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Paul Pellinger: “Don’t take anything personally”

There are so many things that make me proud of the work that I’ve done in my decades-long career as an addiction treatment professional, but I’m particularly proud that I’ve been able to see the Recovery Unplugged mission of music-assisted recovery to fruition, and help people use music to more readily embrace the treatment process. […]

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There are so many things that make me proud of the work that I’ve done in my decades-long career as an addiction treatment professional, but I’m particularly proud that I’ve been able to see the Recovery Unplugged mission of music-assisted recovery to fruition, and help people use music to more readily embrace the treatment process. I’m also particularly proud of our inspiring long-term success rates and incredibly low AMA rates. This means that, on a granular level, people are responding to the work we do and that lives are being saved and enriched because of us and what we do — that’s a powerful thing.


As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Pellinger, co-founder and Vision Leader at Recovery Unplugged. Paul’s years of experience in the addiction care field and his deep and abiding love of music led to the formation of Recovery Unplugged and have helped thousands find their way to lasting freedom from addiction. Paul is a father, author, Certified Addictions Counselor, and a veteran of the treatment landscape whose insights have led to the successful establishment and operation of nearly 40 treatment centers across the country. He also played an important role in establishing Broward County’s drug court program over 25 years ago.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

After entering recovery, myself, I began a career in the addiction treatment landscape. I became a Certified Addictions Counselor and worked as a therapist for multiple treatment centers over the past twenty years. I’ve also helped over 40 treatment centers establish best practices and treatment protocols to offer intuitive and results-oriented care. I helped establish Broward County Drug Court Program and Mental Health Court, one of the first in the country, and have been an enthusiastic proponent of the use of music in addiction care for decades.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

My own experiences in recovery coupled with my deep love of music and noticing improvable areas in conventional “consequence-based” treatment models played a huge role. Even decades after I entered the industry and worked with dozens of treatment centers, I still try and picture myself in the position of the person who needs help. I founded Recovery Unplugged because I knew, intuitively, that music can help people open up to treatment and recovery. I’d used music in my work as a therapist in other treatment centers and saw how much it better it made clients feel and how much they responded to sessions where music was present versus traditional talk therapy. I knew this could be synthesized into an organized treatment model combined with evidence-based best practices

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

There are multiple factors to which one can point. With opioids, in particular, I think we’re seeing the consequences of comparatively liberal prescribing practices along with lack of formal and standardized addiction education among med school students. Three are also many socioeconomic, family and community factors that drive addiction at large, including income disparity, escalating mental health issues and a corresponding lack of intuitive intervention resources for people in need.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

The Recovery Unplugged treatment model operates on the philosophy that effective and fulfilling long-term recovery means building a happy and satisfying sober life that goes beyond just “not using”. We focus on recovery triggers instead of relapse triggers and show clients they have to build a life that they enjoy more than using in order to be happy in recovery. While addiction is certainly not a matter of choice from a neurobiological perspective, the lives we build and the attitudes we embrace after getting clean are. I think a lot of people are quick to relapse because they see recovery as an adversarial process, where they “have to do the work”. The work we’re doing at Recovery Unplugged helps people build a life in recovery where the payoff is much better than even the temporary high of using.

Our partner organization Face the Music Foundation focuses on addiction prevention and education, working toward changing the stigma and providing financial assistance to those with limited means or insurance options who need treatment.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

Clients battling addiction tend to deny or minimize the severity of it and often when confronted respond with things like “I got this”, which reminds me of a song that Richie Supa wrote called “I Got This“. One day a former client, after completing treatment, came back to talk to the clients about how his recovery was going. He said one of the turning points of his recovery was when he had three or four months clean and was supposed to go to a 12-Step meeting but was very tired from work and he didn’t want to go. He heard himself say: “I have three months clean I don’t need a meeting tonight .’I got this’“ and it reminded him of the song that Richie wrote and he ended up going to the meeting. He just celebrated two years clean.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

There are so many things that make me proud of the work that I’ve done in my decades-long career as an addiction treatment professional, but I’m particularly proud that I’ve been able to see the Recovery Unplugged mission of music-assisted recovery to fruition, and help people use music to more readily embrace the treatment process. I’m also particularly proud of our inspiring long-term success rates and incredibly low AMA rates. This means that, on a granular level, people are responding to the work we do and that lives are being saved and enriched because of us and what we do — that’s a powerful thing.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

I think, to begin with, there should be more focus on addiction education among doctors. They’re prescribing addictive and potentially lethal meds often without the proper context for the possibility of diversion and subsequent addiction. I think there are also ways that community and culture, specifically music can intersect with addiction prevention. Music has the power to unify and actually create community outside of where we normally find it. Finally I think that, while society has gone a long way in destigmatizing chemical dependency, there are still pervasive stereotypes that have actually permeated the treatment and insurance landscapes that need to be addressed, and have made it harder for people to get treatment.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I would love to see Medicaid cover more private treatment services, I’d love to see automatic diversion-to-treatment programs for first-time, non-violent drug offenders and I’d love to see legislation that makes it mandatory for schools to have more robust addiction education programs.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

One of the main things that keeps me going is seeing the evolution of Recovery Unplugged clients’ attitudes from hopeless and empty to happy, self-aware and hopeful for the future. I’d also have to say my children keep me going in all areas of life every day, as well as my belief that music can be and is a way to motivate people toward treatment and recovery.

There are a lot of factors in any line of work that can be frustrating and with overdoses climbing again, it can be easy to feel like you’re not making as much of a difference as you should; but then when you see and hear from the people you’ve helped; when you see families reunited and careers restored and poor health diagnoses reversed because of a treatment model that you established, that sense of hopelessness goes away pretty quickly and you keep going.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

It’s an uphill battle and always has been, but I’d be doing myself, my years of recovery and my profession a disservice by saying that eradicating addiction wasn’t possible. There are more and more resources being developed all the time to help people in every stage of the treatment and recovery journey. If we keep improving and refining those while pinpointing and addressing the factors that lead to and sustain supply and demand of drugs and provide the right mental health support so people don’t feel the need to self-medicate, that’s the way forward. Easier said than done, I realize, but it is possible

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership to me has always been the courage and conviction to develop and offer an idea, but the wisdom to know that it’s not perfect. It means treating others with respect, recognizing their value and embracing their suggestions to contribute to your vision. I’ve always been a proponent of collaborative leadership, and that’s one of the why I think the Recovery Unplugged team has been so successful in their efforts.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. It’s all in the presentation.

I was taught a long time ago to respect and be kind to people and to say what you mean and mean what you say but don’t say it mean. Whether I am doing interventions on clients or communicating with my partners, I try to come from a non-judgmental or critical place.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

Recently, when I was asked to testify in a very high-profile case, I walked into the court room the usual friendly greeting from the judge who I knew for years was somewhat strained. I immediately personalized it thinking she didn’t like me anymore, etc.… I later found out that a friend of hers that I helped years ago passed away, and when she saw me, it immediately created negative feelings for her since she associated me with helping her save her best friend’s life. I’ve learned, the hard way at times, to not personalize things; and even if it’s a personal attack on me, it usually says more about them than it does me.

3. There’s something greater going on here than I’m able to comprehend.

I am not the most religious or spiritual person in the world, but I have countless examples of where I thought the worst-case scenarios would happen and somehow they not only ended up working out, but they tended to be a blessing in disguise. By practicing this “blind faith“ or even at times acting as if it’s going to be OK tends to help me live life on life‘s terms with more optimism and gratitude.

4. It’s better to be happy than right.

I am a very principled person and I place a high premium on integrity; it’s very important to me. Sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles which is why whenever I make any major decisions, I try to weigh the pros versus the cons. Sometimes the energy to fight or even prove a point in the end is not worth it because the only one I am in control over is myself and, by the way, Karma is a bitch.

5. Happiness is a choice.

Despite my years of working a program of recovery, I often find myself having to give myself permission that “everything is going to be OK“ right now in the present everything is perfect, but as soon as I start worrying about the future or focusing on the past it interrupts and negatively affects my present. I have to realize and practice sometimes on a daily basis that the way I perceive things is my choice and the more I focus on gratitude the happier I am.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the simplest terms, I’d say just make music a bigger part of your life. It’s got the power to heal, unify, change your mood, help you improve memory, improve physical and numerous other benefits. I think that if everyone embraced music more in their day-to-day lives, whether it’s through listening to their favorite songs, dancing, learning an instrument or going to a concert (when they’re able), people will be happier and that happiness will be infectious. I see this in example after example every day at Recovery Unplugged.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life-lesson quote would be a quote from the Eagles from a song called “Already Gone”. It basically says that oftentimes, it happens that we find ourselves in chains and we never even knew we had the key.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would say Paul McCartney. His musical genius not only tells the story of my life and millions of others, but he was a major inspiration for me to use music as medicine. I’m not sure I really would be able to eat, but I know for sure I’d be at least able to thank him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on Instagram and twitter at @PaulPellinger, and Facebook at facebook.com/PaulPellinger.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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