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Russell Brand: I Was A Nightmare To Be Around
When Russell Brand, the controversial and very popular British comedian, actor, author and activist talks about his 10 or more years of substance abuse and addiction, from the early ’90s to the early 2000s, he says at its worst he “was a nightmare to be around.”
London’s popular daily newspaper, The Guardian, asked Brand what was the worst thing he did during that period to feed his addiction. Brand said he stole his grandmother’s pension check. “Took me Nan’s pension,” he said. “That’s quite bad, isn’t it?”
Brand explains that his decade or more of drug and alcohol addiction was in fact the use of “external substances” to deal with “internal issues,” stemming from real events early in his life. “Drugs and alcohol are not my problem,” he says. “Reality is my problem, and drugs and alcohol are my solution.”
Now 39, Brand has been sober for nearly 11 years, but he insists that the specter of relapse is ever-present. He says he lives life one day at a time, frequently having to consciously resist the temptations of drugs and alcohol.
“The last time I thought about heroin was yesterday,” he said in a guest column in The Guardian recently. The thought of the drug came unbidden, when he received some emotionally unpleasant news. “I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralizing pain. It transforms a tight, white fist into a gentle, brown wave. From my first inhalation 15 years ago, it fumigated my private hell and lay me down in its hazy pastures, and a bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.”
(Hackney is an area of London which had one of the highest crime rates in the city at the time. Some of its streets were referred to as “Murder Mile.” And that’s the kind of environment in which a young Russell Brand found himself snorting heroin.)
Russell Edward Brand was born in a pleasant town in the borough of Essex, England, about 20 miles east of London on the north banks of the River Thames. He is the only child of Ronald Brand, a photographer, and Barbara Nichols, his mother.
Brand has described his childhood as not a happy one — his parents divorced when he was only 6 months old, and he was raised by his mother. He was sexually abused by a tutor when he was 7 years old, and when he was 8, his mother fell ill to cancer. Russell was sent to live with relatives.
Brand says he felt isolated and lonely and was “grateful for anything that could relieve those feelings” such as chocolate and foods and behavioral quirks. At 14 he had developed bulimia nervosa — a condition where one binges on food and vomits to not gain weight or to make room for more food. When he was 16, disagreements with his still-sick mother’s live-in partner convinced him to leave home and strike out on his own.
He was already interested in performing, in “becoming famous” he says with a laugh, and he had been accepted at a theater arts school on a scholarship from Essex County Council. But once away from home, he was soon using marijuana, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy, and was expelled after his first year for illegal drug use and poor attendance.
For the next several years, Brand struggled to establish a career as a comedian, actor and entertainer, all the while getting deeper and deeper into drugs. Before it was finally over, he had become a full-blown junkie, a term he says he has no trouble applying to himself.
His career got a boost in 2000, when he drew national attention doing stand-up on a British comedy competition TV show. The exposure got him an agent and new opportunities, including comedy acts, radio gigs and a stint as a roving reporter for MTV. But he was still thoroughly enmeshed in his addictions — heroin and other drugs, alcohol and out-of-control promiscuity.
Brand eventually managed to get into an abstinence-based recovery program in 2002, after it became obvious that his career and possibly his life hung in the balance. His agent found him taking heroin in the toilet at an office Christmas party and got Brand into a 12-week rehabilitation program. He’s been sober ever since.
Brand has established a persona as a comedy risk-taker, something that hasn’t changed in the years since. Nothing has been too sacred for his social commentary type comedy, including his own addiction to drugs and alcohol and sex. And audiences have responded by filling huge theaters and concert halls to listen to his unique and hilarious commentary.
In his blogs, articles, books, interviews, stand-up routines and television hosting, Brand displays an astonishing command of an unusually large English vocabulary. Combined with his irreverent, anything-goes observations of celebrities, politics, big business and modern life in general, Brand’s vivid language paints powerful pictures for his audiences.
Brand often expresses his views in rather caustic terms and his views frequently stir up conflict with authority figures. But that is usually just fine with his younger and more thoughtful followers. For example, when he hosted the MTV Music Video Awards in 2008, Brand created some controversy by making jokes about performers, urging the audience to vote for Obama, disparaging former President George W. Bush (“that retarded cowboy fella” who, in England, “wouldn’t be trusted with pair of scissors”).
Letters and calls of protest poured into the MTV studios for days — he even received death threats. But when the MTV brass saw that the ratings were up 20 percent over the year before, they invited Brand back to host the 2009 show. And the ratings for that show were the highest since 2004. He’s hosted numerous other shows and continues to disturb as well as entertain.
After receiving the Oracle award at the 2013 GQ Awards show last fall, Brand mentioned in his acceptance speech that one of the show’s sponsors, German luxury fashion house Hugo Boss, used to make uniforms for the Nazi regime. He was physically ejected from the awards show theater, but the audience got Brand’s usual message: Don’t take everything you’re offered at face value.
As an iconoclast — targeting icons of society that he perceives as harmful to the public good — Brand’s outspoken views have developed an international following. He’s famous for targeting the hypocrisy of politics and political figures, to the point that he’s seen by some as the leader of a new world revolution — something he enjoys, but doesn’t take all that seriously.
Since his recovery of a life without drugs, Brand has fairly exploded into all sorts of activities that, were he still addicted and still alive, he would never be able to deal with. He’s incredibly busy, seeming to be everywhere you look these days — talk shows, print interviews, acting in movies, television hosting, radio commentating, script and book writing, music videos, a production company and activism involving everything from religious freedom and politics to being asked to host a Buddhist youth event by the Dalai Lama, because Brand has demonstrated “the power of spirituality to effect change in his own life”.
What’s also very important to Brand personally is the ignorance of those who make the laws governing drugs and addiction. Brand is an outspoken opponent of drug treatment that substitutes one drug for another, one addiction for another. He is particularly outraged by the use of methadone to treat opioid addiction.
“We might as well let people carry on taking drugs if they’re going to be on methadone,” Brand says. “Obviously it’s painful to abstain, but at least it’s hope-based.”
Brand believes that only an abstinence-based treatment modality offers the best chance of continuing sobriety. He told the London Observer recently: “Without abstinence-based recovery, I’m a highly defective individual, prone to self-centeredness, self-pity and self-destructive, grandiose behavior. But if I seek the company and fellowship of other addicts and alcoholics — and, for me, alcoholism is no different from other facets of addiction — then, one day at a time, I have a chance of living free from [addiction]. I wouldn’t be able to do it without that.”
In an article on Brand’s recovery in the Guardian, the chief executive of Focus 12, the charity rehab facility that helped Russell Brand recover, was asked about his view of methadone treatment. “The beauty of the methadone program is that it’s really easy,” said Chip Somers, himself a former addict. “You just dish it out. End of story. It’s a way of shutting up a large population of drug addicts and keeping them out of the way instead of having to engage with people and do things differently.”
Brand testified not long ago at a British government Home Affairs Committee that was examining government drugs policy. He called for “more compassion” in the way we treat addicts. He says politicians don’t understand the true nature of addiction and many appear to not even care enough to try. “I think this issue, perhaps like no other,” Brand said, “represents a disjunct [a separation] between the government and the people they govern.”
Brand actively promotes and helps fund drug and alcohol treatment programs, including the new Give It Up fund with Comic Relief to help addicts defray the costs of treatment. He also still supports the charity treatment facility that helped him get sober a decade ago.
In 2012, the BBC presented “Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery,” a one-hour documentary in which Brand seeks to provide insights into both addiction and methods of recovery. He speaks to scientists, specialists and addicts themselves. The program challenges the conventional wisdom behind most addiction treatment available. It’s a fascinating tour of new possibilities, and the full show is available on YouTube and other websites.
Here at Novus, our patients continue to find new hope for drug-free lives by ridding their bodies of the immediate grip of drugs and alcohol. After their medical detoxification, those who need rehab continue on to complete their full recovery. If you or someone you love is troubled by addiction, don’t hesitate to call us. We are always here to help.
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