Gifted and Talented, Drugs and Alcohol

Many talented people with exceptional artistic and intellectual abilities have used drugs and alcohol. Sometimes they risk addiction.

Edie Falco says her past alcoholism has helped make her role as an addicted nurse even more authentic in “Nurse Jackie.”

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman says he used drugs and alcohol earlier in his life. “It was anything I could get my hands on. I liked it all.”

He got sober, he says, because “You get panicked. I was 22, and I got panicked for my life.”

Drew Barrymore was smoking at age nine, drinking alcohol at 11, using marijuana at 12 and cocaine at 13, and had at least two stints in rehab.

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.”

Among others who have used drugs, alcohol or other psychoactive substances are Aldous Huxley, Poe, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin, Carl Sagan, physicist Richard Feynman, naturopath Andrew Weil.

Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music, and was an alcoholic or at least a problem-drinker.

At least five U.S. writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been considered alcoholics.

Heather King, a National Honor Society scholar, and a commentator for All Things Considered on NPR, says in an article of hers (“Quitting the Bar, Twice”) that she made a decision to go to law school because it would force her “to study so hard I would naturally cut down on my drinking.

“Somewhere along the line I would be transformed from a person with a nervous system so sensitive that, when sober, merely being addressed by a fellow human being almost caused me to hyperventilate.”

[See more on her site]

Her memoir Parched details her twenty years as an alcoholic before a family intervention and sobriety.

A push toward addiction often starts at a young age.

In the book Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, Lisa, 14, talks about being given Valium by a doctor: “Taking pills or smoking a joint helped get me through the day.” She said gifted kids take drugs “To dull themselves… there is so much of the wrong kind of stimulation going on around you.”

Acclaimed writer and memoirist Anne Lamott has written very candid about her years of drug and alcohol abuse in her column and elsewhere.

In a PBS profile, she commented about starting in eighth grade: “You’re completely hormonally challenged up the ying-yang and on top of all these feelings they make you go to dances. I stood around, and no one asked me to dance, and then I had like a beer and a half. And boys asked me to dance and I was home free.

“I think things started to work for me a little bit better when I started to take drugs and to drink alcoholically. I started to drink pretty regularly by the time I was 13. I got very drunk on a nightly basis from the time I was about 19 ’til 32.”

She now finds being sober a “grace” supported by her Christian faith.

Why do we do drugs?

There is of course no one simple explanation, but many talented people have used drugs and alcohol as self-medication to ease their painful moods such as social anxiety or depression, or to buffer the stress and emotional intensity that can be part of high sensitivity.

One way I tried to deal with depression and anxiety, over two decades ago, was by using coke. And I don’t mean the soft drink. Fortunately, I got past a three year addiction to it, using cognitive behavioral therapy.

Many people have also used various substances to enhance thinking and creative inspiration. Or at least try to.

The Highly Sensitive Nervous System

In their article “A Bioanthropological Overview of Addiction,” Doris F. Jonas, Ph.D. and A. David Jonas, M.D. consider that a “nervous system so exquisitely adapted to perceiving the minutest changes in environmental signals clearly becomes overwhelmed and produces dysphoria when its carrier must exist among the exponentially increased social stimuli of a modern environment.”

Those with less sensitive nervous systems are, they write, “better adapted to our more crowded living conditions. The more sensitive can only attempt to ease their discomfort by blunting their perceptions with alcohol or depressive drugs or, alternatively, by using consciousness-altering drugs to transport their senses from the dysphoric world in which they live to private worlds of their own.”

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine N. Aron Ph.D. comments, “It is not surprising that artists turn to drugs, alcohol, and medications to control their arousal or to recontact their inner self. But the long-term effect is a body further off balance.”

In her article Weed Girl, Belinda Housenbold Seiger, PhD, LCSW writes about a client of hers she calls “Weed Girl” – who was “pretty convinced that she was just a big screw-up and had forgotten about any of her strengths.” Dr. Seiger continues:

As with with many gifted people who hear the dual messages of “wow, you’re so smart or creative or talented,” along with the “you’re too much too handle” message, Weed Girl never learned how to cope with her own busy mind.

Instead of developing the essential coping skills for managing what I call a “rage to achieve,” many gifted adults grow up doing exactly what Weed Girl learned to do, that is they learn how to “numb and dumb,” their passion and sensitivity by smoking pot.

See more about all this in my articles Actors and Addiction, and Gifted, Talented, Addicted.

Related articles:

College Students Use Alcohol as Way of Coping with Social Anxiety

Edie Falco: My Past Addiction Helps in “Jackie”

Related page: Alcohol and talent

Related post – Many talented people use or abuse drugsLady Gaga used to snort “bags and bags” of cocaine; Tobey Maguire has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for more than a third of his life; Kirsten Dunst likes weed.

Book by Eric Maisel: Creative Recovery: A Complete Addiction Treatment Program That Uses Your Natural Creativity.

Programs for non-drug self-help: Anxiety Relief Solutions

Site: Highly Sensitive

Image from book Addiction: Why Can’t They Just Stop?

Habit Doc – Psychologist Marc Kern provides an “Effective Alternative to AA”


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Originally posted 2010-04-19 17:24:44.


  1. I find it interesting that a lot of the quotes and examples come from actors. I guess some people relate to actors and, therefore, can relate to their experiences. I, for one, do not hold actors in high esteem innately and they earn respect on the same level as other professions do. That said, way too many people commit suicide. My best friend was one of them a few years ago. While not intellectually gifted, he was gifted in his own ways. He saw a life he did not want to live anymore, which I have seen in my own life a lot of times. I have decided that instead of ending my entire life, I can decide not to care as much (if I was going to end it anyways, who cares?), which gives me the freedom to create more of the life that I want.

What do you think about these topics?