” according to one; “the message is hope, the promise is freedom,” says another. Across the board, Mayo — a veteran of such metal projects as Snot, Hed PE and Sevendust — has seen them materialize in his own life.
Rehearsing for a world tour with Ugly Kid Joe, he played “Cats in the Cradle” at his dying father’s bedside, watching the old man’s spirit linger at the threshold before moving on. A couple of months later, he played the song for 600,000 people in Poland, and he felt his father’s presence.
After his second heart attack, he thought there would be no way to raise funds required for stem cell therapy. A friend set up a GoFundMe account online, and within 24 hours, fans and friends had donated more than $35,000.
He’s been through a divorce in recovery, and the fellowship was there to lift him up. He’s struggled to find his calling, only to wind up as part of the Rock to Recovery family, bringing music therapy to addicts in treatment centers and wounded veterans. He continues to face down down a residual darkness that still whispers from time to time, falling back on recovery principles and tenets to carry him through to the next sunrise.
All of those things, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, reminds him of the message he wishes to convey through his job and his work with other recovering addicts and alcoholics: that the promises are being fulfilled; sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but always, if the work is done.
“All of them started to happen as predicted,” Mayo said. “Back then, when I had 10 or 11 months sober and started to take the Ninth Step, I was painstaking about that phase, and I started to see that there were things that used to make me super confused and baffled but weren’t baffling anymore. More than anything, obsession was removed. Sanity returns. A 12 Step program didn’t give me back my life, because I didn’t want that back. It gave me a whole new one.”
True sadness and the solace of substances
Born July 16, 1971, Mayo was named after his father, Ronald David Mayo. Rather than call him “Little Ronnie,” the family sought out a nickname, vetoing his grandmother’s suggestion (“‘Buster,’ which means I probably would have been a second-level boxer with a broken face,” he added with a laugh) and settling on Sonny, after NFL great Sonny Jurgensen. Music made a more profound impact on him as a child than sports ever did, however.
“It was always music, man,” he said. “I remember I must have been 4 or 5, and I heard ‘The Tracks of My Tears,’ by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and that was the first song I really remember touching my soul and causing this thing inside, this feeling of melancholy. I sense I was born carrying some sadness, and I don’t know where this energy was before it entered this body, but that was when I became conscious of it.”
Listening to music inspired him to play it, and as a kid, he picked up viola, saxophone and piano. Learning to play, however, felt like he was being held back: He wanted to jump in and shred, like a muscle car revving its engine on the starting line. As his parents’ marriage began to drift apart, music provided the solace he craved, he said.
“As a kid, I would retreat into music,” he said. “My head is a lonely place, man, and when I found drugs and alcohol, it was like all those thoughts completely shifted. Those thoughts that were saying, ‘She doesn’t want to talk to you; you suck on guitar; you can’t dance; you’re alone’ — all those things became, ‘She does want to talk to you! You’re awesome at guitar!’ It switched those fearful thoughts and did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.”
In recovery, he began to unravel that ball of emotional yarn and separate those feelings of defectiveness from the substances he used to anesthetize them. Spirituality has been the key, he added, but he had to address preconceptions and misconceptions in his past in order to move forward with his own definition of a Higher Power.
“My dad grew up in Virginia, the son of a Pentecostal pastor, and he was an atheist because of how he saw people say one thing and do another,” Mayo said. “My mom, though, was and is a devout Christian, and that was the programming I accepted as a kid. When I was 9, 10, 11 years old, I loved AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, KISS, Rush, The Beatles. I loved rock ‘n’ roll, man. But then one time my grandfather had a guest at his church who was another charismatic preacher, and they did a seminar on backwards messages and subliminal messages in music.
“Every song they played backward was a song I loved, and even though you couldn’t really understand it, they told us when they played a song like ‘Black Dog’ by Zeppelin backwards, for example, that they were saying, ‘Satan is my prince, and I must worship him.’ And back then, I was scared. I thought if I listened to that song, I was going to burn in hell forever. All those songs, I thought I was going to burn in hell, and I would come out of sleep at night in my room, screaming and thinking I was seeing demons. And that happened for a while.”
Around the time he began experimenting with alcohol and drugs, however, he came to a realization: If the minions of hell were going to kill and torture him because of his tastes in music, they would have already done so. The dreams went away, but a chip appeared on his shoulder against the God of his Pentecostal grandfather.
“I thought, ‘OK, so God is saying that I’m flawed or born bad — well, he made me, so he (screwed) up! (Screw) him!’” he said. “I got mad at that God, and I carried that around with me. But what I didn’t realize I was doing was taking myself out of contention from an experience with my own God.”
Addiction rehab, take one
His parents divorced around the time he was 12 or 13, he said, and Mayo and his sister were adrift, shuffled between the two and separated from one another. Drugs provided an escape, and by the time he was 16, he was already experiencing consequences. The “ease and comfort” of those early days, however, had a powerful hold on him.
“The first time I smoked weed, it was glorious, dude,” he said. “It was if the seas parted, the universe opened and I could see at last. I was away from everything, but closer to anything I’d ever been. It was like I could breathe — my shoulders dropped, and I could let go with a real laugh for the first time in my life.”
As problems began to mount, his mother started requiring him to take drug tests, which he was never able to pass. In fact, a friend’s punk band, G.O.D., wrote a song (“Piss Test”) about how he was never able to pass, and eventually he asked a guitar-playing friend to provide a clean urine sample.
“That was that desperation, that willingness to go to any lengths to drink and use and put substances in my body — I ended up carrying around my friend’s pee just so I could smoke weed or maybe do a little cocaine or Dexedrine,” he said. “Of course, when I would give them a sample of cold pee, they totally busted me, and my mom sent me to rehab when one time I was on acid, Dex and Mad Dog 20/20 and told her I was the second coming of the Messiah. I was in rehab the next day.”
That was his first exposure to 12 Step recovery. These days, because of those early experiences, he tends to avoid the clichés and mantras so freely given in those meetings. He still attends, but his time as a 16-year-old sitting in a meeting made him realize how often those sayings are used without any meaning or substance behind them.
“I remember people saying things like, ‘If you want what we have to offer,’ but I didn’t want what anybody in those meetings had,” he said. “They were old men with yellow teeth and cigarettes sitting in church basements, and that was my idea of hell on earth. I remember a guy coming over to me and asking, ‘Hey, man, you having a good time?’ And I told him, ‘No! This is the worst thing ever.’ And he said, ‘Well, fake it ‘til you make it.’
“At the time, I thought, ‘That’s cute. That’s a neat little rhyme.’ I was 16, and I did not know that there was a message beneath that — to act as if what you’re doing is going to be beneficial to you and watch the results. It’s like going to a gym and hiring a trainer: It doesn’t matter if I don’t believe what I do is going to affect me; if I put in the work, it’s going to affect me.”
He figured out quickly what counselors and his parents wanted to hear, and back home, he managed to fall into a routine that kept him away from drugs for five years. He switched to alcohol, but because he was never arrested for DUI or harming himself or anyone else, he thought that life was looking up.
Desperation and salvation on the West Coast
In 1995, Mayo, having moved to California, joined the metal outfit Snot, formed by vocalist Lynn Strait. On the West Coast, he began dabbling in weed, and while Snot enjoyed a modicum of success — earning a spot on the 1998 Ozzfest tour — Mayo’s drug use progressed in spite of his ability to keep it together on stage. By the time Strait died in a car crash in 1998, Mayo had gotten married and started dabbling in crystal meth; post-Snot, he landed in the hardcore punk band Amen, which released a self-titled debut on Roadrunner Records and the critically acclaimed “We Have Come For Your Parents” on Virgin. Mayo got a glimpse of just how bad his problem had gotten when Amen frontman Casey Chaos, who exemplified both his name and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, called him out.
“He would look at me and say, ‘Look, dude, you’ve gotta change some things,’” Mayo said. “He told me that a couple of times, and that’s when I started to realize that I was the problem. Looking at old photos of myself, that guy was so lost, yet if you put me in a musical situation, it was like a fish in water. I was a mess, but so in tune with the expression of artistic music at the same time.”
Shortly after his divorce, he moved in with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s sister, and on Dec. 30, 2001, the couple headed up to Mammoth Mountain (a six hour drive from San Francisco) to ring in the new year with friends. While there, he accidentally dropped his meth into the toilet and immediately felt his heart plummet down to his knees.
“I thought my life was gone,” he said. “I didn’t have drugs for a couple of days, and I started to come back down. My girlfriend knew it, because going up the mountain, I was all happy and awake, but going back down, I was dead asleep and coming off meth in the passenger’s seat. We got back to her house, and she said, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ Get out. Your dog can stay, but you’ve got to go.”
Sitting on her bed, he realized he’d reached the end of the line. A 411 operator put him in touch with the central office of an area 12 Step program, and the recovering alcoholic on the other end of the line was the encouragement he needed.
“She said, ‘There’s a meeting starting six blocks from where you’re sitting. Get up and go now,’” he said. “So I did. I got up, I went and I shared.”
A new year had just dawned, and so had a new chapter in Sonny Mayo’s life.
The journey begins
Peers at that meeting directed him to another one the next day; at a men’s meeting of 60 other guys, he felt inexorably drawn to the power of communal sobriety. He cornered one of those men after the meeting, begged for help and came away with his first sponsor, he said.
“I said, ‘You’ve gotta help me,’ and he gave me (some literature) and said, ‘Meet me at the meeting tonight,’” he said. “He was my first sponsor and is still a dear friend, and he took me through the Steps. The Steps, and having that spiritual awakening it talks about in Step 12, that was what helped me more than anything.”
Through the Steps, he was able to cast off the spiritual yoke of God as defined by his grandfather and find his own Higher Power. Through accepting and embracing his fragility, he was able to open the door for a God of his understanding to shape his life, he pointed out. The beauty of recovery, he added, is that his beliefs don’t have to align with a denominational label.
“I pretty much don’t identify as anything other than human,” he said. “I do hold that there’s a power I can tap into that will help to strengthen me and waylay fear so that I can take a step forward, even when I’m afraid. Bill Wilson wrapped it up so nicely for me in page 10 of the Big Book: ‘Despite contrary indications, I had little doubt that a mighty purpose and rhythm underlay it all.’”
Eighteen days after getting clean, Mayo found himself on stage in Australia with Amen as part of the Big Day Out Festival. It was a learning experience that showed him a future in rock ‘n’ roll was still possible, he said.
“I slept, I ate, I played rock shows and I wandered around Australia,” he said. “I picked up 30 days in Australia, and I started to see that I was able to walk through the world, even though it’s not a sober world necessarily.”
Three months after leaving Amen, he was working as a vet tech and concentrating on his program when Ben Vaught, the former drummer for Hed PE, called him up and asked him to join. (Serendipitously, Rock to Recovery founder Wes Geer was a member during that time.) He was dedicated to his sobriety, however, and he made time daily to pray and meditate on the tour bus. In addition, wherever Hed PE played, he poured over phone books to find local meetings, grabbing taxis in cities around the world to stay connected with his tribe.
“I stumbled upon funerals and weddings in my search for a quiet place on tour, and the adventure was real,” he said. “I stayed in touch with my sponsor and filtered any temptations through my sponsor. I stayed with that girl, got married, and we were together for 12 years. I wanted to be a different man; I wanted to be a man of my word, to have integrity, and I do have it now based on the actions I took then and the discipline I had. Discipline is much more hardcore than oblivion.”
Life still happens
He mustered out of Hed PE after a year, and over the next several months, he wondered if he would be able to find a similar situation that engaged him both musically and spiritually. In January 2005, Morgan Rose of Sevendust rang him up and asked him to join the band in Florida for the recording of a new album. For the next three years, he was the band's guitarist until Clint Lowery returned to the fold, after which time he went back to school for audio engineering. Snot reunited with vocalist Tommy Vext (of Bad Wolves) and played some shows, and in 2012, his old friend Shannon Larkin (of Godsmack) asked him to tour with Ugly Kid Joe.
That year was also the start of his most trying period of sobriety. His beloved dog Buckley was diagnosed with heart cancer late in that year, and in between the time of the diagnosis and Buckley’s death, Mayo’s father was given his own grim diagnosis: multiple myeloma bone cancer. Because of his program, he was able to be there for his father — to take him to treatments and, later on, maintain a vigil at his bedside.
“We had the Ugly Kid Joe tour coming up, and my dad was in ICU, and I would sit in his room learning songs for the tour,” Mayo said. “One of them was “Cats in the Cradle,’ which is the quintessential father and son song, and I learned it sitting in the hospital room with my dad as he was in a coma, playing along to it and singing it. I know for a fact he heard it.
“We went to Poland later that summer (his father died in June), and in front of 600,000 people, I got to play that song and openly cry. I was already sweating and pulling some rock faces, so it didn’t look too weird! But I got to feel this beautiful summer breeze in Poland pass through me as I reached out to my dad, and I had this real deep spiritual connection with him.”
The darkness didn’t dissipate in that moment, however. After touring Europe, he returned home in time to get divorced. The next year, he was involved in a car crash and suffered a thumb injury. The whole time, the fellowship was there for him. In Colorado, by his father’s bedside, he took breaks to go to meetings. In Europe, he sought out meetings across the continent. Back home, after his divorce, the guys whom he sponsored circled the wagons to lift him up.
“I shut down, and I didn’t want to see anybody when I was down in the depths, but these guys would come sweep me up and say, ‘We’re going to a meeting,’” he said. “These guys just loved me, and that’s my thing with the program. I don’t love people until they love themselves; I just love them, period. When I came in, I didn’t need anyone to love me until I loved myself. I just needed someone to tell me, ‘Hey, man, you’re here for a reason.’”
Living his best life
There were bright spots during those dark times, however. In 2013, as Geer got Rock to Recovery off of the ground, Mayo began working alongside him, going into treatment centers and helping patients compose and record music. As business picked up in Orange County, the nonprofit opened a Los Angeles office in 2014, and that coincided with Mayo’s ascendancy back into the light. He backed off of touring and began working more with both addicts in treatment and wounded veterans of the U.S. Air Force, using his gifts as a musician to forge a connection based in healing and love.
Life still happened, though: In 2016, despite being in the best shape of his life thanks to a regular fitness regimen, he suffered what doctors later termed a “mild heart event” while working out. Further tests revealed four blockages, and he had to receive stents. Despite a lifestyle change to combat high cholesterol, in January 2018, after a 10-day bout with the flu, he suffered another heart attack. Tests showed that his right artery was 100 percent clogged, and he had to get another stent.
“Talk about feeling broken,” he said. “When I had the flu, though, I put on a Joe Rogan podcast and heard Mel Gibson talking about the Stem Cell Institute in Panama. I looked into it and thought about trying it, but I didn’t have the money. That’s when a friend suggested setting up a GoFundMe page.”
Within 24 hours, he had raised $36,000; by the second day, it was up to $50,000. He decided to double the amount, and in May 2018, he and his sister flew to Panama, where he underwent IV and intramuscular injections at the Stem Cell Institute. Led by Dr. Neil Riordan, the organization uses stem cell therapies to treat a number of chronic diseases, and several studies show it proves to be remarkably effective in the treatment of heart disease.
Back home in California, Mayo continues to live his best life: Working with Rock to Recovery, actively participating in his own program, being of service to his fellow human beings training to be a certified breath work healer. There are still days when his mind clouds, but thanks to recovery, he’s learned to love himself more than he ever has in the past. The life he lives today is proof that he’s on the right path.
“Everything is in its place: I’m not broke, and relatively speaking, I’m still healthy,” he said. “I like to tell people that I am not suffering today. I am not recovering — I’ve recovered. I’ve been clean and sober for 17 years, I work a program, I help other people. The 12 Step program of which I am a frequenter states in the book that we have recovered, and showing others how we have recovered is the purpose. If anything, it’s a human sickness now, and I have to treat my humanness."