Artists and Addiction: A Heady Combination

What do Ozzy Osbourne, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, and Steven Tyler have in common? All these extraordinary artists battled substance abuse at some point in their lives. In fact, substance use disorders in creative individuals can be traced back from the 1920s to the twenty-first century. Why do artists rely on drugs? What drives writers to alcoholism? Do illicit drugs promote creativity? Or do they offer an escape from a world known only to the rich and famous?

There is no doubt that creative work is physically and emotionally demanding. Many artists turn to alcohol, marijuana, and analgesics to deal with the intense challenges of life in the fast lane. But do drugs foster creativity? Or can addictive behaviors interfere with an artist’s performance? Are creative individuals of a particular age at higher risk of addiction?

Substance abuse can bring a promising career to a tragic end, as demonstrated by the long list of creative individuals whose careers and lives were cut short by drugs and alcohol. In reality, artists do not need psychoactive drugs to stoke their creativity. It is possible to be successful without putting one’s life at risk. Read on to learn more about the connection between creativity and substance abuse and the risk factors for addiction in artists.

Substance Abuse and Creativity: Is There a Link?

In the past four decades or so, there have been nearly 300 drug-related celebrity deaths. The vast majority of these people were musicians and actors, but the list also includes athletes, other artists, and writers. Substance use is higher in rock stars and other artists compared to the general population. And unfortunately, the number of famous people dying prematurely from drug-related incidents has been increasing.

Profession of celebrities who died from drug abuse between 1970 and 2015

ProfessionPercentage
Musicians38.6%
Actors23.2%
Athletes15.5%
Other Artists6.4%
Writers5.5%
Models5%
Business people4.5%
Politicians1.4%

Do drugs increase creativity? Is there something about intoxicating substances that cuts through inhibitions and unleashes the best creative work? Some people believe that inebriation allows the artist to clear away the clutter of life’s problems and focus on creative work.

Motivations for artists to use stimulants include feeling confident, sharp, and fearless before a performance. Some actors use steroids to build muscles for a more aesthetic look. Artists begin drinking or using drugs to fit in and be sociable with colleagues. For famous people, substance use may be a way to cope with performance anxiety or the demands of life as a celebrity.

The Science of Addiction: Do Drugs Unleash Creativity?

Drug abuse can be both a motivation and a weakness for an artist’s career. Many singers have referenced drugs in their songs. Musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and The Grateful Dead did not shy away from confirming drug use. Comic artist Robert Crumb said he regained technical mastery over his art after four years of LSD use. Does this mean that drugs and alcohol spur creativity?

In his book The Compass of Pleasure, neuroscientist David Linden explains that although there is no direct link between creativity and addiction, there is a link between addiction and factors that promote creativity. Linden’s theory is that addicts have a poorly-functioning dopamine system of the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure and reward. He believes addicts experience weak pleasure, which leads them to seek more pleasure through artificial means such as psychoactive drugs.

It is well known that a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined. Individuals who are risk-taking, compulsive, impulsive, and novelty-seeking are more likely to experiment with drugs. Interestingly, these are the very attributes that spur creativity. Creative people look at the world differently. However, this can also mean they look at rules and acceptable behaviors differently. There is also a view that psychiatric illnesses among artists and writers are common and that these individuals abuse substances to mask the symptoms of conditions such as bipolar disorder.

Why Do Creative People Become Drug Addicts?

A Google search for “drug-related celebrity deaths” returns nearly 65 million results. The perceived increase in substance abuse by famous people has paralleled trends in the general public. In the United States, the rate of drug overdose deaths from prescription drugs has tripled since the year 2000. However, regrettably, the creative community has historically relied on substance abuse to bring out a creative side.

What are the reasons for famous artists turning to drugs? Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the popular rock music band Aerosmith, described being “unaware” of his performances while on drugs. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2012, he admitted that “heroin felt like a warm, comfortable cloak.” This would imply that musicians are vulnerable individuals, seeking safety and comfort. This need makes them easy victims for addictive behaviors. In addition, the pressure of performing in front of a large audience is immense. Artists abuse illicit substances to reduce stress and boost confidence. Drugs help them escape reality and immerse themselves in an artificial world where they feel unencumbered to exhibit their talent.

Risk factors that predispose artists to addiction

  • Peer pressure
  • Pressures of show business
  • Stage fright
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Lack of confidence
  • Competition
  • Poor energy

A number of lifestyle factors have led to spiraling addiction in rock stars and other creative individuals. These artists typically perform at night and are often surrounded by people who are drunk or high. Their enormous wealth makes the drug habit sustainable. Drug dealers target the rich and famous in order to enter their inner circle. An overall culture of permissiveness does not promote abstinence. Performing artists who succumb to drugs are often young, immature, and likely to make stupid decisions. Unlike dancers and athletes, musicians do not need to be in peak health to perform. There is peer pressure to appear fearless and cool. Finally, life on the road can be incredibly lonely with many hangers-on but no real solid personal connections.

The Dangers of Addiction in Creative People

Psychoactive drugs contain chemicals that overstimulate the brain’s reward system, producing euphoric effects and disrupting normal emotions, motivation, and pleasure. Creative individuals are known to become addicted to a number of commonly abused substances including alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, opium, ecstasy, LSD, and magic mushrooms. These drugs can have a number of side effects including:

  • Constipation, cold sweats, itching
  • Kidney, liver, and heart damage
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Breathing problems
  • Muscle weakness
  • Impotence in men
  • Menstrual disturbances in women
  • HIV from shared needles
  • Coma

Creative individuals sometimes begin mixing various types of drugs and alcohol because they develop a tolerance to one substance. Interactions between different drugs can prove deadly. In fact, many celebrity overdose deaths are unintentional.

Over the decades, members of the creative community have not been shy to explore uncharted territory. Addicted artists believe alcohol and drugs make them more creative and free the singer, poet, painter, writer, or actor to bring out the “real artist” in them. In addition, creative personalities are often given artistic license and held to more liberal social standards. Yet, these are individuals who influence the health behavior of a large number of people through social and psychological effects.

Celebrity Drug Use: Actors and Musicians Who Dabbled in Drugs

The world has lost some of its best performers to drugs. Singer Eddie Fisher heavily abused drugs. The legendary Johnny Cash battled an amphetamine addiction. America’s most beloved musician, the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley’s addiction to prescription medications led to his untimely death at the age of 42. The Beatles took LSD. Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic. Edgar Allen Poe penned some of his best literary works under the influence of opium. World-famous artists have abused different drugs – Vincent van Gogh (digitalis), Thomas Kincaid (Valium and alcohol), and Andy Warhol (Obetrol, an amphetamine diet pill).

In more recent times, Michael Jackson, who was reportedly addicted to opioid painkillers, ultimately lost his life to an overdose of the anesthetic propofol. Amy Winehouse abused crack and heroin, dying at age 27 from accidental alcohol poisoning. The famous musician Prince died of an overdose of fentanyl before he could start on drug addiction treatment. The list goes on – Eric Clapton, Steven Tyler, Billy Idol, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Rob Lowe, and Amy Adams have all dabbled in drugs and alcohol. Britney Spears, Keith Urban, Eminem, and Anthony Kiedis have gone through rehab for addictions.

In popular culture, the 27 Club refers to a group of musicians who all heavily used drugs and died at the age of 27.  Included in this club are singer Amy Winehouse, guitarist Jimi Hendrix, soul singer Janis Joplin, lead singer of The Doors Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain of the wildly popular band Nirvana, and Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones.

The truth is that there is nothing special about the age of 27. In humans, brain maturation is usually completed by the early 20s. It is well known that stress triggers cravings and addiction. It would appear that 27 is simply an age where artists have achieved tremendous success but are still too young and inexperienced to handle the stress of stardom.

One study showed that nearly 40 percent of young Americans aged 25-26 admitted to alcohol intoxication in the past 30 days and more than 35 percent reported high-risk binge drinking patterns in the past two weeks. So, it would appear that young people are at risk of substance use disorders. This possibly explains why so many young artists in their mid-20s succumb to substance abuse.

Creativity Without Cocaine: Succeeding in the Performing Arts

There is a stereotype that all famous artists use drugs. Yet, substance abuse is not necessary for the perfect guitar riff and alcohol cannot cure writer’s block. Making a living as an artist or writer requires focus, discipline, determination, and hard work, all of which can be derailed by substance abuse. Many musicians, artists, and writers who experimented with alcohol and drugs admit that illicit substances reduced productivity and interfered with their creativity.

In his book The Genius in All of Us, author David Shenk says extraordinary talent is the consequence of interactions between nature and nurture. He believes talent is not an inborn gift, rather it is a process. Exposure, instruction, practice, nurturing, and a will to learn and succeed are the driving forces for exceptional achievements. Creative brilliance can be achieved by methods that are less risky than substance abuse. In other words, the human mind is fully equipped for artistic brilliance without relying on illicit substances.

There are several healthy strategies to hone creativity. A case in point is beloved American author Dr. Seuss who was told he could not create a story in less than 50 words. He took this as a challenge and the result was Green Eggs and Ham, a book which has sold more than 200 million copies. Working with deadlines, looking at a project from a different point of view, preparing and researching well, and remaining positive are all positive ways to come up with better ideas and boost creativity.

Drug Rehab for Creative People: Interventions for Addicted Artists

Addiction is a serious problem in the entertainment industry. Too many brilliant talents have been lost to drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, substance abuse is not only overlooked but even celebrated in the creative world.

Famous artists, musicians, and writers may need special alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs to overcome their addictions. These individuals can benefit from addiction treatment services at private drug rehab facilities that offer confidentiality and personalized care. The trained staff at these centers understand the unique struggles of artists and musicians who are abusing harmful substances. Board-certified addiction specialists at these facilities can help gifted performers return to healthy creative expression without mind-altering substances.

Substance Abuse Among Artists
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