Gifted, Talented, Addicted
by Douglas Eby
Writer Pearl Buck commented, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.”
Winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, she also added, “By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.”
A number of people with exceptional abilities have used drugs and alcohol as self-medication to ease the pain of that sensitivity, or as a way to enhance thinking and creativity. Sometimes they risk addiction.
Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music, and was an alcoholic or at least a problem-drinker.
Among the many other artists who have used drugs, alcohol or other substances are Aldous Huxley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Allen Ginsberg, composers Beethoven and Modest Musorgski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Tennessee Williams.
At least five U.S. writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been considered alcoholics.
Astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin said that he had been an alcoholic for several years before the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, and had quit drinking only two days before the historic flight, but resumed after his return to Earth. He became an active crusader against alcohol abuse.
Scientist Carl Sagan was reportedly a regular user of marijuana from the early 60’s until his death in 1996, using it on occasion to inspire some of his acclaimed scientific papers.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) used marijuana and LSD while in his mid 50’s, mostly while exploring consciousness in a sensory deprivation tank.
Naturopath Andrew Weil wrote in his book The Natural Mind (1971) about the advantages of “stoned thinking” in understanding health and diagnosing illnesses, and says he has tried about every drug in his book From Chocolate to Morphine.
While the National Institute on Drug Abuse says addiction to hallucinogens is almost unknown, some research they publish indicates that people who use or abuse one kind of drug are vulnerable to abusing other drugs, which may lead to addiction.
Actor Johnny Depp admits getting drunk to deal with his sensitivity, and having to go to functions like press appearances: “I guess I was trying not to feel anything.”
He thinks drug use “has less to do with recreation and more to do with the fact that we need to escape from our brains. We need to escape from everyday life. It’s self-medication and that’s the problem.”
Writer and producer David Milch (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Deadwood), when he was an undergrad at Yale, did “a lot of pharmacological research” as he has described his years-long addiction to heroin and alcohol.
Jane Piirto, Ph.D., Director of Talent Development Education at Ashland University notes in her article “The Creative Process in Poets” that the “altered mental state brought about by substances has been thought to enhance creativity – to a certain extent.
But, she adds, “The danger of turning from creative messenger to addicted body is great, and many writers have succumbed, especially to the siren song of alcohol.”
She quotes poet Charles Baudelaire on using alcohol to enhance imagination: “Always be drunk. That is all: it is the question. You want to stop Time crushing your shoulders, bending you double, so get drunk – militantly. How? Use wine, poetry, or virtue, use your imagination. Just get drunk”