Substance abuse in the creative community


I believe it was a ’56 Buick. I know it cost me $50. It was my first car, and I drove it mostly drunk — I was drinking quite a bit in the Army. I would leave Fort Dix sober, it being only Friday afternoon, drive the two hours to Brooklyn or Manhattan. At that point, I would begin a weekend of drinking, hitting the road late Sunday afternoon snookered — sometimes not remembering to start the windshield wipers in a driving rainstorm.

How can a person not die that way? A handful of American Nobel Prize-winning writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and Ernest Hemingway, were alcoholics. The list of hard drinking writers, male, female, American, Brit and everything else, is as long as the length of the Jersey shore.

For me, it was a passing problem, but what’s the story with all those other writers? What’s the connection between a bottle of Scotch and a well-told story — or a well-made painting?

Part of the problem is that creative folks have an extra dash of energy that is very hard to quell. The act of creation itself doesn’t dull that energy — in fact, sometimes it increases it, as creating can produce adrenaline and excitement.

For some reading on substance abuse and depression in the artistic communities, I recommend my books, The Van Gogh Blues, Rethinking Depression and Creative Recovery.

Alcohol has traditionally come in handy to take the edge off all that energy and make a person feel “quieter and more normal.” There are other ways to get this same result, but traditionally, creative and performing artists have used alcohol and other drugs to deal with their excess energy.

Another part of the problem is the existential part. It has always been hard for creatives to keep meaning afloat. For some people, meaning is a lifelong problem, and alcohol becomes a convenient substitute for meaning. It can be a substance to use and a place to go where you don’t have to think about meaning for a while and can avoid being pestered by meaninglessness.

Whether you’re quelling that energy or finding a substitute for meaning, alcohol and artists have always had an interesting relationship. Want to share a story? Write in the comments below or send me an email: [email protected].

Eric Maisel’s latest book is Life Purpose Boot Camp. Learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, trainings, and services at or drop him a line at [email protected].