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CMU@TGE 2017: Tackling Addiction In The Music Community – Jon Stewart

By | Published on Thursday 8 June 2017

Jon Stewart

Look out for more reports throughout June on key sessions that took place at the CMU Insights conferences at The Great Escape last month. Today, we look at another of the sessions on addiction in the music community, and our interview with former Sleeper guitarist turned academic Jon Stewart.

Stewart became an alcoholic during the Britpop heyday of the 1990s and eventually found help through Alcoholics Anonymous. He then left that movement after fourteen years, now working to promote non-spiritual recovery alternatives, and is currently working on a PhD and book on this subject.

Speaking during the CMU Insights Drugs Conference, Stewart began by discussing the attitude to drugs within the Britpop community of the 1990s and where his problems with addiction began.

“During the 90s, there was certainly this idea of romanticising drugs”, he said. “My first highly addictive illegal substance was given to me by somebody at my record company, who’d just spent loads of money on my band and as a form of celebration went, ‘Here, have some of this stuff. This’ll make for a good night’. Where else would you do that? Where would you buy a house, and then re-route a local river underneath it? You just wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“In some ways, they were more innocent times”, he continued. “There was no meaningful guidance at all. Because people [in the industry] didn’t really know what to do. At the time, people knew about Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and those other groups, but no one would really direct you to those, you had to find them yourself. And it would be extremely uncool to go and do that. That’s changed now, which is good”.

Explaining how he ended up in AA himself, Stewart said: “The thing that led me to seek help was the same thing that leads any alcoholic or addict to seek help. It’s that you’re broken in your core. I went to a meeting and got help, I met a lot of nice people, some of whom had had much much bigger records than I had ever had with Sleeper. You know, we had one platinum album, at my first AA meeting there was a guy there who had seven. So that was pretty impressive. I realised I was no longer special and different. And that saved my life”.

With AA he eventually got sober, and also found God through the spiritual side of the organisation. Becoming something of an evangelist for the group – an “AA Taliban”, as he described it – Stewart attended meetings for fourteen years before deciding to leave, after questioning his faith and becoming and Atheist again.

“After fourteen years, I started to feel like I was in what seemed to be a cult”, he said. “Of course AA is not a cult, I want to be very clear about that. But it uses methods that parallel with the ‘thought reform’ methods that have been studied by sociologists. And they work, so AA uses that for good outcomes. I had a fairly spiritual sponsor who encouraged me to pray, so I did it and I had a spiritual experience as the result of working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Which is the point”.

“I stopped going to AA meetings and started attending some CBT [Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy] groups instead, which were similar, but also different in some ways”, he continued. “I wanted a different kind of recovery based on real world experiences. So while I’m very supportive of AA – I really believe in it – but at the same time the narrative is that a lot of people leave it and move on and I wanted to understand that phenomenon”.

As part of his attempt to understand more about all of this, he wrote a blog post, which he has continued to expand upon as this has become a topic of more formal research. “I didn’t realise how much knowledge of addiction and our brain chemicals has changed [since AA started in the 1930s]”, he said. “You don’t hear about that in meetings, because you just talk about the twelve steps. You can’t openly promote or endorse other organisations”.

Moving on to what other help there is now available to music people tackling addiction, he said: “If you’re in any way a person of faith, or a spiritual person, just go to AA. It’s a wonderful place to go. If you’re a naturalist, who doesn’t believe in that, you need to look for other things, because AA’s a spiritual programme. And the first thing is this growing tenet of Atheist AA, which was birthed formally in Toronto about five years ago when the local intergroup tried to ban the meetings because they took God out of the twelve steps. God’s mentioned about five times in the twelve steps”.

“Then there’s a thing called SMART Recovery, which is CBT-based and also has meetings, which is growing”, he went on. “There are a few things that are impeding its growth, one of which is that you don’t talk about SMART Recovery if you go to AA. Also, if you watch the soap operas and the movies, all the directors and screenwriters and actors, they’re all sober in AA. And AA is a great drama. When will somebody in a soap opera or a movie get sober in SMART Recovery, where you sit around and do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy? It’s nowhere near as dramatic, but it’s really effective. And if you’re an atheist and you’re turned off by the God stuff, it’s a good place to go”.

Finally, Stewart discussed another option called The Sinclair Method. “It’s even more controversial, but has a maybe 75-80% success rate”, he said. “AA’s success rate is very difficult to judge, because everyone’s anonymous and every case is different, but it seems to be maybe 25%. Well, with the Sinclair Method, you don’t need to go to meetings, you don’t need to pray, and you take a medication that means you can keep drinking”.

“I think it’s a tragedy that Amy Winehouse drank herself to death and probably never heard anyone say, ‘you could try the Sinclair Method'”, he continued. “And the Sinclair Method has been in existence for 20 years. It’s a very effective programme”.

“You don’t even need to be abstinent to get there”, he added. “You take a pill an hour before you drink and it cuts off the massive surge in happy chemicals, and it allows people to control [their drinking]. And the other thing about it is that 25% of the people who take it become abstinent. So you could find abstinence through a programme that is not a programme of abstinence. About the same number of people who use the Sinclair Method find abstinence as go to AA”.

Stewart discussed other reasons why these other methods are not so well known, in addition to them not being portrayed in dramas. In part, he said, “it’s because of the way AA’s set up – a singleness of purpose that has allowed it to survive for 80 years. Think about what an incredible achievement that is. But that singleness of purpose has also meant that other newer forms of therapy and help that are so desperately needed haven’t really had the airtime that they deserve”.

GPs also generally aren’t aware of all or any of the options beyond AA, and sometimes not even AA itself. “If you’re lucky your GP will suggest AA”, he said. “The Sinclair Method is approved by NICE, and GPs still don’t know about it. It’s government approved”.

However, he said he was positive about the future of recovery, concluding: “The truth is, there’s never ever been a better time to get sober or seek help. And if you’re in a band, or managing a band where somebody has a problem, there’s never been a better time to find help. And you can multitask, you can do all of them. You can do AA, you can do SMART Recovery, you can do the Sinclair Method, and nobody can tell you that you can’t. It’s a very positive time in that respect”.

Read Stewart’s blog on recovery here. And check out all the reports and resources CMU has published around this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conferences here.