There and back again: Sister Hazel’s Ken Block finds life in recovery is always a ‘Beautiful Thing’

Sister Hazel is Ryan Newell (from left), Mark Trojanowski, Ken Block, Drew Copeland and Jett Beres.
Sister Hazel is Ryan Newell (from left), Mark Trojanowski, Ken Block, Drew Copeland and Jett Beres.

“Many people think that recovery is simply a matter of not using drugs. They consider a relapse a sign of complete failure, and long periods of abstinence a sign of complete success. We in the recovery program … have found that this perception is too simplistic …” — Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous, p. 74

Somewhere between complete success and complete failure, Ken Block is figuring out how to do this thing again.

The Ties That Bind UsBlock, the lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist for the alt-rock outfit Sister Hazel, put together more than a decade and a half of sobriety before stumbling over the past year. It’s not something he’s proud of, but the spiritual principles that have provided him guidance since his band and his wife, Tracy, first pushed him to get sober in his early 30s are lampposts that have lit his way out of the darkness.

Honesty, humility, forgiveness and grace … he’s pulling them all out of his spiritual tool bag and putting them into practice, and even though it’s not a comfortable admission, it’s a necessary one, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I had a couple of things come up — physical things, not issues with people or the shame or guilt or legal problems that we all come in with — and they kind of shook my recovery a little bit,” Block said. “I was getting a little bit of resentment toward myself and even my Higher Power for not being able to fix something that had affected my voice, and I let that really kick me in the body, mind and spirit. The good news of that is that I didn’t go out on maneuvers for long before those people around me, the same ones who were there in the early years, picked me up and said, ‘We’re not gonna do it again.’”

Looking back, his story mirrors that of so many others who find their way back to the rooms of recovery: A downward trajectory that’s almost imperceptible until the cliff’s edge is 10 feet overhead and all that’s below is a yawning chasm that seems to have no bottom. He calls it a “lapse before the relapse,” and in that time frame, the writing was on the wall, he said.

“There were fewer meetings and less fellowship, maybe a little resentment toward myself or a Higher Power,” he said. “If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, and you’re not getting relief through recovery, eventually you’re going to get it somewhere, and that’s what happened with me. Luckily, I got back into it, but I understood for the first time why it’s so hard to come back from that. I do carry some guilt and shame, especially as someone who was so public about his recovery.

“It is challenging, but I did it. Eventually, you come to realize that you don’t lose the recovery you had, even though it feels like that at first. I still spoke the language. The first time I walked back into a meeting, I was feeling really shitty, and a guy said, ‘You know what to do, don’t you? Then do it!’”

A facilitation of connection

Like a lot of addicts and alcoholics, Block remembers well the discomfort that was a lifelong specter as far back as he can remember. As a kid, he was moved ahead in school, and being younger than his classmates, he always looked for ways to prove himself. As a teen, his discovery of alcohol and drugs seemed like a panacea for social anxiety, he said.

“I remember with alcohol and drugs, I could breathe; all of the sudden, that fear and separation disappeared,” he said. “I remember being at a party as a teen, and going to the bathroom and looking in the mirror and asking, ‘Why can’t I feel like this all the time?’ I chased that feeling a lot.

“Also, there’s like a ritual around drinking or partying for friends. It’s the search, the connection, the gathering of your people to do it with you. Early on, for me, it was about connecting and having conversations that were big or about things that I felt were important. I wanted it to be that way all the time."

He started playing guitar when he was 12; by 13, he was in his first band. By 14, every performance, until he found recovery in his early 30s, was fueled by one substance or another, he said. When he wasn’t on stage, he sought a connection with other people through drugs and alcohol. Before they became a problem, they were the solution to feelings of awkwardness and separation. (“Even if I wasn’t separate, I felt separate,” he pointed out.) But once the tide turned, it came roaring into shore with the ferocity of an earthquake-driven tsunami.

“When I was 16, my little brother got diagnosed with cancer, and for four years, that was something we were dealing with when, like most teenagers, I wanted to be dealing with partying and hanging out with friends and surfing and football and chasing girls,” he said. “We were also dealing with chemotherapy and spinal taps and losing his hair and mortality, and that was tough. That was a big curve ball for our family, and it really rocked my sense of faith. I knew I believed in God, because I was pissed off at somebody and angry and frustrated, but then as I started moving through life, I put my faith in something or some power that took my brother. That’s been my biggest challenge in recovery — finding a way to put faith and build my recovery based in something that I felt had taken my brother.

“In my early 30s, my wife got pregnant, and all of that came rushing back. It just kind of hit me: ‘Holy shit, I wasn’t able to protect my brother and save him; how am I going to be able to protect a kid?’ At the time I should have been pulling myself together, I was going the other way. That’s when my wife began connecting the dots of all the things I was doing and the danger I was putting myself in because of some of my behaviors, and the same week, the band said, ‘We’re not going back on the road until he pulls it together.’

“Those guys weren’t saints, but they weren’t like me, and they intervened,” he added. “When you get intervened by a rock band, you might have some problems!”

Success in and outside of the mainstream

By that point, Sister Hazel had enjoyed a healthy measure of success. The band released a self-titled debut in 1994, showing up on the rock ‘n’ roll radar in the aftermath of the grunge movement, which had evolved into a more melodic, introspective form of pop rock. Bands like Hootie and the Blowfish and the Counting Crows paved the way for an explosion of bands from the South to hit big a few years later, which Sister Hazel did with the 1997 album “Somewhere More Familiar” and the ensuing hit “All For You.” The song hit the top of the charts, and suddenly, Sister Hazel, Cravin’ Melon, Tonic, Better Than Ezra and other bands were enjoying a pop-rock renaissance.

But as trends in rock ‘n’ roll are wont to do, the fad faded, giving way to the bubblegum pop of Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, and later to the nu-metal of Korn and Limp Bizkit; The guys in Sister Hazel never got discouraged, however, and in 2000, the band released its sophomore album, “Fortress,” which featured the Sister Hazel classics “Champagne High” and “Change Your Mind.” It didn’t perform as well, sales-wise at least, for the band’s label, Universal Records, and after its release, Sister Hazel got out of the major label game entirely. The band dug in and started releasing albums independently two years later; by that point, the band had developed a loyal following of fans (“Hazelnuts”), created the Rock Boat cruise in 2001 and found a way to maintain a successful career outside of the industry paradigm.

Once Block got sober, the music only got better, he said.

“It took me about a year and a half once I got clean and sober to not feel completely exposed and vulnerable on stage, but then it just became real,” he said. “We were a better band, we were playing better and I was hearing all the things I thought were fine when I was altered and realizing, ‘That wasn’t very good!’”

After that initial intervention, Block went to residential addiction treatment, where his first couple of weeks were spent stewing in resentment. He turned a corner, however, when he realized that nothing was going to change if he kept blaming others for his own actions, and afterward stayed on for four months of intensive outpatient treatment, regularly attended meetings, found a home group, got a sponsor and started working the 12 Steps.

“Something clicked, and I started focusing 100 percent on my side of the street and what my role was in everything,” he said. “That was the hardest thing, saying, ‘I did this,’ because I was always making excuses. I had gotten resentments against the rest of the guys, too, but when I got into the program, I saw that even though none of us missed too many parties, I was on a whole different level.

“I had to look at my part in all of that and become teachable. When I did that and said, ‘I’m not going to make excuses anymore,’ that’s when the doors started opening. Treatment for me was huge, because I was able to get plucked out of my life for a while, and I decided I was going to look at it as life college, in a way. I can’t say enough about my wife’s support and understanding of recovery, and I can’t say enough about my bandmates, my management and my close friends. Man, I’m a really, really fortunate guy.

“I think a lot of people, including myself at the time, look at rehab or treatment and recovery, even, as punishment — like they have to give up everything,” he added. “But I think over time and with some perspective, you begin to see it as a huge gift.”

Navigating life through recovery's lens

Sister Hazel

Maintaining that gratitude, even over the slips of the past year, has been crucial, he added. After treatment, he threw himself into the band and found a renewed in appreciation in focusing on his family, and over the past year, Sister Hazel has released three separate EPs: “Water” and “Wind” in 2018, and “Fire,” released in February. There’s a fourth one on the release schedule, and the fast pace means that the guys stay busy writing and recording, and the fans remain energized.

“I think we all want to feel like we’re a part of something; we all want to feel like what we’re doing matters,” he said. “For me, drugs and alcohol were anti-Ken medication. I wanted to get me off of me, and now the best way to do that is to do things for or with other people, and that (fan) community is where we’re able to build fertile ground.

“It’s huge, to be able to plug into that and be a part of that, to make people feel better and more included. For me, I’ve leaned on them, and I’ve leaned on my band. For a band like us, even before we got our first record deal, we were like, ‘Look: Let’s understand what we can control and do that instead of what we can’t,’ and for a band, that would be writing songs that are powerful and honest, and putting on live shows that are more than just songs, but experiences. We want to leave people feeling a little bit better when they leave than when they got there.

“With my band and my recovery, we’re all on the same page — recovery comes first, and family comes before everything else,” he added. “If I can focus on being of service to family, my co-workers, my community and the fans, then I stay in pretty good shape.”

Along the way, he established relationships with other musicians in recovery, guys like Ties That Bind Us alumni Edwin McCain and Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, both of who understand the challenges that rockers in the program face. Their friendships predated the program, but recovery through a lens of rock ‘n’ roll deepened those relationships — “we’re like brothers,” Block said. These days, he’s more keenly aware than ever of the need to remain in the solution. On the other side of his relapse, that solution has been key to staving off the feelings of guilt and shame that he felt when his bandmates opened his bus bunk at 8 a.m. and demanded he get to a meeting.

“At first, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ because very quickly it went from, ‘I’m going to have this one drink,’ to hiding stuff and manipulating situations,” he said. “It didn’t take long to get back to those old behaviors, but I can say with 100 percent belief that the guys in my band and organization have my back 100 percent and have my best interests at heart. Without them, my wife and my addictions counselor, Joan Scully, I still would be adrift.”

Sister Hazel and Shatterproof

It hasn’t been easy: He’s still facing problems with his voice, which is both frustrating and frightening (“It’s my identify, my livelihood, how I communicate,” he added). Those problems led to a spiritual disconnection as well, and because of his makeup as an addict, it comes as little surprise, he said, that he turned back to a chemical balm to ease his troubled soul.

“There’s a shape in me that is never able to be filled with enough alcohol, enough drugs, enough accolades; there’s not enough love, not enough sex, not enough binge-watching Netflix or ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Walking Dead’ to fill that God-shaped hole. And for me, it was a death-shaped hole as well, and I had to figure out that I can’t fill the loss of my brother with drugs and alcohol, either,” he said. “Within days of coming back in, I took a big leap forward and realized that this is an opportunity for me to work on these gaps that I’m feeling, these character defects. And I realized that the times I’ve felt that sense of ease, that sense of contentment, is when I’m connected with something that’s beyond my understanding.

“I’ve just got to get out of the way. That’s always kind of been the answer, and sometimes the answer is doing nothing. I’m still learning a lot, and with the voice issue I’ve been having the last couple of years, I’ve had to learn how to listen and not interject. And I’ve realized that I don’t have to jump into or get involved in some things. I have to realize, ‘That’s a problem, man, but it ain’t my problem.’”

It’s fitting that Sister Hazel has teamed up with Shatterproof, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the devastation addiction causes families, to promote Alcohol Awareness Month. Throughout April, fans are “encouraged to get involved and share their story of how addiction has affected their life by purchasing a ‘Shatter the Stigma’ T-shirt … and sharing on social media,” according to a press release.

For Block, speaking out about how it’s affected his own life is as good a way of erasing the stigma as any. Given his own background and the ongoing opioid epidemic, addiction has never been far from his mind and those of his bandmates, he said. In fact, the song “You Won’t See Me Again,” off of “Water,” was written by guitarist Drew Copeland about the loss of his brother-in-law. The song hit Block close to home, because he, too, had lost a brother-in-law to the disease just two years ago. The two had known each other since they were teens, and he left behind two children.

“It hits home, and it hits home with the guys who saw my struggle with that and my recovery, and how much more of a positive contribution to people’s lives I became as a person in recovery — as a friend and a brother and an artist,” he said. “With those losses and what I’ve been through, it’s ingrained in us as something that’s important to talk about.”

'A more rigorous application'

And whether he’s singing about it, discussing it at Shatterproof promotions or talking about it between songs on stage, Block will continue that dialogue — for those who suffer, and so that he does not.

“I think we either believe that it’s a disease, or we don’t, and sometimes I’ve wrestled with that and been judgmental about it in myself — ‘If I was just stronger, I wouldn’t have done that,’ or thinking that I failed,” he said. “You’ve got to smash the idea that it’s just a willpower issue, because it’s bigger than that. Unfortunately, we have these default setting we fall back into that are so critical of ourselves, and it’s hard to get out of those. That’s what recovery is: a daily reprieve from our addictions, based on doing a few simple things.

“I look at it like this: I don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant. I watch it, I see it, and I can imagine the miracle of human life growing inside someone … but I don’t know what it’s like. By the same token, nobody else knows what it’s like to have that addiction, that compulsion, that obsessive thinking. I remember the first time I heard that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt tells you that you made a mistake; shame tells you that you are a mistake.

“It may not sound much better to move into guilt, but for me, that small step was huge. I went from thinking I was a mistake to realizing I made a mistake — and that there’s something I can do about it and things we can all do to move past it.”

In that regard, he’s found that another passage from the Basic Text holds true: “After a member has had some involvement in our Fellowship, a relapse may be the jarring experience that brings about a more rigorous application of the program.”

What happened wasn’t a setback as much as it was a reset, and with the guilt and shame behind him, he’s found a new outlook on gratitude for a program that’s available to anyone who similarly suffers, he added.

“Life is so much better in recovery — trust me, I’ve been on both sides of this,” he said. “It’s truly a gift. Meetings are everywhere, and as someone who travels as I do and has been all over America, it’s not hard. It’s online, there are apps, and it’s saved my ass more than a few times.”