Addiction, empathy and Metallica
Metallica’s James Hetfield is one of an estimated 21 million people in the U.S. alone struggling with substance addiction. Dan Kerber explores how the music of Metallica, and his own story, can help us find empathy and better-support the addicts and alcoholics in our lives.
I have written previously in this blog about Metallica from a business perspective, but today I am writing from a personal one. I was saddened by the recent news that James Hetfield, Metallica’s lead singer and guitarist, had returned to rehab after 15 years of sobriety, and I was compelled to share my own story. Hetfield’s relapse is a stark reminder that recovery from addiction is a never-ending, daily struggle, regardless of how long someone has been sober. His relapse also led me to reflect on how difficult it is for non-addicts to understand the life-and-death struggle that those in recovery face every day. (While addiction comes in many forms, I am focusing on addiction to drugs and alcohol in this blog.)
As a society, we are more enlightened than ever about the disease of addiction. Since an estimated one in seven people in the United States will develop a substance abuse disorder sometime in their lives, nearly everyone has seen a close friend or loved one struggle with addiction. As a result, most people do their best to be genuinely supportive and empathetic once they learn someone is an addict. However, true empathy means not just knowing what someone is going through intellectually, it requires understanding at an emotional level what the other person is experiencing. Because addiction is characterized by a person losing their ability to choose if and how much they drink or use, and most non-addicts can choose with impunity how much they drink or use, if at all, it can be hard for them to understand why an addict can’t, let alone empathize with them. And while addicts are generally afforded sympathy, if not true empathy, the relapsed addict often is the most unforgiven. It can feel like a personal betrayal to those supporting them when an addict makes the seemingly selfish decision to throw their hard-won sobriety to the wind.
How, then, do we find real understanding and empathy for the challenges facing an addict, regardless of where they are on their path to recovery? One source we can turn to is the aforementioned James Hetfield and his band. Several of Metallica’s songs deal with addiction and the human toll it takes, the most famous of which is their 1986 hit Master of Puppets. The song’s lyrics give an unflinching account of addiction with lines like “Taste me you will see, more is all you need / Dedicated to how I’m killing you”. Complimenting the grim lyrics is a guitar interlude at the song’s midpoint that gives a visceral representation of the life cycle of addiction that can be described in simple terms as “fun, fun with problems, problems”.
Over the two-and-a-half minute segment, the music transitions from a soaring melody with bright and brilliant notes to heavy and dark, with an ominous-sounding, harsh beat, to a final guitar solo with severe, piercing notes played at a frenetic, breath-taking tempo.
The music represents an addict’s journey as they go from feelings of euphoria in their early phases of using, to becoming dependent on the drug as it overtakes the rhythm of their daily life, to finally reaching a point where drinking or using consumes their entire existence and their life speeds painfully out of control.
Whether or not you agree with me about the symbolism in the song’s music, I can speak with confidence about what it’s like to go through the life cycle of addiction. I have not only seen it play out with others close to me, I am also a recovering alcoholic and have experienced it first-hand. The “fun” phase of drinking for me started in earnest shortly after I graduated college. Most people who know me do not know that I am naturally very introverted. Nothing is more torturous to me than public speaking, but a close second is talking to new people in a social setting. Making small talk and connecting with strangers, a power conjured effortlessly by sales people and other extroverts at will, is a forced and exhausting exercise for me. As a young, traveling consultant, there were constant social gatherings with coworkers and customers that I was expected to participate in. Easing my discomfort, many of these events were accompanied by alcohol, the great social lubricant. Like most people, I am less anxious and more social when drinking, so it was an arrangement that worked well. (I want to acknowledge that there are many people more introverted than I am, some with severe social anxiety, who get by in a world full of strangers without relying on alcohol. I am not making excuses for my decisions, just sharing my experience, which is not an uncommon one.)
Over the next 15 years “fun” turned into “fun with problems” as I went from mostly drinking at happy hours to drinking most nights, and I increasingly hid how much I was drinking as it began to impact my relationships with my family. About 10 years ago, I entered the “problems” phase, drinking until I passed out nearly every night, going to work with a hangover the next day, then starting the cycle again that night. If I wasn’t working I was almost certainly drinking. And if I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking about drinking. I was a high-functioning alcoholic, but I realized that my drinking had become a problem, and I genuinely tried to moderate or stop entirely many times on my own. But despite having every reason imaginable to do so, including a wonderful family and a successful career, I had become utterly powerless to control my drinking without the right kind of help.
Fortunately for me, I work for a company that has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that connected me, confidentially, with a counselor that specializes in addiction and helped me get into a recovery program. With the help of my program and the support of my family, I am sober today and I have hope that I can stay that way forever.
This is the first time I have shared my alcoholism with anyone other than close friends and family, and I realize that doing so means there will be many more eyes on me (an introvert’s worst nightmare) as people naturally look for signs of relapse. And what if I do relapse? That is scary enough for any addict to contemplate without compounding it by ensuring that everyone, including their employer, is watching out for it. And while I believe society is more understanding than ever about the nature of addiction, I know many people will judge me for what they consider to be a defect of character. After all, until I got into recovery and learned more about addiction, I also believed my drinking problem was primarily a problem of willpower.
So I know that sharing my story will invite scrutiny, but I am fortunate to work for a company where empathy and employee care are a core part of the culture, so I also know that I have the support of my leadership and peers, and I hope my story will help others find deeper understanding and empathy for the still-suffering addicts in their lives.
What we can do
So, what things can we do to better support the addicts among us? First and foremost, remember that once a person becomes an addict, they no longer have control over their actions. So we should treat addicts as we would any other sick person: with understanding and support.
In terms of tangible action, if an addict is pursuing recovery, support them to the extent possible without subjecting yourself or your company to undue burden or risk (and continue to support them if they relapse). If you work for a company with counseling benefits such as an EAP, do not hesitate to use them or recommend them to a colleague that might benefit from them. If you do not, ask your HR team to consider adding an EAP benefit. When scheduling work functions remember that many people do not drink, even some that are not alcoholics, so try to make events as inclusive as possible.
If you are a leader in your company, strive to create an environment where your employees feel comfortable enough to ask for help when it’s needed. If you are a manager working for Ericsson, fully engage in the global Ericsson on the Move initiative which seeks to transform and enhance Ericsson’s culture around five focus areas, one of which is “empathy and humanness”. My own participation in this powerful three-day workshop helped inspire me to share my story here.
Lastly, learn more about addiction and how you can help someone that needs it. While achieving empathy for an addict can be challenging, it is possible. You can start with the resources below. Every addict who has made it to recovery has done so with the support of at least one person who was able to give them the right kind of help at the right time in their life.
You can’t know when that right time might be, but you can be ready and able to help when it comes. You could literally save someone’s life.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Resources for Families Coping with Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders; National Helpline
Alcoholics Anonymous, Is There an Alcoholic in Your Life?
Al-Anon (support program for those whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking)
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for employees of Ericsson North America
National Institutes of Health, Biology of Addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Understanding Drug Use and Addiction
Blog, How Empathy and Understanding are Better Responses to Addiction than Judgement & Moralizing