Addiction Files: The Keith Richards Blueprint for Recovery

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Keith Richards isn’t exactly a recovery role model — the Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter used drugs for much of his life, and he still drinks copiously and smokes marijuana and cigarettes. But, as pioneering addiction theorist and psychologist Stanton Peele points out in his Psychology Today blog, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from his story.

In Richards’s new memoir, Life, one of the most interesting revelations about recovery involves the role of music, his work and passion, in the rocker’s decision to give up heroin and cocaine. For a time, drugs helped fuel his work — many of the Stones’ greatest songs were written during the peak of Richards’s drug use. But eventually, his heroin habit turned on him, threatening his ability to make music at all, which prompted him to quit. (More on Addiction Files: Recovering From Drug Addiction, Without Abstinence)

Certainly, Richards had countless reasons to quit drugs — he’d suffered the death of a child and the drug-related deaths of several friends and band mates — but it wasn’t until Richards began to believe that drugs were getting in the way of his music that he finally did.

Writes Peele:

There were accumulated drug problems. First, there were the neverending legal hassles. And there was the constant search for the stuff on the road. Plus, Keith — a man who never said no — was distressed that he was hooked. He was guilty taking his son on tour with him (Richards feels worse than his son says he should be about this trip). And, finally, there were darker moments — not only the death of user friends like Gram Parker, but of his and Anita’s (who shared Keith’s drug tastes) two-month old son while Keith is away. But, more than anything, Keith became concerned when the serious drugs didn’t work for the music any more.

The power of life’s meaning and purpose over addiction is rarely mentioned in media accounts of drug problems, but research repeatedly finds that addicts in recovery do better when they have a sense of mission, a sense that what they do matters to others and is necessary. Without key sources of meaning and purpose — like children, relationships and productive work — addicts rarely stay clean. Indeed, one of the reasons so many people find 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous useful is because they are able to give members a sense of meaning and purpose through spirituality or religion. (More on Is Drug Use Really on the Rise?)

Yet many rehab programs and even addiction “professionals” like Celebrity Rehab‘s Dr. Drew try to deter addicts from working at what they love during recovery. Recently on CNN, in an interview regarding actor and frequent substance user Charlie Sheen, Dr. Drew said that it would be “impossible” for him to work and do rehab well at the same time. That’s a common belief in rehab: people are often told they should focus only on recovery and not on work or family or other “distractions,” when they’re trying to quit.

But experts might want to take a page from Richards’s playbook (or Lindsay Lohan’s — the actress is apparently being permitted to work on her fashion line while recovering at the Betty Ford Center). While it’s true that addicts must pay attention to learning skills the skills to avoid relapse, research finds that in the long term it’s much more important to foster the opportunity for meaningful work and close relationships. That way, even though you can’t get what you want, you’ll still have what you need.

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