Russell Brand may have reached the depths of addiction, with drugs, drink, sex and fame. But from social media to shopping, we’re all hooked on something, he says. If we can work out why, true fulfilment awaits
“You’re not supposed to be unhappy. If you’re unhappy, that’s a signal. Respond to it.”
Russell Brand is on a mission to help us find fulfilment. Much of his life has been research; there aren’t many pleasures he hasn’t dived into headfirst. His addictions famously include heroin and crack cocaine, but also compulsive eating and sex. Ultimately, they led him to self-destruction. “Because I had ‘the gift of desperation’ because I fucked my life up so royally, I had no option but to seek and accept help,” he says. With the support of the 12-step recovery programme used by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Brand has transformed his life. And the programme’s principles, he says, can benefit everyone.
Now a married father-of-one, and 15 years clean from drugs and alcohol, Brand has written Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions. It’s a book to benefit us all, because it’s not just those labelled as addicts who are struggling, he insists. Addictive behaviour is commonplace, whether we’re hooked on coffee, consuming, gambling, hoarding, TV or technology.
“We’re all on the scale of addiction,” he tells me. But it’s often only apparent that we have addictions when they become extreme, believes Brand, because they have become normalised. “Most of us are able to operate within the culture successfully, to a degree. To use a crude science fiction analogy, you don’t know you’re in the Matrix because you’re in the Matrix.”
This ‘Matrix’ is our culture of consumerism, materialism and individualism, which is “all-encompassing,” he says. It drives the things we do compulsively to feel good: our addictions.
Brand is warm, gentle and attentive. He talks slowly, his words considered, before switching gear, speeding into articulate bursts. “We all have biochemistry. We all have drivers, desires and fears,” he says. “And we live in a capitalist society which operates by stimulating fear and desire in us.”
There is a yearning and dissatisfaction that we’re all affected by in some way, he believes. ‘Addicts’ are the “outliers” who struggle to regulate themselves in the face of it. “So, they take drugs or eat food or masturbate excessively, making the phenomena visible.”
What is it then, that we’re longing for?
“It’s a spiritual problem,” Brand says. “People drink because it feels good. People buy too much because it feels good. People drive their cars fast; they do stuff for feelings. That’s somehow become abstracted from the idea of spirit and placed in the realm of the material, where it clearly cannot belong, and can never be resolved.
“I wasn’t taking heroin because it tastes nice, it was a way of dealing with the fact that I couldn’t connect, couldn’t find union. Access to a connection will always be the solution.”
We all have biochemistry. We all have drivers, desires and fears. And we live in a capitalist society which operates by stimulating fear and desire in us
Indulgence was a pitfall for Brand but he’s adamant that beneath such behaviour there are feelings that need to be honoured.
“You’re entitled to feel valuable and valued. That’s the thing that can be confused with narcissism and vanity, I suppose. But if you don’t feel connected, do something about it. Be connected, be contented. Be less tolerant of being unhappy. Don’t be some browbeaten component in a machine where it’s like ‘this is life, I’m on this elevator now, then I’m going home, key in the door, into a relationship I’m not happy in’ – don’t tolerate it.”
Despite his glamorous life, Brand clearly still struggles on a daily basis. “It doesn’t feel very easy to me to be alive,” he admits. “It doesn’t matter what compliments you throw at me: it works for a second, some sort of inner narcotic – ping! – but what sticks to me is ‘you’re nobody’, ‘you’re worthless’, ‘you’re scum’. I have to swim hard to keep above water. There’s a racing inner narrative that often leads me to feeling awkward, uncomfortable, not good enough.”
The 12-step programme
In his book, Recovery, Brand draws upon the 12-step programme, which is well-established in dealing with alcoholism and drug addictions.
“If you belong to the kind of support groups that do to deal with my addiction, you hear people continually say that everyone should have this programme,” he notes. He is convinced that it can be a template to release ourselves from various and subtle forms of addictive behaviour. These can crop up in the way we relate in romantic partnerships, for example, or how we operate in our professional lives.
As such, he wanted to make the programme accessible: “I try to make it colourful and funny, so that you don’t feel this is a self-help book.”
A crucial part of the process is uncovering past experiences that affect how we act in our lives now; digging into what Brand calls the “personal archaeology of our damage”.
“Most of the time, we don’t really go back and think of the times when someone really hurt us,” he explains. “But even today, when I look at quite mundane and trivial events, I realise that they are rooted in historic beliefs. I was a little kid, and then I was a drug addict. There was never a bit where it was like ‘this is me when I’m normal and I’m cool’. Everything was chaos and mad all the time. Now, I learn to recognise it.
“I have deep, deep programming: if a woman says particular things to me, I have a reaction, if a man says particular things to me, I have a reaction. And I think we’re victim to these feelings: we’re living by unconscious coordinates.
“I don’t want to live according to that code any more, I want to be free. I believe it’s possible for us to have an intuitive and a central reaction moment to moment, to see beyond what we appear to be: individuals trapped in time, trapped in motion, trapped in skin sacs.”
Be connected, be contented. It’s different from being indulgent; you are entitled to feel valuable and valued
Although this deeper context is something Brand has often brought to his social commentary, his new book represents a shift away from overt activism. Memorably, the ‘Paxman v Brand’ interview on BBC Newsnight in 2013 turned him, overnight, from an entertaining TV personality into a voice for the anti-establishment.
Now, he’s taking a different route towards change. We can all empower ourselves by trying to understand our own behaviour, he says. “I’ve already tried, in my own limited way, to effect institutional and systemic change. I found that path quite well barricaded. This time, I want to go in at source – what is it to be in this world? How can we meaningfully change? I got a bit tired of talking to people in power about how they should reach out a hand to help people. Now, I’m going to spend my time telling people to take the power, because it’s already yours.”
Later, I’m in St James’ church in central London, where Brand is launching the book. Given the venue, he decides to finish the evening with the ‘serenity prayer’. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the I things can and the wisdom to know the difference.” And it is this serenity that Brand is pursuing as he moves through his various public incarnations. He is introduced at the launch as “the poster boy for someone who has evolved under the spotlight”. What has he learned so far?
“The most fascinating thing I discovered about myself through this process is that the thing that makes me happy is helping other people,” he says. “I find it very hard to accept that, because I have deep, deep roots in performance and in showing off. But something happens. There are places I go where I don’t think about myself. Sometimes it’s around other addicts, sometimes people who have nothing.
Now, I’m going to spend my time telling people to take the power, because it’s already yours
“If you’ve taken your ego as far as I have, to the limits of glistening fame, consumption and literal orgies, and you still feel a bit bilious and awful – it’s a sign. David Foster Wallace says the problem with luxury is that it can’t ever deliver what it promises. Once you’re suspended in amniotic fluid, floating about on a cruise ship, you realise that luxury and material can’t work for you. There’s a horrible, horrible despair in that. So I try to do things for other people as much as I possibly can and I feel better.
“The point at which I connect to you is in your wound, in your fallibility, in your vulnerability. And I feel that if I am as honest and open and revealing about that as possible, it will help me overcome the idea of my own separateness. If there is such a commonality between us and our problems at root and essence, how alone are we?
“I live in the gutter and always will, to a degree. But I’m aspiring to be connected.”
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The 12-step programme (in Russell’s words)
Brand credits the 12-step programme as being key to his freedom from addiction. It is a universal blueprint for personal growth, he says. In his book, Recovery, he interprets the steps to create his own principles for transformation.
Step 1: Are you a bit fucked?
Step 2: Could you not be fucked?
Step 3: Are you, on your own, going to ‘unfuck’ yourself?
Step 4: Write down all the things that are fucking you up or have ever fucked you up and don’t lie, or leave anything out
Step 5: Honestly tell someone trustworthy about how fucked you are
Step 6: Do you want to stop it? Seriously?
Step 7: Are you willing to live in a new way that’s not all about you and your previous, fucked up stuff? (You have to)
Step 8: Prepare to apologise to everyone for everything affected by your being so fucked up
Step 9: Now apologise. (Unless that would make things worse)
Step 10: Watch out for fucked up thinking and behaviour and be honest when it happens
Step 11: Stay connected to your new perspective
Step 12: Look at life less selfishly, be nice to everyone, help people if you can
Featured image: David Titlow, grooming: Nicola Schuller, styling: Amy Hanson-Bevan