Addiction in the arts

Addiction in the arts

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 01/05/14

In the creative industries alcohol is part of how we work and socialise. For anyone struggling to stay sober, this can make life extremely tough. In response to requests from IdeasTap members who've found themselves in this position, we explore the issue of addiction...

Networking events are stressful at the best of times but for a recovering alcoholic they can be excruciating. “I find press nights terrifying,” says John, a director. “People ask you why you’re not having a drink and then don’t take no for an answer. They say, ‘Go on, go on’ and you don’t want to tell them the reason.” 

Now in his late 20s, John has been sober for the past two years. He began drinking heavily at university but things really spiralled out of control at drama school, where he also started taking cocaine. "I was drunk all the time," he recalls. “Not during classes but from 6 o’clock I was drinking until the early hours of the morning every day.” The situation worsened after graduation. “I was in debt. I wasn’t paying my rent on time. I was having unprotected sex. I’d just fall into bed with someone and wake up in the morning not knowing where I was or who I was with.” 

With the exception of a few friends who were sober, hardly anyone called John up on his drinking. Looking back, he thinks this could be due in part to his social identity – “I had a reputation as a drinker, which I kind of enjoyed” – and also to the nature of the creative world, where different rules apply. “We’re so lucky in our industry that people talk about how they feel but the flipside is that there are no boundaries. If you’re a teacher and you bring cocaine to work, you’re going to get the sack. But [in the arts] I think it’s accepted behaviour.”

Certainly, from Coleridge to Amy Winehouse, artists have a centuries old relationship with alcohol and drugs but, according to Professor Philip Murphy, a specialist in addiction at Edge Hill University, there is no evidence that creatively inclined people are more likely to become addicted to substances. “You don’t have to work in the addiction field for long to find that a large number of people from a range of different backgrounds become addicts,” he says. “Addiction is not the property of any one social grouping or personality or occupational type.”  

This is something Sarah, a writer in her early 30s, discovered first hand: “In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I’d meet people who were builders and they’d say the construction industry is a hard drinking industry or people who work away at sea and then have time off and say, well what else is there to do but drink? If you’re an alcoholic, it doesn’t really matter what line of work you’re in.” 

Nonetheless the romantic cliché of the artist-addict is pervasive – and unhelpful. The idea that you can become more creative while under the influence, for example, is something that Sarah struggled with: “I would drink to write. But looking back, I don’t know how much I was writing to drink,” she recalls. “To some extent it would help remove inhibitions. [After] two or three drinks you might find that things are going more flowingly. By the time you get to seven or eight drinks you’ve either lost interest or what you’re coming up with is nonsense.” 

In fact the opposite has turned out to be true. “Since I’ve been sober I’ve written more and better quality things than I have ever,” says Sarah. “If you’re an artist, you don’t have to lose your edge or your personality [by becoming sober], which was a concern of mine. If you feel that you have an addiction, if you free yourself of that there are a lot of possibilities out there that you might not be able to see yet.”

John agrees: “My life is so enriched. You think of yourself as a functioning human being when you’re drinking that much but I realise now I wasn’t reading novels, I wasn’t going to see plays. I had no sense of self.” He adds: “I was convinced I wasn’t an alcoholic. But if you have to question your relationship with alcohol, I’d say you you have a negative relationship with it and you need to address that ... People think that everyone who has a drinking problem ends up on a park bench with nothing. You don’t need to let yourself get to there before you stop.”


Getting help

Amanda Thomson from Action on Addiction shares advice...

What makes someone an addict, rather than someone who drinks more than they should, say?  

Addiction is characterised by a consuming relationship with a substance or behaviour that is driven by a conscious or unconscious desire to feel something different, which results in a range of harmful consequences.  

Being an addict is different from someone who drinks more than they should as the person is both mentally and physically attached to the substance. Often, however, the person who has become addicted to the substance may be the last person who recognises they have a problem. 

If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, is sobriety the only option? 

In many cases, if someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, abstinence is the only option. Many people find it extremely tempting if the substance they are addicted to is in close proximity to them. Some people need to be several years into their recovery before they can be around drink and drugs, and many addicts say they are “always an addict”, and have to retain their abstinence or recovery “one day at a time”.  

For many people, when they leave treatment and have physically detoxed from a substance, they still require additional help before they can return to their daily life in the community as they know they’ll be tempted by their “drug of choice”. Lots of people in recovery use fellowship groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to help them stay clean and sober.   

Some people find that they are able to have one drink without turning back to alcoholism, but this is fairly rare and in most cases, people who turn back to their drug of choice find they are unable to sustain their recovery. 

As a recovering addict, how should you deal with situations where you know people will be drinking or taking drugs?  

If people feel they are likely to be tempted by drink and drugs, they should avoid situations where these are prevalent. Many people who have been in recovery for some time can visit pubs and not drink, but for others the temptation will always be too great. If someone experiences a craving, they should talk to someone who can help. For some people, this is in the form of fellowship meetings. Dry bars which are also social venues, such as The Brink in Liverpool offer a safe environment for people to go where they can enjoy a fun night out without temptation.

What if, because of their work, someone really can't avoid being in situations where there might be alcohol or drugs, for example because they have to attend exhibition launches or networking events?  

If you’re in early recovery and know that a job you are in may lead you to temptation around alcohol or drugs, some people may want to re-think their job choice – at least until they feel more stable. Either way, we would advise people not to attend if they don’t feel safe to go. It can help to go to the event with someone who knows their background so they can help to support them, and to also have a planned route of departure.


Useful links:

Action on Addiction 

Down Your Drink 

Alcoholics Anonymous 

Narcotics Anonymous

Alcohol Concern  




Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities. 


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