I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to ﬂy high.”
Irene Cara’s lyrical utterance in the movie Fame exempliﬁes the yearning of almost anyone who aspires to occupy the upper echelons of society. But those who have reached the top pay a high price. Part of it is addiction. Why do so many famous people succumb to its clutches? This is something ordinary mortals have always wondered about, but never took the time to look into. We just assume that the answer is so banal (owing to the people and subject involved) that it’s a waste of time to explore the reasons.
This writer’s mother was quick to dismiss famous people as being an easy target for chemical dependence and behaviour-related illnesses because they “lack moral ﬁbre and/or tend to be idle.” She said they have everything, so there is nothing left to achieve, acquire, or desire. She is partly right, but there is more to it than that. Like many who think of celebrities, she tends to consider mostly entertainers.
When we were researching this article, we noticed that the material could be grouped in categories: performing artists, literary artists, visual artists (including fashion designers), media moguls (producers, directors, executives, support staﬀ), and politicians (including presidents). Some who couldn’t be categorized because they didn’t seem to have merit on their own (they just rode on their famous parents’ spotlights), we put into the ‘children of celebrities’ category.
Then we found that there were others in the limelight who weren’t part of the entertainment industry or the government. These were scientists, inventors, innovators, captains of industry. We put them in the ‘movers and shakers’ department.
Now, time to scrutinize. Apart from their fame, what do they have in common? Most of them are artists. Their main occupations are not 9-5 jobs. They (including the non-creatives) usually produce something tangible: a Grammy Award-winning hit, a blockbuster movie, an exemplary TV program, a bestselling novel, a high-tech gadget/software/hardware/algorithm, a medical discovery, a breakthrough that could lead to global economic advancement.
At their peak, whatever they do, the result is always exceptional, never mediocre. What they externalize is not achieved by regular folks. In short, most of them are brilliant. So is addiction the price of excellence? Are all brilliant people prone to addiction?
The common denominator
People forget that celebrities are human beings too. Most who become addicted late in life, regardless of fame, start drug use in their teens. Many of them delay treatment for fear of repercussions brought about by stigma from the disease.
A recurring theme in all these celebrity lives (and deaths) is substance abuse disorder, which produces not only physiological, but also psychological eﬀects. Social consequences include impaired judgment, changes in personality, trouble with the law, and inability to maintain healthy relationships.
When famous people seek help for addiction, they have added challenges. They don’t want the public to know because any kind of bad press could ruin their careers. So they circumvent proper medical care, often soliciting the aid of unscrupulous individuals instead of going to the hospital. Medical care oﬀered to them in these cases can be questionable and substandard.
Many celebrities resort to self-medication to minimize exposure. And when a celebrity dies under ‘shameful’ circumstances, cover-ups abound, particularly from their publicity staﬀ.
Celebrities often practice multiple substance use, which can be lethal, as the eﬀect of drug combinations is unpredictable. When addicted, they use several doctors, pharmacies, and identities to get medications. This is easier for them, as they have the means.
The psychology of celebrity addiction
Psychoanalysts and sociologists have studied the connection between fame and addiction. Brilliance does not seem to play a dominant role. After all, many poor, unknown individuals can be brilliant without being addicted to something, although some high achievers claim that certain drugs have contributed to their success. But experts have found aspects of the lives of high-proﬁle individuals that are not present in ordinary people’s lives, that make them more susceptible to addiction.
They say idleness is the devil’s workshop—and idle time is what most celebrities have. While waiting between gigs, performing artists are compelled, usually by boredom and depression, to be introspective. When forced to face their demons and they don’t like what they see—or negative emotions surface as a result—they cope with drugs, alcohol, or compulsive behaviour.
Self-medication is rampant as a means of coping. With what, you ask? The reasons above, as well as the demands of their profession, including the ﬁshbowl-like existence (loss of privacy), and the constant pressure to fulﬁll high expectations and project an image of success.
With fame comes fortune, and this provides fuel for addiction because celebrities have the means to indulge in luxuries not accessible to the masses. Many famous people also have a sense of entitlement. They feel that money can buy prosecutors and their status can “let them get away with it.” They also have less to lose. Working people who must hold down jobs often have to curb indulgences for fear of losing their livelihoods. Wealth acts as a cushion protecting the famous. They don’t have the same concerns as Joe Public.
Performing artists occupy the top of the addiction list for a reason. They are used to adulation from fans and the thrill of being on stage or in front of the camera. Robin Williams’s friend Billy Crystal said of his fellow comedian: “Robin was hilarious, but it was a need. Comedy is a form of addiction too. It’s a very powerful thing for a lot of comedians—laughter is a drug.” Mark Romanek, Williams’s director in the movie One Hour Photo, conﬁrmed: “When he made people laugh that hard, he used to kind of get high from it; an endorphin rush or something.”
So the rush from performing is similar to the high from drugs. And when the excitement dies, as when pop stars’ careers wind down, this can be particularly devastating—prompting them to seek the comfort of other types of drugs—or alcohol.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presented the concept of the ‘autotelic personality’, to which addicts should aspire. Autotelics don’t need much to be happy because what they do already fulﬁlls them. They have little use for “material possessions, entertainment, comfort, power, or fame. They are less dependent on external rewards that keep others motivated, and they are autonomous because they cannot be easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside.”
The past invading the present
Many children of celebrity parents have grown up surrounded by addicts, the result of a party culture pervasive especially in Hollywood. A lot of them have also experienced some form of trauma, such as living in a violent home, having an abusive childhood, being a victim of a crime, and so on. Hating oneself is common among victims of crime, especially molestation and rape.
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey was molested from age 9 to 14 and got pregnant as a result. The baby died, but the repercussions haunted her for a long time. She admitted to an earlier self-loathing of her physical appearance—possibly the cause of her lifelong bout with weight issues. While interviewing drug addict moms on her show in 1995, Oprah said she smoked crack cocaine in her 20s, inﬂuenced by her boyfriend. The practice died with the relationship.
Famous people who have fought addiction
This is a selection of famous people who fought addiction. Some overcame it, some didn’t.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used cocaine heavily. He took it to treat his depression and digestive problems. He publicly recommended the drug and prescribed it to many of his patients. He wrote about the beneﬁts of cocaine in his essay ‘Uber Coca’, hoping to have the drug included in therapeutic medicine.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan was a marijuana smoker and advocate. He recommended the drug for “pushing the boundaries of the mind.”
Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, a neuroscientist, molecular biologist, and biophysicist, was one of the scientists who discovered the double-helix DNA. He admitted to using LSD to boost brain power. He was a marijuana advocate who called for reform in US drug laws.
Inventors and Innovators
Thomas Edison used cocaine for increasing productivity, but in a wine format with coca leaves called Vin Mariani.
Apple founder Steve Jobs said LSD was responsible for his innovations. He considered using the drug as one of the most important things he ever did.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche self-medicated with opium, potassium bromide, chloral hydrate, and hashish to treat his illnesses, which included gastrointestinal, sleep, and vision problems.
Olympian Michael Phelps’s addiction forced him to take a break from swimming in 2014 to attend rehab after he was caught with drugs. He returned to swim at the 2016 Olympic Games.
US Presidents Ulysses Grant and Lyndon Johnson were known alcoholics.
Vincent van Gogh was a fan of absinthe. He accidentally shot himself in 1890, presumably under the inﬂuence.
One of America’s most proliﬁc writers, Stephen King, had most of his bestselling novels turned into movies. His productivity is supposedly attributed to extreme cocaine use, supplemented by alcohol and marijuana. He counteracted this substance abuse by taking downers like Xanax and Valium (a diazepam brand).
The autobiography of William S. Burroughs is titled Junkie. Burroughs was addicted to morphine, but he sold heroin to support his original habit. His memoir made him famous.
Novelist Ernest Hemingway was a famous alcoholic who committed suicide in 1961.
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 was attributed to heroin overdose. He had just gotten out of rehab. A month before, Cobain was in a coma in an Italian hospital. His widow, Courtney Love, told Rolling Stone that her husband’s overdose in Rome had been a suicide attempt. Despite his persistent drug addiction, clinical depression, and handwritten suicide note, many dispute his oﬃcial cause of death. Private investigator Tom Grant believes that Cobain was murdered.
The AIDS epidemic prompted Elton John to quit his cocaine and alcohol abuse in 1990, the same year his friend, AIDS activist Ryan White died. This event led to the establishment of the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992.
Former child star Demi Lovato, known for her openness with drug and alcohol addiction, was 17 when she used cocaine for the ﬁrst time. Afterwards, she added Xanax (a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety) and Adderall (for attention-deﬁcit hyperactivity disorder) to the mix.
Lovato’s addiction may be rooted in her family history and diﬃcult childhood. Her mom was bulimic, and her dad was an alcoholic and drug addict. “I always searched for what he found in drugs and alcohol because it fulﬁlled him and he chose that over family,” she explained in her 2017 documentary, Simply Complicated.
Eric Clapton’s heroin addiction started in the early 1970s. He also abused alcohol and cocaine. After having recovered in 1987, he founded the Crossroads Centre for alcohol and drug treatment in Antigua.
Michael Houston, the late Whitney Houston’s older brother, revealed in an interview with Oprah that he introduced crack cocaine to his sister in the 1980s. Even though the oﬃcial cause of Houston’s death in February 2012 was accidental drowning, the coroner said that she used cocaine right before she died.
Singer Fergie also revealed to Oprah that her addiction started with ecstasy in the early 2000s. It progressed to daily use of crystal methamphetamine. But a stint in rehab cured her. “What got me through it was a lot of therapy, soul searching, and discovering why I took the drugs in the ﬁrst place,” she explained.
Rapper Eminem’s addiction to prescription drugs started with a sedative that helped him relax, manage pain, and sleep. Later, he added Vicodin, Ambien, Xanax, and Valium to the list. As these were prescription drugs, he didn’t feel he had a problem until he overdosed on methadone and almost died. His kids were his inspiration for recovery. Detox and rehab helped him.
Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoﬀman started “advanced drinking and drugging” in college. His ﬁrst rehab check-in was at age 22. After years of being clean, Hoﬀman relapsed in February 2014 and died from a combined drug intoxication.
Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. started his drug use at a young age: six. He was addicted to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol early in his career. He recovered in 2002, after having been imprisoned for heroin possession and spending time in rehab.
Bradley Cooper stopped years of drug and alcohol abuse at age 29 when he ﬁnally acknowledged it was ruining his life. Alcoholics Anonymous helped.
Drew Barrymore, darling of the movie ET, began drinking at age nine, got addicted to cocaine and marijuana afterwards, and went to rehab at 13. She is now enjoying years of sobriety.
Daniel Radcliﬀe, star of the Harry Potter movies, battled with alcohol addiction.
Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction all her life. She went on writing and speaking engagements, discussing her mental health and substance use disorders. She died from a heart attack aboard a plane in 2016.
Famous as Chandler in the sitcom Friends, Matthew Perry suﬀered from pancreatitis, possibly a result of addiction to alcohol, amphetamines, methadone, and Vicodin. His addiction started when he was given prescription painkillers after an accident. He is now a celebrity spokesperson for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. He went to Capitol Hill in 2011 to lobby members of Congress to support funding for drug courts. According to a 2013 ABC News report, the White House Oﬃce of National Drug Control Policy gave Perry a Champion of Recovery award in May 2013 for opening Perry House, a sober living home in his former Malibu mansion.
Academy Award winner Robin Williams was in the spotlight in August 2014 for having killed himself. Three months before, the comedian had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He struggled publicly with alcohol and cocaine dependence, but was privately battling anxiety, depression, and paranoia oﬀ-screen.
When his secret was revealed, many assumed that was what had driven him to commit suicide. But his widow clariﬁed that the suicide had to do with a brain disorder called Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. His autopsy and toxicology report conﬁrmed this.
Marina Zenovich, in her HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, pondered the question: “How could a man who made many so happy be battling unknowable sadness?” Williams’s son Zachary—the reason he wanted to get sober—answered it: “He felt that when he wasn’t making people laugh, he was not succeeding as a person.”
Glee star Cory Monteith died at age 31 from heroin and alcohol intoxication after having just exited rehab.
Children of celebrities
Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s daughter, was addicted to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, sedatives, and prescription painkillers.
Jack and Kelly Osbourne, oﬀspring of musician Ozzy, a well-known addict, are also recovering addicts. Their drug of choice is OxyContin.
Actress Nicole Richie, singer Lionel’s daughter, had multiple addictions: marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.
Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, said her opioid addiction started with painkillers prescribed after plastic surgery. “They stimulated an ongoing addiction, but it was controlled,” she told CNN. “I was able to compartmentalize it. I was not high at work. It was a private addiction.” Curtis’s response to her addiction is to be an advocate for opiate policy change and drug abuse awareness. She considers her recovery as her greatest achievement in life.
Catalysts for change
Many who suﬀered from alcohol and drug problems cite the following as motivations to quit: advancing age, raising children, legal issues, and the necessity to establish or continue their careers.
This writer’s mother once said: “One seldom ﬁnds addiction in the lives of people who genuinely like themselves, are content with their lot (regardless of their socioeconomic status), who are not preoccupied with themselves, and who focus their eﬀorts in helping others.” She may not have been a celebrity, and may sound preachy, but she just encapsulated what all those experts spent their whole lives researching.
How does this theory hold up in Oprah’s life? Her addiction occurred early in her career when she was unsure of herself and engulfed by unhealthy relationships with men who denigrated her. After she evolved into the benevolent force she is today, it is highly unlikely she will succumb to anything as destructive. This shows us that a seemingly ‘perfect’ person can make mistakes like the rest of us. But we can look at her rise from these foibles and follow her example to leading a better life.
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Dr. Lathan, S. Robert. “Celebrities and substance abuse”. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, vol 22, #4. October 2009
Wilson, Matt. “10 Innovators Who Did More Drugs Than You”. Entrepreneurship. August 26, 2013.]
Zacharek, Stephanie. “HBO’s Robin Williams Doc Peeks Inside the Late Star’s Mind”. Time. July 12, 2018.
Picture: New York Daily Mirror. This image is in the public domain.