Working With Drug Addicts
Originally published as "The Problem of Addiction" in Modern Drummer magazine, February 1991.


recent survey of more than 1100 personnel administrators concluded that drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to cost a person their job than incompetence. Drug abuse has affected every area of society; the music business is no exception.

Some believe that drug addiction is more pervasive in show business, while others counter that this perception exists only because of the high-profile nature of the industry. The fact that drug addiction crops up everywhere suggests that it is an illness particular to human nature, not a specific industry.

There is little solace in this however, when a musician you know becomes difficult to get along with, unreliable or untrustworthy, incapable of performing, or even violent due to their worsening drug or alcohol problem. It would be wonderful if we lived in a world free of drugs and drug addiction, but until that day arrives musicians may find themselves inadvertently working with others who have become victims of this very serious illness. What follows is some helpful perspective and advice for those who are struggling with this situation, or those who simply wish to know more about it.

DROPQUOTE There are a myriad of attitudes concerning drug addiction, and drug addicts. (From here on we will refer to persons addicted to drugs and/or alcohol as one group: drug addicts.) Unfortunately, there are still those who believe this condition to be the result of poor judgement, or perhaps a flawed character. The consensus among modern health care professionals, including the American Medical Association (AMA), is that drug addiction is a disease. Theories concerning its origins embody the classic "nature vs. nurture" arguments: Does one become an addict because of genetics, environment and upbringing, or a combination thereof? It may be safely concluded that the origins of drug addiction are many, and complex.

Cultivating an awareness of this issue begins with the realization that drug addicts are not necessarily bad people, but rather victims of their illness. Some people have what is known as an addictive personality - a predisposition to become dependent on a certain lifestyle, or substance. Examples are compulsive eaters or gamblers, those who accumulate excessive debt, and drug addicts, who become addicted to substances. For the drug addict, a simple "just say no" is insufficient. The nature of their illness is such that they have not naturally developed the kind of rational self-control that allows most people to remain free of addiction. Addicts become mired in their habit without realizing that a problem is developing, and they practice denial in order to maintain their increasingly fragile world.

[GRAPHIC] The drug addict will go to great lengths to deny that their use of drugs is the reason for a deteriorating situation. They tend to blame their problems on those around them, including friends, co-workers, and loved ones. Being in a band with such a person is very, very difficult if that person is hostile and blaming, when it's obvious that the drug habit is the real problem. Most groups will tolerate this situation for a while, hoping the problem "solves itself" by merely disappearing, or that the addict will respond to suggestions, or even ultimatums that they "clean up their act." Ultimatums may be temporarily effective, but unless the addict seeks true rehabilitation, problems will invariably recur. Sadly, many addicts lose their jobs and are left alone, denying responsibility, blaming the band member(s) responsible for his or her firing.

When a musician loses his or her job, it's because the other band members have been forced to make a choice. A band is a unique environment: one third team, one third business, one third family. It's very difficult to discharge a member of this "family" when the person is in such obvious trouble and pain. And yet, that person is most likely not contributing fully to the team effort, and may actually be severely damaging to the business effort. A band may have to cancel engagements, or whole tours if a crucial member is unable to perform, and the situation becomes more critical when the other members' livelihoods, including the ability to feed a family, or pay rent or a mortgage are threatened. Every drug addict is an individual, and the demands of every band's situation vary, but there are limits to the number of times band members are able to give the addict the benefit of the doubt, and to the number of broken promises a band is able to endure.

The past decade has seen increased awareness of and concern for drug addicts, and increased ability to effectively treat their illness. There are full-time self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and its first cousin Narcotics Anonymous (NA) dedicated to providing drug addicts with help and support. There are many other public and private organizations with similar goals, including those oriented towards helping "concerned persons" - the family, friends, and co-workers of addicts. One of these groups is an excellent place for band members to go for help with bringing one of their own to rehabilitation. While AA and NA offer free support, private rehabilitation facilities can be very costly. The costs and types of rehabilitation programs vary however, and the addition of substance abuse to the list of illnesses recognized by the AMA has made treatment for drug addiction eligible for coverage under many health insurance policies.

[DROPQUOTE] In the health care industry, it's believed that in order for rehabilitation to succeed, an addict must sincerely want to be helped. There is a natural tendency, in observing a person's debilitating addiction, to try to help the addict with a heart-to-heart talk, to try to "bring them to their senses." As well-intentioned as this may be, most addicts feel they don't want help, instead believing they have no problem, or that those outside their situation don't understand. It's also possible for a talk of this nature to backfire, leaving the addict alienated and angry with his or her friends. It may be more helpful to have a recovering (rehabilitated) addict talk to the addict, someone who does understand, someone who has been there and made it back. If you don't know such a person, a call to a local chapter of either AA or NA may prove helpful, as these groups are in touch with successfully rehabilitated addicts who are willing to help with these situations. Frequently however, merely talking to an addict won't inspire any significant change, regardless of who's doing the talking. In order for many addicts to abandon their denial, and want to renounce drugs, they must first hit bottom.

"Hitting bottom" is fairly self explanatory: the person's life must reach a profound level of unhappiness, the previously unlimited reservoir of denial finally gone dry. A person may hit bottom due to a combination of undeniable circumstances, such as failing health, divorce, or arrest for drunken driving or drugs. The fact that these events are referred to as "sobering" is no coincidence. If an addict/musician you know does hit bottom, and asks for help getting straight, it behooves you to give that addict all the help and support you can. It may be difficult to completely forgive and forget all the transgressions that person may have committed as a result of his or her addiction, but remember: they were incapacitated by a very serious illness. Their previously irrational behavior was most likely irrelevant to their true personality, the one finally asking for, and deserving of your help.

Not every drug addict is completely incapacitated by their addiction. In fact, the greatest numbers of addicts in society today are called "functional" drug addicts. They can regulate when they ingest their substance(s) of choice, which enables them to function in an apparently normal fashion. The functional addict can hold a job, make payments on a car or house, even maintain a family life. Amazingly, it's even possible for the addict to keep his or her addiction a secret from a spouse! If you are in a band with such a person, you will notice their regular abuse of the substance, their devotion to it, and a tendency to promote its usage. Functional alcoholics are capable of drinking large quantities without appearing drunk, because of their increased tolerance for alcohol. Ironically, the ability to drink large amounts is viewed by some as a sign of strength, while it is in fact a warning signal of alcoholism - a long-term degenerative illness.

Coexistence with the functional drug addict is somewhat more feasible than with the chronic addict, but there are definite dangers. While the functional drug addict is not completely out of control, he or she is still dependent on their drug, and that dependence is more likely to show itself at times of stress or pressure. In the music business, this can manifest itself at the worst possible times, such as when a group is given an important break, and pressure is at peak level. Remember that the addict's behavior, even the functional addict, is not necessarily based on rational thought. Thus, any working relationship with even a functional addict involves some element of risk. Again, a matter of choice: How much risk is acceptable in order to continue to work with a functional drug addict?

An important part of an addict's denial is the ability to excuse and rationalize his or her behavior. When a band is on the road, an addict will stubbornly maintain that "what I do on my own time is my business." The rationale is that as long as they are not at the gig, they are free to do as they please. This is a flawed, dangerous argument. The road is a twenty-four hour/day work environment; the musician on the road is responsible to the band all of the time. Most top organizations subscribe to this policy, and will not tolerate any drugs at any time while on the road. The reasoning is obvious when one considers the illegal nature of many abused drugs, and that a musician's offstage drug habits can very well affect what happens onstage. It is unlikely that a musician up all night the previous night "partying" will perform up to standards. No top organization can afford to have any member perform below par at any time.

The freelance musician works in a different context than the band player. Rather than being part of a full-time "family," the freelance works with a variety of faces from gig to gig. The dynamics are quite different than those of a band. Band members depend on one another, and the consequences of any member being in trouble with drugs are deeply felt by all. But the independent musician may not consider an addict on the gig a threat to his or her own career. The freelance may view the addict's dependency on drugs as "someone else's problem," and take comfort in knowing that he or she was not responsible for a bad performance. In a world where individual survival is difficult enough, such an attitude may suffice. More likely the freelance, like the band member, will feel the stress imposed upon the work environment by the drug addict. Attempting to make music with an intoxicated musician is a difficult, sometimes embarrassing experience. It brings a sense of disappointment - even though the freelance can look forward to a different lineup on the next gig, he or she will feel cheated out of the joy derived from playing music. The experience also leaves one feeling sad. The community of professional musicians is a tight-knit group, and one need not work in the family environment of a band in order to feel concern for a friend and fellow musician.

Thankfully, many millions of drug addicts have sought rehabilitation. Upon asking for help, an addict must learn to accept the knowledge that even if they give up drugs forever, they will still be addicted to them, forever. It becomes their goal to live life "one day at a time" by not doing any drugs that day, rather than dwelling on staying clean for their entire lifetime, which may seem an overwhelming task. This is a proven philosophy, and has helped millions of addicts enjoy healthy lifestyles and productive careers. The addict/musician who seeks help is faced with some special challenges, however. A large number of the opportunities to play occur in places where alcohol is not only served, but encouraged. The recovering addict will be regularly surrounded by people consuming alcohol, which can be very unnerving, especially in the first year of rehabilitation. Those helping the addict may recommend that they eliminate their exposure to drugs and alcohol entirely, which poses a very difficult situation for the musician who makes a living playing in nightclubs. There is no single solution to this dilemma; every addict is an individual. Some addicts must severely modify their lifestyle to stay clean, some are able to continue on the club circuit. If an addict must forgo the nightclub scene however, they need not completely retire from playing. There are opportunities to perform in a drug-and-alcohol-free environment, such as the recording studio, rehearsal band, orchestra pit, and of course, the concert stage.

Life on the road may conflict with the recovering addict's attempt to maintain a sense of stability in their new life. One of the ways musician/addicts are able to maintain their sobriety while on the road is by seeking the help and support of other recovering addicts. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous hold free meetings on a regular basis at their thousands of local branches. The recovering addict can find strength and support at these meetings, enough to make it through the gig and on to the next town. This is a very viable option for the travelling musician.

It is important to note that it's possible for the recovering addict to suffer a relapse, especially if that person was not truly ready to renounce drugs. A relapse is a very traumatic experience for all concerned persons, and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and questions of the entire rehabilitation process. During this difficult time, try to remember that drug addiction is an illness, and like many other illnesses, relapse is an unfortunate fact of life. Of the millions of successful recovering addicts in our society, many have had to battle their addiction more than once. Never abandon hope for such a person.

The preceding paragraphs pose a number of very difficult questions about making choices and taking risks. There are no easy answers to these questions; they are left to the individual. Working in a band, or freelance situation with one or more drug addicts can be a frustrating, confusing, even heartbreaking experience. But regardless of how difficult a situation becomes, and how debilitating an addict's illness grows to be, there is always hope. Anyone who has witnessed a drug addict's hitting bottom, and subsequent rehabilitation, will also witness the elation and rejuvenation of that person. Recovering addicts have enormous energy, as well as renewed feelings of clearheadedness and self-worth. It is a great joy to regain a friendship that had been disabled since the person's addiction took over, and to witness the return of artistic prowess that had been buried for so long. In an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, this is the one silver lining found within the cloud of drug addiction.

Note: Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have numerous local branches. You can find local AA or NA listings, as well as other sources of information or help concerning drug and alcohol addiction on the Web, or in your local phone directory.

I would like to thank Ellen Friedman, Maryann Price, and Michael Sweetman for their help with this article.

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