United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Conquering Substance Abuse and PTSD with Rock 'n Roll
Man with electric guitar
Miranda, recovering at a fast rate only five months into his treatment at the VA.

John Miranda used to thrill audiences from coast to coast, ripping through power chords on lead guitar as he toured the nation with his band.

But there was a darker side to the music scene for the Vietnam Vet.

"I picked up opiates when I was overseas and I never stopped," Miranda said. "I used from 1974 until about five months ago. For 35 years, I was always under the influence."

He ended up at the Miami VA Healthcare System - not for his drug habit, but for back surgery. Miranda hadn't told the staff he was a drug addict and they prescribed him morphine for sciatic nerve damage. The morphine was too much for his drug addled system.

"I finally told them I was an addict because I wanted to quit," said Miranda. "I just got tired. I overdosed too many times. I was brought back to life again and again. You start wondering, how many more chances am I going to get?"

"You Wouldn't Even Recognize Me"

Enter Elizabeth Stockton, one of Miami VA's music therapists. Along with social workers, psychiatrists, and other therapy professionals, she helps Veterans complete a 91-day program aimed at combating substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues. She leads music therapy and guitar therapy sessions for both groups and individuals. Stockton recommended Miranda try the therapy.

"If you saw me five months ago, you wouldn't even recognize me," Miranda said. "I developed a different outlook on life. Between the program and the therapists, it's been a tremendous help in my recovery. Ms. Stockton has been a miracle worker."

"I'm there from the beginning of the 91-day program," Stockton said. "I've seen these Veterans open up with the music therapy program. They identify the emotions they've been hiding, they learn to express them - it's a huge step."

Miranda added that the music calms him and "soothes even the most nervous and paranoid guys. We talk about emotions and feelings and how music can send you back to a certain time. I was isolated for years. This therapy brought me out."

Music therapy helps heal physical and psychological issues, according to Stockton. "If someone has a stroke, guitar therapy can strengthen dexterity," she said. "Most importantly, it gives Veterans a new outlet to spend leisure time now that they don't have a substance to go back to," she added.

"Initially, there's a large amount of anxiety trying to do something different after giving up a substance," said Cesar Pastora, another program participant and an Iraq War Vet. "Anxiety is an obsessive pattern. Guitar therapy gives your body something to do and removes that anxiety."

Therapy helped Pastora reintegrate into the workforce. He now works as a support assistant in the social work office at Miami VA. He's a year away from completing a bachelor's degree in accounting and plans to enroll in a Certified Public Accountant course.

Woman sits at front of stage plays flute, while man stands in front playing electric guitar
Stockton and Miranda play a duet together during music therapy at the monthly 'Open Mic Night.'

Rockin' Out, Healing Up

In addition to sessions, there's another key to the music therapy program: Friday Night Safe Zones. The hospital auditorium swells with Veterans, their families, and friends at the substance-free event. While Vets can play Nintendo Wii, watch movies, or play games every week, they shine during performances at the monthly Open Mic Night.

A karaoke machine sits ready for any Veterans who don't play instruments but still want to participate. Some patients - particularly those in the PTSD program - read their own poetry. "It's a big step for a lot of them to talk about their traumas," said Stockton. Other Vets form bands, and often those who were strangers when the night began, quickly form a bond and "just jam together," said Stockton. Then there are the Vets like Pastora and Miranda who use Open Mic Night to showcase their musical abilities sharpened by the therapy program.

Pastora, who hadn't even picked up a guitar before music therapy, progressed from duets with Stockton to solos. "Everyone should give music therapy a try," he said. "Lots of people are closed initially, especially a lot of Iraq War Vets like me. If you want to recover, you have to be open to anything."

Miranda performs his own songs, which promote a substance-free lifestyle; one of his latest songs is about sobriety. He says he doesn't think his recovery would have been as quick without the program.

"I don't have any family," Miranda said. "Everyone's passed away, so I don't have anyone to call or talk to. I didn't have anything except bars and clubs before. I found a haven in the program. The VA opened doors and hired these therapists who tapped into and brought forth the person I'd buried within myself."

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer