What Chris Rock Can Teach Us About Sobriety and Creativity

By Regina Walker 03/19/15

Chris Rock's Top Five is just out on Blu-ray; here's what it showed us.

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Is addiction an affliction of creative people?

Certainly both art lovers and those who make art often think so. Lars von Trier, controversial film director of Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, was treated in 2014 for alcohol and substance abuse. Afterwards he said, "I don't know if I can make any more films, and that worries me. There is no creative expression of artistic value that has ever been produced by ex-drunkards and ex-drug addicts. Who the hell would bother with a Rolling Stones without booze or with a Jimi Hendrix without heroin?"

Conversely, Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (a life-long alcoholic) was considered by most critics to have produced what is considered some of his finest work, his “poured paintings,” from 1948 to 1950, a period of time during which he was almost entirely sober.

Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our time, has openly shared that he has been in recovery since the late 1980s. King acknowledged his problems with alcohol and drugs and has said that if his family had not intervened, he would be dead by now. He also admits that he has barely any recollection of writing one of his many bestsellers, Cujo, presumably because he was in a blackout at the time of its writing. King has seemingly had no difficulty writing while he was impaired with drugs and alcohol or since he has been sober.

So does active addiction release creativity—as conventional wisdom and the myth of the self-destructive genius tells us—or does sobriety shut creativity down?

Writer Pearl S. Buck (author of The Good Earth) has said, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating."

Are these creative individuals using alcohol and other substances as self-medication to ease the pain of that sensitivity, or is the use of substances possibly a way to enhance thinking and creativity?

As long ago as the Romantic era in the arts (at its peak in the early to mid-19th century) readers were confronted with the role of mind-altering substances in the creation of artistic masterpieces. Romantic poetry is intimately linked with opium use, and believed by some to be integral to the creation of many of the most well-known works of that time.

It is also hard to overlook the public’s romanticizing of the alcoholic artist, the junkie writer. Indeed, almost the opposite is often the case—the popular vision of the tortured creative genius invokes the specter of addiction almost automatically; and conversely, alcoholism and drug addiction take on a dangerous glamour when conflated with the mystery of artistic creativity. It is difficult to imagine Charles Bukowski without alcohol or William S. Burroughs without heroin. Elizabeth Taylor is as well known for her excesses as she is for her films—and to say F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway made drinking look de rigeur for anyone with serious literary ambitions is to say nothing at all. If artists are possibly more sensitive than the general public then does the pressure placed upon them add to their pre-existing proclivity to substance misuse? Or is that all a myth, too?

Is there actually a link between creativity and addiction?

In his book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine neuroscientist David Linden explains how pleasure affects us at the most fundamental level: in our brain. 

In an interview with Scientific American magazine in 2011, Dr. Linden remarked that he did not believe there was a link between creativity and addiction directly. He expressed the belief that there is a link between addiction and things that are prerequisites for creativity. 

Says Linden, “We know that 40% of a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined, via studies on heritability in families and twins. There's no single addiction gene. We don't even know all the genes involved in conferring addiction risk. But the ones we do know have to do with the signaling of the neurotransmitter dopamine (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.) for pleasure and reward.”

Dr. Linden continues,
”You don't become addicted because you feel pleasure strongly. On the contrary, addicts seem to want it more but like it less. They feel pleasures more weakly and are more likely to try more to achieve more. This blunted dopamine hypothesis is supported by brain-imaging studies and biochemistry tests in rats and monkeys. It also holds for addictions to food, sex and gambling. Genetic variants make for a low-functioning dopamine system, specifically D2 receptors. If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive. None of which are explicitly creative, but they are things that get to creativity. So novelty-seeking might be a spur to creativity. Risk-taking might lead you to go more out on a limb. If you're compulsive, you might be more motivated to get your art, science idea or novel out into the world. These traits that come from having low dopamine function have an upside. These traits can contribute to people having great success in the world, like business leaders. Genetics is 40%, it's not 100%—it's not the whole show. It's possible to carry the variants and not be an addict, and it's possible to not carry the variants and still be an addict.” 

Dr. Linden expressed the belief that curing the addiction “usually” does not eliminate the creativity.

In recent popular cinema, those questions are explored skillfully and humorously in Top Five, a film released by Paramount Pictures in December 2014 and now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD, which was written, directed by, and starring Chris Rock. In Top Five, Rock plays Andre Allen; a once successful stand-up comic who moved on to true stardom in a hit film franchise Hammy The Bear, in which Allen plays a cop in a bear suit (think Jim Varney in the Ernest movies). 

But he is also an alcoholic and addict. Allen has had trouble with the law due to his addictions and when we meet him at the beginning of the film, he is sober. He is also promoting his newest film project, in which he also stars: a serious film on the Haitian Revolution. The film is poorly received and Allen’s fans and interviewers persist in asking him when he will do his next Hammy film. Allen insists he is finished with comedy and wishes to focus on more serious, important material.

Allen’s story unfolds in the course of a day while a journalist—who shares that she, too, is in recovery—interviews him. The movie contains several other subplots including Allen’s upcoming marriage the next day, and his increasingly intimate relationship with his interviewer, but the theme of addiction is present throughout. 

At one point in the film, Allen visits his family and friends from childhood who live in a housing project in New York. The apartment is filled with alcohol and drugs but it is within this familiar and safe environment that Allen comically spars with his family and friends. This is almost the only scene in the film where Allen truly seems alive and happy—and incredibly funny. It seems comedy is Allen’s true passion and love, and not the “important” film he has just made and is marketing.

Later, in the film's climactic moment, Allen tells the journalist, “Do you want to know why I won’t make any funny films? Because I never did it clean. Every time you ever seen me be funny I was drunk or high or both. Every time. Every show I was fucked up. And now people want me to be funny. And you know what? I don’t know if I can do it. I’m scared. I am scared.”

Allen’s fear is not a unique one. Though Allen finds his own answer to his fear (I won’t write a spoiler for the film!) that fear accompanies many creative individuals into recovery. But there are, in fact, many creative individuals who go on to do their best work after going into recovery and sobering up. To pick just one example, Raymond Carver, who quit drinking in 1977, went on to do some of his most highly regarded work, and was nominated for a Pulitzer. As San Francisco poet and author Bucky Sinister says in Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, and Weirdos, “Your best days are ahead of you. The movie starts when the guy gets sober and puts his life back together; it doesn't end there.”

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about the life and suicide of Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management, as well as about the Buddha and Bill W.

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