TCR Talks with Ryan Dusick, Author of Harder to Breathe
By Yennie Cheung
When drummer Ryan Dusick left Maroon 5 in 2006, his public statement explained that the nerve damage in his shoulder, sustained from incessant touring, had grown too severe to perform. In reality, the physical pain wasn’t his only hindrance. He’d also grappled with anxiety and alcoholism—an addiction that worsened as he grieved the loss of a band he’d founded in high school.
After years of struggle and recovery, Dusick reveals his truth in the memoir Harder to Breathe: A Memoir of Making Maroon 5, Losing It All, and Finding Recovery. With a forward by frontman Adam Levine, the book chronicles everything—from the band members’ days as teenage schoolmates to the moment they knew they’d made it to Dusick’s finding new purpose in rehab—and contains many revelations, even for people like me who witnessed the events firsthand (I first met the band in 1999, when it was called Kara’s Flowers, and maintained their website for a few years). Now a clinical psychologist, Dusick talks writer-to-writer about his use of narrative therapy, the pride that held him back as a musician, and how blink-182’s Travis Barker first triggered his imposter syndrome.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Adam’s forward mentions that you didn’t leave the band—you were forced out. That was a bit of a surprise for me since when you left, it sounded like it was your choice. What was it like revisiting that moment?
RYAN DUSICK: Well, I wanted to start the book with that moment, when Adam delivers the news that they were moving on without me, for a few reasons. Number one, I wanted to treat it kind of like a murder mystery: Here’s the scene of the crime; here’s the dead body. And it’s like, Okay, how did it get to that? What led to that moment? How did it come to this horrible tragedy? And then Where did it go from there? So it was my attempt to jump right to the middle of the action, just from a narrative point of view.
Obviously, that was one of the most painful moments in my life. And a lot of pain came after that. There was pain leading up to that moment, but there was equal, if not more, pain after. So for my own psychology, going back and rewriting it in a way that made more sense to me today, as a person in recovery, I needed to go right to the pivotal moment of pain in order to make sense of how [I got] to that point and [have progressed] since, in the same way that a narrative will do that.
TCR: In your book, you talk about using narrative therapy. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and how it has helped you?
RD: Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is what we call a postmodern technique, meaning that perspective and the stories we tell ourselves are subjective and relative to context. A lot of times, we go through our life telling ourselves certain stories about things that are not helping us—they’re not productive. Narrative therapy is used a lot for people who have suffered oppression of some kind, people who are dealing with racial oppression, sexism. It’s been used in a lot of different cultures to help people who have internalized a lot of negative stereotypes about themselves unlearn those stereotypes. That’s the context in which it was invented, but it can be used for anyone dealing with the context of their own life and the unproductive, subjective stories they’ve been telling themselves about themselves.
I really related to that [form of therapy]. I was an English major at UCLA. I love storytelling, whether it be music, literature. I love the idea that there are a lot of different ways to tell the same story. Writing this book, it occurred to me that writing a book is just a series of choices. You can use this word or that word, and it changes the meaning of what you’re saying. In the context of the larger narrative, I saw it as an opportunity to not just control the narrative outwardly but understand myself better by telling the narrative in a way that was going to provide closure for me and provide useful information that I can learn from and grow from. In order to do that, I had to be very honest, very vulnerable—go back to some really dark places and own them completely but understand the ways in which I might have been telling those stories to myself that were self-defeating. And understand that any anger, resentment I held onto towards others or towards myself [were] a biased, subjective feeling or opinion about what happened. So I had to explore every side of my history to craft this new narrative, which was wholly honest, more objective, and more productive in terms of how I look at my story moving forward.
TCR: Were there things that you had thought about from one perspective before but then, in writing everything down, realized you were wrong about it?
RD: I don’t think I ever found that I was wrong about anything. It was a great exercise in finding where the pain still lingered and [what] things I was holding onto [that I] needed to let go of. I had done a lot of work before I wrote the book. This came as the sort of last thing in a long series of therapies for me, whether it be individual talk therapy or the twelve steps of AA or just being of service, and all the things that came from me telling my story over and over again in meetings at a recovery center.
[The memoir] was a formal attempt to provide the ultimate closure on that whole journey. It was a longform version of things I’ve been doing, and it required me to dive really deeply into all the details in chronology, to really go through heavy things beat by beat. Then I had to revise it. And then I had to edit it, and I had to decide what really were the most important elements of this. And then I got to the essence of what it was that I was dealing with, and I realized, Oh, these things that have been so big in my mind, those are actually secondary details that I’ve blown up bigger than they are, or Why do I feel the impulse to say that word or that phrase? There’s a little bit of anger in that. Why am I doing that? Or Why is my impulse to be so self-deprecating here, or so apologetic, or [to] dismiss them? I had to analyze every thought and every emotion that came up. So it was really productive in terms of getting to the essence of the story and of my own psychology.
TCR: Some of this reminds me of writing professors telling people that they need to go to therapy before they can write their memoirs. It seems like you would agree with them that writing the book isn’t the same as therapy.
RD: Yeah, and [writing the book] was the last phase after I’d done a lot of therapy, including grad school. I consider grad school a really productive type of therapy. I feel like the first month of rehab was an education in myself and in addiction and in recovery. When I was in the second month and I was doing some deeper work on myself, I felt like I was in the grad school of addiction recovery, and I looked back at the first month as if that had been kindergarten. I realized I was just learning my ABCs, you know? I was just learning to walk. I was understanding myself better and understanding the other people around me, in rehab, better. Then I was in outpatient therapy, and I realized, Oh my god, now I’m in grad school! And the thing I’d been doing before—that was like elementary school. Every step of the way, it was more learning about what had been my issues and how it affected me and how it might affect other people.
By the time I was in grad school studying clinical psychology, I was actually in grad school at that point in terms of my own recovery but also in my understanding of psychology and mental health. So I felt that I was in a particularly unique position to do a memoir of this kind, not solely because of my background and the story I had to tell but because of the perspective I had gained both in recovery and in my studies of psychology and mental health. I felt that I could use myself as a kind of case study to relay some of the things I’d learned. However, I wanted to be sure that I didn’t do it in a pretentious way or in an overly scholarly way, like reading it as a case conceptualization, because I figured that would be interesting to a very small group of people like me who likes this stuff. I wanted it to be relatable in a very straightforward, storytelling way so that you get the point by relating to the story, not by hearing psychobabble.
TCR: You use a slightly different style when you’re writing about recovery. There’s something more in the details. You’re more present in those moments. Can you talk about how you structured the book, how you wanted to write about recovery but, of course, had to write about everything else, including your childhood, first?
RD: It’s interesting. As I mentioned before, telling my story in AA meetings and at the recovery center, the story would evolve in terms of what the emphasis was, what the important details were. I think for a long time, the emphasis was more heavily on the really dark times and the addiction. So when I sat down to write the first draft, I was thinking, It’s going to be about half really dark, heavy stuff and then half about all the stuff I’ve learned in recovery. And in the first draft, the first two chapters were just basically the whole story all at once, diving right into everything really dark that happened and all the places I went to that were really painful. And over the course of the different drafts and the final edit, a lot of the dark stuff got edited out. I had more chapters about alcoholism in there, and I had more stuff that I realized was redundant. It’s stuff people have heard a million times, you know? Everyone has seen movies or read books about the tragic alcoholic or the rock star. That’s not the story I wanted to tell. Because I realized, from a storytelling perspective, there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. There needs to be a setup so you understand the character, so you’re invested in the character.
I was a little bit self-conscious at first about telling a lot about my childhood, or about anything before the band. I was like, Is anyone gonna care about those details? And then I realized, both from a storytelling perspective and from just telling the story in a truthful way, you need that context. You need to understand where [the addiction] came from—how it evolved to the places it did—and to have the sort of fun and enjoyment of the early years of the band, whether you’re a fan of Maroon 5 or not. I started to see that [in] that part of the book, you needed the innocence of that. [I] almost felt at a certain point, when I was writing the second draft, that I was writing Stand by Me. Like, “Do you ever have best friends in your life again like you did when you were twelve years old?” That’s Stand by Me, and [the band] was very much like this. This was long before there was alcohol and before there were the real dark times, and [it was] uplifting and inspirational, so I wanted that to be a big element of the first third of the book.
And then I needed to get to the place of darkness . . . I didn’t want to dwell on it overly long because how many stories do you need to hear about the pathetic lifestyle of an alcoholic? It’s time to get to the hope. In the last third of the book, that’s where I’m at in my life now, so if it feels very present, it’s because it’s coming from my current reality and very much the mission of the book. All that [early] stuff is fun, and I think it’s entertaining; it makes for a great book, but ultimately the point of writing the book for me was the happy ending and, hopefully, its inspirational element.
TCR: I love the characterizations of all the guys in the band and other people, like your parents. For someone like me who knew them, it’s all incredibly accurate—that is exactly how James [Valentine, the band’s guitarist] is, or exactly how Adam is. How much of the characters did you have to consciously think about fleshing out to make sure that people who don’t know them understand the relationship that you guys have?
RD: I knew that the relationships were an important element—not just because people would want to hear that stuff, which I was mindful of. I wanted to be sure that people that picked up a book about Maroon 5 got Maroon 5. I definitely wanted those stories in there so that you could feel what it was like to be there in the early years of the band—the fun, the sometimes conflict but usually fun. And I wanted to be really truthful and honest about it, not to make anyone look bad or to throw stones but really just to treat it as a portrait of our life at that time.
And then also, in the larger arc of the story in terms of my psychology and everything that I went through, how I got to where I did . . . What’s going on inside of your mind is very important. The cognitive element—what’s going on in your heart, your emotions—is important. What’s going on in your spiritual self is important. Equally important is the interpersonal element, right? The people in your life. Obviously, your family is very important to your psychology but also your friends. The people that played pivotal roles in your development as a young man and then as a grown man. I knew that those relationships—how they impacted me and the ways in which I was at fault in some of my relationships—were relevant to my story and my mental health. So I wanted to make sure that I treated all of that with dignity.
TCR: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you talked to David Fisher [co-writer of many celebrity memoirs] about your book, so tell me about the relationship that you two have, especially in terms of writing the book. How did he help you with it?
RD: It’s kind of crazy. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever even met him in person, but I’ve known him since I was like eight years old because he is a family friend. My Aunt Michele [Lee] was a Broadway star when she was a kid in the ’60s. And then she was a TV star in the ’70s and ’80s and film star, and her second husband, my Uncle Fred [Rappoport], was a TV executive at CBS. And he had a lot of interesting and influential friends. They both did. So I had access [to] and met some interesting people growing up, and one of them was Fred’s friend in New York, David Fisher, who’s a very accomplished author who has done a lot of biographies and novels. I had read some of his books about baseball when I was a kid.
My dad had this wild idea to send him some of my writing. I must have been eight or ten years old. [Fisher] sent me this letter . . . and he just gave me encouragement. He was like, “You’re doing the right thing. A writer writes. Keep writing and, someday, if you can stay on it, you’ll be a great author.” I had that framed, and I put it on my wall. And then at a certain point, as I got older and my life went in different directions, I kind of forgot about that . . . But then he approached me a couple of years after I left the band because he knew that my story was interesting. He wondered if I had thought about doing a book, and he was interested in doing it with me. At that time, there were two problems. One, I thought, If I’m going to do a book, I’m gonna write it myself. Some of that might have been really wise, and some of that might have been my own ego and pride. If I’m looking back honestly on myself, definitely [the latter].
TCR: I mean, as someone with a master’s degree in writing, if David Fisher approached me to write a book, I’d be like, I’m writing a book for David Fisher!
RD: Right. I guess that was a good instinct, even if it came from pride [because] at the same time, I was like, What would this point serve? What would this book serve? I was just in the throes of dealing with this loss and all the heaviness of it, so that idea sat on a shelf for a few years. When I got sober, I got around to actually writing it in grad school. I wrote the first draft, and then I told my family that I had written this, and my dad gave me the same advice. He said, “You should send this to David Fisher.”
So I did that. I reached out to him. And he returned my email, like, the next day. He was all excited. He said, “Send me a hard copy of it. I’ll give you my notes, and I’ll tell you what I think.” I sent it out to him, and he . . . gave me a two-page summary of his thoughts on it and some very specific, great advice. He said, “It’s a good book, but if I were in your position, I would make this thing a great book before you take it to anyone. And I would do that by working with an editor who can give you more specific notes on what you need to take this from a chronicle to a narrative.” And I, at first, didn’t want to hear that—ego and pride, again. I wanted David Fisher telling me, This is amazing. It’s perfect. You’re done. But then, of course, I realized this was wonderful advice. And I took this as a challenge to take what I’d written to the next level.
TCR: Some of the moments in the book, I was there for. It’s fun to read them and know that what you’re writing is accurate because I was there. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced before with literature, even though I know other memoirists. How much did you research your own history to make sure everything that you wrote was accurate?
RD: It was painstaking to make sure that I got everything as close to accurate in terms of the timeline and just really brainstorming every memory and laying it out in an outline. I had pages and pages of notes before I started writing. And even when I went back to the second draft, I did more research. I had to go online just to look at dates of things, like when we toured with Jason Mraz . . . So once I had everything really laid out, like month by month, I just started jotting down personal stories that I remembered [like] the time we ran into Bono and the Edge [from U2] at Top of the Pops. I was just trying to place it into the chronology and then make notes about what story I wanted to tell.
I didn’t check references. I didn’t ask anyone for their perspective because the line that I drew in terms of accuracy was that the important thing was that it reflect my memory. How it affected me—what I took from those experiences—was accurate. Or not, in some cases. I’m sure that if you asked Adam or Jesse [Carmichael, the keyboardist] or Mickey [Madden, the bassist] or James or anyone else that was there, you might get a slightly different version of the events because they were going through something different. Subjectively speaking, so much of the experience that we have in life is about what we bring to those moments.
There were a few times that I did intentionally move things around a little bit just because I knew, for narrative effect, it would make sense and it would have more of a payoff if certain things hit at a certain moment. Or I’d realize I made a mistake. Like, I [realized] that thing with Bono and the Edge actually happened six months later; that was on a different trip to London. But it makes more sense if that happens [where I wrote it] because it relates to what [the band was] going through then. So it was like, Who cares? Is anyone going to fact check that and have a problem with that being slightly different than the exact reality? I think you have a little bit of [creative] license.
TCR: That’s how memoir works. It’s not always completely accurate. It’s not always about the facts. It’s about your truth.
RD: Right. Even stuff like dialogue. Of course, we didn’t have a tape recorder, but I remember those moments. If I created a scene that has dialogue in it, it’s because it was an important scene in my life. And I remember it specifically from the feeling that I had and what I remember other people saying to me and what I was saying. I tried to be as accurate and close to that in my memory as I could be.
TCR: You write about being obsessive-compulsive, having issues like perfectionism, and one thing that most writers and artists in general can relate to: impostor syndrome. You’re a great drummer, but then you write about comparing yourself to Travis Barker—and many drummers would have that sense of inadequacy comparing themselves to someone like Travis. How did you handle those moments?
RD: It was interesting because I never had [impostor syndrome] until we toured. Well, maybe I did on some unconscious level, and I hadn’t really faced it consciously until we went on tour and I was confronted with the reality. The reality was that I was self-taught. And there are some fundamentals of drumming that I never learned. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a good drummer or that I thought that I was a bad drummer. Quite the contrary—early in our career. I was the most accomplished musician in the band when we started it. I had been playing in clubs already. Playing with the bands that we were playing with, I felt pretty confident in my skill and my [knowledge] that I was the best drummer in our circle of friends.
But in the back of my mind, I always knew there are certain things that real drummers do that I never learned. I have a lot of regrets in life, but if I have one that stands out to me, before all the bad stuff that happened, it’s the ego and pride of a young man, that defensiveness of not being teachable or not admitting [that] even if you’re great, there’s always more to learn. I think the stance that I took was very defensive, and it came from a place of ego. It’s like, Oh, there’s a thing that would probably make me a better drummer or a more proficient drummer, and I don’t know how to do that. And instead of saying, Maybe I should learn that, or Maybe I want to take lessons, it was like, Well, I don’t care about that, anyway. That’s for nerds. That’s people that are into Rush, you know? Really, really technical drumming. I don’t care about that kind of drumming. I’m a soulful drummer. I’m a guy who just puts his heart and soul into the drums. I don’t need to know paradiddles and all that stuff to be a great drummer. And there was a little bit of truth to that—if you’re a fan of rock and roll and you’re a fan of playing from the heart, you don’t necessarily have to be a technical whiz to play good music. But I can see now that that was not necessarily just coming from the perspective of an artist; it was coming from defensiveness—I don’t want to be told I’m not good enough, so I’m going to pretend that it’s good enough to not be as good as I could be.
And then you’re confronted with reality, where you’re playing night after night with other bands who now aren’t just local bands playing at the high school and playing the pay-to-play club on the corner. They’re playing on big stages for a reason. The first time that it hit me was in ’97, because we were playing [still as Kara’s Flowers] with punk and ska bands, and most of them were not great musicians. They were like us; they were garage bands. But Travis came from a drumline background, and he had very, very proficient stick technique and was very fast. And on top of that, he had great feel. He was a natural drummer on top of having great skill. Watching him every night, it was like, Wow, he’s got everything I have and more. He drove the band with energy and that rock and roll attitude. But he also could back it up with the chops. All the stuff that I thought I was great at is fine, but there’s so much more, and I had neglected that. So that was the first time when I felt the imposter syndrome.
It was worse later, in the Maroon 5 days, because then we’re playing with the guy who plays on American Idol. And the guy who plays with Sheryl Crow or John Mayer. The reason why they’re there is because they were literally the best drummer in their class. They either studied at Juilliard or Berklee College of Music, or they played in jazz and funk and every kind of background of study you can have in topflight musicianship, and they earned that position. You watch these guys playing things they could do in their sleep. It’s so easy because their skill is far beyond what they’re doing. And me, I’m at the top of my skill level, and when I’m playing, I can’t go beyond what I’m doing. So there was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind for a few years that that was going to catch up with me at some point, beyond just [thinking], People are going to figure it out at some point. They’re gonna realize I’m an imposter. I don’t really belong here. It was—I’m going to break down. I’m not going to be able to hack it. Because I don’t have the stamina. I don’t have the chops to perform at this level. And whether or not that was a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, I’ll never know, because I think it was all wrapped up and complicated between that defeatist psychology and the reality of the fact that I had neglected things that I could have probably spent more time and energy improving.
TCR: You’re also not a trained writer with degrees in creative writing, so you’re coming from that sort of position now as a memoirist. Is it different for you now as a writer instead of a musician?
RD: It is. I didn’t feel like an imposter at any point in this process for two reasons. A lot of therapists talk about imposter syndrome. That’s something we actually talked about in class with our professors a lot, especially for kids that are just out of college, going to grad school, and they’re twenty-three years old, studying clinical psychology, and all of a sudden, they’re in a room with a client, trying to help a fifty-five-year-old person with their anxiety or their grief or whatever they’re going through. And it’s like, Well, how am I qualified, just because I’ve taken some classes in psychology, to sit with this person and tell them what they should be doing to improve their mental health? It’s a very common occurrence.
I didn’t feel impostor syndrome going back to school in my forties to become a therapist because I knew that I brought all that life experience to what I did, even if I didn’t have vast experience with studying psychology in undergrad or years of a PhD or anything like that. I knew that what I had gone through and what I had learned in my years of living informed the work that I was going to be doing, so I felt more qualified than some just for that reason, even though I realized I had a lot to learn. So as a writer, in the same sense, I felt nobody is more qualified to write this story than me. It’s almost secondary, how proficient a writer I am, even though I did feel like a pretty good writer. The most important element is being honest and truthful about my story in a way that people can relate to.
But also, I think the second reason is because, in both instances, both in grad school and in writing the book, it shows you how much I have evolved and grown, because when I realized there were things that I hadn’t yet learned or things that could be better, instead of reacting with Oh, I don’t care about that, anyway. I’m good enough the way that I am, I said, Oh shit. Okay, I better learn that, or I better improve in that way. I took on the challenge of the second draft and all the feedback that I had gotten and said, Okay, I’m gonna get that much better now and be that much better a writer and take on this challenge of writing a full-length narrative—something I had never done—and I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability and use all of the resources I have to make it as good as I can, both with confidence and humility. [I told myself] This is the first time I’m doing this. There’s things I need to understand and learn in this process, but also [I need to proceed] with the confidence that I am the most qualified person to tell the story. If I just push myself and apply myself and try to just be diligent about doing it the best I can, it’ll be good.
TCR: I actually remember reading some of your poetry way back in 1999 or so. I don’t quite remember what it was, but I’ve always known that you write creatively. Are there any plans to continue?
RD: Yeah. It remains to be seen what the form will be exactly. It’s funny you mentioned the poetry that I was writing at the time. I just recently—after I got a publishing deal with this book—went through a bunch of the poetry that I wrote between like ’98 and 2005-6 and compiled about forty, fifty poems, just to see if there’s anything there, because it’s from the same timeline as the middle chunk of the [memoir]. It’s funny to me because it’s pretentious [laughs]. It’s a young man trying to just find himself, you know? Anyway, poetry is something I haven’t written in a long time, but I do see myself writing. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. At some point in my life, I will write a novel. I think that, as I was writing this book and turning it into the narrative that it is, I was quickly moving on in my mind already, like, I’m gonna write novels after this.
The reality is if there were interest in my writing [because of] this book, there might be other forms that might be more applicable . . . writing another memoir that’s maybe more specific to certain elements, going more in-depth about certain elements of what I’ve learned, or a book about mental health or recovery. There’s a lot of different possibilities of topics that I can take on in a nonfiction format and write about in longer form, especially as I continue to learn about this stuff.
But I’m a creative person in my heart of hearts, and the thing I loved most about music was writing and recording. Performing could be fun, but the creative process was always the most fulfilling thing for me. Writing this book, which was wholly my own and from my own voice, was one of the most fulfilling creative processes I’ve been in, and I was like, I gotta keep doing this. And the idea of doing it as a narrative, doing that storytelling—I’d love to do that again.
TCR: Do you have any advice for writers or musicians who are struggling?
RD: You know, I keep coming back to this idea of stepping into discomfort, stepping into things that are uncomfortable and new and foreign. If you haven’t found your voice yet, if you are writing another song and thinking this is going to be the one that’s it, or writing the next short story, or the next poem, or the next whatever it may be, and you’re doing it basically in the same format and with the same thought process, the same context of everything you’ve done before—you’re just treading water. I find this in mental health as much as I do in creativity. Growth happens in discomfort. You have to get yourself out of that box and start looking at things in new ways, trying things that may be new, and there has to be change in order for there to be growth.
That was something I learned from Adam and Jesse, as very, very creative, prolific artists. Because I tend to have more control issues—perfectionism and obsessive compulsiveness—I want things to be just so by nature. I tend to be uncomfortable with change. Adam is somebody who, almost to a fault, never looks back. I hear people say, “Why don’t you do another record like Songs About Jane?” That is speaking another language to Adam. He would never think, Why don’t we do something like something we did twenty years ago? That’s anathema to his being.
TCR: I remember people asking why you didn’t play The Fourth World [Kara’s Flowers] songs, and it was because Adam refused.
RD: [chuckles] No, he would never—for a lot of reasons, some of which were healthy reasons, some of which were not. For him in particular, I think, there was trauma with the failure of that record. He really wanted to just bury that and move on. But I think that’s in a negative context. In a positive light, he’s just always excited about the next thing or moving on and expanding into something that’s going to be even better, even more inspiring, or new and challenging horizons. It’s rubbed off on me in some ways, and I’ve found, at this point in my life in mental health recovery, that that is helpful to me as a person and as an artist.
If something’s not clicking, if you haven’t found your voice, if you haven’t figured out what it is that’s going to be your thing, try stepping out of what you’ve been doing and put yourself in a new context. If you’ve been writing pop songs, try writing an opera. If you’ve been writing screenplays, try writing a novel. Just take on a new form. Take on a new context, a new way of thinking, and challenge yourself.
Always be open. Be teachable.
Yennie Cheung is the executive editor of The Coachella Review and the co-author of the book DTLA/37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside-Palm Desert, and her writing has been published in such places as The Los Angeles Times, Writers Resist, Angels Flight • Literary West, The Rattling Wall, and The Best Small Fictions.