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How one Vermont musician navigates addiction recovery during the holidays

A person with long blonde hair, looking down, with rain or water pouring down. The photo has a blue-green filter over it. They also have a tattoo on their arm with the Interstate 95 sign.
Dr. Joshua Sherman
Benjamin Lerner has strong songwriting DNA: his great grandfather is American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, who wrote "White Christmas."

Benjamin Lerner merges classical piano and hip hop to create his hybrid "piano raps." Lerner's spare and honest lyrics hone in on his addiction and recovery.

The seasonal classic “White Christmas," by American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, paints an idyllic scene of the holidays. Its lyrics are full of a wistful longing for something that feels just out of reach.

Berlin’s great-grandson writes songs, too. Benjamin Lerner is a classically-trained pianist & lyricist, a radio host and a staff writer at Old Mill Road studio in East Arlington, Vermont. And his hard-hitting, spare verses touch on his own opioid addiction and about his recovery since 2016.

Through his online presence and original music — called “piano raps” — Lerner shares his deeply personal stories. And throughout the month of December, Lerner is creating daily content about his journey.

Recently, Mary Williams Engisch connected with Lerner at the East Arlington studio. Lerner shared more about his online advocacy and the challenges of addiction recovery during the holiday season. He also performed his original song, “No Doctor Could Fix His Broken Heart.” This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Benjamin Lerner singing: My father had a heart attack the first year I was sober, I went to visit him, because honestly, I wanted closure. And even if he hadn't gone through cardiac arrest, I wanted to see him speak on all the things I had repressed in my rock bottom addiction, he would scoop me in his black car. Take me out to lunch when I was strung out on the black tar. He tried to teach me to channel my strength and discipline. He was disappointed in the way I led addiction win...

Benjamin Lerner: At the holiday season, in my first year sober, the only contacts that I had in my phone besides the few sober people I knew were my old plugs and dealers and the people I used to use with.

And recovery content and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and YouTube shorts reels weren't a thing. So I could not go and look at recovery content when my sober friends didn't pick up.

And there were a lot of nights when I went through tough family events, tough experiences in early recovery — getting my first job, getting my heart broken, dealing with resentments, and cravings and fears — where, even though I had a solid recovery network in my treatment center, and through my fellowship with choice, I felt alone.

A person with long blonde hair and wearing a blue suit coat is seated at a piano, singing into a microphone
Joshua Sherman Productions
Benjamin Lerner melds hip-hop raps about his opioid addiction and recovery over piano chords.

I wanted people to know, through the content that I'm making, that they're not alone in this, because I'm doing what I wished was available to me at a point where I didn't have hope and all I had was an empty phone.

And I don't want anybody out there going through the same things, reconnecting with their family members, going through their family members having medical issues, just the daily grind and the daily struggle, which is especially hard for people in early recovery.

I don't want anybody to think they're alone, especially during the holiday season. Because to me, recovery advocacy isn't just about telling my story. I've recently gotten more involved in speaking out about the fentanyl epidemic and writing letters to senators and Congresspeople.

This is bigger than just addiction. It's communities, it's first responders, it's hospitals, it's taxpayers. And we need to come together on this, because I just hope that people who are out there know that this is something that requires action on every level of the community.

And if we're not together and we're not united, it's gonna get worse. So compassion and understanding and connectivity is the basis of my program of recovery. And I like to think it's also the basis of the relationships that people can form in the community as they mitigate this issue and move forward with solutions on how to combat it."

Benjamin Lerner singing: So when I saw him for the first time since I left the place, I spent my worst days and only survived by Heaven's grace, I almost went back to the airport trying to run away, didn't know if I could face them on what I was gonna say. But follow through. I knew that it was time to start to make amends in ways that no doctor could fix his broken heart. Before I left he told me that he was proud of me for getting clean and fighting off the darkness that enshrouded me.

Vermont musician Benjamin Lerner's latest album is titled, "Clean." His songs are available on streaming platforms and his recovery advocacy is on social media.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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