Addiction is a grave problem for many creatives. Can they still create while addicted? Many do. Countless creatives have managed to unleash their creative potential while in the throes of an addiction. Just visit any jazz club, rock-and-roll venue, after hours actors’ hangout, or juried painting show. But it is a myth that their addiction helped them or their creative process. They are creating and performing despite their addiction, not because of it.
Many factors incline a creative toward addiction. Let’s look at them one by one, to help you better understand why you too may be at risk. All of the factors that I’m about to identify incline an artist toward addiction—that is, toward a heightened biological and psychological dependence on some substance or on some behavior.
1. Ordinary biological risks.
These are the risks that all human beings face. 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. Ordinary psychological risks.
These are the risks that all human beings face. A history of trauma or abuse, the modeling of addictive behaviors in your family, a history of unhappy or dramatic relationships, all put a person at greater risk for an addiction.
3. Ordinary environmental risks.
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, etc.
4. Desire for sensation and a pull toward sensation-seeking behaviors.
Creatives are at special risk because they want sensations—the experience of driving fast, the experience of painting all night—and sometimes the sensations they seek are ones that drugs or risky behaviors can afford.
5. Idealization of using.
Many creatives suppose that addiction is romantic and maybe even necessary for the creative process. This idealization of using is of course dangerous and can lead a creative who is already prone to addiction to cultivate and embrace his addictive tendencies.
6. Outsized appetites.
Creatives often 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 an artist’s very life force is also a risk factor for addiction.
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. A creative needs solitude in order to create but the extent to which that solitude is also isolating and alienating puts him at risk for addiction.
8. Creative anxiety.
Anxiety threads through the creative process and the creative life: 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. This anxiety fuels addiction.
9. Pressure of individuality.
If you keep fighting to remain the individual that you need to be, sometimes you will simply grow tired of all that fighting and want to take a break by using some soothing substance or engaging in some soothing behavior. The stronger your need for individuality, the more you may require these breaks, breaks that can transform themselves into addictions.
10. Oppositional issues.
As you fight to retain your individuality and as you struggle to make your way in the marketplace, you may grow oppositional and be ready to fight at the drop of a hat—and all that fighting is likely to tire you out and cause you to want to soothe yourself in ways that may become addictive.
11. Intensity and adrenalin issues.
Creatives want to live intensely and when they do live intensely, that intense living sends adrenalin shooting through their system. Then they have to deal with all that adrenalin. The most characteristic way is to “come down” via alcohol and drugs.
12. Ambition and ego issues.
When we think highly of ourselves and want a lot for ourselves and when we find ourselves frustrated in our efforts to get known, to make our mark, to have a career, and so on, those frustrations are naturally likely lead to the use of soothing substances and behaviors, which can then veer us in the direction of an addiction.
13. Criticism and rejection.
If you’re a creative who puts work out into the world, you will be criticized and you will be rejected some large portion of the time. That ego battering is wearing on the system. A diet of criticism and rejection—or even just one especially painful criticism or rejection—can open the door to addiction.
14. Lack of control, authority issues, and dependency issues.
There are only some things that creatives can influence and almost none that they can control, including their ability to have their products wanted in the marketplace. This lifelong lack of control, which can make one overly dependent or antagonist toward anyone with power over you, is wearing and inclines you to soothe yourself with drugs and alcohol.
15. Negative self-evaluations.
Creatives get down on themselves. They often evaluate their efforts as wanting, their work as wanting, and generally bash themselves for not having done more as a creative and not having proven more successful in their creative career. This self-bashing takes its toll and can lead to self-soothing behaviors meant to help them forget their self-recriminations and despair.
This is the short list. You must be on the lookout for the addictive behaviors and patterns in your life. Whether it’s a life-threatening drug or alcohol addiction, a relationship-threatening sex addiction or gambling addiction, an energy-draining, time-consuming shopping addiction or Internet addiction—whatever form it takes, be on the lookout. And if you find that you’ve lost control in one of these ways, tell yourself that truth out loud and initiate the recovery process.