Musician life coach Dave Sherman on what makes artists abuse drugs and alcohol
Who the hell is Dave Sherman and why was he asked to be a monthly columnist in AP? Good question. I’m a sober/life coach for touring musicians. You don’t know that I’ve spent the last five years working with roughly half a dozen artists that have appeared on the cover of this magazine. No, I won’t tell you who they are. It’s up to them to go public.
A little about me: on Feb. 5, 2012 it had been 13 years since I’d had a drink or a drug (for references, feel free to ask any family member about just how psychotic I was 13 years ago. They’d be more than happy to expand on it for you.) I’ve also spent the last ten years working in four different treatment facilities (i.e. rehab facilities) and last June, walked away from job security and a pretty hefty paycheck. What it came down to was wanting to make more of an impact with musicians which I couldn’t do when stuck in an office all day. If the job you really want doesn’t exist, create it. So in the biggest recession of our time I went out on my own and started The Road To Rehab. Within five weeks I was on tour and have been pretty busy ever since. And now I’m in AP…my job is so much cooler than yours.
So why do musicians and artists so frequently become addicts and alcoholics? There are so many different answers to that question. I’m going to try to break down that question with some possible answers and hopefully shed some insight onto the musicians and possibly your own lives.
I’ll start with the idea that healthy people tend not to feel the need to create. Read that again, plenty of healthy people create but they don’t necessarily feel the need to create. That itch that just can’t be scratched unless you get it out of your system. So many musicians that I’ve worked with can recall feeling “less than” or “not part of” growing up. Almost all of them found that when they created something it was cathartic for them, that it made them feel better about themselves. So, the reality is, and yes I’m generalizing here, that most artists can be considered on the path towards needing something outside of themselves to feel whole. It’s a short step toward the prerequisites for addiction.
In addition, there is usually a genetic component. If one of your parents is an alcoholic you are far more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol and/or drugs. But this goes even further. How many of your favorite musicians came from broken/messed up/abusive homes? Much of that abuse frequently stems from the parents using drugs and alcohol. This also causes the artist to enforce their sense of self-sufficiency--they know they can’t rely on their erratic/irrational parents and they convince themselves that they are the only one that they can rely on. This makes it that much harder to help someone like this when they need help. They don’t want to let you help them because they don’t trust anyone.
Some of the defining characteristics of alcoholics and addicts can be summed up by this phrase: egomaniacs with low self esteem; in plain English--people that want everyone to love them but hate themselves. Sound familiar? Sounds like every lead singer that I’ve ever known (four singers just read that comment and said to themselves “I know he’s not talking about me.”...I’m totally talking about you.) They think about themselves all day long, but they don’t think very highly of themselves. Alcoholics tend to obsess over every single character defect/shortcoming that they have. They could get 99 compliments and one insult and the insult is what they think about every day for the next two weeks.
Have you ever felt restless, irritable and discontent? What if you felt that way every day? The clients I work with had/have what I call all the ‘isms’ of the disease of alcoholism long before they started drinking. Speaking from experience, if I had gone to a psychiatrist when I was a kid they could have diagnosed me, depending on what day of the week it was, with OCD, ADD, Bipolar, Oppositional Defiance Disorder or any other disorder for that matter. I am none of those things; the reality is I was an alcoholic waiting to drink.
Here’s where the drinking comes into play. What if all those symptoms of “the crazy” went away as soon as you started drinking or smoking? Wouldn’t you want to do it all the time? The problem is that this leads pretty quickly to an emotional and eventually a physical dependence to your drug of choice. Alcoholism and addiction, at their core, are about controlling one’s emotions. This is the real reason people use, to control how they feel. The reality is, when you use to not feel ultimately you aren’t developing coping skills. People that use every day don’t mature emotionally. By the time I start working with someone in their mid-twenties, they’ve been using every day for ten years. Emotionally they’re still 15; ever wonder why your 28 year old pot dealer still thinks it’s cool to live in a small apartment, play video games all day and eat pizza every night? Because emotionally, they’re a teenager. That’s something to think about if you describe yourself as a stoner, love the number 420 and think “But dude, it’s only weed, it’s so much better for you than booze...and it should be legal.”
I hear all the time things like “but great art comes from pain,” “I do my best work when I’m loaded,” and “I won’t be able to create without (insert your drug of choice here).” In fact, those are usually the first things I hear when working with an artist for the first time. These things are also rationalizations based on fear, and ultimately not even close to true.
I know that there is a huge glorification of drug use in music. I understand that a big part of the draw towards rock stars is that they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want to. There’s a piece in all of us that is drawn towards the desire to live that way, with no rules and complete freedom. But after having been a part of that world for quite some time and seeing the devastation it inflicts on the musicians, their bands, and their families I want to encourage everyone to think through the extension of unchecked drinking and drug use. If one person reads this article and reaches out for help then I’ve done my job.