Actors and Addiction

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In a recent interview, Philip Seymour Hoffman [Best Actor Oscar nominee for “Capote”] admitted he used drugs and alcohol earlier in his life. A lot. “It was anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all.” He got sober, he says, because “You get panicked. I was 22, and I got panicked for my life.”

An exceptionally talented actor, Hoffman is far from alone: many of us use and abuse. According to federal statistics, more than 19 million Americans age 12 or older are illicit drug users; 121 million are alcohol drinkers and about 26 million men and 22 million women are smokers.

Addiction psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D., says “Altering one’s state of consciousness is normal” and that a destructive habit or addiction is “mostly an unconscious strategy – which you started to develop at a naive, much earlier stage of life – to enjoy the feelings it brought on or to help cope with uncomfortable emotions or feelings. It is simply an adaptation that has gone awry.”

William H. Macy, also an Oscar nominee [in 1997, for “Fargo”] once commented, “Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood.”

While that may not be literally true, many actors (and other people too, of course) have had painful lives, and use substances to cope.

For example Tatum O’Neal, an Oscar winner at age 10, says in her autobiography (“A Paper Life”) that growing up she had to deal with her mentally unstable mother and volatile and unpredictable father, in an environment of drugs, neglect, and physical and mental abuse. By age 20, she was addicted to cocaine.

Psychiatrist Leon Wurmser, M.D. says “Anxiety of an overwhelming nature and the emotional feelings of pain, injury, woundedness, and vulnerability appear to be a feature common to all types of compulsive drug use. Child abuse is, in the simplest and strongest terms, one of the most important etiologic factors for later drug abuse.” [From his article Drug Use as a Protective System, on]

Being driven to achieve can also lead to addiction problems. Chris Penn fought cocaine and alcohol abuse for years, but died recently at age 40. Like many talented people in the arts, he wanted to do more and more, often working late into the night writing and working on a film he wanted to make.

Key entertainment industry executives and producers, even fellow actors, may enable drug and alcohol abuse, unless it gets too “out of control.” As fictional movie studio exec Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) said in the TV series “Action” (1999): “Yeah – in rehab you’re an addict; on a sound stage you’re a tortured genius.”

Robert Downey Jr. has apparently been “indulged” for years on account of his exceptional talent. His former wife Sarah Jessica Parker admits, “In every good and bad way, I enabled him to show up for work. If he didn’t, I’d cover for him, find him, clean him up. He was like a broken pipe with a leak that you’re constantly putting tape around and tape over tape, but you can’t stop the leaking.” [Parade mag., January 29, 2006]

Downey admits, “the actions I took and the decisions I made tied my shoelaces together. But I’ve never been as trustworthy or worked so hard as I am now [being sober]. I’m having a better time. It’s more fun to be clear and accountable. Believe me, I speak from experience.” [LA Times May 14, 2005]

Carrie Fisher said in an interview, “Drugs made me feel more normal. They contained me.” At age 28, she overdosed, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Maybe I was taking drugs to keep the monster in the box,” she said.

Those “monsters” can be a wide range of mental health and life issues, and we use a variety of substances to deal with them.

The “complicated emotions” that can help make good actors so outstanding can also be a precedent to addictive behavior.

In the book Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, Lisa, age 14, talks about being given Valium by a doctor: “Taking pills or smoking a joint helped get me through the day.” She said gifted kids take drugs “To dull themselves.. there is so much of the wrong kind of stimulation going on around you.”

Kazimierz Dabrowski, MD, PhD (1902-1980), a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, noted that many gifted and talented people – including actors, of course – may experience “increased mental excitability, depressions, dissatisfaction with oneself, feelings of inferiority and guilt, states of anxiety, inhibitions, and ambivalences – all symptoms which the psychiatrist tends to label psychoneurotic.”

Successfully dealing with addiction can be invaluable in many ways. Richard Lewis commented in his memoir, “I have been sober for almost eight years and my life is a billion percent better. Now I don’t have the craving for alcohol, I have the craving for clarity and life.”

But getting there is usually not easy. Melanie Griffith has said, “Facing my addiction was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life.”

Lynda Carter has talked about her years of addiction to alcohol as a “genetic predisposition that sort of grabbed hold of me. It was like staring into a deep, dark hole that I thought no one would understand or still love me if I ever admitted it… and I was very good at hiding my problem.”

Ewan McGregor also has talked about feeling shame: “I think drinking and being out of control narrows your options in front of the camera. I was just ashamed of myself, really. Originally, I was a happy drunk. But later I was miserable because it’s a depressant.”

Jamie Lee Curtis talks about learning to take better care of herself and her feelings: “After five years in recovery I’m getting better at setting limits. I used to hide my resentments in drugs and alcohol. Now I’ve had to figure out other ways to handle them. I know that to care for myself I must set limits.”

Your attitude about using/abusing can be critical to what you do, or don’t do about it. Brett Butler once said, “I still do basically think of… addiction as a disease if someone else has it – and if I have it, it’s a moral failing. I have to try really hard to be as understanding about myself as someone else.”

Maybe one reason so many intense and sensitive people self-medicate is to “dampen” the internal and external condemnations of those “symptoms” that Dabrowski and others say can indicate a capacity for achieving higher levels of personal development.

write by Aurora

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