As news of Scott Weiland’s death spread last weekend, many were saddened, but, it’s safe to say, few were shocked. The iconic ‘90s frontman had become as well known for his bouts with addiction as he had for his work with Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver.
Weiland’s wife posted a poignant letter addressing some of these very issues and poignantly pounding home the point that he was a person as well as a rock star. But what does she mean when she asks people not to glorify his death?
This letter made me consider the myth of the “junkie rock star,” as well as consider whether rock stars and counterculture icons face a particularly difficult struggle with substances, especially heroin. This mythology may have begun in the 1950s with William S. Burroughs, a beat writer who wrote extensively about his heroin use in memoirs and semi-fictionalized experimental works like Junky and Naked Lunch. Jazz legend John Coltrane was a heavy heroin user. Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards may be the ultimate embodiment of this archetype, as his substance use struggles are so well known that he has become a punchline for a number of jokes, summed up by one-liners like “if there was a nuclear war, only cockroaches and Keith Richards would survive.” This mythology was perhaps never more apparent than in the writings of Kurt Cobain, in which he employed the intentional misspelling “heroine,” telegraphing his feelings for readers. Cobain, the driving force behind 90s alt-rock icons committed suicide in 1994. Though he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, extremely high levels of heroin were present in his system at the time of his death. And let’s not forget the film and novel Trainspotting, rock 'n' roll to its very core, which shows both sides of drug addiction, simultaneously glorifying and sending a powerful message. One of the best quotes from the film, spoken by anti-hero Renton is “People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it.”
These artists arguably embraced the mythos that surrounds heroin use, perhaps thinking that it added to their art or status. Many of us equate heroin with death, though perhaps some don’t see it that way. After all, Burroughs survived well into his 90s and reportedly used the drug at least sporadically his entire life. It may be that these musicians initially began using heroin for the same reason as other users: to numb pain. Perhaps the physical addiction overcomes them, as heroin is especially addictive. I suppose it goes without saying that I have never provided treatment for Weiland or any of these other performers, so I don’t have any personal insight into their struggles nor any intent to diagnose them, though Weiland’s wife asserted that he had numerous mental illnesses, a revelation that surely surprised no one.
Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that we fall into narratives and that these narratives can become problematic and confining. Part of psychotherapy can be re-writing current narratives or even creating new ones from the ground up. I suspect that this problem of problematic narratives may at least be part of the problem for these artists (it’s hard to argue when the word “heroine” is used). It is up to us to realize what force or person acts as the antagonist in our personal stories and figure out how to use our strengths to overcome or break out of these narratives. But considering how much trouble “regular” people have with substance addiction, it’s not difficult to see that the problems are compounded for musicians struggling with heroin abuse, especially as elements of mythology may overwhelm them.
Consider this for your own life. What problematic elements of your own life are you embracing or holding to close to your heart? Do these elements of your story really define you? Are they truly necessary parts of your story?
Read the letter from Scott Weiland's former wife here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/scott-weiland-s-family-dont-glorify-this-tragedy-20151207
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture