When I first heard that Russell Brand wrote a book about recovery, I thought it was a practical joke. After all, he’s a raunchy comedian whose made a career out of playing lovable, memorable characters seemingly enjoying their struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, in movies such as Arthur and Get Him to the Greek. I half expected Ashton Kutcher to jump out of the bushes and tell me I was being Punk’d. However, as it turns out, Brand has made this bold decision, because he has been sober for almost 15 years and feels he has a tremendously important message to share with others like him, whose lives have veered woefully out of control.
We meet in a lounge adjacent to the lobby of the luxurious Peninsula Hotel in downtown Beverly Hills. He is in the midst of a book tour, including interviews with Dr. Drew, Bill Maher, Megyn Kelly and Wendy Williams, among many others. I am struck by his movie star presence as he walks up to the table, but surprisingly at ease as we begin the interview because he’s so down to earth.
In most ways, Brand’s saga is not all that much different from the typical stories we share here at InRecovery. It all began with a troubled childhood. Brand’s mom was diagnosed with cancer when he was only seven, and she was frequently sick. Brand’s father abandoned him, his relationship with his stepdad was “tense” (as he describes it), and there was some type of abuse, which he elects to leave vague. All that trauma left him feeling empty and afraid as a child and he sought solace through food. When he came of age, he added excessive drinking, drugging and obsessions to sex and porn, to his overeating and bulimia, as everything began to spiral out of control. By age 19, medical professionals and professors at college told him that he really needed help, but he still wasn’t ready. Most of us aren’t, at least not at the beginning. His feelings of inadequacy and shame most likely also fueled his search for attention and affection through stand-up comedy and pursuit of an acting career. However, he does not address that, like Pagliacci, the sad clown, enduring his own pain and suffering alone in silence. By age 27, Brand was plagued with unpaid debts, legal problems, hospital visits, lost jobs, lost relationships and friends running for the exit. His life was in absolute chaos. He finally walked into treatment, high from one last party with heroin and rounds at the local bars, desperately hoping to discover there was something more to life.
Brand mentions feeling like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, to me, it seems almost as if he was a voyeur, watching two separate personalities compete for control of his body. Which would win out? One very poignant moment he recounts is attending his first party sober, with a bunch of other people in recovery. He hated every minute of it. ‘I like drugs. I like drinking,’ he thought at the moment. ‘I’m an addict and I’m going to stay an addict and I’ll be dead in my twenties.’ Thankfully, that was only his addiction speaking, going through its last death shudders, screaming out in one final rebellious act. Brand was able to let go of his self-described narcissism and self-pity, or was at least able to examine them and appreciate their lack of utility. Thus began his true journey of recovery, one day at a time.
Brand was fortunate enough to have a brilliant sponsor. Great sponsors in 12 Step Programs prove time and again that everyday people perform heroic acts every single day. While Brand successfully maintained his sobriety, since checking into treatment, it actually took him a while to fully embrace the Program. His sponsor was patient throughout the arduous process.
“I don’t like being told what to do and don’t like the idea that I’m not in charge of my own destiny.”
“Like most people, I did not want to change. I wanted to justify staying the same. ‘If you had my childhood, my problems, my mental illness, then you would be like this too.’”
“My understanding of God before I got clean was…an abstract authority icon…placeholder for the mysteries…an irrelevant attempt to get me to be more moral.”
These were all thoughts and ideas Brand harbored getting in the way of his progress. In fact, it took him five years and two days to finally complete Step 4. “Five years not to do it and two days to do it,” as he puts it. Then, after a massively cathartic pouring out of his guts to his sponsor in Step 5, Brand immediately has a meltdown when a real estate agent wants to show the Malibu home he is renting for the week during the filming of Get Him to the Greek. However, that outburst is tempered by evidence the Program is starting to take hold. He immediately identifies his irrational behavior and adds the agent to his next inventory list. You see, we are all flawed actors (pun intended) in the movie of life.
So what is it that qualifies Mr. Brand to write a book about addiction, walking you through the 12 Step Program? According to him, it’s because he was a world-class drug addict. It’s like reading a book about social media written by Mark Zuckerberg. However, I believe it’s more than that. Take away the fame, and he’s just like you and me. The fame is his platform and he’s using it to call out to everyone afflicted with the disease of addiction. “If I can lick this then anyone can.” His book might be littered with F bombs and frank conversation that may make the weak of heart blush, but that’s who he is – raw and brutally honest. He is a comedian who uses shock as his stock in trade. Expecting him to tone things down would be like asking Kim Kardashian to attend a gala without make up – it ain’t happening. Brand wants to get through to your average Jane and Joe. “This disease is f#%@ing killing you, recognize you have a problem and get some help.” That’s why every chapter finishes with tips, exercises and helpful hints. “I’ll not only share my travails with you, but I’ll walk you through how all this works.”
Why are people driven towards addiction? Brand breaks it down to connection. His addiction to overeating, porn, alcohol, drugs and sex, were all driven by his lack of connection. He unconsciously used short term gratification to fill the gap, only to feel more hollow than he began after the episode wore off. The 12 Step Program gives him connection. It just makes sense, and he indicates that he had to do it separately, in some ways, for each addiction. He found that the subtleties between the different types of addiction made a difference. Then, as he progressed, he had an epiphany. The 12 Steps weren’t just this amazing formula for “Freedom From Our Addictions,” they provide a roadmap for living a healthy and rewarding life for anyone willing to follow their precepts. That was a huge revelation. He still struggles like we all do, but that’s inherently normal. His biggest challenge seems to be in applying them at all times. It requires the need to “stop, think and not be a selfish ass.” I think that’s something we all can relate to. When he remembers to do that, his life works out exponentially better, and so will ours.
Interestingly enough, Brand is strangely ambivalent and apologetic in his belief about his Higher Power. I suppose in our modern, secular world, people find it uncomfortable or too religious to admit faith in an omnipotent but unseeable deity.
“I don’t know if there’s a supreme being out there in the limitless cosmos, in fact, I don’t think there is. I do know that my thinking is limited. I am open to the possibility that…[there are] other forces that are likely beyond human comprehension.”
Therefore, his Higher Power is really more of a Higher Consciousness, that we all commune with. He recognizes that serendipitous coincidences occur more frequently when he’s full engaged in his 12 Step Program, but he shies away from calling them miracles. I suppose that helps explain the fact that he’s currently studying for an MA in Religion in Global Politics. It comes back to connection. He sees the tremendous value in what the Program has graced him with and wants to understand it better.
Brand’s biggest task is, how do you turn the 280, or so, words of 12 Step wisdom into a 271 page book? He recognizes Bill Wilson (the founder of all 12 Step fellowships) as a prophet. The wisdom of the Program was way ahead of its time, considering that back in the 1930s most addicts were institutionalized for both their and society’s “greater good.” Brand uses his iconic wit in a stream of consciousness style that makes the material both funny and informative. Most people are more open-minded to a message when they are both educated and entertained at the very same time. Brand clearly cares deeply about the topic and his fellow addicts, I notice it in his eyes as he speaks. This also shines through when he shares stories about his mentees and helping others.
What I like best about Brand is that he doesn’t only “talk the talk”, like so many celebrities, he’s actually willing to “walk the walk” as well. He takes on the tough challenges even when there’s nothing materially in it for him. Besides dedicating part of the proceeds of his book to addiction related charities, he has been campaigning to get drug addiction treated as a health issue for the past five years, counsels fellow addicts in his spare time, and has created two documentaries on the subject (available on Netflix). This is a man who willingly forewent $20 million he was entitled to in his 2011 divorce from Katy Perry. It’s clear that his principles now matter more to him than mere material gain.
“I know a lot of famous people and they are some of the most discontent people I have ever met. They got to the other side of their dream and discovered, as with all illusions, there is nothing of substance there.”
There it goes, that connection thing again. It seems that Brand has a seriously good point. “There’s always someone more famous than me that could walk in at any moment. But if I’m only valuable in that regard, then my value is quite limited.” We need to re-write our narrative and reprogram ourselves. We must rid ourselves of opinions on how other people, places and things ought to be. “If I make my happiness contingent on them behaving in a certain way I am F#%@ed. My perceptions of reality, even my own memories, are not objective or absolute, they are a biased account that can be altered.” The problem is, “no one wants to be miserable but few people are willing to do the work required to change…we accept our suffering and only attempt to tackle it through outwards means.” Therein lies the key to breaking the cycle of addiction – we need to put in the effort, we have that all important choice.
In order to get something you need to be prepared to give it away. Whether it be sobriety, happiness or peace, it’s all interconnected. If your goal is only fulfillment of your own picayune needs, you’ll never make that connection and reach your higher purpose. “[T]he fame did not fulfill, the sex did not fulfill, nor the money, the glamour and the evanescent power. None of it could get inside to where I truly resided, within I remained alone.” In being of service to others and striving to practice humility – “acknowledgement of our relative insignificance…compared to the infinite” – Brand finds a way to plug into what he refers to as his neglected compassion, empathy and kindness. “I do know that when I live my life, one day at a time, and follow a simple program, I am a more whole and useful man.”
Freedom From Our Addictions is a thorough and insightful book with a powerful message, leaving me with just one final question – “Why now?” Brand is in a solid marriage with a saintly woman (she’d have to be, right?) and they have a newborn baby girl. He knows peace, happiness and purpose on an entirely new level, an extension of how his 12 Step Program works for him. They live on the outskirts of London, away from all the clutter and noise, a calm and tranquil place where he gets to just be Russell. He pops in every so often, like to do this book tour, but he now seems so at ease with the insanity of his crazy life acting out on his addictions behind him. He clearly has a solution that works for him, which he wants to share with you. Let him in and you’re likely to find that connection you’ve been searching for.