The musician opens up about his struggles with addiction in his teens and 20s and how he turned his life around
Duff McKagan has a lot to be grateful for.
The bassist, 59, released his third solo album, Lighthouse, on Oct. 20, and now, after wrapping up Guns N' Roses' world tour in Mexico on Nov. 6, he's getting ready for some much-deserved downtime over the holidays with his wife of nearly 25 years, model Susan Holmes, 51, and their two daughters: Grace, 26, and Mae, 23.
"Success, to me, has never been cars or money or whatever," McKagan tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I play with artsits who are amazing, and I have Susan. With those two things, I feel like I could tame a lion. I've got so much good s--- behind me."
It's been a long journey here for McKagan, whose semi-charmed life once felt far out of reach.
"At 15, I had this romantic, Norman Rockwell vision of s---, and I didn't think I was going to get there at 27, 28, 29, 30," he says. "But some things happened to me that switched my direction in life, and here I am."
A major shift in McKagan's life happened at age 30 in 1994, when he decided to finally get sober after being hospitalized for acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis.
"I wasn't planning on living past 30 at that point," he says. "I wasn't headed toward a long life at all. Not to be morose, but that's just the truth. I'd gotten used to people dying, and when you get used to it and you're using, it's a really dark place."
At 21, McKagan says he started using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for his panic attacks, which have plagued him since age 16.
"I figured out that half a bottle of vodka would kill a panic attack," he says. "The problem is when you start drinking and then doing drugs, there's so much sugar and alcohol and no sleeping, so you're going to have more panic attacks. So guess what? I self-medicated more and more."
At 26, he had the realization: "I'm addicted to so many things."
"It wasn't part of my plan when I was 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 to become addicted," he says. "I tried to stop. I would say, 'I'll stop next week. Once we're done with this tour. In a month I'll do something.' I would try to stop it, but I was really just too far gone by the time I was 29. It was dark."
After his hospitalization, during which doctors told him he would be dead within a month if he did not stop drinking, McKagan knew he had no choice but to finally make a change.
"I realized I was self-medicating when I got sober," he says. "So I was like, 'Now what do I do with these panic attacks?' That's where martial arts came in. I met my sensei, who is still my sensei, and I saw the calmness in his eyes. I was like, 'If I could get that, I wonder if I could handle my panic attacks better.'"
While he tried anxiety medications, McKagan says they were "not good for me." Instead he used his twice-a-day martial arts training, reading and mountain biking to manage his sobriety and mental health.
"I was looking in the mirror and trying to figure out who the f--- I was," he says. "And being sober after being f---ed up for so long is like you're on acid for the first six months. Everything's so real."
This period of transition prepared McKagan to meet his longtime love, Holmes, whom he was set up with through a mutual friend in 1996.
"My friend was like, 'Man, I know you've been sober, and I know you're not dating,'" he recalls. "I'm like, 'I don't know how to date. I'm trying to figure out who the f--- I am before I try to bring somebody else in there.'"
But after talking on the phone with Holmes a few times, McKagan was sold on meeting her.
"She was a mixture between one of my sisters that made me feel comfortable, but she was also super sexy," he says. “It was so genuinely nice the things we talked about. Then she offered to pick me up at Burbank Airport. She met me at the gate, and I was like, 'Holy f---.' She was breathtakingly stunning.”
In 1999, McKagan and Holmes got married. They've been together ever since.
"Meeting Susan made me solidify that I ain't going back ever because I don't want to let this woman down, who I cherish," he says. "I ain't going to let her down. I'm not going to let [my kids] down. [The alcohol] sitting there on the shelf over across the room right across from me is going, 'Come on, come on.' Every day: 'Come on.' And I look at it and I go, 'Not today.' I have too much goodness in my life, man."
Even with all the light in his life now, McKagan admits without hesitation that his struggles with panic attacks and depression remain ongoing.
"They always said panic disorder is a symptom of depression, but I [didn't realize I had] depression until I was about 50," he says. "I had this massive fall off the cliff, and it lasted about three weeks. It wasn't anything going on in my life, my life was great. It's a chemical f---ing imbalance. It's not my fault. When people think of depression, it's like, 'Oh, snap out of it, man.' I couldn't drive or f---ing tie my shoes! And it's happened to me a couple of times. It's broken a couple of times. I've sought and received help, and I have a weekly help. And I had to medicate through that, and that's totally fine. I needed it."
When he's on the road touring, McKagan says his "fight or flight" can often be triggered.
"I've had some panic attacks out here, but not the darkness," he says. "Two of the guys I'm with, I've been with since I was 20 years old, and we've been through so much together that it just feels like a place of safety for me. We've seen so much that we can't explain to anybody else. I can't even explain to Susan what it was like. I can tell her a story, but those two other guys truly understand, and they've seen me having panic attacks since we met."
These days, McKagan keeps a handle on his panic disorder by talking "to somebody once a week," he says. "It really helps."
"I know that that doctor's there, on text or anytime I need, so that's very helpful," he continues. "Susan's always there, but I don't want to worry her all the time."
For Mental Health Awareness month in May, McKagan released his song, "This Is the Song," which was written amidst a panic attack.
"I'll have panic attacks and I'll get up and go downstairs and start playing my acoustic guitar," he says. "That's my f---ing sword I can do this battle with."
After everything he's been through, McKagan knows his story is meant to serve a greater purpose.
"I believe me going through panic attacks, active addiction, getting sober, depression and all these things was so I could help others," he says. "I understand it fully. Depression? I get it. I'm hearing you. You're not alone."
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