Below are twenty-five challenges, vulnerabilities, risks, and needs in an artist’s life. Each of these can cause an artist to want to soothe himself with a substance or a behavior—and over time that soothing can result in an addiction.
1. Biological Risks. These are the risks that all human beings face—but some human beings face them more squarely than do others. A few of the clues that you may be at heightened biological risk for addiction are if your family has a history of addiction, if you have high tolerance for a substance, or if you start on a substance or behavior very early in life.
2. Psychological Risks. These are the risks that all human beings face—but some human beings face them in greater numbers or with greater intensity than do others. A history of trauma or abuse, the modeling of addictive behaviors in your family, a history of unhappy or conflictual relationships, all put a person at greater risk for an addiction.
3. Environmental Risks. These are the risks that all human beings face—but some face more of them than do others. Environmental risks include poverty and the stress of economic struggling, living in a family, community or culture where a lot of using and abusing goes on, belonging to a minority that is regarded as second class or second rate, and growing up in an environment that erodes your sense of self and your confidence. A person growing up in such circumstances is at greater risk for an addiction.
4. Desire for sensation and the pull toward Sensation-Seeking Behaviors. Artists are at special risk because they want sensations—the experience of driving fast, the experience of living on the edge—and sometimes the sensations they seek are drug-related and behavior-related. If you have a special need for sensation, as most artists do, then you are at higher risk for addiction.
5. Idealization of Using. Many artists think that addiction is romantic and maybe even necessary for the creative process. This idealization of using is dangerous and can lead an artist who is already prone to addiction to cultivate and embrace his addictive tendencies.
6. Outsized Appetites. We’ve previously talked about the way that artists have large appetites, for life, for creating, but also sometimes for alcohol, for sex, for food, and so on. The same large appetite that is essentially an artist’s life force is also a risk factor for addiction.
7. Isolation. When a person lives in too much isolation he ends up with too much time on his hands, which is a risk factor for addiction, and begins to feel cold, lonely, and alienated, all of which aim him in the direction of substances and behaviors that warm him and soothe him. An artist needs solitude in order to create but the extent to which that solitude is also isolating puts him at risk for addiction.
8. Creative Anxiety. Lots of anxieties naturally and inevitably come with the creative process—performance anxiety, the anxiety that comes with not knowing what the work needs next, the anxieties associated with completing a project, showing it, and trying to sell it, and so on. Naturally an artist will want to quell that anxiety and among the traditional ways of quelling that anxiety are via soothing substances and soothing behaviors. The anxieties that come with the creative process and with the creative life angle artists toward anxiety-management tactics that can become addictive.
9. Pressure of Individuality. If you keep fighting to remain the individual you need to be, sometimes you will simply grow tired of fighting to retain that individuality and will want to take a break from all that trying by using some soothing substance or engaging in some soothing behavior. The stronger your need for individuality, the more you may need these breaks—breaks that can easily turn into addictions.
10. Oppositional Issues. As you fight to retain your individuality and as you struggle to make your way in a marketplace that can upset you and disappoint you, you may grow oppositional and be always ready to fight—and all that fighting will ultimately sadden you and tire you out and cause you to want to soothe yourself. In public you may need to keep up your fighting spirit but in private you may want nothing more than more Scotch or more potato chips.
11. Suppressed Individuality. Since you know that you want to be an individual, if, for whatever reasons, you suppress that individuality, maybe to conform, maybe to get along, or maybe because of family messages that you can’t shake, then you are going to disappoint yourself—and that disappointment can easily lead you to some soothing behavior. Suppressing the person you know you ought to be is a powerful addiction risk.
12. Meaning Issues. Not believing that you matter or that your efforts matter produces meaning crises. Here let me just add that a typical response to those meaning crises is to use and abuse some substance or behavior. If meaning is a problem for you, addiction looms as one sort of unfortunate answer.
13. Intensity and adrenalin issues. Artists want to live intensely and when they do live intensely, that intense living sends adrenalin shooting their system. Then they have to deal with all that adrenalin; and the most characteristic way is to “come down” via alcohol and drugs. If you’ve performed on stage for two hours and by performing sent buckets of adrenalin coursing through your system, you are going to be sorely tempted to use some soothing substance to deal with all the raw, naked chemical energy you’ve created. If this becomes your characteristic way of dealing with all that adrenalin, abuse is looming.
14. Ambition and ego issues of all sorts, from completely healthy narcissism to unhealthy narcissism and everything in between. When we think highly of ourselves, want things for ourselves and find ourselves frustrated in our efforts to get known, make our mark, have a career, and so on, those frustrations naturally lead to soothing substances and behaviors. The more ambitious you are, the more you want to make your mark, and the, to use loose language, bigger your ego, the more those frustrations are likely to send you in the direction of a comforting fix.
15. Need to Create. The impulse to originate, the desire to manifest your potential in ways as hard as writing a good book or making a good movie, the very pressure to create something new, smart, polished, complete, and so on, is a pressure that artists often want to reduce via substance use and abuse. Even on days when the work is going well that pressure still exists, because on those days the threat remains that you may ruin what you’re doing, discover that its ending won’t come to you, learn that it’s not wanted in the marketplace, and so on. The very pressure to make and then sell original work is a significant addiction risk factor.
16. Everyday Resistance to Creating. If we know that we should be creating but we don’t, then tomorrow we also don’t, we are disappointing ourselves and battering our self-image. As a consequence we’re likely to want to “forget” that we’re failing ourselves by using and abusing some substance or behavior. Every day that we don’t create and feel that we should have, we are paving the way to an addiction.
17. Criticism and Rejection. If you’re an artist you will be criticized and you will be rejected some substantial portion of the time. That ego battering is wearing on the system. Sometimes all an artist can think to do about the criticism or rejection he’s just received is to drink a lot, eat a lot, and so on. A diet of criticism and rejection—or even just one especially painful criticism or rejection—can open the door to addiction.
18. Lack of Control and Authority issues. There are many things that artists can influence but very little that they can control, including the goodness of their creative products and their ability to have their products wanted in the marketplace. This pervasive and lifelong lack of control and the authority issues it produces, where you want to lash out at marketplace players who have control over you, inclines you to soothe yourself with drugs and alcohol and the other methods we’ve been discussing. Such a poignant lack of power is a tremendous risk factor for addiction.
19. Financial Dependency. This relates to the last point; many artists are financially dependent on others, a fact that disappoints them, embarrasses them, and causes all sorts of tensions in their relationships. For a person with a healthy ego to also be in such a one-down position to someone whom he may not even like or respect is the kind of psychological tension that easily leads to aggressive acting-out behaviors and self-soothing addictive behaviors.
20. Negative Self-Evaluations. Artists get down on themselves. The often evaluate their efforts as wanting, their work as wanting, and generally bash themselves for not having done more as an artist and not having proven more successful in their art career. This self-bashing takes its toll, reduces an artist’s strength to fight off his addictive tendencies, and inclines him in the direction of self-soothing behaviors meant to help him forget that he is so unhappy with himself.
21. Creative Failures. Some percentage of an artist’s work will not work—that is the reality of process. A novelist may pen two or three novels that he really respects and a dozen that don’t move him all that much. Our work will miss the mark some or even a lot of the time. Artists tend to understand this intellectually but after spending two years on a novel that misses the mark writers are not really in a mood to feel philosophical. They are much more likely to want to go on a bender than to phlegmatically get on with their next novel.
22. Need to Feel Respected. This need is complicated because an artist wants to feel respected even if he knows in his heart of hearts that he isn’t doing marvelous work. If he is doing good work, then it is very painful not to garner respect for that work; and even if he isn’t doing good work, he still wants respect, a respect that part of him knows that he hasn’t earned yet. In either case, the lack of respect he experiences causes him to want to salve his wounds and soothe himself in some way—often by using drugs or alcohol.
23. Need for Advocates. When you can’t find anyone interested in supporting your work or in buying your work it isn’t hard to see how you might turn to a soothing substance or behavior to ease that pain. This is not unlike not having friends, made more painful by the fact that not only is the artist friendless but so is the artist’s work. Artists really do need advocates and if they don’t garner any they are at heightened risk for an addiction.
24. Need to Feel Understood. One of the more poignant frustrations in an artist’s life is for the artist to create something and then discover that no one quite “gets” it. Selling something often isn’t enough; the artist wants the buyer to also understand what the artist intended. It happens all the time that a successful artist will nevertheless feel completely unheard and misunderstood, even though he is wildly successful. To ease the pain of not feeling understood, many an artist has turned to a soothing substance or behavior.
25. Existential Sadness. A lot about an artist’s life makes him existentially sad as he deals with insufficient meaning and the sense that life is a cheat. The customary word for the state he finds himself in is “depression”; whether you call it sadness or depression, that emotional down state is a powerful risk factor for addiction. To put it simply, when we are sad we want to drown our sorrows—sadness is a profound risk factor for addiction.
If you’re an artist … be careful!
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True x 25=True I started photographing after my son was killed in a motorcycle accident. I always since childhood passionately needed, wanted believed I had to have something to fill a deep void that I didn’t understand.
As a young boy, man and even into the fall season of my recent young 70th birthday, I’ve been successful in businesses, and career moves, which involved a small rabbitry at 8 years of age, to horse farm, pigeon flying to industrial production, recreation director, insurance, real estate, residential and commercial contracting etc.
Feeling a sense of success throughout my life always made feel invincible until a illness hit me like a ton of bricks falling from a 50 story building. It was then, that I had to begin to examine my motives and behaviors from an addictive perspective.
Now I must reveal one important part of me that I haven’t mentioned. Drugs, rehab and constantly reusing didn’t come to a complete halt until my son passed. I truly believed that his passing was the last test of my knowledge, wisdom and life.
Well I’ve chattered long enough but will say, that there’s hope for anyone who has an addictive mindset and behavior.
Thank you for this article. As an artist in long term recovery, I appreciate this overview of the risk factors of becoming an addict. These challenges speak to the truth of addiction – some of which I lived and from which I have recovered. It is possible to continue to create art, get clean and stay in the recovery process – I have been doing it for 34 years!
This essay was very helpful.
thank you for warning…
Interesting….I come from a long line of ‘creativity’. All my brothers(5) and sisters(2)have a nack for working with their hands. Our mother was an artist/art teacher, our father was a carpenter/jack of all trades. We all have many of the ‘issues’ mentioned in the article. So thank you for giving me food for thought!