At the age of 17, Savannah S. woke up to the startling image of two tall men in her bedroom. When they told her not to be afraid, she understandably accused them of wanting to kidnap her and threatened to scream and get her parent’s attention. They did want to take her somewhere–what she didn’t know at that moment was that her parents had actually hired these men to haul her off to a wilderness program in a “transportation process” many teenagers referred to as “gooning.”
Savannah relapsed only a couple of weeks after leaving the year-long program and wouldn’t get sober again until six years later, this time completely of her own volition.
The earliest Savannah can remember being high, she was ten years old, and her mom had given her a Vicodin to help ease a severe case of the flu. At the time, she was blindsided with the sheer strength of the high, a sensation she’d never experienced. She began using hard drugs only two or three years later, at the age of twelve or thirteen. Savannah attributes using at such an early age to both her environment and her struggles with identity. “Ever since I was young,” she says, “I wanted to escape. I played video games or read books, or did anything that would make me feel like I was not myself.” At the same time, growing up in the inner city of Los Angeles, drugs were readily accessible.
Savannah grew up in East LA. Decades of gentrification have transformed the neighborhood, but back then, Savannah says it was a place where you constantly had to “be aware of your surroundings.” Born cross-eyed, she became accustomed to relentless teasing and bullying in elementary and middle school, which contributed to a constant desire to escape. By the time she’d entered high school, she’d had surgery to fix her eyes. Now people started to notice her in a positive light. Although her issue had been remedied physically, the internal damage was not so easily rectified. “I still had all of those self-esteem issues that had carried over from middle and elementary school,” she tells me. She immersed herself deeply in the East L.A. punk rock scene, and of course – “there were a lot of drugs.” It didn’t occur to her that she may have a real problem back then: “I didn’t have any awareness of myself, I never had the thought of ‘oh, I’m a drug addict.’ It was just, ‘I’m a kid, I like to party.’”
She may never have been “plucked out of the punk rock scene” if her life had not been punctuated by that extended stay in wilderness therapy and therapeutic boarding school, where she met other types of kids and was exposed to other genres of music, most notably Electronic Dance Music (EDM). Becoming a DJ wasn’t something she initially sought out to do. Although she had been classically trained in piano from an early age, at the time she hated its strict and inflexible demands, and never saw herself as a budding musician. Her exposure to EDM, however, gave her a new avenue to apply her classical training to, one more suited to her personality. “I connected to it in a very deep way,” she says. “It just started to work.”
Over time, her success began to snowball. Initially, she played in backyard parties and warehouse raves, but eventually, she’d graduated to opening for popular artists in the EDM scene and playing much bigger festivals like the well-known Nocturnal. She even toured in China and showed me some fan-art drawn of her by a foreign admirer. Although she didn’t ever play her sets while high (except once, she tells me – “it was really hard”), she would always get exceedingly high when she was finished for the night, and it began to tarnish her reputation in the industry. She began to be known as “that girl” who was always “K’d out” – high on ketamine, her drug of choice.
She doesn’t remember exactly the first time she did ketamine, which seems fitting, as the drug is notorious for being a strong dissociative. Explaining its appeal, she tells me, “it’s a really weird drug, it’s hard to describe, but I think in my mind, I felt my creativity was being fueled by it.” She was averse to uppers like cocaine, but she didn’t want to nod out to the point that she couldn’t produce music, and ketamine fit the bill. She was using over a gram a day, which became problematic for her physical health, and she began to suffer from perpetual pain which she believed could only be remedied by opiates. Reflecting on this, she notices the strange logic she subscribed to back then: “a normal person would have been like, ‘oh I’m just going to stop doing K.’ But in my mind, I couldn’t stop, so I decided to do opiates so I could keep doing ketamine.”
For a long time, Savannah had been highly reluctant to accept that her drug problem was real, and when she finally did accept it, she tended to push it to the back of her mind, feeling incapable of existing without her addiction. “There are many times when I thought to myself, ‘I can’t keep living like this,’ but I never had the wherewithal to go and get help.” Eventually, the missed opportunities and steep decline in her health became too much for her to overlook. “I began to feel like the world was against me,” she remembers. People didn’t want to be around her anymore, and her career was being hindered by a suspicion that her addiction made her unreliable.
When she decided that she needed to go to rehab, this time, it was on her own terms. “I think that’s important to say,” she emphasizes. “I wasn’t going to change until I wanted to.” At this point, she’d fully comprehended the weight of her battle with addiction and was committed to extricating herself from substance abuse. “I was so done fighting, I had no more fight left in me. I have fought this battle with drugs for so many years, after a certain point you just have to surrender, because it becomes too much. I reached that point where I was waving my white flag.” Savannah reached out to a family friend who was familiar with Beit T’Shuvah and began the process of admission.
Recalling her experience as a new resident, she tells me: “I remember my first couple of nights just crying because I was like, ‘do I really want to do this?’ I feel like it’s scary coming into treatment, you know that you don’t want to live the way you were living, but you also don’t know how to live any other way. So it’s terrifying because to you all you know is misery and chaos and sadness. And you’re like, ‘okay, at least when I wasn’t sober, I could get high and run away from it.’ But when you’re sober you just have to face it.”
Savannah has two things that she knows will keep her sober: her connection to her higher power and her music. In some ways, those two things are intertwined. “My music is way bigger than me; it helps me connect to something that I can’t even fully comprehend,” she marvels. And this ineffable thing that is bigger than herself is also her higher power. Explaining what a higher power means to her, Savannah says, “any higher power is something that’s infinite, and it’s something that you can always tap into and connect with. I feel like I was always running into a wall when I was trying to comprehend it. Once I just let myself accept that I’ll never be able to fully understand, I was able to better maintain that connection and maintain my sobriety.”
Her ultimate goals for herself have changed in some ways now, but those changes have not put a damper on her aspirations as a DJ. “I used to romanticize that Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse figure of these tortured musicians that are just so famous and nobody understands them,” she explains. “But I don’t want to be that anymore, I don’t want to get to a point of success and be miserable. I want to be able to enjoy it. I know that I’m always going to want more, because that’s how we are, that’s how we’re wired – I could play the biggest festival in the world and sit there and think, ‘okay what more can I do?’ But I just want to keep doing what I love and hopefully realize all the dreams that I have, and just be happy.”