Why musicians are falling back into addiction during lockdown

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 “I f----d up, I wasn’t sober the last couple of months,” Miley Cyrus told Zane Low
“I f----d up, I wasn’t sober the last couple of months,” Miley Cyrus told Zane Low

A year into Covid, life looks very different to how it did in January 2020. We have all coped differently, too. For some, the recalibration to a more stay-at-home life has been an easy, sometimes welcome transition. For many, though, the challenges of lockdown have proved much more difficult to deal with.

For the American country singer-songwriter Cady Groves, the situation proved tragic. On May 2 last year, she was found dead in her Nashville home; three months later, the Davidson County Medical Examiner’s Office recorded that the 30 year old had died as a result of “chronic ethanol abuse”.

Groves had previously spoken about mental health issues and received support from American charity Musicares, which provides mental health and addiction support to musicians and others in the music industry.

In an Instagram post in April, she had revealed that she was struggling with the isolation and loneliness of being at home alone. “I don’t have a television,” she wrote, “so I’ve had to REALLY just be alone with myself and my thoughts and fears and anxiety in my bedroom without anybody here in Nashville.”

“Some days my mental health is AWFUL. I feel completely alone and scared and far from everyone I love and all I can do is keep myself busy and push through. Some days are better. I know that the way I feel isn’t special because we are ALL living through this separately, but together.” 

Cady Groves - Instagram 
Cady Groves - Instagram

In the music world, Groves’ story has sadly not been a lone tragedy. On August 20, blues guitarist Townes Van Earle, son of blues legend Steve Earle, died of an overdose of the opioid Fentanyl, laced with cocaine, aged 38. Figures from the US Center for Disease Control published last month showed that in the year to May 2020, there were a record 81,000 drug overdose deaths in America; the report also suggests that this rapid acceleration will have become worse during the Covid lockdown. With rise of almost 40 per cent in related deaths, synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl – used to cut many other drugs, and can be fatal even in tiny doses – are highlighted as a primary driver.

The Covid pandemic has, in some ways, affected almost all musicians in a relatively equal way. No touring means that incomes have been slashed, while being able to live off streaming royalties is out of reach for many. It has put musicians in a state of pause, either having to work whatever jobs they can find, or forced to fill a vast void of time where once every minute was accounted for, while the entire industry sits in a holding pattern. But for those musicians denied a creative outlet and living with or recovering from addiction or alcohol abuse, the inertia, isolation, fear and boredom has only amplified the challenge of staying on top of it.

Even Miley Cyrus has admitted that during lockdown she fell off the alcohol wagon, having quit drinking when she turned 27 in order to avoid becoming part of the “27 Club” that claimed the lives of musicians such as Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. “I f----d up, I wasn’t sober the last couple of months,” she told Zane Lowe in November. “I’m not a moderation person. I fell off, [but] I am now back on sobriety, two weeks sober, and I feel like I [have] really accepted that time. “One of the things I’ve used is, ‘Don’t get furious, get curious’. So, don’t be mad at yourself, but ask yourself, ‘What happened?’”

One answer to that question comes from Dr Tamra Hall, AVP of Clinical Excellence and Quality for U.S. addiction organisation American Addiction Centres. In their work, providing help to people seeking support and treatment for all kinds of addictions, AAC have seen a rise in people contacting them. “In 2020, American Addiction Center saw an increase in treatment for opioid and alcohol use disorders. as well as reported relapse rates,” Hall explains. “Measures to protect against Covid-19, such as social distancing and isolation, have had a direct effect on individuals who struggle with substance use and mental health disorders.

“We know that stress, fear and isolation are all risk factors for relapse. Fellowship via community has been shown to be a strong motivating factor in maintaining sobriety. Community provides a support system, accountability and other principles that make the commitment of lifelong recovery possible.”

British guitarist and busker Laurie Wright hasn’t fallen back into his old ways, but he’s still felt that same pinch as Cyrus and other superstars. Having discovered alcohol aged 11, and drugs when he was 16 after taking ecstasy when he played Glastonbury, he eventually got into crack, became homeless, and at one point, very nearly died. He’s now clean, but he says lockdown threw up particular challenges. “I’ve kept on top of things by keeping busy,” he says, most notably releasing a charity Christmas single, Cold Turkey on Christmas Day with his band The Lockdown, to raise money for Shelter and Young Minds.

He’s also done streamed events, but says they aren’t as satisfying as the real thing: the money’s not as good, while “us musicians love a round of applause to stroke our egos, and there’s none of that!” Though Wright has managed to avoid drink and drugs, he says that it hasn’t been easy. As is a common story, the isolation and endless days of nothing that can make things begin to feel pointless have meant that the mind can easily go to bad places.

“Lockdown does lead people back into bad behaviour, but I can only talk about my personal experience,” he says. “During the first lockdown I became unhealthily attached to a girl I was seeing, which ended badly. I have become very self-obsessed from time to time, either feeling as if I am better or worse than other people, as opposed to feeling equal to everyone. The only thing I haven’t done wrong is relapse, and I know that others have not been so lucky.”

In the absence of his usual support system, Wright has been helped by Narcotics Anonymous, although he admits that he hasn’t been taking part in the online meetings “anywhere near as much as I should be doing”. Not only has the world’s move online introduced him to video-conferencing’s impersonal touch, but it’s also removed an element of routine, of actually going somewhere regularly – which for some is a valuable part of recovery.

“I understand we shouldn’t be spreading the virus, but I don’t see why when the churches and pubs are open we can’t meet in person whilst maintaining social distancing, especially as support meetings are often held in church,” he says. “I’ve heard AA is still going on behind closed doors, although I go to NA mostly and that’s all online as far as I’m aware. It’s all the same, though. NA, AA, CA – we’re all dealing with addiction to something. It’s the addiction that’s the issue, not the substance itself.”

Across the board, it’s agreed that more Government assistance is needed for struggling addicts. Dr Hall says that funding for treatment and prevention services is “key to battling the addiction crisis”. According to Wright, in Britain it’s difficult to access help for people such as him, and there needs to be more state-funded support and a change in attitudes, such as “NHS rehab without waiting lists spanning six-plus months, the decriminalising of drugs themselves to encourage a healthy relationship between drugs and the nation like we do with alcohol, which isn’t even considered a drug by most people.”

He adds: “I think the government should be doing far more than the current next to nothing that they’re offering up for addicts. Look at Portugal and what they’ve done for addiction through legalisation. We should take after Portugal, but go one step further and encourage the rest of the world to stop seeing addicts as criminals. “If you tell someone repeatedly they’re a bad person they’re gunna believe it and continue to do bad things. We need to treat addiction compassionately now. Drugs will always be taken, and that’s never ever going to change with this 1950s parenting ‘war on drugs’ nonsense – it has been tried and tested time and again, which has categorically proved that it does not work.”