Defying Gravity: Liberation and Hope in Recovery Through Music

In May 2017 at Shea’s Theater in Buffalo, NY, I had the privilege of attending a showing of Wicked, a phenomenal Broadway play written by Stephen Schwartz. The play reframes the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of main villain in Oz – Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West prior to Dorothy’s arrival. Elphaba and Galinda (whose name is later changed to Glinda the Good Witch) struggle through differences in personality, viewpoints, and a rivalry over the same love-interest. The two witches are also reacting to the Wizard’s corrupt government, and ultimately Elphaba’s fall from grace within the land of Oz.  

From the opening act I noticed parallels between Elphaba’s life and my own. Elphaba is misunderstood and smart. I resonate deeply with the Wicked Witch. During act one I began to ask myself if Elphaba is genuinely wicked. In 12-Step recovery I learned early on there is “a lot of good in the worst of us and a lot of worst in the best of us.” I question Elphaba’s wickedness and whether good intentions with bad results are the same thing as bad intentions with bad results. The first act celebrates the death of Elphaba where we learned about her past, family of origin, and the difficult life experiences. In the moments of flashback, we understand the trauma which birthed Elphaba. The Wicked Witch born with green skin resented by her father. Her siblings showered in affection, and she’s neglected. She’s different and therefore rejected. 

My early life experiences seem to parallel Elphaba’s. Before I could understand words and communicate, I felt my father’s resentment. Slowly, I recognized how I was not like any other member of my family. My siblings received more affection. Love and affectionate were not words I would use in describing my family of origin. Like Elphaba I began to doubt myself worth. Elphaba is the quintessential black sheep in her family and the land of Oz. I too shared that role growing up in my family of origin. Throughout the play we see elements of triangulation and forming of alliances to create this division between good and wicked. Elphaba becomes the scapegoat, and she ultimately accepts her reputation as the Wicked Witch. 

The finale of act one Elphaba sings Defying Gravity, a ballad which speaks about her recognition of corruption within Oz. The Wicked Witch vows to do everything in her power to fight the Wizard. Defying Elphaba sings of how she wants a life without limits and dismantling rules others have set for her. She’s choosing to break free of the generational trauma and her role others had casted for her. Glinda shames Elphaba for being angry and flying off the handle. Glinda sings,  

“Elphaba, why couldn't you
Have stayed calm for once?
Instead of flying off the handle!
I hope you're happy”

As a mental health therapist and a person in recovery from complex trauma and addiction I would argue Elphaba has a case of complex trauma. I would also argue her role as the wicked one is an emotional part of self that protects her from being hurt and subjected to further traumatization. The anger she expresses is a direct result of the harm she endured being treated as an outsider, black sheep, and rejected. Glinda scolds Elphaba about her anger/rage and tells her to calm down which is an avoidance strategy that continues to hide Elphaba’s trauma. Shutting down emotions and shaming someone for how they feel is a form of gaslighting. Who wouldn’t be angry when their experiences are not validated? Elphaba is caught in a double bind. If she expresses her anger, she’s in the wrong and ultimately, she is attacked. If she hides it, she ultimately becomes traumatized further. Elphaba’s experience in Oz represents the classic abusive home. Double binds have no winning outcome. Like the Wicked Witch I could not win against my family’s history of generational trauma, so I turned to a destructive life to escape the traumatic past. Addictions of various forms and anger were how I protected myself.

Elphaba realized the power of her outsider status. In Defying Gravity, she decrees she is no longer comfortable staying within the confines set before her. Elphaba sings her way into recovery and a new way of life. Elphaba’s song is a recovery ballad about the power change.  Elphaba sings” 

“Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I'm through with playing by the rules
Of someone else's game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It's time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!”

Recovery is a process of not playing by the old rules that kept us sick and wounded. Elphaba had a spiritual awakening. She is at a stage in her life where she knows there is a different way to live. Elphaba acclaims she is choosing a different life where she refuses to give live by the limitations set upon her by her family and other unhealthy people. It took me decades to realize there was a way out of the trauma and survival mode I lived in since childhood.  Recovery taught me to trust the process. At times I have difficulty because it is vulnerable and there is potential for rejection. I had very few models growing up that showed me the healthy side of trust. 

Defying Gravity means trying something even if I fail thousands of times. Elphaba is singing about liberation. Like Elphaba I’m through accepting others limits on me. Countless people have put me down and made me afraid to trust my own voice and the power within me. Years of trauma work to undue this conditioning helped me to begin to love myself for who I am. Relationships with people who were closed off and did not want to love me for who I am reinforced messages that I was not good enough. I have been fearful of losing love but, it was never there. Unconditionally loving people who cannot unconditionally love me comes at too high a cost. I gave my all-in relationships past even when it was not reciprocated as I believed I deserved. I was lost in the shuffle. I do not regret loving others unconditionally.  Love should be free and without conditions. 

My choice to love others when they cannot return it took its toll on my emotional, physical, spiritual, and psychological well-being. Both Elphaba and my journey in recovery remind me that anyone who is incapable of showing me respect and unconditional love does not deserves my attention. By Defying Gravity, I get to take back my power and pursue self-love. Today I choose to fly solo and free. Ending unhealthy or toxic relationships allowed me to unlock dimensions of myself I neglected or chose to hide in vaults within me.

Today I get to choose who I allow in my space. I will not beg for anything in relationships. I choose to defy gravity today. My whole life I told myself that I was not musically inclined. When I was in my active addiction is used to play piano and sing without any proper music training. I would dissociate while pouring my unending streams of emotions onto a piano for hours at a time. When people would ask me what I was playing it was generally something I had made up. I could not read sheet music. I could not even recall what I had played. I felt ashamed and down on myself. Often, I would describe myself as incompetent and not good enough. 

Over the last year I made it a mission to take singing and piano lessons. As a young kid my dream was to be an opera singer like the greatest tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Placido Domingo. I have discovered the power within my voice to make vibrant music and sing. Beyond my wildest imagination I never would have felt confidence to sing. In the almost two months that I began vocal lessons I unearthed a voice that has an expansive range with rich tones and vibrato, falsetto, and finesse. Mixing my voice to belt notes in almost three piano octaves that I never thought were reachable. I would have thought you were crazy if you told me I would be singing opera, musical theater, and pop music and sounding like the greats of the world. Years ago, I would have laughed if you told me where I would be today. Today I trust my voice to create the music of Frank Sinatra to Michael Bublé, Les Miserable, Rigoletto, John Legend, Frankie Vallie, Josh Groban, Lewis Capaldi, Baroque style madrigals, and so many more.  

Today, I am choosing to defy gravity. Music is my liberation story. In song I can undue years of pain and give meaning to the suffering I lived through. Early on in vocal lessons I feared my full voice coming out. I recall sobbing when I heard my voice blow through high notes with ease. Why did I wait this long to defy gravity? It took trauma work using EMDR to unpack the why I could not trust my own voice. Through EMDR I worked through the negative messages and old tapes I played in my head about my so-called inability to sing. The process of EMDR helped me to trust my voice. My voice is the window into my soul. No one will ever limit that window again. Today like Elphaba I take a leap of faith and defy gravity. Nothing is off limits unless I create a barrier.

I began piano lessons almost nine months ago (seven months prior to vocal lessons) with no ability to reach sheet music. Today, my fingers move in ways I could not have dreamed. Playing piano allows me to give a voice to experiences, thoughts, and feelings that had no way of expression. Recently, someone one I dated recently asked me in a belittling tone, “Do you really thing you’re going to make anything out of this music stuff?” I knew then that I had to choose to defy gravity and fly solo. As you can probably guess I ended that relationship. I get to end relationships that do not support or nourish me. Learning to sing, play piano, trauma therapy, and working the steps of my recovery program have taught me to value myself from the inside out. No one else has my voice.

When I am playing or singing, I have no care in the world. The day-to-day problems melt into the background when I am creating music. Through this journey I have learned to fully accept myself and all my parts. I chose to take the leap of faith and go into areas that I used to say were impossible.  Elphaba’s life is a model for anyone seeking a chance to fly and discovery their hidden power to defy gravity. The past does not define us. We can experience traumatic things and heal. We can grow from the trauma and uncover talents and passions beyond our wildest imaginations. 

The path of recovery is open to all who seek it. Recovery is a choice and one that I do no take lightly. It is exciting to discover the new ways I will defy gravity. Recovery has shown me that my light shines brightly. It does not matter whether anyone else sees that light. It is my responsibility to nurture and love myself unconditionally. 

The question is are you ready to take the leap of faith and defy gravity? Do not let your doubts and fears creep in and hinder you. Find your voice and let it out. The world needs your voice, experience, strength, and hope. 

You deserve to defy gravity and fly freely.  

4 thoughts on “Defying Gravity: Liberation and Hope in Recovery Through Music

  1. Love this, Michael! You are very good with “the pen”!
    Thanks for sharing your journey, creativity and insight!

    1. Thank you Amy! Your words make my day.

  2. Deeply moving. Thank you for your vulnerability!

    1. Thank you Anita for taking the time to read it.

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