Singing a song of wellness

Expressing themselves artistically is one way drug addicts are recovering at Amity.

Tucson Citizen

February 3, 2005

Photos by XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen

Ryan Voyten wrote this poem he calls "Fallen Angel."

Ryan Voyten fills the pages of his journal with poetry and he feels himself rise out of the abyss.

Kim Ullery sings "Desperado" passionately into a microphone. Her soul is nourished.

And when Michelle Self can't find the words to express her frustration, she heads to her room to write poetry and songs.

"When I'm just talking I have a really hard time expressing myself, even when I was little," Self said. "I've always found that the best way to express myself is through writing. I can't just come out and say it, but when I write, it helps me."

Self, 26, Ullery, 36, and Voyten, 25, believe that learning to express emotions is critical in their recovery from drug addiction.

The three are residents at Amity's Circle Tree Ranch. They have come to this serene guest ranch-turned-residential drug treatment center in the heart of Tanque Verde Valley to pull themselves out of the devastation of addiction.

Expressing themselves through the arts is helping them on their journey, they said.

Last year, Circle Tree Ranch, 10500 E. Tanque Verde Road, developed a culture program, designed to strengthen those in recovery through the arts.

"Amity is a therapeutic community, and in any community when the arts are present, the community is richer," said Heather Hardy, cultural director at Circle Tree Ranch.

The treatment program is in a former guest ranch built in 1929. The 50-acre property is studded with rustic buildings and towering eucalyptus trees.

Three or four times a week, Hardy sits down with residents to work on a song or play the guitar or keyboard. They'll talk about poetry or lyrics.

Hardy is hoping to expand the artistic offerings at Amity through a fund-raising concert Feb. 10 at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts at the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. The concert will include performances by the Lisa Otey Band featuring Mr. Boogie Woogie; Hardy, known as "Lil Mama" and her band; and the Bad News Blues Band.

Hardy hopes proceeds from the concert will allow Amity to buy art supplies, instruments and recording equipment and will allow her to bring in artists to work with residents. She will encourage Tucsonans to donate supplies.

Heather Hardy reads some of Ryan Voyten's poems. Hardy works with people in substance-abuse treatment at Amity's Circle Tree Ranch.

Hardy, who went through recovery at Amity Circle Tree Ranch in 1990, believes music heals. In 2003, she played her violin for male inmates in six California state prisons.

While in treatment at Amity, Hardy would get up early to play the violin.

"The work that goes on here is very painful and very involved in talking about your story and your experiences and walking through those emotions and facing them," Hardy said. "For some emotions, there are no words. You cannot express them."

As part of the fund-raising concert, Self and Charlotte Robinson, 31, will perform "Orphan Girl," a song by recording artist Gillian Welch.

This week, Hardy worked with Self and Robinson to prepare them for the concert.

The two recovering addicts sat arm in arm in Amity's music room, singing the words and wiping away an occasional tear as Hardy played the song on the keyboard.

With morning light streaming in the windows and a stunning view of the Rincon Mountains and bare mesquite trees behind them, the duo sang the verses over and over.

Self, battling a crack addiction, said music helps her explore her emotions.

"It's like trying to find your new self," said the mother of two. "They are trying to help us see what we've been hiding from."

Robinson, mother of a 7-month-old son who lives with her at Amity, agreed.

"I believe music is an essential part of recovery," said Robinson, who abused alcohol, methamphetamine and crack for 12 years. "Music brings me closer to my emotions."

Voyten, who will read one of his poems at the concert, completed the recovery program last month and is now helping others who are entering the program as an apprentice.

Voyten wrote poetry in his teens, but stopped writing at the height of his 12-year addiction to methamphetamine.

He started writing again at Amity.

Charlotte Robinson (left), Kim Ullery and Michelle Self practice singing. All are residents at Amity's Circle Tree Ranch where they are recovering from drug addiction by expressing themselves through the arts.

"I came here at the end of my rope. Now that I've been clean, it's taken on new levels," said the father of a 6-year-old boy. "Before, I didn't have the emotional vocabulary. Now I do.

"Writing builds a bridge to help find out who you are," he said. "It's healing in many ways. I've been able to find myself here, find out who I am clean and sober."

Ullery is leaving the program this week after completing six months of treatment. The mother of six said exploring her emotions through music has helped her regain self-confidence.

Ullery grew up singing at church.

"Singing here has brought me back to a time when I was clean and sober, a time when I was with God," said Ullery, who used methamphetamine "on and off" for 18 years.

"I know now my life is not hopeless because I am an addict," she said. "The music lets me know I'm alive and not just existing. And for years, I just existed."


What: A concert to benefit the Amity Circle Tree Ranch cultural program, with performances by the Lisa Otey Band featuring Mr. Boogie Woogie; Heather "Lil Mama" Hardy and band, and the Bad News Blues Band.

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10.

Where: The Berger Center for the Performing Arts at the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd.

How much: $20. Tickets are available at the door or at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., and Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave.

Information: For information on Circle Tree Ranch, visit