Are artists at greater risk for addiction? Indeed they are! Learn more here.
The short story “The Bound Man,” by the German author Ilse Aichinger, is a beautiful piece in the existential tradition. It goes as follows. A man awakens one morning to find himself inexplicably bound by rope. Instead of removing the rope at his first opportunity, as we might expect him to do, he decides to remain bound and to become a circus attraction, turning his accidental bondage into his trademark work.
How strange! Why would a person happily accept such bondage? It is similar to the question that Franz Kafka poses in “The Hunger Artist,” where a man, who also chooses to become a circus attraction, starves himself to death because he can’t find food that interests him. These authors ask variations of the following vital question: “Why do people carelessly, inexplicably, and even happily do things that harm them so much?”
One of the things that people do that harms them, but that they nevertheless hold on to as if they were benefiting from it, is to get addicted and to stay addicted. Not for anything can you pry them away from their alcohol, cocaine, tobacco, Internet surfing, video-game playing, overeating, shopping, or sexual escapades.
Tell them that they are dying: no matter. Tell them that they are wasting half their life in front of a computer screen or in the aisles of department stores: no matter. Remind them that they can’t have love or a real life if they use sex as a drug: no matter. Point out that their liver is already not functioning, that their nasal lining is already perforated, or that their lungs are already black: no matter. What you experience as you talk to an addicted individual is that he or she is completely indifferent to your good arguments.
Creative people, our best and our brightest, squarely fall into the category of people at high risk for addiction—people who accept the “happy bondage” of an addiction even though they might be expected to know better. It isn’t just romantic mythology that creative people are more prone than their peers to succumb to the lure of an addiction. It is a fact, and there are many reasons for this. In addition to the biological, social, psychological, and developmental risk factors that confront many people, extra risk factors confront the creative person. That is a fact.
If you are creative, at how high a risk for an addiction are you? Consider what Tom Dardis has to say in The Thirsty Muse: “Of the seven native-born Americans awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, five were alcoholic. The list of other twentieth-century American writers similarly afflicted is very long; only a few of the major talents have been spared. In addition to the five Nobel laureates–Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck–the roster includes Edward Arlington Robinson, Jack London, Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Conrad Aiken, Thomas Wolfe, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Djuna Barnes, John O’Hara, James Gould Cozzens, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Carson McCullers, James Jones, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Robert Lowell and James Agee.”
You don’t have to be a creative superstar to run extra risks for addiction. My clients fall everywhere along the spectrum from unknown to established, from “Sunday painter” to world-famous, from someone who manifests her creativity by knitting to someone who manifests her creativity by fabricating monumental public sculptures. I work with individuals who don’t know what they want to create and who can’t seem to access their creativity and with individuals who know exactly what they want to create and who work obsessively to manifest their ideas and their intentions. What links all of these people and makes them more alike than different is their felt sense that creativity matters to them, that it is a part of who they are. If you can say that about yourself, then you are a member of this family—and you definitely run added risks for addiction.
If you would like to learn more and see what a complete addiction recovery program for artists looks like, please see my book Creative Recovery, co-authored with the addictions specialist Dr. Susan Raeburn. To learn more, go here: