(WARNING: Explicit Language)
What does Russell Brand have to teach us?
Brand is something of a 21st-century Renaissance Man – stand-up comedian, TV personality, radio host, actor, activist, and author, He’s come a long way from what he describes as a difficult English childhood to fortune and fame.
But Brand’s most startling metamorphosis has been going from a debauched early life of drug and sex addiction to a healthier life of long-enduring sobriety—over 15 years and counting. And from his unique perspective, Brand wants to give back by sharing the hope and messages of recovery with others who are still where he once was.
To that end, Brand has written a book entitled Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions.
Why Should Anyone Read Recovery?
“What this program asks us to consider is the possibility of hope. Hope that a different perspective is possible. Hope that there is a different way.”
~ Russell Brand
This is more than a generic self-help that some celebrity paid someone else to ghostwrite. This is Russell Brand at his wonkiest, yet most insightful best. In his own stream-of-consciousness way, Brand breaks the 12 Steps down in a way that only someone who has truly been lost to addiction and self-destructive behaviors can.
In doing so, he makes the admittedly-daunting Steps more accessible to the rest of us. And that seems to be his biggest goal – spreading the message that there is a way forward for anyone being held back by problematic substance use, thought patterns, or self-defeating actions.
Reassuringly, he writes, “This book is not just about extremists like me. No, this book is about you.”
Uniquely Qualified to Write This Book
“I am not writing this book because I think I’m better than you. I know I’m worse… My qualification is that I am more addicted, more narcissistic, more driven by lust and the need for power and recognition.”
~ Russell Brand
Brand’s childhood and adolescence stand out as a virtual “how-to” of trauma:
- When he was 6 months old, his parents divorced. From that point on, he had a sporadic relationship with his father.
- At 7 years old, he was sexually abused by a tutor.
- When he was 8 years old, his mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
- A year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
- While Brand’s mother was in treatment, she was unable to care for him, so he lived with relatives.
- At 14, he struggled with bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by binge-eating followed by purging by vomiting or using laxatives.
- He left home at 16 because of conflicts with his mother’s partner.
Childhood Trauma and Addiction
“The basic cause of addiction is predominantly experience-dependent during childhood, and not substance-dependent.”
~ Dr. Vincent Felitti, expert on childhood trauma
What does Russell Brand’s childhood have to do with his eventual drug experimentation and eventual addiction?
More than you might guess.
A 2012 study revealed that trauma raises a child’s odds of developing depression an addiction later on. Maltreatment or traumatic experiences alter the brain regions associated with planning and emotional response.
Per the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 1 out of 4 American children suffer at least one Adverse Childhood Event. Significantly, research shows that each ACE experience increases the likelihood of initiating alcohol or drug use between 200% and 400%. This means a child witnessing or suffering 5 or more ACEs has an addiction risk that is 10-20 times higher than a child experiencing zero ACEs.
Young Russell Brand experienced at least SEVEN.
The Effect of Specific ACEs
The nature of the ACE matters, as well. For example, in Russell Brand’s case, we see:
- 14% of children start drinking/drink heavier after a divorce
- 13% experiment with or consider using drugs
- Boys living in single-parent households use tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana at higher rates. They also have a higher incidence of “acting out” with antisocial behaviors.
- The risk is increased further among boys who have a poor relationship with their father.
- 14% of girls and 5% of boys report Childhood Sexual Abuse. CSA is associated with heavy and hazardous drinking, marijuana use, illicit drug use, and the misuse of prescription medications.
- 50% of people with eating disorders abuse alcohol or drugs.
- This is five times the rate of the general population.
- Conversely, 35% of people who are dependent on/addicted to alcohol and drugs have an eating disorder.
- This rate is 11 times higher than that of the general population.
Teenage Drug Use
“I look to solve inner problems with external things. I’ll use anything to stop myself feeling, and as a little kid I was very lonely and confused. Anything that could temporarily relieve that, I was very grateful for.”
~ Russell Brand, in a 2014 interview with Oprah Winfrey
As a teenager, Brand was already an aspiring performer. He was awarded a scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy, a prestigious theater arts school in London. But freed from parental supervision, Brand soon got into drugs – marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, and ecstasy. Because of his illegal drug use and poor attendance, Brand was expelled after his first year.
Brand’s use of drugs as a young teenager is particularly significant in consideration of his later struggles with addiction. Today, we know much more than we used to about the effects that intoxicants have on the brain. And because the human brain does not stop developing until around age 25, teenagers who experiment with alcohol or drugs are at greatly-increased risk of eventually developing an addictive disorder.
Specifically, before the brain is fully-matured, there may be deficits in:
- The ability to weigh costs and benefits
- Impulse regulation
For example, 16% of individuals who try alcohol before the age of 12 will develop an Alcohol Use Disorder, compared with just 2.6% of those who took their first drink at age 21 or older.
Likewise, 5.4% of people who started smoking marijuana between the ages of 11 and 13 develop a cannabis dependence, compared to just .5% of those who waited until they were 21 or older to try the drug.
Lost to Drugs and Disturbing Behaviors
“There were terrible, terrible moments of loneliness in a flat where all I had were drugs. That was all I needed. I had a job at MTV. It went. I had a radio show. It went. Everything was going. My friends left me. Girlfriends left me. It was very scary.”
~ Russell Brand
By his 20s, Brand started to realize professional success, but he had also moved on to even harder substances like crack cocaine and heroin, the drug he has called “blissful”. Heroin literally took over his life. One of his writings from that period reads, “All my days are empty, and the pages of my diary are all silver foil, with naught but an inky black snake carving its way through the days.”
He had a girlfriend, but she disapproved of his heroin use, so he got high in secret. She even gave him an ultimatum—he could have her or the smack. He gave it up for a while, but eventually his drug use and serial infidelity–sexual addiction was another of Brand’s issues—so his girlfriend left him.
“Well, at least now she’s left me, I can just take loads of drugs again.”
Brand threw himself into his addictions, to the point that even more of his life was disrupted. He lost his job at MTV when he brought his drug dealer to the studio and introduced him to pop star Kylie Minogue.
Why Is Heroin So Addictive?
“If pain is a fist, heroin dives into it, opens it up and relaxes you. It feels so beautiful. It feels like a cuddle, like comfort, like being in your mother’s arms. It’s so sweet and perfect.”
~ Russell Brand
Brand’s heroin addiction isn’t surprising, because the drug is considered one of the most-addictive substances on the planet. In fact, approximately 1 in 4 people who even try heroin eventually get hooked.
Whenever a person performs some activity that is necessary to survival, such as sex or eating, their brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward, pleasure, learning, and motivation. When such actions are performed, the person is rewarded a flood of dopamine that makes them feel pleasure. Soon, they learn to repeat the behavior. The pleasurable reward is their motivation.
Heroin use triggers a similar action/reward response, but the dopamine rush is faster, stronger, and longer. Although it can also be snorted or injected, smoking heroin – Russell Brand’s preferred method – allows the drug to reach the brain in a matter of seconds, where up to 10 times the natural amount of dopamine is instantly released.
While that initial heroin rush only lasts for a few minutes, the high will last for the next several hours.
But over time and with repeated use, this artificial overstimulation disrupts the brain’s reward system. The dopamine response is reduced, and it takes more and more of the drug to achieve the same pleasurable effects. This is known as drug tolerance.
Eventually, the body shuts down natural dopamine production, and the person is unable to feel pleasure or motivation unless the drug is present. But this also means that they are drug dependent, and when it isn’t available, they experience harshly-uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin Withdrawal – the Horrors of Dope Sickness
“It was awful – hot and cold, nausea, and, worst of all, I remained horrifically awake all weekend. The best thing about heroin is it turns your life into a waking dream, but then, when I needed it most, my mistress sleep had deserted me.”
~ Russell Brand, discussing an early attempt to quit heroin
When undergoing heroin detox, the worst of the physical withdrawal symptoms will manifest somewhere between 12 and 30 hours of the last usage and persist approximately 5 days. However, in cases of severe heroin addiction, withdrawal may last up to two weeks.
Although it is not especially dangerous to quit heroin, the discomfort of withdrawal causes up to 80% of heroin addicts to relapse within the first year.
- Acute anxiety
- Heightened anxiety and restlessness
- Worsened depression
- Mood swings and irritability
- Severe headache
- Temperature deregulation – chills and hot flashes
- Inability to concentrate or focus
- Extreme fatigue
- Persistent insomnia
- Terrifying nightmares
- Tremors in the extremities – this is where the term “kicking the habit” comes from
- Muscle pain and cramps
- Profuse sweating
- Runny nose/Increased tearing
- Abdominal cramping/Diarrhea
- Skin-crawling sensation
- Goosebumps – this is where the term “cold turkey” comes from
Overall, people experiencing heroin withdrawal will feel profoundly ill, as if they are suffering from the worst case of flu ever. This is why heroin addicts in need of a fix will say they are “sick”.
Intimidated by the 12 Steps
“The 12 Step program, which has saved my life, will change the life of anyone who embraces it. I have seen it work many times with people with addiction issues of every hue: drugs, sex, relationships, food, work, smoking, alcohol, technology, pornography, hoarding, gambling, everything. Because the instinct that drives the compulsion is universal…We are all on the addiction scale.”
~ Russell Brand
When Brand entered the recovery program that changed his life, he was exposed to the original 12 Steps:
- We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
But like many people who are the Steps for the first time, Brand did not quite connect with them, responding with, “maybe for you, but not for me.”
He freely admits that his early rejection of Steps probably stemmed from his self-centeredness, a trait he shares with most addicts. That is a position he soon moved away from. Today, Brand says, “The reason I worked the 12 Steps was because I was desperate. The reason I continue to is because they have awakened me to the impossibility of happiness based on my previous world view: that I am the center of the world and that what I want is important.”
The 12 Steps in Russell Brand’s Language
“I believe that what the 12 Steps and their encompassing philosophy, which I will lay out for you in these pages, will provide is nothing less than a solution to the dissatisfaction of living, and dying, to anyone with the balls to do the work.”
~ Russell Brand
In Recovery, Brand attempts to “demystify” the Steps, keeping the intent while changing the language to appeal to those who have problems with the original wording:
- Are you a bit fucked?
- Could you not be fucked?
- Are you, on your own, going to ‘unfuck’ yourself?
- Write down all the things that are fucking you up or have ever fucked you up and don’t lie or leave anything out.
- Honestly tell someone trustworthy about how fucked you are.
- Well that’s revealed a lot of fucked-up patterns. Do you want to stop it? Seriously?
- Are you willing to live in a new way that’s not all about you and your previous, fucked-up stuff? You have to.
- Prepare to apologize to everyone for everything affected by your being so fucked-up.
- Now apologize. Unless that would make things worse.
- Watch out for fucked-up thinking and behavior and be honest when it happens.
- Stay connected to your new perspective.
- Look at life less selfishly, be nice to everyone, help people if you can.
Admittedly, Brand’s choice of words is a bit more colorful than most people are comfortable with, but they do cut to the heart of the program. In his book, he urges readers to make their recovery more personal by putting the Steps into whatever words make the most sense to them.
An Example of the 12 Steps in Action
In Recovery, Brand gives thanks to the 12-Step abstinence-based program that helped him change his life for the better. He first applied the Steps to alcohol and drugs, and when he found that they work, he used the Steps to address his issues with sex, food, and work. And because THAT worked, he now applies the Steps to his every thought and feeling.
Brand believes that the Steps help him better process the world and his place in it, saying, “My professional life, my domestic life, my spiritual life, and my new life as a dad are all lived via a map that has been drawn up using these principles.”
Russell Brand’s 12th Step
“It’s like I’ve been to a college of mental illness and now I’ve graduated. I want to help more people get into recovery. I want to help people become conscious of their addiction. I want to help people look at the world differently and pursue goals that are for their benefit and not to the benefit of other people.”
~ Russell Brand
Like most people who have achieved successful and lasting sobriety, Russell Brand lives his life according to the lessons and principles he learned in treatment. Real recovery requires dedicated lifestyle changes – people, places, things, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that can trigger relapse must be avoided. Just as important, Brand practices constant vigilance to ensure that he isn’t slipping back into old bad habits.
As a new father, Brand has even said that he will raise his daughter in accordance with the Steps, because it is the best way he knows to live a balanced life. This is his version of “practicing the principles in all of his affairs”.
Writing his book was also necessary to Brand’s continued sobriety. By detailing how the Steps helped him recover and stay clean for so many years, he does more than inspire others. He also holds himself accountable. Addiction thrives in best in the dark, so by shining a light on his own struggles and triumphs, Russell Brand has robbed the disease of much of its power.