COMEDIAN, ACTOR, AUTHOR, and activist Russell Brand, who needs no introduction, has struggled with addiction throughout his life. Recently we discussed his new book, Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, in which he shares the hard lessons he has learned over the years.
BRAD EVANS: We all know any book is the outcome of months and sometimes years of procrastination. What really compelled you to write this book at this moment in your life?
RUSSELL BRAND: I felt that anybody who is in recovery has an experience where the initial attempt to tackle addiction — in my case crack and heroin — ends up being utilized in every aspect of your life. Working through and following the same principles can alter all behaviors and all forms of destructive attachments. So what I felt was I’d reached a point in my life where I have gone through so many layers of disillusionment, with sex, fame, Hollywood, and the rest, and the recovery lens through which I live my life offered something.
Don’t get me wrong — disillusionment is a good thing. After all, who wants to be bloody illusioned! Now I by no means do it perfectly. Far from it! But I have seen the techniques that I followed change lives. So I wanted to expound these to offer a counter-weight to the prevailing addictive ideologies of our times, which is a determined and yet unconscious self-centeredness.
When reading the manuscript, I was trying to figure out what type of book it actually was. Ironic, I know, for a so-called post-modernist! I think, in an affirmative way, it’s like an “Anti-Self-Help-Book.” And what I mean is the central message I see jumping off the pages is that it’s precisely the traits of the self-centered, individualistic, fuck-the-world-and-its-loving-sentiments attitudes that get you precisely into the fix in the first place. Hence it’s not about self-help; rather it’s all about a sober and truthful cry for human connection.
I think our culture and our biochemistry can collude to become our worst allies. They can create a kind of chronic individualism. And I feel the natural conclusion of a secular rejection of the mystical leads us to the point that we are just individuals. We are only here for ourselves, surviving alone, and learning how to dominate certain situations so we can fulfill our own impulses and desires.
When I try to find personal fulfillment in my life I still often find myself in a sort of peculiar despair. I start to feel lonely and disconnected. Then I remind myself. Hence why I feel qualified to write about addiction is my life is like a map of addicted lines from money, crack, fame, sex, relationships, and seeking out other people’s approval. And so I see this phenomena appearing again and again in my own life. Maybe the label “addiction” itself is too confining and what we are actually dealing with is the human condition in motion. We live in a culture that uses as its fuel this will to acquire and possess. But the tragedy is such a desire to possess things ends up possessing us.
But this is a constant battle. Every day I wake and I am bewitched and hypnotized by the seductive lure of materialism. And yet I know that when I go and help other people, sometimes in blatant sub–Princess Diana ways or even on a more basic human level by just listening to other people’s problems, that’s when I feel genuinely fulfilled and my life has meaning and significance. There is an indescribable energy there when you begin to help somebody else. It’s a kind of elevated sense of human connection. And you also start to see the real beauty of a person when they help somebody less fortunate. A life of unselfish purpose, empathy, compassion, all those words that are excluded from the political and social ideologies of our times suddenly become accessible through the most basic of human actions and behaviors.
So why do you think then that we often act and behave against our better judgments? I am thinking here of our attraction to relationships and people we know to be detrimental and indeed toxic to our physical and emotional well-being.
Possibly a misplaced sense of romanticism. What I mean by this is the individualistic notion that you can find fulfillment by being with some aspirational figure that comes from the desire to be with some deity or earthly goddess. I’ll find salvation if I find the true one, like your own personal Jesus. This idea I think is highly prevalent. And yet even more toxic I think is the commodification and objectification of all relationships. To view somebody like an object that can serve you, make you feel better, and improve your social status. Now I have to admit that in my case this happened all too easily. I have to work to not approach relationships in this indulgent way. But these are just tendencies. And that’s what a recovery program means to me. It is to learn to acknowledge and deal with these tendencies on a daily basis.
It’s also important to recognize it’s not the difference between having a program and no program. We are socially and culturally programmed to behave in certain ways, not least the program of vapid consumerism. And so if you don’t undo that program, decode yourself from the “I’ll never be good enough unless I get my hand on that object” like somebody who is leaving an all too consuming cult, then that’s the program which will come to shape your existence.
We have to learn to untangle the strands that bind us to materialism. We know the material world is an illusion that is transmitted into our consciousness through the senses. This is why personal crisis is important here. It gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our lives and ask difficult questions.
There is invariably a deep philosophical underpinning to this project. And that is the attempt to connect with something, which in the most inexplicable but no less real ways gives meaning to this all too fleeting life. Am I right in saying this is truly a search for the substantive over the superficial? Or to put it another way, maybe it’s an embrace of something irreducibly spiritual, which only comes from certain courage to tell the truth about your existence?
What is substantial about the spiritual to me is its efficacy. I know it works. When I do these things I feel better in ways I can’t explain but know are real. It doesn’t require any science to tell me this. When I am kind, loving, and when I surrender I know that I am becoming a better me. These things can’t be measured. Nor can they be mechanized or monetized. They are in fact affective. They have a truth, which is different and difficult to legislate or iterate. This again is the deception of secular materialism. It teaches you to become suspicious of those feelings you know to be true. And then it sells us solutions to our problems that come from living under the false ideals of consumerism. This is how addictions take hold. They don’t appear as problems but solutions in our attempts at seeking some form of human connection. And this is why I think we are all somewhere on the addictive scale.
I know that I could lapse at any moment. I don’t know what’s around the corner. What unforeseen event might push me back into the depths of loneliness and despair? This is why I haven’t written this book from a position of authority. It’s written from a position of an experience I am still living. And it’s when I actually think that I’ll take full control of this situation that the ego starts to reappear, armed with its desire, pleasure, and fear to send me down the wrong path. So the reason why the spiritual is important is that it is the only thing that can transcend the material and passive consumerism.
You talk in the book of the need to confide in others about your troubles. I would like to read out this particular segment, not only because it brought tears to my eyes, but also because I think it really addresses what’s at stake here:
Suddenly my fraught and freighted childhood became reasonable and soothed. “My mum was doing her best, so was my dad.” Yes, people made mistakes but that’s what humans do and I am under no obligation to hoard these errors and allow them to clutter my perception of the present. Yes, it is wrong that I was abused as a child but there is no reason for me to relive it, consciously or unconsciously, in the way I conduct my adult relationships. My perceptions of reality, even my own memories, are not objective or absolute, they are a biased account and they can be altered.
The moves here from the deeply personal and tragic to the transformative are powerful. And it no doubt takes a great deal of courage to put this onto paper. How do you hope these words can help in the healing of others who carry such difficult memories?
As Jarvis Cocker once put it, “without people we are nothing.” Recovery and spirituality are collective and communal activities. They cannot be achieved by being stuck into a pod and shot into outer space. Primarily it is about how you relate to yourself and how you relate to others as people. Just to clarify, the abuse you referred to in the passage happened outside of my family and the issue, I feel, is that it’s possible to alter our perception of the past, and in doing so we also alter our perception of the present. But you can’t just say this to yourself stuck in some room. It has to be related.
Lets now connect this more specifically to your earlier work on the War on Drugs. Historically, the drugs issue has often been neatly separated into war/law versus development/health paradigms. Now while the critique of the former is most welcome, too often the latter can reduce this to questions of individual pathology or deviance. It is simply the individual who screws up! How might we learn to better connect the social to the individual in this context?
The criminalization of drugs is a useful social tool in the management of populations. And I agree with your critique of the health model as a determinate means for reducing what is a social issue to some individual pathology. Addiction can affect anybody, but it is certainly exacerbated by economic deprivation. But there are different forms of deprivation too, like emotional deprivation, so it’s not like the poor simply have full ownership of this. Though it would be nice for them to have exclusive control of something! What I mean is that its effects are felt more there in terms of the experience, the treatments, whether you are criminalized or not, and often whether it takes your life.
A while back I went on a police raid in west London. This was a very revelatory experience for me. They battered the door in of this “crack house” — which in itself is an interesting description for a deprived home — and what dwelled within was not monsters. It was like booting down the door of a leukemia ward. It was full of thin, emaciated, and broken people who were slumped and pale in chairs, denied sunlight of every variety — literal and spiritual.
These were people who were just holding their lives together. And what I realized here was that it’s precisely those programs, which take you from the individual narcissism and nihilism to forms of social care and compassion that are most needed here. If we have an inclusive, empathetic society then by definition you don’t abandon people to the fate of forces beyond their control. We need to help people so that they are not defined by problems, which are often social problems. If we have systems that emphasize the corollary and connection between us then we will build a better society that is more inclusive.
I want to push you a bit on this term “recovery,” which is used for the title. The way you seem to use and deploy the term here is different from more simplistic understandings, which might refer to the rediscovering of some essential self that’s been somehow trapped or frozen in time and just needs to be re-discovered. And yet this book seems to also be a critique of such perfectible lifestyles. Or that to recover means to also accept that sometimes it’s actually okay not to be okay in life, and that all of us struggle with our identities.
This again is something I have only found in spiritual conversations. You accept fallibility as part of the human condition. And you don’t punish yourself because of it. Humanity needs to relinquish the idea of perfectibility. Now a natural biochemical entity like the human does have a code. It will grow a certain way, if in our case unimpeded by social, political, cultural forces. But we know those forces exist. So when I use the term recovery I am talking more about an intended path, which doesn’t condemn us to live addicted lives and to succumb to the logics of passivity and its false material prophets. We must be reborn from a world that sees us only as a statistic.
To conclude, I’d like to end on the issue you begin with at the very start of the book — namely the big impending “D” or death question. As you point out in the introduction, we don’t like to talk about the reality of death individually, and it certainly is not something we like to talk about publicly. And yet since Plato onward, it has been thought that to philosophize is to learn how to die.
I don’t think however this goes far enough, or at least it needs to be taken a stage further. As they say, “Religion is for people who fear hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” With this in mind, your book leaves me asking: How can we examine our life, to learn to appreciate its finitude and the impending death we all face by actually crossing over and looking at life from the perspective of death? Or, as you say, to ask serious questions about our life, our present, and our hopes from the future, while already knee-deep in the mud of our tragic and yet still wondrous condition?
This requires actually some rather simplistic shifts in acceptance and gratitude. To begin, on an all too human level, I relinquish the idea that I am not homeless, lying in a gutter and smacked up on crack because I am now somehow a superior being literally looking down. It’s more because of some random set of coordinates and unforeseen events, which have deposited me into a comfortable life, and I’m really lucky and gracious. So I don’t have a punitive attitude toward those people who by chance find themselves in desperate states.
I always find it a real honor that when I am among addicts they will often just take me for who I am. They know my past and my fallibilities. And it’s in these moments that I also realize we are all ultimately connected. We are all experiencing this thing called life together as part of a shared consciousness, for better and worse. And when I realize this I know I am not on my own anymore. I am no longer afraid. I don’t have these obligations to prop up some avatar of myself, some deification that people might love or give me approval in order for me to ameliorate some inner sense of worthlessness and isolation.
When the self feels like it’s worthless or nothing I feel we are searching for a deeper truth. How can we not be disconnected or divided, separate from everything? Clearly the retreat into individualism is more than self-defeating here. Because if we separate we are condemning ourselves to nothingness! This is not about the annihilation of the self as in the subjugation in a violent or destructive way. But the recognition that there is no need for fear because we are already one, and these things are not just philosophical tropes or empty mantras, they are things you can live by recognizing that your own suffering is an opportunity and call to break out from the imposed paradigm that reduces worthiness simply to what objects you accumulate. And this is what it means I think to find out the truth about ourselves.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.
Artwork: Chantal Meza, Get Away II, Oil on Canvas 55×78 (2014).