In his book, Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music, James Rhodes opens up about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. It is passionate account, disturbing and revealing. It honours the people who stood by him in his darkest moments. It celebrates the therapeutic powers of music. It explores the extraordinary lives the composers and musicians lead.

American poet and author, Ellen Bass says,

“So often survivors have had their experiences denied, trivialised, or distorted. Writing is an important avenue for healing because it gives you the opportunity to define your own reality.”

James Rhodes had to win a lengthy legal battle for the right to publish his intense and uncompromising memoir. Although it nearly broke him, Rhodes never considered not fighting the injunction. He says,

“It felt as if I was being punished for being a victim of one of the most heinous things you can do to a child… I wrote the book because there are people who can’t talk about it and we have to.”

In an interview with ABC News, Rhodes highlights the importance of addressing the stigma that surrounds sexual abuse and mental illness. He says,

“There is a culture of secrecy and shame that surrounds both sexual abuse and mental illness, and the more we can talk about it, the more it’s heard with compassion, with kindness and belief and understanding, the better it is.”

In his memoir, Rhodes writes of the devastating and destructive impact of child abuse. Hidden within this narrative is an exploration of the coping methods employed to survive. It is a story of addiction.

Addiction is defined as ‘habitual psychological or physiologic dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control.’

When a person is addicted to something, they cannot control how they use it and become dependent on it to cope with daily life.

The following statements about addiction are worthy of our consideration.

Addiction makes you blind to your reality:

When James Rhodes left school at eighteen, he realised he was now an adult and could devote the rest of his life to destroying himself.

Having gained acceptance to Edinburgh University, Rhodes soon lost focus and his life spiralled out of control. He says,

“It began in Edinburgh. To my mind a cold, windy, miserable city that seemed to be an exact replica of my inner landscape. I was high from the first day I arrived and did not come down until a year later when I was put into the first of several locked psychiatric wards and rammed full of antipsychotics.”

We often overlook the fact that it’s not the drugs that make a drug addict, it’s the need to escape reality.

At the root of all addiction is pain:

Between the ages of five and ten, Rhodes was regularly raped by a gym teacher at his prep school. He was used, broken, toyed with and violated. The abuse left him with a multitude of physical and mental scars. He says,

“The first incident in that locked gym closet changed me irreversibly and permanently. From that moment on, the biggest, truest part of me was quantifiably, sickeningly different.”

Rhodes talks about the dramatic change in his personality. He says,

“I went, literally overnight, from a dancing, spinning, giggly alive kid who was enjoying the safety and adventure of a new school, to a walled-off, cement-shoed, lights-out automaton. It was immediate and shocking.”

Addiction specialist Dr Gabor Maté believes ’emotional loss and trauma’ are at the core of addiction. He says that one of the outcomes of unbearable childhood distress or pain is addiction.

Trauma shapes the biology of the brain, damaging the circuitry. People who have experienced childhood abuse don’t have the internal resources to resolve the pain and confusion and are compelled to look outside themselves for solutions. Addiction is an attempt to get away from distress, to escape the pain.

We live in a society that has little tolerance for the addict. Attitudinal change might be possible if we could accept that ‘all addictions are attempts to soothe the pain.’ The question is not ‘why the addiction’ but ‘why the pain.’

Suicide is one of addiction’s hidden risks:

Substance abuse and addiction can have short-term and long-term impacts on physical, mental, social and financial health. Using substances to cope with life or to block out difficult issues doesn’t make problems go away. It is estimated around 1 in 20 Australians have an addiction or substance abuse problem.

Addiction and substance abuse is a major contributing factor in suicide. Studies have found that alcohol and other drugs appear to increase the risk of suicide. This is due to the short term intoxicating effects of drugs and alcohol that trigger impulsive behaviour and intensify feelings of hopelessness which can lead to suicide. There are also the long term effects of dependency that can exacerbate existing mental health disorders like depression or schizophrenia.

Award-winning comedian and writer, Russell Brand says,

“Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with incarceration, mental institutions or death.”

The strain of managing an addiction can damage a person’s relationships. Rhodes was relieved when his wife insisted that he show her his arm. Finally, he could be open about his struggles. No longer would he need to conceal his increased reliance on self-harming. He took off his shirt revealing the word ‘toxic’ which he had carved into his upper arm with a razor blade. His wife was horrified and insisted he get help.

Rhodes talks about what it’s like to feel adrift, to feel that you’re drowning. He says,

“There is no room for reality with depression, trauma, PTSD, whatever you want to call it. My world had collapsed in on itself and there was room only for me and my delusions and ego. There was no other option than to remove myself from the world; one of the most dangerous misunderstandings about suicide is that to those considering it, it is almost always an absolutely valid choice.”

Addiction is rarely conquered alone:

Our relationships with other people provide the backbone for our existence. Without the constancy of their love and support, we would be a pitiable mess. Supportive relationships sustain us through the difficult times. They strengthen us to meet the unexpected. It is the care and compassion freely given that allows us to face our fragility and brokenness. Dr Gabor Maté says,

“Addicted people need a compassionate present which will permit them to experience their pain without having to run away from it.”

Andy Farmer takes it one step further. He says,

“No addict will ever find true freedom without love.”

Rhodes appreciates the people who have been there for him; the people who have laboured to keep him safe; the people who have supported him to realise his dream; the people who have loved him, despite everything.

They were the people who understood Rhodes, who understood his vulnerabilities, who recognised his giftedness, who saw his potential to live a fulfilling and productive life.

Rhodes credits Edo, the piano teacher, as one of the guys who changed his life forever. Rhodes describes him as the most violent, aggressive, arrogant, dictatorial person he ever met. And yet he acknowledges that he was the perfect teacher for someone like himself who was lazy, ill-disciplined, badly trained and overly enthusiastic.

Rhodes struck up a conversation with Denis while queuing  in a café. Denis, a Canadian, was a restaurateur who’d sold his business and was looking for a new project. Denis confessed to knowing only one piece of piano music, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Rhodes had listened to this piece as a seven-year-old and carried it in his heart. It transported him and enabled him to survive the rocky, desperate, brutal years. Denis agreed to bankroll his debut album and later became his manager.

Rhodes met Billy, his new psychiatrist, shortly after returning to London from hospital. What impressed Rhodes was his candid assessment. Billy remarked,

“Ah James, honestly it’s fifty-fifty if you’ll be here in a year. I know that and you know that. Some people make it and others; well they don’t get to come out the other side. That’s the way it is. Let’s see what we can do to boost your chances a bit, eh?”

Rhodes said of Billy, “He’s that rare breed of doctor who seems to have genuine empathy and understanding, and those two assets are worth a million Xanax.”

Rhodes offers a final word to all who have suffered unjustly. It is a call to bear witness to the truth. It is a plea to own your past. It recognises that healing and restoration are dependent on honesty and openness. He says,

“It’s important to bear witness, but also it’s important to give a message that bad things happen and we don’t lie about it, we don’t hide it, we don’t pretend it hasn’t happened, we don’t do everything we can to remove every piece of evidence that it happened, to erase the past.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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