Mustafa Hameed reviews Russell Brand’s role in the culture of addiction and recovery.
In his 2012 BBC documentary, From Addiction to Recovery, the comedian Russell Brand stands in front of a makeshift shrine in a leafy inner-city suburb in sunny Camden, north-west London. The shrine has been erected by the devastated fans of the late neo-soul and jazz songstress Amy Winehouse. With him is the gifted singer’s grieving father, Mitch, talking to Brand about Amy’s very public battle with alcoholism. Standing outside the house where the singer died, Mitch points to the window of the room where his daughter’s dead body was discovered, “The top left room there,” he says to Brand gesturing towards the window. Minutes later we see Brand confessing to Amy’s father about how he was overcome by feelings of guilt and remorse after hearing of her death: “That’s why I feel guilty,” Brand says, searching for the right words; “Because I’m the alcoholic-junkie that got clean and I didn’t do, you know… I wasn’t able to do anything”.
In a fleeting reference contained in his new self-help book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, Brand poetically describes Amy Winehouse as someone “housed in the heavens and in the gutter” who “could make your jaw drop with her gift and your heart sink with her affliction”. With his new book Brand seeks to help addicts out of their affliction by offering up his own take on the Twelve-Step programme.
In Recovery Brand waxes evangelical about the virtues of the Twelve-Step program, a program which delivered Brand from his own ontologically numbing addiction and its accompanying destructive behaviour. Brand believes that the program has altered his life to such an extent that it now acts as a pervasive philosophy and way of life which helps him structure his day-to-day existence. Without it, Brand confesses, he would be lost.
The Twelve-Step program has its origins in the Oxford Group movement established in the early 20th century in the US and Europe. The group practiced a powerful method of self-improvement consisting of taking a thorough moral inventory of the self, admitting one’s wrongs, making amends and using the power of prayer and meditation to overcome addiction and other negative behavioural traits. The group also fastidiously carried its message and method to others. Its principles were consolidated in 1939 with the seminal publication of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism by Bill Wilson, a former recovering alcoholic who went onto espouse his message of liberation from addiction to others who were trapped. Over the years its principles would continue to be honed and adapted by Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith to address a variety of addictions and, despite its religio-spiritual overtones, would be praised as an effective method by certain segments of the of the scientific community. In the past century, the Twelve-Step program has been adopted as a timeless and universal abstinence-based approach to addiction, helping countless addicts across the globe to keep their addiction at bay.
A few weeks ago in a packed out church near Primrose Hill in London, I had the chance to hear Brand speak in person. It takes some time to take Brand seriously – his striking Jesus-like figure pitched against the fitting backdrop of a soaring 19th century church hall was not helping matters. He swiftly and comically nipped this humorous sight in the bud, informing the audience about how he would score not very far from the church more than a decade ago. These were the days when he perilously balanced his desire for fame with his self-destructive crack and heroin habit. When he asked the audience how many current addicts or recovering addicts were present, almost half put their hands up. The other half comprised of people like me: the family members or friends of an addict, vicariously searching for a way out on their behalf. All had come to hear Brand speak.
After a surprisingly short speech, Brand invited members of the audience to come up and sit in the empty seat beside him where they could ask him questions. The sheer variety of people who went up was quite a staggering spectacle. There was a recovering (German) alcoholic, a current heroin addict, a recovering heroin addict, a counsellor specialising in drug rehabilitation, a woman who painfully offloaded about her family past and about how she had been raped by a relative, an intense actor trying to get Brand to clarify the “middle-ground” of his philosophical outlook, as well as another woman who asked a very confusing question about curing homosexuality.
I must admit that Brand skilfully handled the melange of questions hurled at him (and the people behind them), patiently listening to each individual with a firm and concentrated stare, admirably responding with an infectious air of empathy and reasonable candour. I left the Recovery book launch with mixed feelings. Brand was great. He even signed a copy of the book for a family member with a touching message: “Let People Help You. You Are Not Alone. You Are Beautiful”.
But was Brand really the only qualified persona currently available in the celebrity pantheon with traction on the subject of recovery and rehabilitation? And when it came to such sensitive matters as addiction, was it even healthy for us as a society in the first place, to look for lessons in the documented wreckage of the fickle and erratic life of any celebrity? How would I get rid of those cynical, unnerving thoughts which told me that Brand was clearly becoming a religious/spiritual institution unto himself? I don’t know what the qualifications or the threshold for such things are these days. But then the wise words of Trollope rang in my ears: “Judge a man by his actions with men, much more than by his declarations Godwards”.
Brand’s foray into the debates around effective drug rehabilitation goes as far back as 2012 when he participated in the Home Affairs Select Committee into the Inquiry into Drugs Policy. Brand put forward the case for a more compassionate-based approach in dealing with people suffering with addiction. For Brand, addiction is an illness, a disease and therefore “a health matter rather than a criminal or a judicial matter”. Back then, Brand’s calls for a more compassionate approach, devoid of stigmatisation and criminalisation of drug abusers, inevitably provoked the ire of the conservative establishment. The Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens took particular aim at Brand, attempting to rubbish his endeavours, arguing that the prosecution of drug users was a valid deterrent because the moral responsibility ultimately lay with the individual. Any other approach would set a bad precedent.
Brand would go further by arguing that certain forms of treatment and palliative measures such as Methadone Maintenance Therapy (MMT), only served to disguise the root causes of dependency. Such well-intentioned methods, he argued, did little to redress the deep-seated emotional and psychological pain that propelled addicts into a cycle of addiction in the first place. In fact many addicts supplemented their methadone intake with an assortment of class-A drugs. Arguing on camera with a GP in favour of MMT, who tells Brand that methadone is like “putting a plaster on a wound”, the quick-witted comedian responded by telling her that it is more akin to “rearranging the furniture on the Titanic”. In many ways, Recovery is a practical guide to Brand’s tried-and-tested method of dealing with addiction.
Thus, after reviewing Brand’s resume as relating to addiction, I came to the conclusion that there could be no other qualified person for the task at hand than the zany and irrepressible comedian who has been clean now for fourteen-years. Brand is like a one-man petition mailing himself into the corridors of power, an autodidactic cultural critic devoid of the training or ceremony of academia, a deficit he now seems to be addressing by studying for a Masters Degree in Religion in Global Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
It would be hard to deny that over the years Brand has become a staple of the political, social and spiritual conversations that animate our bewildering times. After all, his most compelling feat in the last few years, post-Sachsgate (circa 2008), has been his consistent drive to use his celebrity status and entertaining, authorial biographical ramblings to draw the public’s attention to social causes he feels most passionate about.
At a time when the number of deaths by heroin is on the increase since comparable records began, claiming a life in England and Wales every five hours, a national debate concerning the efficacy of current UK drug policies and legislation has become a matter of great urgency. It should be noted that debates around how we as a society should tackle the problem of drug addiction and its related social ills has been getting more traction in the last decade. Brand’s book on Recovery then should be situated within the broader debates of our zeitgeist.
In 2015, for example, the award-winning British journalist Johann Hari published his seminal book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. In it Hari challenged the received wisdom of drug addiction theory (both Left and Right) and the scientific evidence informing contemporary policy measures. Hari argued that the process of drug addiction could not be reduced to biochemical hooks which stimulated the urges for repeated drug use over a period of time. There was sound scientific evidence to suggest that environmental factors were just as, if not more, important than biological dependency. Hari examined Portugal as a model of success when coming to tackle a chronic drug addiction problem which had gripped the country when 1% of its population became addicted to heroin in spite of tough drug legislation.
Then, in 2001, in a drastic measure to combat the problem, the Portuguese government decided to decriminalise the use of all drugs, channelling the ring fenced money previously used to imprison addicts into quality rehabilitation and social welfare programmes. The measures yielded astonishing results; the use of needle drugs halved after decriminalisation, reducing the risk of HIV and other intravenous transmitted diseases; the number of people overdosing and dying from drug use also saw a dramatic fall; and social welfare programmes designed to re-integrate drug addicts back into mainstream society, through measures such as employment subsidies, helped former addicts re-establish meaningful human contact once again. “If you are alone,” Hari concluded, “you are vulnerable to addiction”.
Recovery compliments Brand’s continued public activism surrounding addiction, albeit, Brand is less esoteric, less vain and more practical in this book. Brand uses his own life story and experience as a practical case study into how abstinence-based approaches like the Twelve-Step Program are far more effective than others, inviting the reader to embark on a self-approved experiment, a paradigmatic shift in their psyche, where they give themselves over to the principles of the Twelve-Step Program. In Chapter 4, for example, Brand invites the reader to take a moral inventory of “all the things that fucked you up or have ever fucked you up, and don’t lie”. Brand demands that the reader religiously fill in the attached table provided in the book.
Underlying Recovery is a Brand that bears all to the reader and this is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the book. Brand weaves in autobiographical details to substantiate his promotion of the Twelve-Step Program, flitting between past and present states of himself. The once selfish drug and sex addicted Brand is humorously juxtaposed with the present Brand, the new father witnessing the rawness of childbirth, and its beatific, transformative and numinous afterglow. Brand believes that the chances of him being alive to witness the birth of his first child is a result of a kind of constant vigilance against complacency and a strict adherence to the principles of the Twelve-Step Program.
The nature of addiction is such that the habits and behaviours associated with it never quite disappear but rather linger and lay dormant like a disease, threatening to resurface at anytime. The addict is one who is constantly in a position of vulnerability and he or she must surrender to this fact of their existence with humility. Brand acknowledges this point wistfully and poetically:
My old way of life is with me still like a worn-down coin in my pocket that I toy with from time to time. Like a madman I sometimes countenance going back, back to the burning past to snatch at some scorched pleasure. The program must be lived completely, consulted when my thoughts stray. How did I become this person on the other side of my misery? On the other side of my life?
Of course, Brand does not forgo the opportunity to critique what he sees as the ongoing spiritual evisceration of our consumerist and hyper-individualised culture. According to Brand, modern day materialistic and capitalist societies thrive on addiction since it exploits “this mechanic as it’s a damn good way to sell Mars bars and Toyotas”. In his narrative “we are all on the addiction scale” because it is the dominant “mode of our culture”.
At times this seems like a very cynical and fatalistic line of thinking, even more so when Brand elsewhere in his Under the Skin Podcast episode with Professor Brad Evans states that he believes that “our culture and our bio-chemistry collude to create a kind of chronic individualism”. One must then begin with the reality that our present environmental context is unfortunately stacked against us, just as we must begin by admitting that our present patterns of behaviour are fertile grounds for relapsing into such behaviours.
Brand’s definition of addiction is far more encompassing, going beyond the textbook idea of prioritising certain habits and behaviours to the extreme detriment of more important things in one’s life. Brand’s definition is more expansive, more subtle, for one can become “addicted to bad relationships, bad food, abusive bosses, conflict or pornography”, indeed “it can take a lifetime to spot the problem”.
In addition to this, addiction is a condition of self-centredness, symptomatic of a spiritual vacuum, manifesting itself as the hardening inability to neither connect with nor entertain the notion of helping others. It is the pernicious “notion, however, conscious of it you are, that you and your drives are the defining motivations for your life”. Thus, the final step of the program – its moral upshot – is precisely to live a life less selfishly and to give one’s self over to a Force far greater than the self that presently incubates those individualistic cycles of negative behaviour.
Those of you who are easily put off by Brand’s erratic segues into Brandesque spiritual “claptrap” about God, the Cosmos and the collective consciousness, should not be put off reading Recovery. He has interpreted the Twelve-Step Program for broad appeal, promising that “this progam will work for you regardless of creed or lack of agreed” and assist you in tackling “addiction issues of every hue”. If you suffer from addictions of any kind, it is definitely worth a read.
Recovery is a very honest, sincere and well-written book in which Brand invites us into his practical agenda for overcoming addiction. It might oftentimes be hard to discern, but Brand is on a sincere journey to rise above his self-acknowledged narcissism. Whether he is drawing our attention to the chimera of celebrity culture, the futility of voting, the calls for revolution, campaigning for affordable housing or satirising right-wing hate rags and news programmes on his Youtube channel The Trews, Brand always tries to put forward his views with a degree of intellectual vigour. If one were to give ear to any one of Brand’s list of dogmatisms, his take on the Twelve-Steps might be a surprisingly beneficial one to imbibe.