Illustrations by Jamie Eke
A sex and drug addict wants to give you some life advice.
After two Booky Wooks detailing his sordid Hollywood lifestyle, a very wealthy man has written a third, preaching the perils of consumerism.
A jester who’s spent the last decade wreaking havoc across radio, reality TV and rom-coms is asking you to be wary of media distraction.
Should you listen to Russell Brand? I think, probably, yes.
On the inside cover of his new book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, Brand tells us: "my qualification for writing this book is not that I’m better than you, it’s that I’m worse. I am an addict – addicted to drugs, sex, money, love and fame."
One of his most endearing qualities is his emotional honesty – his openness about his flaws and ignorance, and his confidence despite them. His comfort and even delight in ambiguity and wonder – in not-knowing – is rare in men of his power and profile. And it’s partly this that makes him thrilling to listen to.
One of his most endearing qualities is his emotional honesty – his openness about his flaws and ignorance, and his confidence despite them.
He’s prone to verbose broadcast, but he’s best in rambling, playful conversation, bouncing off someone else, charming and challenging the vulnerability from others. His guest appearances have made for some of the most compelling TV in recent years, whether laughing in Paxman’s patronising face or embarrassing GQ at their own award ceremony – he has a knack for disrupting the cool mundanity of media with impish glee.
Maybe because of fatherhood, or maybe because 2014’s failed revolution got a bit too much, recently he’s taken a more considered approach – with an excellent podcast series Under The Skin, and his Radio X show, where he recently chatted with CALM’s CEO Simon Gunning about male suicide. So when he invited CALM to come talk about Recovery, it felt odd to be on the other side of the table asking questions. Thankfully, despite his reputation as a provocateur, he’s good at making people feel at ease.
Recovery re-Brands a famous addiction recovery program called the 12 steps. The original steps were laid out back in 1935 by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Dr Bob Smith and ‘Bill W’, a man Brand describes as a drunk, a madman and a prophet. The steps are a set of guiding principles for addicts, outlining a course of action that moves through admission of a problem, acceptance of help, reflection, commitment to change, apology, continual analysis, and then helping others.
That’s stripping out all the God stuff (of which there’s plenty). The spiritual element, the belief in a higher power, was a fundamental part of the recovery process for the Christian founders. Smith and Bill W were influenced by Carl Jung – the pioneer of analytical psychology – who believed that an addict could fully recover with some form of spiritual revelation and the support of a community.
"Spiritual connection and community, you can’t prescribe that, can you? But people want to rationalise and medicalise everything."
So do addicts have to believe in a Christian God to recover? Not necessarily, says Brand: ‘If you secularise ideas of [religious] epiphany it’s just a revelation of truth, a revealing of what’s there and an understanding of what has been concealed.’
Brand’s sermon style aligns more closely with Buddhist thinking than Christian, so it makes sense that his update to the 12 steps would appeal to a public that’s increasingly receptive to Eastern philosophy and ideas around mindfulness, yoga and the rest.
"Spiritual connection and community, you can’t prescribe that, can you? But people want to rationalise and medicalise everything. If I had any reservations about the mindfulness movement it’s that people are like ‘meditation can help you, it has a positive affect on mind and body, we can show it with scans.’ And I’m like ‘who else been saying this? For millennia? Did they have scans? Might they have said some other good stuff that we should listen to? Something like ‘we are all one, all connected?"
Elements of Buddhist teachings are shot through a lot of his writing, and as he pauses for thought to respond to a question, he closes his eyes and seems to slip into micro-meditation, before saying:
"Consumerism and materialism are subtle cultural forms of addiction whereby your identity and wellbeing is attached to external phenomena. The book is about how the 12 steps can be used as a template to move you away from forms of attachment as subtle and simple as how you form romantic relationships to how you work."
In the book’s introduction Brand outlines this macro-level addiction further: ‘addictive thinking is the mode of our culture. The very idea that you can somehow make your life alright by attaining material goals — getting the ideal relationship, the ideal job, a beautiful Berber rug, or forty quid’s worth of smack — the underlying idea, "If I could just get X,Y,Z, I would be okay’, is consistent and it is quite wrong."
"We’re all on a scale of addiction. Addicts are merely outliers who feel more quickly the tremors of attachment but can’t regulate it."
This inevitably leads to the question. Am I fucked? Am I an addict? Maybe not to heroin like Russell, but what about more socially acceptable stuff like my phone? Work? Attention? Alcohol? Possibly.
"We all have bio-chemistry – drives, desire, fears – and we all live in a capitalist society that stimulates this desire and fear. We’re all on a scale of addiction. Most of us are able to find ways of operating in this culture successfully. Addicts are merely outliers who feel more quickly the tremors of attachment but can’t regulate it. They masturbate or eat or take drugs excessively and they make the phenomena visible, like canaries in the cage."
“Feel the tremors more quickly”… “make the phenomena visible”, Brand seems to be honouring the addict with a certain sensitivity here, painting addicts as messengers – alerting the rest of us to unconscious dependencies. He goes further in the book, saying he believes addiction to be ‘a calling and a blessing.’
So if we’re getting a signal from addicts, what’s the message? What gap are we trying to fill?
"The problem is always a lack of connection. With my history of addiction, [these things] were always ways of dealing with the fact I couldn’t connect, find union. Lonely? Have sex! Sad? Have a drink! Bored? Take drugs!"
Reframing addiction in this way makes it less about sick people and more about a sick society. But getting people who don’t consider themselves addicts to buy into this idea still feels like a hard sell, never mind the spiritual elements.
I sometimes don’t like the tone of self-help or New Age. So this is a book by someone who is fucked for people that are fucked.
"With the 12 steps programme, a lot of people are put off by the cultural inflections of the time of its conception, ie Christianity, patriarchy," he says. "A lot of people don’t like God, or how God is presented in that type of language, so I had to make it humorous, accessible, colourful and funny. Sometimes I find great gurus dauntingly perfect, like Tony Robbins (Superman Jesus) and Eckhart Tolle – with him it’s like talking to someone who’s literally transcended. And I sometimes don’t like the tone of self-help or New Age. So this is a book by someone who is fucked for people that are actually fucked. It’s a miracle I’m not on heroin. It’s only because of this."
The chapters are named accordingly: 1. Are you fucked?, 2. Could you not be fucked? 3. Are you, on your own, going to ‘unfuck’ yourself? etc. From CALM’s point of view, we know that for men, step 3 can be a tough one: asking for help. Brand is a man who doesn’t strike me as having any issues with self-expression, so I wonder if he has any advice for men who would find this step particularly difficult.
"I agree with your analysis of me being atypical. In my own adolescence, a lot of the bullying and abuse I dealt with was about being unusual. It was centred around homophobic language. Homophobic abuse affects heterosexual men. Because of the bombast and ideas around masculinity, and because of the ways we’ve had manhood marketed to and sold back to us, we aren’t able to communicate on a certain level. Communication is about being understood and connecting, and power can deny you the right to reach out and connect in some ways. But the answer is love and openness, and we can set a template by just talking.” He has plenty examples of times when he’s found that love and openness with others.
A lot of the bullying I dealt with was about being unusual. It was centred around homophobic language.
“When I’ve been in all male support groups, you go in thinking everyone’s going to talk about violence but it quickly becomes about emotions – about men crying. I’ve seen men be very open and it’s moving, telling each other that they love each other and need each other. It’s amazing! A very important part of my recovery was company with other men. For me it really helps me to be exclusively around men when talking about my own mental health. And I notice in the support groups I go to that men behave differently when there aren’t women there."
"And fucking hell, if you go to conventional male environments such as football matches and see the places where men are allowed to express emotion – whether its anger or whatever - some of these men are pretty keen to give you a cuddle. I like to think that our vulnerability can be cajoled out of us."
"When I’m around men that are traditionally seen as really intimidating and threatening, I really try my best to see them, who they are, the layers. And because I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons and with a lot of men who’ve had issues with violence, I talk all the time about fear, vulnerability. I tell them ‘I’m afraid of this, I don’t think I’m good enough, I’m not a proper enough man, this thing happened with my step dad. Oddly, I’m very loving to them and it’s really effective. It makes them giggle!"
We discuss how men can have trouble with expressing vulnerability until we bring in talent, like writing ability or musicianship, then its almost as if the vulnerability is acceptable, even beautiful, because it’s presented as art or an interesting performance. Men seem to get a lot of self-esteem from doing stuff, so maybe we should help create environments where the doing happens alongside the talking. I tell Brand about some of the groups we’re setting up at CALM – collectives centred around shared passions, where people can get active together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a space where it’s always clear that talking about the serious stuff is as welcome as football chat.
Around men that are traditionally seen as really intimidating, I talk about fear, vulnerability. I tell them ‘I don’t think I’m good enough...' Oddly, I’m very loving to them and it’s really effective. It makes them giggle!
"I like this idea a lot – therapeutic communities. Doing something functional to build self-esteem. I’d like to be involved. It makes me think of the Marxist idea of alienation.’ He lifts a tea spoon from his coffee cup ‘If your role is just to put that spoon on that saucer, and you don’t get to do the pottery or the iron work, it’s like your ineptitude and disposability is being built into your identity. These things people long for – utility, meaning, purpose – these are spiritual ideas."
"You’re not supposed to be unhappy. If you’re unhappy that’s a signal. If addiction at its heart is about connection, the question is: how can we help people find more healthy routes toward connection? It’s about organising communities, facilitating conversation and communication. Then putting the power as close as possible to people – communities where problems are openly discussed and solutions shared."
Russell Brand's new book, Recovery is out now.
CALMzine 28 features Simon Amstell on ayahuasca, Robert Webb on boyhood, and Rio Ferdinand, Loyle Carner and The Duke Of Cambridge on the power of friendships.