Actors and Addiction
By Douglas Eby
Like other talented and creative people, many actors and other artists use and abuse drugs, substances and activities – often as self-medication. Sometimes we risk addiction. This article, I hope, provides helpful perspectives and resources on a variety of potentially addictive, self-limiting behaviors that can interfere with our creative lives.
> Also see longer version of this article: Artists and Addiction
Philip Seymour Hoffman admitted he used drugs and alcohol earlier in his life.
“It was all that stuff. It was anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all.”
He got sober, he says, because “You get panicked. I was 22, and I got panicked for my life.”
He has also commented that “Film is a very uncomfortable medium for an actor. It’s just not conducive to doing what actors do.
“The first few days of shooting are like you just getting over the fact that you are there. These people and the camera over the shoulder and the light and the boom – you’re just going crazy trying to find some kind of center of relaxation…”
Hoffman died Sunday Feb 2, 2014 from an apparent heroin overdose.
What We Can Learn From Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death, by Dr. Peggy Drexler, HuffingtonPost – “Increased exposure and conversation could help remove the lingering stigma surrounding addiction, and treatment of such, helping more people understand that addiction is a serious issue that doesn’t discriminate based on income, social standing, looks, or anything else.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Have to Die By Maia Szalavitz, TIME – “Whether it’s a heroin addict who has relapsed, a toddler who gets into grandma’s oxycontin, a granddad who drinks and takes the wrong pills or a teenager who tries these drugs in a dangerously high dose, there are ways to prevent these individuals from becoming victims of an overdose.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman Was Taught To Be Helpless Before Drugs – Heroin epidemic? Cunning disease? Or learned powerlessness? by Stanton Peele, Reason, February 4, 2014.
[One of his books: Recover!: Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.]
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Actor and recording artist Demi Lovato is “doing well three years after going to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction” she told an entertainment news program Feb. 3 2014, according to an article, which continues:
“I don’t think anybody can save your life except for yourself,” said Demi, 21. “That was a key element in realizing I had to change. I don’t place any of the blame on anybody else except for myself for not being so honest.”
“Lovato, who was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and pot, also suffered from the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia. She confessed that she used to smuggle cocaine on airplanes to feed her dangerous addiction.
“Lovato, who goes to therapy and takes medication after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, wants to be a role model for other young girls suffering from similar problems.”
“I had a negative breakdown and it changed my life forever. If I hadn’t gone into treatment, I don’t know if I’d be alive today.”
She recounts her battles with drug addiction, anorexia and bulimia in her book, Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year.
From article: Ex-bulimic Demi Lovato talks drug abuse, rehab and smoking pot with Joe Jonas, by Samantha Chang.
In a Twitter post on her account @ddlovato, she wrote a response to Hoffman’s death – it says in part:
“I wish more people would lose the stigma and treat addiction as the deadly and serious DISEASE that it is. Drugs are not something to glamorize in pop music or film to portray as harmless recreational fun. It’s not cute, “cool” or admire able. It’s very rare when people can actually predict their addiction and even then, you never know when too much is going to take their life or take a bad batch of whatever it is their using.
“It’s time people start really taking action on changing what we’re actually singing/rapping about these days because you never know if you could be glamorizing a certain drug to a first time user or alcoholic who could possibly end up dead because they end up suffering from the same deadly disease so many have already died from…”
[Also see my page [old and not updated]: Eating Disorders – with quotes by and about Scarlett Pomers. Felicity Huffman, Jane Fonda and many others.
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Edie Falco portrays the compassionate and competent – but painkiller-addicted – Jackie Peyton on the comedic drama series “Nurse Jackie.”
Falco has said her own experiences with addiction have been part of her dynamic acting.
“Addiction has had such an impact on my life and the people I love, and there really is not a lot about it that is funny.”
The article with that comment notes, “She also opens up about her own past bouts of workaholism, which she claims is an addiction like any other. Whether the disease takes the form of snorting pills or working yourself to the bone, addictive behavior springs from the same source.
“An addict is an addict,” she says. “If they’re not acting out in one area, it tends to come out in another.”
The article notes her character Jackie has been in rehab, is newly-sober, and that “Falco will be taking Peyton in a new direction – one that might echo Falco’s own experience as a sober woman with 20 years in recovery.”
[TV Imitates Life for Edie Falco, By Sam Lansky, The Fix 04/09/12.]
These exceptionally talented and acclaimed actors are far from alone.
According to surveys, at least 1 in 10 adult Americans has a serious alcohol problem (Institute of Medicine); around twenty percent of both men and women are smokers (Centers for Disease Control), and approximately 1 in 35 over age 12 is an illicit drug user (Institute of Medicine).
Russell Brand: “Drugs and alcohol are not my problem, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution.”
From article: Russell Brand: my life without drugs, The Guardian, Saturday 9 March 2013 – “Russell Brand has not used drugs for 10 years. He has a job, a house, a cat, good friends. But temptation is never far away. He wants to help other addicts, but first he wants us to feel compassion for those affected.”
Addiction psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D. [Facebook page] notes,
“Altering one’s state of consciousness is normal…a destructive habit or addiction is mostly an unconscious strategy – which you started to develop at a naive, much earlier stage of life – to enjoy the feelings it brought on or to help cope with uncomfortable emotions or feelings. It is simply an adaptation that has gone awry.”
[From my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted.]
William H. Macy [an Oscar nominee in 1997, for “Fargo”] once commented,
“Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood.”
While that may not be literally true, many actors (and other people too, of course) have had painful lives, and use substances to cope.
Trauma takes many forms, and has different sources and levels of impact for each of us.
See quotes by and about many well-known artists such as Sarah Polley, Halle Berry, Lady Gaga, will.i.am, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonathan Safran Foer and many others, in my article “Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health” – which includes a number of videos, book quotes, programs and other resources.
[Photo from my article I don’t like emotions – Macy comments: “I don’t like emotions… For some reason I’m more comfortable in imaginary circumstances.”]
Tatum O’Neal, an Oscar winner at age 10, says in her autobiography (“A Paper Life”) that growing up she had to deal with her mentally unstable mother and volatile and unpredictable father, in an environment of drugs, neglect, and physical and mental abuse.
By age 20, she was addicted to cocaine.
Psychiatrist Leon Wurmser, M.D. says “Anxiety of an overwhelming nature and the emotional feelings of pain, injury, woundedness, and vulnerability appear to be a feature common to all types of compulsive drug use. Child abuse is, in the simplest and strongest terms, one of the most important etiologic factors for later drug abuse.” [From his article Drug Use as a Protective System.]
Johnny Depp has said he felt so intimidated by his celebrity status during his early career, that he drank. “I’d go to functions and back in those days I literally had to be drunk to be able to speak and get through it. I guess I was trying not to feel anything. My drug of choice back then was alcohol more than anything.”
Ed Harris, commenting about playing the lead in “Pollock,” admitted to having “a slight drinking problem at that time… It had to do with things that you don’t talk about, very private and similar fears [to Pollock’s] about the need for approval and attention and the desire to do something that makes me feel worthy.”
Michael J. Fox developed a drinking problem after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991. “I craved alcohol as a direct response to the need I felt to escape my situation,” he writes in Lucky Man: A Memoir. “Joyless and secretive, I drank to disassociate; drinking now was about isolation and self-medication.”
Being driven to achieve can also lead to addiction problems.
Chris Penn fought cocaine and alcohol abuse for years, but died recently at age 40. Like many talented people in the arts, he wanted to do more and more, often working late into the night writing and working with equipment for a film he wanted to make, even helping construct the set.
Key entertainment industry executives and producers, even fellow actors, may enable drug and alcohol abuse, unless it gets too “out of control.” As fictional movie studio exec Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) said in the TV series “Action” (1999): “Yeah – in rehab you’re an addict; on a sound stage you’re a tortured genius.”
An ABC News article [“The Mighty Have Fallen; Here’s Why” By Andrea Canning] says Gary Stromberg, author of the book “Harder They Fall: Celebrities Tell Their Real-Life Stories of Addiction and Recovery,” told ABC News, “With creative people in general, I think there is more of a tendency to gravitate toward substance abuse. Creative people push the envelope, and there’s no net,” he said.
“They live on the edge and that’s risky. They live in a world surrounded by people who adore them and enable them. No one telling them no. … They live privileged lives and they don’t play by the same rules as the rest of the world. They are crying out for someone to say no to them.”
Robert Downey Jr. has apparently been “indulged” for years on account of his exceptional acting talent. His former wife Sarah Jessica Parker admits, “Fairly early on, he told me he had a drug problem. Addiction didn’t seem like something that would impose itself on us. I was very wrong.
“In every good and bad way, I enabled him to show up for work. If he didn’t, I’d cover for him, find him, clean him up. He was like a broken pipe with a leak that you’re constantly putting tape around and tape over tape, but you can’t stop the leaking.” [Parade mag., January 29, 2006]
Downey admits “the actions I took and the decisions I made tied my shoelaces together. But I’ve never been as trustworthy or worked so hard as I am now [being sober]. I’m having a better time. It’s more fun to be clear and accountable. Believe me, I speak from experience.” [LA Times May 14, 2005]
In her memoir “Looking for Gatsby: My Life,” Faye Dunaway said she is “the child of a driven, dream-deprived mother and distant, alcoholic father” and admits using food “to counter the stress of filmmaking. I’ve never stopped guarding against a return to that kind of emotional reliance on food, and as I grew into this sophisticated world, alcohol. I’m finally beyond that now, but it was the pendulum I would swing on for years.”
Carrie Fisher detailed some of her addiction experience in her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In a Psychology Today article she said, “Drugs made me feel more normal. They contained me.”
At times, she took 30 Percodan a day. “You don’t even get high. It’s like a job, you punch in,” she said. At age 28, she overdosed, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“It was [Richard] Dreyfuss who came to the hospital and said, ‘You’re a drug addict, but I have to tell you that I’ve observed this other thing in you: You’re a manic-depressive.’ So maybe I was taking drugs to keep the monster in the box,” she said.
Those “monsters” can be a wide range of mental health and life issues, and we use a variety of substances to deal with them: former Full House actress Jodie Sweetin, and Tom Sizemore: crystal meth; Colin Farrell: painkillers; Lindsay Lohan: smoking, other drugs and alcohol.
William Petersen was working up to 12 to 14 hours a day on his tv series CSI, but was a smoker for many years, and started to experience heart problems, an article noted (“Addictions and Your Heart” by David Krissman, Beverly Hills  March 15th, 2006).
“There is evidence that both smoking and alcohol can cause irregular heart beats,” says cardiologist Dr. Sheila Kar, who diagnosed Petersen.
“Dr. Kar was able to help him, but it wasn’t without his hard work and sacrifice. ‘I was on medications for one thing,’ Petersen says of his treatment. ‘We got my heart back in rhythm and then we’ve been keeping it that way through exercise and diet, [and] lower stress in my life.’
“Now Petersen,” the article adds, “works less and continues to fight his addiction to cigarettes. ‘Cigarettes are a hard addiction,’ he says. ‘I started to try to stop smoking four years ago. Then it took awhile. You fail and you start again. Then things like heart problems surface and you quit.'”
Nicole Kidman reportedly drinks in moderation, like many successful people, but has also admitted she’s a smoker: “Occasionally. It’s an addiction.”
Referring to the personality and work of many performers, she said, “You live with a lot of complicated emotions as an actor, and they whirl around you and create havoc at times.
“And yet, as an actor you’re consciously and unconsciously allowing that to happen.
“It’s my choice, and I would rather do it this way than live to be 100… Or rather than choosing not to exist within life’s extremities. I’m willing to fly close to the flame.”
From my article: Nicole Kidman – a brief profile of high ability and complexity.
She has also talked about the challenges facing her family with the addiction of her husband, musician Keith Urban: “We were thrown into his alcohol problem three months into the marriage, and that was big.
“We became the closest we could become, because we had to bare our souls. We did 10 years of marriage in three months. You go to hell and back with this — when the addiction takes control of the life, it’s terrifying.
“But there is hope, and we work on it every day, and we are in a place of actual peace right now, which is a beautiful place.” [Parade magazine via HuffingtonPost 10-30-08.]
Those “complicated emotions” Kidman mentions, part of the typical high sensitivity and high intensity of creative people, can help make actors outstanding in their work, but may also be a precedent to addictive behavior.
In the book Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, Lisa, age 14, talks about being given Valium by a doctor: “Taking pills or smoking a joint helped get me through the day.”
She said gifted kids take drugs “To dull themselves… there is so much of the wrong kind of stimulation going on around you.”
For creative and talented people, there is a lot going on inside, too.
Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., head of the Gifted Development Center in Denver, notes in one of her articles, “Creatively gifted children and adults are emotionally intense and have rich inner lives.
“An enhanced capacity for feeling is essential to the production of great art, moving music, high drama, memorable prose and poetry, exquisite performances.
“It is natural for the gifted to feel deeply and to experience a broad range of emotions.”
One of many responses from other artists to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman:
“For the most sensitive among us the noise can be too much.” Jim Carrey on Twitter.
Kazimierz Dabrowski, MD, PhD (1902-1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, developed a personality theory that many current researchers and educators use to help understand highly talented people.
He noted that many gifted and talented people – including actors, of course – may experience ”increased mental excitability, depressions, dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority and guilt, states of anxiety, inhibitions, and ambivalences – all symptoms which the psychiatrist tends to label psychoneurotic.” The more popular term now may be simply “crazy.”
Maybe a key reason so many intense and sensitive people self-medicate is to “dampen” their internal emotional and cognitive intensity, along with the external condemnations resulting from their “symptoms” that psychologist Dabrowski and others say can indicate a capacity for achieving higher levels of personal development.
Successfully dealing with addiction can be valuable in many ways.
Richard Lewis commented in his memoir, “I have been sober for almost eight years and my life is a billion percent better. Now I don’t have the craving for alcohol, I have the craving for clarity and life.
“It’s so much easier now to let the universe take care of itself without thinking like I used to, that I had something to do with it.”
But getting there may not be easy.
Melanie Griffith has said, “Facing my addiction was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life.”
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Lynda Carter – famous as the star of “Wonder Woman” – has talked about her years of addiction to alcohol as a “genetic predisposition that sort of grabbed hold of me.
“It was like staring into a deep, dark hole that I thought no one would understand or still love me if I ever admitted it – or (if) the public ever knew about this very shameful part of my life.
“My family suffered… and I was very good at hiding my problem.”
In June 2008, Carter said in an interview for People magazine that she had entered a rehabilitation clinic for treatment of alcoholism and had been sober for 10 years.
Thanks to celebrity drug rehabs, many more celebrities like Carter have gotten the treatment that they sorely need.
Now a singer, she released her third album, “Crazy Little Things” in 2011.
video: Lynda Carter talks about her past battle with alcoholism.
From page on AddictionInfo.org (‘Alternatives to 12-Step Treatment’):
Actress Lynda Carter Opens up About Struggle with Alcoholism.
Ewan McGregor also has talked about shame: “I think drinking and being out of control narrows your options in front of the camera. I was just ashamed of myself, really. None of my directors ever said: ‘I’d rather you didn’t drink at work.’ And they must have known. Originally, I was a happy drunk. But later I was miserable because it’s a depressant.”
Jamie Lee Curtis talks about learning to take better care of herself and her feelings: “After five years in recovery I’m getting better at setting limits. I used to hide my resentments in drugs and alcohol.
“Now I’ve had to figure out other ways to handle them… now I know that to care for myself I must set limits.”
From the book Positive Energy by Judith Orloff M.D. In her newer book Emotional Freedom, she includes information and strategies for creative people to deal with anxiety and overwhelm.
Also see post: Judith Orloff, MD on helping actors deal with anxiety.
Drew Barrymore, who was infamously abusing drugs and alcohol as a teen, has said of her rehab experience: “How do we not hurt ourselves? How do we not hurt those around us? When I came out of there, I felt so full of wisdom, so peaceful.”
Her famed ancestor John Barrymore (1882-1942) apparently thought of alcohol as part of his “process” as an actor: “There are lots of methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass and some cracked ice.”
Drug use and abuse by actors (and other people) is of course not new.
For example, the article Cocaine: A Short History, by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, says “Notable figures who promoted the ‘miraculous’ effects of cocaine tonics and elixirs included inventor Thomas Edison and actress Sarah Bernhardt.
“The drug became popular in the silent film industry and the pro-cocaine messages coming out of Hollywood at that time influenced millions.”
[The photo of Sarah Bernhardt is from the post Creative People Shouldn’t ‘Tone It Down’]
Your attitude about using/abusing can be critical to what you do, or don’t do about it.
Brett Butler once said, “I still do basically think of… addiction as a disease if someone else has it – and if I have it, it’s a moral failing. I have to try really hard to be as understanding about myself as someone else. It was either that or I’m dumber than a dog… I lost a lot and created a great deal of wreckage and don’t have anybody to blame for myself.”
Creative expression like acting can help many people – whether professional artists or not – deal with at least some of the mental health challenges underlying addiction or unhealthy habits. But at some point, more help from outside may be valuable. Even life-saving.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., a therapist and creativity coach, wrote his book Creative Recovery to offer “a complete addiction recovery program specifically designed for the creative person.”
Reviews of the book include this: “As lifelong musicians and radio hosts who have interviewed hundreds of singer-songwriters, we know firsthand what havoc addiction plays in the lives of creative people—and how beautifully Creative Recovery will serve musicians and other artists looking for a recovery program tailored to their special needs.”—Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon, producers and hosts, Art of the Song Creativity Radio.
Addiction psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D., quoted earlier, has other resources: He is co-athor of the book “Responsible Drinking: A Moderation Management Approach for Problem Drinkers,” and the book Take Control Now! – about breaking bad habits. He provides cognitive behavioral, science-based information and alternative (non-12 step) treatment for self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors on his site HabitDoc.
Along with a number of other psychologists and addiction experts, he points out that much of the language around drug and alcohol use can be distorting, and tied to the idea of behavioral problems being a “disease.” The American Psychiatric Association, author of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has decided not to use the disease term “alcoholism” and refers instead to alcohol abuse and dependence.
Anne Hathaway has talked about why avoiding drugs and alcohol makes sense for an actor. [Article on contactmusic.com]
She has commented that she may sometimes do “terrible things” that could make for sensational media stories, but has “very discreet friends.”
But, she notes, “I had an experience at college where I was at a party and people were passing cocaine around, and I looked at it and thought, that’s not a horse I can ride, I’m never going to do that. So I passed the tray along and left the room.
“Being an actress is hard enough without complicating it with drugs.”
For many of us, using and abusing alcohol, nicotine and other drugs, or taking substances, or engaging in behaviors (such as eating compulsively or not eating; overworking; over-exercising; sex) is not a simple “choice” but a complex response, driven by many inner and outer conditions.
But we do have the choice to get help, as I did about 30 years ago for cocaine addiction (with a therapist using CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). One of the best things I have ever done for myself. Self-care is probably an issue for many people; see the link below to my article “Self Care For Your Creative Life.”
If you need help, get it in whatever way works for you.
A final quote: Colin Farrell said he is finding that he is more creative being sober and happy.
“I was terrified that whatever my capacity was as an actor would disappear when I got sober,” he admitted.
“I ascribed to the notion that to express yourself as an artist, you have to live in perpetual pain.
“And that’s nonsense.”
From my article Pain and suffering and developing creativity [includes short video with him]
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Note: Many rehab programs and addiction therapists (including some prominent ones on television), and many people in need of help, ascribe to the concept that addiction is a disease.
Many other psychologists (such as Stanton Peele and Marc F. Kern above) refute that, and say that “buying in” to the 12-Step/AA philosophy is limiting and not helpful for managing addictive behavior, at least not for many people.
The Disease Model of Addiction – Philosophy of addiction By David Clark. “The disease model assumes that the impaired control and craving are irreversible. There is no cure for alcoholism and drug addiction; they can only be arrested. The alcoholic or addict must maintain a total and lifelong abstinence from all mind-altering drugs, except nicotine and caffeine… Opponents of the model point out that the disease model can lead to people avoiding self-responsibility, believing that the disease must be attended to by experts, rather than the changes come from within (albeit with help from others). Opponents also point out that being labelled as an alcoholic or addict for a life-time, and spending a lot of time with other alcoholics and addicts, does not help the person attain a fully balanced lifestyle and re-integration back into society.”
Gifted, Talented, Addicted [one of my articles] – Among the many artists who have used drugs, alcohol or other substances are Aldous Huxley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Allen Ginsberg, composers Beethoven and Modest Musorgski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Tennessee Williams.
“Creating art has always been a way to channel emotional intensity…Finding ways to maintain that optimal zone where we are neither under- or over-stimulated allows us to use our minds to respond rather than to react. The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools.” Psychologist Cheryl Arutt, on the page: Emotional Health Resources
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> Also see longer version of this article: Artists and Addiction