Musician Charts a Path From Addiction to Authenticity

Playing the guitar

When musician, singer and songwriter Michael Shapiro tells the story of his drug and alcohol addiction, he starts in 1976, when his father took him to see Carlos Santana perform.

Musician Michael Shapiro

Photo courtesy of Michael Shapiro

The outing was a revelation to the then 6-year-old Shapiro — not as much for the music as for the crowd’s adoration of the performer on the stage. This, he decided, was what he wanted to do. “Looking back, I realize that was me wanting to be loved,” says Shapiro, now 45. “And I think that’s what drove my addiction, too. I was looking for something externally to change the way I felt inside.”

Today, nine years into recovery, Shapiro understands the futility of that mindset. “Basically we’re just looking for relief, we’re just looking for peace, we’re just looking for connection,” he says. “And drugs and alcohol do give a person a feeling of that, but it’s fabricated and it’s got consequences, whereas a spiritual way of life provides the exact same benefit but it’s authentic, and there are no negative consequences. In fact, we continue to expand and transcend.”

It’s a perspective he shares through his original music, as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and as a volunteer for recovery groups, detox centers and homeless shelters. His knowledge is hard-earned, growing out of personal troubles, professional tragedy and, now, an intense, ongoing commitment to self-improvement and self-reflection. “I’m a big advocate of doing inventory,” he explains. “We need to look back at the root causes.”

‘Off to the Races’

In Shapiro’s case, those causes began at birth. He was the child of young Bay Area hippies who divorced when he was 1. Stability and love weren’t part of the picture. “They just didn’t know any better,” he says. “They were kids.”

As he grew, he searched for something to fill his inner emptiness. At times, the answer seemed to be “if my parents were together or I was in the right social cliques or had the right girlfriend or the right clothes,” he says. As he grew older, he looked in another direction — money.

He launched a variety of small businesses and by his late 20s was making half a million a year. Music had always been part of his life but now, to complete the picture, he was in a successful band. Still, “I was more empty inside than I was before,” he says. “Having achieved all those things and finding they didn’t fill me up was a very hopeless feeling.”

One evening, “my instinct for grabbing everything” kicked in and he shared a friend’s crack cocaine. He had tried the drug before and dabbled in others, but hadn’t allowed drug or alcohol use to get in the way of his fierce ambition to get rich. With this experience, however, “it was off to the races. It provided a sense of empowerment and relief. It made me feel even more ambitious, and it sucked me right in.”

The First Bottom

Slowly but surely, Shapiro says, his addiction transitioned from workaholism to drugs and alcohol. He now had the luxury of allowing other people to manage his businesses, and he took advantage of it, showing up only to write IOUs for cash. Eventually, he was locked out of his own businesses, and in 1999, came what he describes as his “first real bottom.”

An intervention led him to addiction treatment, but he worked only on his cocaine problem while there, ignoring his drinking, and never addressing the core issues behind his use. When he returned home, his drug and alcohol use soon spiraled up again.

He threw himself into his music career and managed to stop his cocaine use, although he continued to drink and smoke marijuana. Becoming a rock star was the answer, he now believed. He seemed to be on his way when his band, Trip, earned a spot as the opening act on tour with Great White.

“We were on a real tour bus and there were sold-out shows every night, and we were like real rock stars,” Shapiro remembers. “I finally had arrived after all these years.”

Eyewitness to Tragedy

Then came Feb. 20, 2003. The venue was The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Shapiro’s band finished playing, and Great White took the stage. Out among the audience, Shapiro debated whether he should go backstage to retrieve his jacket before he retreated to the tour bus. But the crowd was thick — beyond the legal limit, authorities would later determine — and he decided instead to brave the snowy weather and dash out the front door. The split-second decision saved his life.

A couple of minutes later, he heard screams. “I got off the bus and saw the whole place was on fire and people were running around on fire. It was horrific.”

Pyrotechnics used as part of Great White’s act had ignited foam insulation in the walls and ceiling surrounding the stage, quickly filling the interior of the small club with toxic smoke. Most of the patrons headed for the front door, became hopelessly jammed in the narrow entryway and died from smoke inhalation and flames. The building was fully engulfed within five minutes. The toll was a staggering 100 dead and 230 injured.

“Looking back, I realize what kind of trauma that was, even for me,” Shapiro says. “But what I find important to acknowledge was that at that time in my life, all I cared about was I was mad the tour was over. I was mad my guitars got burned in the fire. I was very self-centered and resentful. No compassion. No empathy.”

It’s an example, he says, of how deeply the addict can sink into self-absorption. “We’re not thinking about anyone — not about how we hurt our families. We swear we would never do something, and then the moral envelope gets pushed and pushed and pushed.”

Years later, Shapiro would go through a type of trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). “They were saying, ‘Oh, you have trauma from the fire.’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, not at all.’ And we do EMDR and I cried like a baby. It was the first time I processed it.”

‘Gift of Desperation’

Back home after the tragedy, Shapiro pulled into himself. “My whole world sort of shrank. I was pretty much isolated. I was just alone, using and drinking.”

In 2005, after hurtling downward to yet another bottom, he checked into rehab. The experience proved to be a positive one, but he managed to sidestep much of the hard work of self-awareness, instead remaining more focused on a record deal he had in the works than on his recovery. Still, during a small tour following his rehab, he remained sober, not even noticing the drug sales going down all around him in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, one of the tour stops. When he returned the next year on a bigger tour with the band Live, however, he had begun drinking again on the sly and, this time, the temptations all around didn’t go unnoticed. He bought some crack cocaine.

By May 2006, he was home from the tour and face to face with reality. “Being a rock star wasn’t the answer, and I was really, really empty again.” Then came his heaviest use ever. “I smoked a quarter ounce of cocaine a day and I drank two fifths of vodka and a couple of bottles of wine every day for 90 days. I was down to 150 pounds. My ideal weight is about 195, 200. And I was going to die. There was no question about it.”

On his birthday that year, however, he received “this real gift of desperation.” He had gone about 10 hours without smoking crack to please his girlfriend, who wanted to take him out for a birthday dinner. Back home, however, “I did a big hit, and there was no effect. I did another hit. Nothing. I went to the bar and chugged about half a fifth of Crown Royal. Stone cold sober. And I got this moment of clarity. I was alone in this house with this wreckage and everything came before me, and it was a real eye opener.”

He vowed to change, but a week later, he found himself buying a bottle of wine.

“That proved to me that I couldn’t do this in self-will,” he says. “Even though I had that moment of clarity a week before, it showed another side of this thing — the powerlessness.” He went into treatment at a facility designed for those who have struggled with relapse. On Oct. 1, he marked his ninth year of sobriety.

Life in Recovery

Asked to compare his past with his present, Shapiro’s voice fills with enthusiasm. “I love my life. I love recovery.” He has found what he was seeking all those years, he explains: a connection with a higher power, with his inner child and with himself.

“One of my practices when I brush my teeth is I stare into my own eyes and say ‘I love you,’ and I can say it with total authenticity. I think that one of the gifts of recovery is that we find our authentic self. And when one is authentic, life’s circumstances really don’t matter. We can work through things. I think dysfunction lives in the gap between the façade that we put up and our authentic selves. … If we can embrace our authenticity, I think that’s really what the magic of life is.”

Shapiro’s professional life has changed for the better as well. He saw some success after recovery doing solo albums and tours and playing as part of a trio called Reckless in Vegas, but “it was like swimming upstream,” he says. One day while meditating, he had a vision of Reckless in Vegas playing Rat Pack music from the 1950s and ’60s. With some help, Shapiro created fresh arrangements of the old standards, and Reckless in Vegas was reborn. “Think The Rat Pack meets Green Day,” as the trio’s website explains the new sound. Their popularity soared. “It’s amazing. It’s crazy. We’re making money. I’m doing what I love, and I’m following my dream.”

Recovery hasn’t all been a smooth path, however. There was a time a few years ago when he found himself slacking off on all the things that help him stay balanced — meditation, prayer, AA meetings, creative outlets, volunteering, exercise — and becoming critical of others and himself, “which is a red flag for me.” After a deeply painful breakup over the phone with his fiancée in 2011, he remembers looking at the gun in his desk drawer and contemplating taking his own life, then wondering where he might be able to get drugs. Suddenly, his dog, Ralphie, caught his attention. “I thought, ‘What am I thinking?’” He called his AA sponsor, reignited his recovery and “ended up on the other side of it.” The point, he says, is that sobriety doesn’t erase life’s challenges and stresses, it just helps you better deal with them.

“I learned so much from that experience. I just feel that every time we walk through a tough thing, if we pick up the tools we learned in recovery to walk through it and process it, we transcend, we expand, we grow. And I’m so excited about that.”

For those who share his struggles with substances, Shapiro urges them to do what he finally did: allow themselves to be helped. “There’s just no way any of this could have happened for me without support,” Shapiro says. “I think that the feeling of ‘My situation is different and nobody will understand,’ and the fear of asking for help, that’s the lie of the ego and the disease. At all costs, try to break through that. And just reach out. Pain shared is pain divided. There are so many people in recovery, including myself, who are just so ready to give it away and help. The hardest thing sometimes is asking for help, but that is really one of the keys, if not the key, to opening that door.”

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