Is Artistic Success a Risk Factor for Addiction?

Is Artistic Success a Risk Factor for Addiction?
by on September 3, 2014 in

At first glance it might seem that a creative or performing artist who manages to achieve significant success might reduce his risk factors for addiction, since now he has fewer money worries and is less plagued by the chronic unemployment issues and chronic career pressures that challenge most artists. Yet while those risk factors may have been reduced, many new risk factors enter the equation—so many new factors that it is fair to say that career success for an artist increases rather than decreases his risk for addiction.

What are these new risk factors? Here are some of them:

  • The fear that success will be taken away from you by another artist, by changing tastes, by a series of flops (or even a single flop), or even by one wrong remark. A successful artist tends to remember crystal clearly what life was like before his success. There is always someone younger, someone prettier, someone with a greater publicity machine nipping at your heels. As the producer Sherry Eaker put it, “Every year there’s a whole new crop of performers.”

  • The realization that nothing has really gotten easier. It is still hard to sing the lead in an opera, still hard to write an excellent novel, still hard to move painting forward. A successful artist may well have his hopes dashed that with success his creative life would get easier. As the ballerina Alicia Markova put it, “A ballerina’s life can be glorious. But it does not get any easier. I don’t think anyone must ever think about it getting easier.”

  • The necessity that you repeat yourself because that’s what your audience wants. You may experience a deep sense of boredom, as your audience demands that you give them what they know and love. As the jazz singer Billie Holiday put it, “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music; it’s close order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”

  • The loss of genuine relationships in the face of the cult of celebrity. It is very hard for non-celebrities to be “real” around celebrities, which is an alienating experience for celebrities. As Tennessee Williams explained after the success of The Glass Menagerie, “Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends’ voices. I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you anymore. I was walking around dead in my shoes.”

  • The mythology around alcohol and drugs and the belief that they are necessary, even essential, to the creative process and the creative lifestyle. As Gerard Way, lead singer of My Chemical Romance, put it, “When I quit drinking and doing drugs, I was like, ‘Is this going to make me softer? Is this going to make me lame?’ And then I realized that mental illness, drug addiction and liquor are all things that really hold you back as an artist.” Many artists never realize this.

  • Survivor guilt coupled with a sense of the absurdity of fame. As the bandleader Artie Shaw put it, “At the peak of the ’38 band, I was making $60,000 a week, which seemed insane. I began to ask myself, ‘How can I be getting $60,000 a week when the first clarinet in the philharmonic only gets $150 a week?’” As wonderful as huge paychecks and the perks of celebrity status are, they can also be experienced as unseemly, embarrassing, and even downright immoral.

In addition to these six, all of the following come into play:

  • The omnipresence of drugs, alcohol, and sex (being gifted drugs; being gifted sex; the never-ending parties; etc.)
  • The pressure to top yourself, while still producing your signature work
  • Having the financial resources and the connections to access drugs and alcohol
  • Feeling disenchanted because you are now inside and see how the business operates, what compromises are regularly made, the level of cynicism displayed by marketplace players, etc.
  • Feeling like an imposter (“imposter syndrome”) and fearing that it will all be taken away from you as soon as “they” see through you
  • Growing more narcissistic, more egotistical, more grandiose, and edging into ever-greater denial about your drug and drinking habits
  • Experiencing new, more powerful existential problems as you realize that, despite your hope that life would finally feel meaningful once you achieved success, your life actually feels less meaningful than it did before

This is by no means the complete list of risk factors for addiction that come with success as an artist. There is the great upheaval of first success that often plays itself out as a spending spree—including on drugs and alcohol. There are the large failures that cost millions—the flop movie, the book that never became a bestseller, or the album that never moved up the charts. The list of risk factors is long, poignant, and real.

The great novelist and philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “When he is recognized as a talent, the creator’s great suffering begins.” This may sound like a self-serving exaggeration, yet it is clearly the case—just look at the headlines every single day—that many successful artists find success dangerous and regularly succumb to addictive behaviors. We should stop shaking our heads and asking ourselves, “Why would someone with so much success have so much trouble with drugs and alcohol?” These are some of the reasons.




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