In my other life as “the other Nick” I work with individuals with behavioral issues as well as teaching groups about addictions and compulsions worldwide, especially in Japan. I have been involved in this work for almost two decades and seen literally thousands of clients in private practice. A significant number of these clinets are musicians who have binge drinking problems and substance abuse issues.
There are increasing examples of creative types experiencing excessive drinking or substance abuse. Of course this is not news, but I am noticing a definite upward trend. I don’t take a morally righteous view on what people choose to do personally and suspect that much of the very best music was created while performers were “in altered states” My own preferred artists include Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Steve Earl and David Bowie, all of who were “chemically assisted” in their creative work. That said there can be all manner of repercussions from such behaviour and in extreme cases whole careers get damaged or even destroyed. Interestingly both Bowie and Waits packed in all alcohol and drugs with Tom abstaining for the last two decades.
Digital thinking issues and mental health issues
The difficulty with excessive drinking and substance abuse is that the world becomes very black and white or as we say in the business “digital” I know of some artists who after a gig immediately drink to excess like there’s no tomorrow, barely able to even stand up. Again each person can choose what they want, but such repeated behaviours usually have all manner of problematic consequences. Usually concentration is affected, which leads to poor decision making and time management. Typically in this black and white existence individuals become depressed for long periods of time, and do more of the behaviour to try and escape this issue. Many touring artists have tough schedules and turn to “additional help” to cope. When this reaches a certain level, problems often ensue and poor mental health is top of the list. My own theory is that conditions like Altzeimers are hugely influenced by longterm over stimulation of the nervous system through alcohol and substance abuse. Now people are generally living longer, this is becomeing more evident.
Bruce Springsteen in his audio book “Born to Run” talks about staying clear of such activities, but still struggled with depression. The nature of being immersed in creative work often means that artists can stream ideas and creativity in an unfiltered manner. To do this well, it requires a lack of definition which in this context works well. However in other areas of life this lack of definition can create all manner of problems and result in literally car crash behaviour. People with these habits tend to find it difficult to get motivated, have poor time keeping and struggle to maintain relationships. They will often do the minimum workk needed in a situation and don’t have the stamina and focus for success in long term creative projects.
If I’m starting to sound like a killjoy, lets remind ourselves that I’m not talking about bringing back Prohibition, but rather extremes of behavior which affect the creativity and ability of an artist. Long term abuse leads to all sorts of mental health issues which is no surprise with the nervous system being massively overstimulated far too often. I talked to one world class musician who commented on the challenges of working with an original band member who developed a cocaine habit which almost split the band. Often what starts off as “casual interest” becomes a regular habit and the person doesn’t realise how much effect this is having. David Crosby wrote about this in his excellent autobiography, but managed to survive and continue to make great music.
Traditional approaches for help
There are many “traditional” approaches for help with these issues, but in my experience they focus on the wrong aspects of the behavior. Simply talking about the problem often is ineffective or worse still reminds the person of how much the problem impacts their life through “recollections” of experience, rather than empowering them to think, feel and experience something different. General hypnotherapy also is IMO pretty ineffective unless you can really connect with the person in a meaningful way where they can discover how better to run their own brain. I respect approaches like the 12 step process, but I do have issues with some of the thinking that makes the sense of identity linked to the behavior. I have seen clients who have had scores of therapuetic sessions “talking about the issue” but with no remote sign of effective change.
Long term effects
Most people I have had as clients or have observed experience similar long term effects. Often the problem behaviour is reinforced by social groups. Group X may all meet for an activity and then head off to the pub. Nothing wrong with this at all of course, until this starts to become increasingly excessive. The group behaviour leads to increasingly greater excessive drinking and this becomes a daily occurance with a real acceleration at weekends, which usually stretch from two to three days!
For musicians this often means problems to musical commitments as folks literally have to factor in “recovery time” and inevitably become far less productive. Precision in playing instruents starts to suffer and the creative output usually slows down. Of course such folks will usually deny this is happening and in a band context it can lead to all manner of fractures. Alcohol also aids depression and results in quite severe mood swings which are not great for better decision making crucial if you want to achieve any kind of creative success.
Final Thoughts for now
As I said at the start of this blog, its all about the degree of the behaviour and the context. I suspect much of the music I love would not have been created without “assistance” That said the world has lost many brilliant musicians through excessive alcohol and/or substance abuse. Many artsists go though a phase of this behaviour and then realise that if they want to create a lasting body of work they need to review such excesses. In these tougher economic times even the most creative artists need to have real focus and stamina as well as talent. This mostly means having the clearest head for decision making and the well being that will allow them to create the best possible work.