David Bowie was a visionary whose innovative thought and musical creativity were beyond imitation. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, he changed the music industry many times and altered his identity even more frequently.
But stories about David Bowie’s life must be told through the lens of his struggles with drug abuse, addiction and mental health. Before he died, he was very vocal about his past drug use and how it influenced him, his many personas and his career as a whole.
Bowie opened up about his struggles in his later years, and when he died in 2016, the world was able to look back on one of the most accomplished professionals of all time with an appreciation of who he was as a person, not just a performer.
In this piece, we’re going to reflect on how David Bowie’s drug use and addiction affected him throughout his career and ultimately, how he was able to get clean.
How David Bowie Got Into Drugs
For David Bowie, drugs were always prevalent in his life. “At first it was the lighter drugs, pills maybe, during the London period in the Sixties. Then it was cocaine in a very serious manner around 1974.”
In a 1993 Rolling Stone interview, Bowie credited his struggles with drugs to his addictive personality. He was the kind of person who would throw 100% of himself into his creative pursuits, and for a time, drugs helped him do that: “I started on the drugs at the end of 1973 and then with force in 1974. As soon as I got to America, pow! It was so freely available in those days. Coke was everywhere. … Because I have a very addictive personality, I was a sucker for it.”
Celebrities, Drug Use, and Addiction
Those with significant fame and fortune can conceal their struggles more than everyday people — they can paper over the cracks using their financial power. Still, as in Bowie’s case, it’s nearly impossible to sustain forever.
In the mid-70s, his struggles with cocaine were evident and took a toll on his life, relationships and career. In 1974, it was clear that David Bowie was on drugs when he struggled to answer the most basic questions on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show.
In 1975, he received criticism from the UK music press after a performance that aired on the BBC. The Record Mirror wrote, “His physical deterioration was sad to behold. His corpse-like appearance only made more grotesque by a severe Fifties-style haircut and ill-fitting suit. His voice too was in appalling shape, and it was almost pitiful to watch him aiming hoarsely at notes he could once reach with ease.”
During this period, Bowie lived in New York and Los Angeles between tours, where he became increasingly prone to paranoia and anger. In 1976, he slipped into a cocaine psychosis and became obsessed with his own delusions.
The Lifelong Battle of Recovery
In the second half of the 1970s, Bowie’s addiction caused numerous slips as he repeatedly tried to get clean. During this period, he experienced guilt, shame and bouts of deep depression, thought to be caused in part by the side effects of cocaine withdrawal.
The trauma of the past few years likely contributed to his growing drinking habit, one that may have led to the liver cancer he would eventually succumb to at the age of 69.
In his later years, David Bowie’s drug use decreased. Later, he would further limit his vices, with an understanding that compulsive nicotine and alcohol use were unhealthy and could further feed what he acknowledged as an addictive personality.
His concern about his genetic ties to mental health problems is something that is thought to have brought about his awareness of his conduct. According to reports, two of Bowie’s aunts had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his brother, Terry Burns, committed suicide in 1985 after spending years in a mental institution.
Reducing the Stigma of Addiction and Mental Health
When adored public figures and people in the spotlight open up about their struggles with addiction, it communicates to people that no one is immune. When he reflected on his experiences with addiction in a 1987 Musician interview, David Bowie commented that he felt he was lucky to have made it through:
“I was so blocked … so stoned … It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it? I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now, I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”
After the turn of the century, Bowie began to reflect more and more on his experience. In an interview with Q Magazine in 2003, he accurately summed up the process of drug abuse turning into addiction:
“If I could have held the perception I had in the early part of doing drugs — to realize you are seeing something or seeing or feeling something you never felt before and remember it — then that would be great. Because after that it’s just repetition, trying to repeat the high. And that’s where excess kicks in.”
He also spoke at length about his mental health and the labor involved with getting past it. From The Daily Mirror in 2002: “I used to slip easily into deep, deep depressions, really manically depressed. I’d then swing the other way and become incredibly euphoric. I wasn’t in control of it at all. I often get pangs of isolation and all that, particularly in the very early morning, but it doesn’t haunt me as such anymore.”
Lessons Learned from a Storied Career
When David Bowie reflected on the decisions that shaped his life, he acknowledged that drug abuse had a negative impact on his identity during the years he was using cocaine. While his career is not typical, his story is — he proved that the allure of drugs can cast a spell on anyone, and no matter who the victim is, the road back is anything but easy.
We’ve provided some helpful tips for anyone looking to quit using cocaine. If you’re struggling with behavioral health disorders, don’t wait to get help. Call FHE Health today to find out what treatment options are available to you.