I heard Frank Deford on NPR talking about why we continue to follow Tiger Woods just to see if he can somehow regain his former stroke (“Sweetness & Light: Has Tiger Lost His Roar? If So, Why Do We Care?”), and it got me thinking about a deeper question around addicts and success.
Not all drunks, cokeheads, and sex fiends end up in the gutter; for many others it is the fuel that propels them to great heights. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to putting down the vice of choice is the lurking question: Can I do the thing I love, the very talent that has made me, if I go straight? From Jackson Pollack to Ernest Hemingway to John Belushi, there has always been an affiliation between creative genius and the use of substances. It’s a lifestyle, a mindset, a way of moving through the world that allows creative expression to flourish. To get to that fourth dimension in art, writing, or acting, you need that extra mind-altering crutch.
Or do you?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” Nelson Mandela once said. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” This goes to the very core of the addictive mind. Rather than dealing with the fear directly like normal people, addicts blunt the pain by guzzling alcohol, sleeping with too many of the wrong people, or snorting coke.
Artistic or athletic or business success at the highest level requires, more than anything, courage—the courage to overcome the terrifying fear that Mandela speaks of, to suspend self-doubt and poke into the unknown despite the risk of free fall. The addiction becomes the safety net. All addiction is like an out-of-control gambler who keeps doubling his bet on the theory that he is going to die anyway, so he has nothing to lose. For all addicts, there is that knowing somewhere deep down that a crash is coming soon and therefore normal rules no longer apply. The soul sickness and self-hatred at living a double life makes death an attractive outcome, one that is a gravitational pull of addiction itself.
So you roll the dice again and again, whether on the golf course, on the silver screen, or at the conference room table. Heads you win and tails you die; it doesn’t matter either way. Fear is no longer a variable, and as a result many addicts find that they go on long, amazing winning tears that take them to the very pinnacle of their profession. Whether Tiger Woods or John Belushi or JFK, they’re invincible.
I have had my own experiences with this as a too-young business executive riding on private planes and negotiating billion-dollar deals. (At that time I was an addict. I’ve been clean for 15 years.) I always viewed my death wish—my addiction—as my secret weapon. Grown men on the other side of the table shook with nerves at the magnitude of our deal-making, but I could not have cared less—and a result I could use whatever mental abilities I had to their maximum, walking the tightrope with a shit-eating grin, before eating my adversaries’ lunch.
That is the core question for Tiger—or, most recently, Charlie Sheen. It’s not only whether they get sober but can they also be themselves and succeed sober, without the coke and hookers and secret death wish?
The answer: yes and no. For an addict to get straight requires changing everything—friends, routines, faith, and personality. It requires a fundamental reconfiguration at the atomic level. I have watched dozens of men and women who, a year or two into sobriety, become unrecognizable to those who knew them when they were active—in a good way. But how does one deal with the cosmic pressure of the artist or athlete aspiring to perform at the highest level, naked—without the protection of addiction?
Some addicts do make it through. They re-create themselves into new artists, new athletes, new people entirely, who are successful in a better way. Look at Keith Urban. He is a better singer and better man, happier for having gone back to rehab and rebuilding himself from the ground up.
Or Josh Hamilton, who ended up snorting coke under his grandfather’s roof five years ago, before getting clean and facing his demons (at one point, when he was 25, he asked to climb in with his grandmother during a rough night in early sobriety) and coming back to become Major League Baseball MVP.
Eminem, who was addicted to alcohol, Vicodin, Valium, Ambien and Methadone got clean and ultimately released his biggest album ever entitled, “Recovery” and the hit song I am Not Afraid:
I did make it through to a different kind of success.
When I was drinking, I was completely obsessed with my work as the chief financial officer of a billion-dollar media company. I was barely 30 and used my addiction to carry the weight of my responsibility leading a company with thousands of employees and in the public spotlight. Despite the fact that I had two small children, I would often go into my office on weekends—to work, but also just to hide out in the quiet of my expansive mahogany-paneled office with a view of the state capitol building. And I drank at every opportunity and ultimately lost all moral direction. I took our company public and then sold it 90 days later, to huge fanfare, succeeding beyond my wildest dreams professionally—but failing miserably as a husband and father.
For the next two years, having sold our company, I didn’t have a job. I focused on trying to get and stay sober and show up for my kids. My divorce agreement gave me limited access to my children, so when I wasn’t at the playground or at AA meetings I dabbled in venture capitalism. But unlike before, it was very much an afterthought to my main focus of reinventing my person from the inside out.
At one point, I decided to help a couple of MIT graduates who had a floundering startup on the brink of bankruptcy. Unlike the hundred-hour weeks in my addictive life, I never put in a full day of work. I would hang out there once in a while when I had nothing better to do, certainly giving direction but not with the white-knuckled, blood-on-the-floor ferocity of my former self. I was open to a kind of creativity and freedom that never would have occurred to me drunk.
Within two years it was more valuable than the media company I had left. And I was still sober, still going to meetings, and still spending most of my time with my kids. Something profound—and good—had changed in me.
Honestly, that is what I hope for Tiger and for Charlie and for any addict out there who is struggling to figure out if he or she can succeed sober with same tenacity needed to stick around in the middle of a terrible disease. The answer is no, you can’t succeed the same way; you can succeed in a completely different, far more rewarding way. Ask Josh Hamilton, Eminem or Keith Urban or any of the thousands of men and women who have trudged the same road to happy destiny. Men and women who have faced down the demons of which Nelson Mandela spoke—the fear of our own greatness—to grab hold of something true and worthy and noble without the need for anesthetic. Life is truly a better drug than any other.
For Tiger it comes down to a five-foot putt. In 2009, Tiger went into the final day of the PGA Championship with a 2-stroke lead, something he had never relinquished under such circumstances. The tournament came down to a very makeable put on 17. For the first time, he missed. This was before his life cratered. But there must have been some part of his soul that knew the end was near. And he has never been the same golfer since missing that putt.
“Putting is all about confidence, it’s 100% mental,” a golf pro friend of mine told me recently. “Tiger has completely lost his ability to putt. There is nothing physically wrong with him. He just doesn’t believe in himself. The guy has been shattered.”
Maybe that is why, as Frank Deford said, we are all watching. Despite all that he has done wrong we are rooting for the sober Tiger to sink just one more putt that actually matters. Because then we will know that he has become a completely different person—a man who doesn’t need a crutch to be great.
—Photo by familymwr/Flickr