Kiwi musician, counsellor Tommy Benefield opens up about addiction

Tommy and the Fallen Horses.
Tommy and the Fallen Horses. Photo credit: Supplied/Intrepid Photography

Wellington-based musician Tommy Benefield has one incredible story to tell - a story he shares through his craft, but also through his work within the community.

Benefield has abstained from drugs and alcohol for 22 years. After getting clean a month after turning 17 years old, Benefield was finally freed from five years of debilitating cannabis and alcohol dependency. 

His experiences inspired a rewarding career in the mental health sector, working as an addictions counsellor for nine years. Now a manager of Addiction and Mental Health Services, Benefield continues to share his knowledge within the community and through his passion for music.

As the frontman for the alternative, indie-rock Wellington septet Tommy and the Fallen Horses, Benefield's addiction journey remains a common narrative throughout his musical repertoire, inspiring songs of both struggle and redemption. 

The musician, counsellor and father candidly shared his story ahead of the release of the band's second album, Openhearts.

How would you summarise your story with addiction?

I believe I was born with a genetic predisposition to addiction... Not all kids from broken homes become addicts as teenagers, but I did. 

From the age of 13 I was accessing services to try and get clean, from an NSAD drug counsellor, to 12-step fellowship meetings, to adult rehab to rehab for adolescents. After turning 17, it was Queen Mary Hospital, followed by a lifelong involvement in a 12-step fellowship.

Though I tried pills and needles, the reality is that cannabis and alcohol were more than enough. It isn’t the drug you use, it’s how you use it. There was nothing romantic, glamorous or impressive about it. 

I was just a heartbroken kid doing whatever he could to stay stoned all day long... Eventually through persistence and asking for help I got lucky. Many of my friends from back then are dead or in prison.

Kiwi musician, counsellor Tommy Benefield opens up about addiction
Photo credit: Supplied

What part did music play in your mental health journey?

Until I had kids, being a musician and songwriter meant everything to me, even back when I was a using addict. It was always my hope, it brought me solace and gave me something to fight for. 

My first couple of years clean, I’d write 10 songs a day. I was 17 and had no job or school to go to. At night I’d go to 12-step-fellowship meetings and socialise with other recovering addicts. Then I’d come back home and write a nighttime song.

Why do you think musicians so often struggle with drug abuse and mental illness?

I can see how being sensitive might give one a vulnerability to those issues.

It might appear there are more musicians with addictions because that line of work is often accompanied by a public profile. Perhaps if we idolised nurses, accountants or teachers the way we do actors and musicians, we’d find those careers are rife with alcoholism and addiction too.

Kiwi musician, counsellor Tommy Benefield opens up about addiction
Photo credit: Supplied

What inspired you to move into the mental health sector?

When I was a year clean, my 12-step-fellowship sponsor asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to become a drug counsellor. He said, 'No you don’t. Every asshole in this fellowship becomes a counsellor, find your own thing'.

I spent a year in a Māori theatre group, performing and running workshops in prisons, rehabs and high schools. Then I returned to Wellington to try and make a living as a musician.

I was [eventually] offered a scholarship to an addictions counsellor course. I thought 'f**k my sponsor'. I got offered a job at the end of training. I was worried it would distract me from music... but I stayed there for nine years.

How does your work help others struggling with addiction and mental illness?

After 13 years as a counsellor and psychotherapist, I became convinced that I was a better 12-step-fellowship sponsor than I was a counsellor. I’d also just had my first child, so I finally accepted the offers and took a management role. 

I’ve been managing mental health and addictions services for the last four years. I feel I’m actually making more of a difference than I was my last couple of years on the frontline.

Helping grow the competence of newer counsellors and social workers is a real privilege and joy to me.

How has your journey influenced your music?

Twenty-two years after getting clean, I still write a lot about drinking and drugs. I’m still captivated by that old romantic notion of a hard-living man with a life in ruins, seeking and finding redemption. All of my songs are still about overcoming some form of darkness.

I used to worry that drugs, especially psychedelics, were such powerful creative aids that I might struggle to write amazing songs without chemical inspiration. I’ve come to believe the deepest artistic creativity doesn’t come from you, but comes through you. 

If you can push your mind and ego aside, you can allow that creative spirit to come through... that doesn’t require any drugs.

Which musicians do you look up to who are also on the road to recovery?

Many of my idols I look up to creatively are in recovery: Russel Brand, Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell. It’s special knowing a song you love was written by someone on the same path as you.

In my fellowship, we give coins to celebrate your time being clean. Instead of buying new ones, you pass on the ones you were given. I got to meet Russel Brand on his ten-year-clean anniversary and give him my ten-year clean token. That was a huge honour.

What advice would you give to those going through recovery?

Ask for help, and don’t stop asking until you get it. The first door you knock on is unlikely to be the right one, but keep trying - you’ll find someone with an approach that starts making a difference. Don’t give up. Some days need determination just to get through. But things can and do get better.

If your issue is addiction, the approach that works for most is the 12-step fellowship approach. It’s free, it has no waitlist, it’s child-friendly and aligns perfectly with kaupapa Māori approaches to health. Worldwide, it is still the most successful method of helping people to stop for good.

Openhearts debuted Friday.

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