The Artist as Addict

In our culture, the narratives we tell about the artists we love continually tether creativity to addiction. Think about the artist as an archetype. Yes, the artist makes art, but more importantly, the artist suffers. The artist is tortured. The artist starves. Great art requires great torment, right? I don’t know about you, but this was the narrative I inherited. I clung to as I pursued my own dreams of becoming an artist, but ultimately, it was one of the first narratives I had to re-write in order to enter and embrace recovery.

Sadly, I think there is some truth to this narrative. I feel pretty confident in saying that artists, as a cohort, struggle with addiction at a level higher than most other groups of people. I could be wrong—I haven’t done any statistical research—but I suspect I’m not too far off in the weeds. I bet you could name ten artists right now who were addicts. Elizabeth Bishop. Ernest Hemmingway. Amy Winehouse. William Faulkner. Jackson Pollack. Tennessee Williams. Jack Kerouac. Janis Joplin. Truman Capote. Jean Michel Basquiat. We could extend the list indefinitely. So assuming my assumption is true, we might ask why this is the case.

I have a suspicion, and to get to the heart of it, it’s important to think about what an artist actually does. What is the artist’s job? I think we tend to mistake the means for the end when we answer this question. Most often we define an artist by what she makes—a painting, a novel, a song—but I don’t think making things is the real job of the artist. If it were, we could call anyone an artist. I made eggs for breakfast, but that doesn’t make me an artist. Making things is certainly a part of what an artist does, but the artist’s real job is to see. Making things is simply the way in which the artist shares their vision. The reason we admire the artist, and the reason why her work is essential, is that she helps us see the world in ways we haven’t seen it before. 

The problem for the artist, however, is that the real work of seeing is not an easy thing to do. Existing in the world as a human is complex and mysterious and often painful. The only way around this is denial—I know from experience, and I have plenty of it—but the job of the artist, at least with regard to their art, is to deny nothing, no matter how terrifying or painful it is to look at. With this in mind, it’s not that big of a leap for me to understand why artists might be drawn to substances. It makes sense that people who spend a great deal of time looking reality in the eye might seek an escape from it. And this, I think, is the place where the artist and addiction really meet.

The appeal of substances for a person looking squarely at reality feels pretty obvious to me, but what is important about the equation I’m driving at is that the work of seeing comes before the substances. The seeing creates the need for a reprieve, and the substances follow. For years, I had this backwards. I believed that the artist’s ability to see came from the substances, and this mistake in my own vision kept me stuck in my addiction for years. It created the fear that without substances and the insanity they created in my life, I would somehow lose my creativity, that I’d suddenly be struck with a bland vision of the world and have nothing to share. Essentially, I believed that giving up substances meant giving up my desire to create art, and I just wasn’t willing to do that. Not until it got unbearably bad, anyway.

I entered recovery with the assumption that putting the substances down would dull my vision of the world, but thankfully, I discovered the opposite to be true. Pretty quickly, I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of creativity. I hadn’t even come close to being able to see. Now that I have been in recovery for a little while, I understand that the substances were actually the primary thing standing in the way of my vision. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I can speak for myself, and I know I am unable to see what is real when I’m coloring my perception with drugs. I’m unable to differentiate the true from the false. In the state of active addiction, anything I attempt to create enters the world in a state of confusion. It’s an oxymoron when I really think about it. How could I possibly move toward reality and truth if my primary goal in life is to escape it?

The truth about the artists I admired, the heavy drinkers and dope fiends, is that their creativity didn’t ever stem from the substances. Their ability to see came first, and in most cases, the ease they found in substances eventually destroyed their vision. They became less and less able to see what was true, and their art suffered. What this shows me is that addiction is actually in conflict with activity of making art, but on the flip side, recovery and creating art are processes that have a lot in common. The process of recovery and the process of making art are both practices in confronting what is real in all of its complexity and mystery, and not sugarcoating, not trying to simplify, not trying to avoid the pain. And from this angle, art actually becomes a wonderful aid in my recovery. It helps me grow by teaching me to confront the real.

With this in mind, it’s clear to me that my real work as an artist in recovery is to learn how to see without needing to blot out whatever it is I find in my seeking. It is possible. Plenty of artists do it. And beyond the simple fact that it is possible to create art in recovery, I have found something else. When I can hold my gaze long enough, when I can feel what I need to feel without turning away, I always discover some beauty in the complex, mysterious, and sometimes-painful mess of human experience. This is the real gift of engaging with art in recovery—there is always something beautiful in the struggle.