Russell Brand says recovery is about finding connection in an alienating culture. DDN meets the man bold enough to rewrite the 12 steps for modern life.
We’re all on the scale of addiction, says Russell Brand. ‘Most of us are able to find ways of operating within the culture successfully, to a degree – whereas with “addicts” [he draws the quotation marks in the air] it’s more observable. They are canaries in the cage of a condition that is pervasive.’ The addiction might be to drugs or alcohol, or it could relate to any other area of life – consumerism, materialism, the way you relate to romantic partnerships – ‘those subtle forms of addiction, whereby your identity and wellbeing are attached to external phenomena’.
Brand is on a non-stop merry-go-round of book launching, and is drinking tea and waving his arms around in the upstairs room of a smart restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. His book is called Recovery and is about ‘how the model that exists to understand addiction can be used as a template to move you from forms of attachment’.
Put simply, he wants us to get to grips with the thorny problem of ‘being human’ in an environment that fosters disconnection, alienation and despair. He ‘fucked [his] life up so royally’ that he ‘had no option but to seek and accept help’. There are still traces of the nest-haired apologist of My Booky Wook, but his journey through 12-step treatment has produced a narrative that wants to change things. The engaging anecdotes are still there, but this time they are entwined with a manual – and an earnest entreaty that anyone can change their health, circumstances and outlook, if they have the right mindset.
At the heart of it all is connection, or lack of it, and while he finds the traditions of the original 12 steps interesting, he holds them up to modern life and finds them unyielding – ‘the Christianity, the patriarchy, the way God is presenting, that type of language’.
His response is to translate the steps for modern life. So step four, pledging to make ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’ becomes ‘Write down all the things that are fucking you up or have ever fucked you up and don’t lie, or leave anything out’.
He sought help and went through the steps out of desperation, he says. ‘It’s not like heroin tastes nice. These things are self-administered placebos – ways of dealing with the fact that we can’t connect.’ And it wasn’t easy, he warns in the book, as he leads on to step one: ‘It’s bloody difficult. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ adding ‘Actually no, the hardest thing I’ve ever done is toil under the misapprehension that I could wring pleasure out of the material world, be it through fame, money, drugs or sex, always arriving back at the same glum stoop of weary dissatisfaction.’
So why did he feel the need to write a self-help book? He grapples with the term and rejects it. ‘What I’m trying to do is present the idea of self-help differently, and I can only do my personal version of that.’ He feels qualified to write about addiction because he’s experienced it ‘so vividly and continually’.
He has, he says, tried to make the book humorous and accessible so you don’t feel that it’s a manual. ‘I don’t sometimes like the tone of a self-help book. Sometimes I find gurus dauntingly perfect – it’s like talking to someone who has transcended. But this is a self-help book for people who are actually fucked, by somebody who is fucked. It’s a miracle that I’m not on heroin, it’s unbelievable that I’m not doing something weird now, and it’s only because of this.’
‘I think that conversation is the first point,’ he adds. ‘We can set a template by just talking’ – something that Brand seems never to have a problem with. ‘Addiction is amorphous and you may not know you have it,’ he says, gazing into the middle distance. ‘To use a science fiction analogy, you may not know you’re in the Matrix. If consumerism and materialism and individualism are such all-encompassing philosophies, you can’t even envisage a culture that’s not about mass production… all of our systems, all of our tools are broken.’
Through his book he wants us to ask ourselves what we can do about it; what we can change. ‘You don’t have to be unhappy, you’re not supposed to be unhappy,’ he says. ‘If you’re unhappy, that’s a signal – respond to it.’
A few years ago Brand was the face of recovery, speaking at conferences including the Recovery Festival, visiting Recovery Central in Birmingham and talking about the need for ‘addicts’ to get ‘clean’.
In his book he tells the anecdote of trying to help a homeless man to clean up and dress suppurating leg ulcers. In the course of fetching supplies to attempt this horrible task, he buys the man a few cans of booze. ‘I’ve never been one to impose abstinence where drink and drugs are clearly needed,’ he writes. ‘It’s not for me to judge what a street-sleeper does to cope with their inexcusable suffering. I think that compassion and understanding even in this dubious form provide more comfort and hope and are even more likely to inspire change than impotent piety and unresearched judgement.’
Does this mean he has developed a more inclusive view of recovery – that it could now apply to people who are not abstinent, but stabilising in treatment? A step further, is he inviting people who are not drug free – and might not intend to be – to join the conversation? Can we bring our own versions of being human to the table?
He replies as if dressing down his former self: ‘I’ve never met anybody on a script that I would regard as fucking clean. They’re fucked. And 80-90 per cent of the time they’re using on top of it – as you know, don’t you?’
So is he not concerned about people being booted out of services because they’re not abstinent? What about the homeless guy – what is he supposed to do? Brand looks thoughtful and resists his publicist’s attempts to wind up the conversation to leave for the next appointment – he wants to explain himself. The book predicates the need for kindness and he is not about to let his comment be misinterpreted.
‘I’m a puritan oddly, curiously, given my buccaneer, cavalier background,’ he responds. ‘I am a bit orthodox. If you are a drug addict you cannot take drugs. But I recognise now because of being with people in much harsher circumstances than I, thank God, have never experienced, that they need to be able to engage a whatever level they’re at. But the intention should always be abstinence. Not believing that it’s possible for everyone – I don’t like that kind of cynicism. I do believe it’s possible for everyone for be drug free.’
In Brand’s final chapter of Recovery, he takes us on his journey with his wife Laura to the hospital and the birthing room for the birth of their daughter. It is a funny, sincere and neurotic account that steps away from his ‘how to’ guide and speaks with raw emotion about the ‘newly acquired altitude’. His journey has been ‘a total excavation of who I am and what it means for me to be a human in the world’.
Leading into the practical exercises to start the programme – the section where the reader picks up a pen and begins their soul-searching inventory – he says ‘I am like a former fat man, stood in his gigantic old trousers, two thumbs up and lithe, unable to believe the change.’ There is no doubting his sincerity in wanting to take you to the other side of your misery.
Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions by Russell Brand is published by Bluebird, ISBN 978-1-5098-4494-4