Portland-based songwriter, poet and performing artist Myles Bullen, 28, says that the tools he acquired during his nine years of living in recovery prepared him to survive this toughest year of his life—and even to thrive.
In 2019, he toured 33 states and three countries, performing 140 times, everywhere from prisons to schools and colleges and from backyards to professional stages. “It was the full gamut of DIY touring,” Myles says. “I felt like I was on fire. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m finally doing this thing to its fullest potential and next year will only be better.’”
And then, in 2020, Myles lost his grandfather and his father and several peers. His usual emotional outlet—performing—came to a sudden halt, when his four-month tour was cancelled early in the pandemic. “I fell into a terrible depression for four and a half months,” Myles says.
To dig himself back out from depression, Myles leaned on everything he’d used to rebuild his life when he was 17 and broke up with alcohol and opioids. That year, too, he had been grieving.
“My grandmother passed away, and I remember going to her funeral and seeing chaos within my family,” he says. “I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t angry, and I had this awareness that I should be feeling emotions, but I wasn’t able to. That night, I woke up and had this sort of ghostly experience with my grandmother in the room saying, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. I love you, Myles.’”
Myles has been in recovery since that night nine years ago. “I had to change the people I was surrounded with, the places where I was, the contacts in my phone, the activities I was doing, the food I was putting in my body—everything had to change,” Myles says. “And then I started living life again in a new way. Colors were more vivid. I could smell more intensely. And I could also feel a lot more.”
After spending most of his adolescence high, Myles says that his early recovery was marked by “rapid mood swings, from ecstatically joyful to cripplingly depressed to bursts of anger and then bursts of laughter.”
Instead of avoiding feeling sad or anxious—which is unrealistic—he asked himself, “What is going to be my healthy go-to thing, the least detrimental thing? When I feel anxiety, what do I do to calm myself down? When I feel sad, how do I comfort myself? When I feel angry, how do I express my anger in way that won’t hurt myself or anyone else?”
His healthy go-to things are yoga, meditation, and writing, playing and performing.
“Songwriting and expression has kept me alive and healthy,” Myles says. “When I started writing, I was kind of digging up my past and uncovering certain traumas or experiences that I hadn’t processed fully, especially when I was using. Being in recovery, part of my ritual is to write and share it—and to keep doing that.”
Myles is a teaching artist at The Telling Room, a Portland-based nonprofit that empowers teen writers. He also teaches a virtual class for inmates in Maine State Prison, modeling creative writing and narrative processing while facilitating a space for vulnerability. “I use writing and performing as a cathartic self-practice to interrogate what’s going on with myself,” Myles says, “and when I share it, the goal is to encourage others to do that work and that it is possible to recover.”
Out of all the heartbreak and disappointment he experienced in 2020, Myles wrote and recorded a new album titled “Healing Hurts.” Meanwhile, some of his older songs, like “Way Too Fast”—which talks about dealing with anxiety and shifting to self care— are even more universally relevant than when he wrote them.
“When I was at my lowest this year, I still had all those tools— practicing yoga, meditation, clean eating, non-violent communications,” Myles says.
“I can use creativity to build something that I love that makes me happy.”
The secret to a life in recovery, Myles says, isn’t to wish for an other-worldly experience like the one that jolted him into getting sober when was 17. It’s not possible to replicate someone else’s epiphany. But, thankfully, the secret to a life in recovery is much more practical than that.
“It’s in the day-to-day choices,” Myles says. “It’s about, ‘What am I doing right now in this moment?’ It’s about being present with every choice. Essentially, seconds make up minutes, make up weeks, make up years.”