Creative addiction


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Carol Ubben of Mt. Morris, Illinois, wrote, “I’ve recently joined a quit smoking online group called Quitnet. There I’ve met many artist friends from around the world. Lately we have been discussing how addictions affect creativity. Many of the other artists (which also include writers) are having problems with depression upon quitting and some find it difficult to get back to the easel. I was wondering if you have any insights on this.”

Thanks, Carol. Post-addiction depression drags down your spirit and makes you wonder why you quit in the first place. Fact is, people generally have the same brand of depression before they quit. Cancerous lung photos may convince them that cigarettes kill, but that still doesn’t do anything about fixing the depression. Many quit-experts recommend replacement activity such as biking or jogging. Here are some ideas for artists:

Replacement “units” can be tailor-made to the previous addiction. A cigarette, for example, burns down in about eight minutes. The idea is to make eight-minute poems, paintings, or whatever. These units can be repeated in about the same frequency and timing as the previous addiction. This is habit management and it can be a lot of fun. It’s important not to give yourself time to think. A bad habit is simply replaced by a good one — and perhaps collected and archived. Materials at hand are the only prerequisite — freshly squeezed paint, that sort of thing. This system is called CAR — Creative Addiction Replacement. It’s a proactive way to keep the mind from the depressing stuff. Like pulling a cigarette out of a packet and lighting up, it requires an action without a lot of thought.

A companion system is known as “The Way of the Actor.” It’s based on the idea that professional actors can affect a persona and then become that persona. In our case, desirable activity is acted — and desirable behavior follows. Rather than seeking outside help, people can often find it within themselves to reprogram their personality — essentially renaming themselves. This subterfuge calls for an iron will — what used to be called “character.” It’s a good name for it. When people make a conscious decision to eliminate an undesirable habit, they are on the path to further lobotomize for the good. Things get adventurous and rebirth happens. Creative people come alive when they find novelty within themselves. Novelty stomps depression.

Best regards,


PS: “In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” (Albert Camus)


“Invincible Summer”
collage tapestry
by Helen Webber

Esoterica: Never underestimate the value of addictions. When positive, they can mean the difference between “survive” and “thrive.” Addiction and compulsion are closely related to that most valuable of human qualities — passion. Passion is the force that springs an artist from the needling cushion of depression.




Achieve the unachievable
by Donna Houston, Kamloops, BC, Canada

This idea of using what we do as artists intrigues me. This just might be the answer. I have been an artist all my life, raised children, gone through divorce, and gone through a very dark period emotionally. Art has stayed a constant in my life throughout, and has taken me through some very dark times and brought me back to the light. Why I didn’t think of this ‘replacement units’ idea I don’t know, but it might be just what is needed here. I enjoy your letters and tonight, while replying to you, I managed not to have a smoke after dinner — step one. Tomorrow morning I will begin this ‘units’ therapy. I will let you know if it works. Wish me luck. I truly believe artists have an addict gene, as only an addict could try over and over to achieve the unachievable.

(RG note) Thanks, Donna. And thanks to everyone who wrote to tell us that they were going to give the Creative Addiction Replacement a try. I wish luck to all, and yes, please let me know. I look forward to hearing about booklets of small poems and piles of eight-minute paintings.


Art supplants addictions
by Dale Ducillo, Fairfield, CT, USA

It wasn’t until I kicked my addiction to alcohol and other substances, including cigarettes, that my creativity was unleashed, full throttle! I have learned that my creative energy is like a river; if it’s not flowing, it overflows into harmful addictions. Two months after I put the cork on the bottle, so to speak, I dragged out the sewing machine and started my creative journey. That was over 16 years ago and my journey, which began with quilting, has led to jewelry making, writing, and painting — activities I had only dreamed of doing in the past. Many great artists have suffered from alcohol and drug addiction, which usually ended their lives prematurely. Some believe that mind-altering substances enhance their work. For me, the opposite is true, and for that I am truly grateful.


Little bursts to break habits
by Deirdre McKeown, Grand Forks, BC, Canada

I’m in awe of the way the universe unfolds. I was just musing about my habit of munching on anything I can get my hands on and wondering how to creatively and joyously release that engrained habit. Now this morning I pop into the library and find your e-mail on creative addiction. I’ve always loved little bursts of creative energy and delight in the idea of using them consciously to break old destructive habits. What I’m certain of is the universe would like to support me to be much more creative and addiction-free than I’ve been recently.


Performance anxiety
by Eric Maisel, San Francisco, CA, USA

The addiction was the way the artist bound anxiety. Now, trying to stay sober, he no longer possesses his trusty anxiety management tool and now feels unequal to approaching the canvas because he can’t tolerate the natural doubt and anxiety that well up as an artist approaches the unknown. What he needs, more than anything else, in order to get back to work, are a few simple anxiety management tools. I describe about a dozen of these in my latest book, Performance Anxiety.


Easy way to stop
by Gail Groen, Australia

I’ve also just stopped smoking. I’ve used a book to get my mindset right. I am having no problems of withdrawal, depression or anything of that nature at this point. The book is Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking. I have not needed any replacement (ie. patches, gum or anything of that nature) and my hands and my mind are all going well so far (this is day 8). Hopefully we can encourage others to stop smoking (not give up as this implies a sacrifice and so we are continually looking for something). This book helps your mindset and frees up your time for more creative juices (no stop/start while lighting up, ashing and putting out) along with all the other health/wealth benefits.


Find your authentic self
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA

In my previous life as a Clinical Social Worker, I treated many people. They had serious problems and required medical care, and the good news is that medical care is, in most cases, very effective. Treatment varies with each person’s needs. Some people worry that if the addiction or depression goes away, the creativity goes away too. Not true. When your spirit is no longer weighed down with these distractions, you are finally able to find your authentic self. You can create with all of yourself, not just the small piece that the addiction or depression allows you to have. A favorite book of mine for recovering the creative spirit is The Artist’s Way — A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron.


Addiction to painting
by Sue Cowan, Coquitlam, BC, Canada


“Three Pears & Stripes”
oil painting
by Sue Cowan

Painting itself seems to be my obsession. I feel some resentment at all the other things in life that take me away from my studio, even normal necessities like teaching, walking the dog, and doing laundry. These things all seem so time consuming whereas painting time flies by, hours feeling like minutes. Balance is necessary in life. This drive to paint has become somewhat uncomfortable as it constantly judges all other calls on my time and energy. Do you or your readers have any thoughts on this?

(RG note) Thanks, Sue. I’m there too. Visitors and interruptions become a subject of resentment and one begins to validate oneself only by the work. I tell myself it’s not unhealthy. I make myself take trips, but I paint there too. Bad Bob. Bad Sue.


Replace addiction with a blog
by Catherine Stock, France


“Antoine sheep”
by Catherine Stock

When I take a break from my work I reach for a snack rather than a cigarette, with equally undesirable consequences. My New Year resolution was to start a blog to get me through the winter in rural France. I intended to make and post daily sketches of my life here. They have faltered a little recently, but your last letter inspired me to do a ten or fifteen minute sketch rather than head for the kitchen when I need a break. My blog is titled The Tramizal Diary. Some readers might like to try the discipline of a blog. They are very easy to set up.


Replace with two-hour hike
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

One of the most powerful healers of addiction-caused-metabolism-defects is hiking — soft all-touching flooding influence of natural metabolism intensity increasing. Hiking acts better than running which uses too much from the body resource pool. Speed of moving is individual, principle must be allowing compensation of resources for muscles and body systems — during moving, for many young healthy persons — near to maximal possibilities for going about 2 hours/daily, but for elder persons — slow and more time. In this natural way metabolism level overrides fermentative deficiencies as in colitis, building material supply deficiencies as at sclerosive difficulties of tissues nutrition (heart including) and, of course, destructive defects as results of addiction are compensating with increased metabolism level. Just must be period for re-building of that touched by addiction metabolism — perhaps half a year for regular everyday 2-hours activity might build different person that was before.


Major chemical dysfunction
by Bernadine Fox, Vancouver, BC, Canada


oil painting
by Bernadine Fox

Creative addiction, of course, does not deal with the very real — very depressing — lack of dopamine release in the brains of those who quit any addiction, smoking included. Nicotine releases dopamine in the brain when someone takes a drag. Eventually the brain is trained to release dopamine on queue and no longer does so easily on its own. Consequently, it is a chemical reality that those who quit can become depressed for awhile and some can become clinically depressed for a long time. This is why Zyban helps people quit smoking — it is an anti-depressant which smoothes over those early rough clinical edges. And, this is also why not everyone has the “same brand of depression” prior to quitting. Habits are things like taking the same way home every day; biting one’s nails, swearing, etc. Changing the way one’s brain chemically functions is a whole other animal and on par with other addictions like heroin and cocaine.


Addiction and passion
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA


“Ghost shot”
by Mary Madsen

I’ve often wondered why humans find so much pleasure in certain things, but they don’t become addicted to it — hiking in nature, cooking for friends, exercising to silly workout tapes. It’s the bad stuff that so easily takes us over. If a compulsion is bad for us, we call it an addiction. If it’s good for us, we call it passion. Where is that fine line between the two, and why is it always so much easier to slide into addiction than it is passion. Setting loose our passions often requires constant attention to nurture, and even then our tendency is to put limits on it. It makes no sense, nor does the statistic that only 15% of those addicted to any substance will ever fully recover from that addiction for the rest of their lives. Smoking is particularly perplexing because we are all born with nicotine receptors in our bodies. Nature isn’t stupid, She does give us receptors just for the heck of it. Or does She? Perhaps those receptors are the chance She gives us to find our character.


No more time wasted
by Tricia Hardie, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I quit smoking a few years ago, after 35 years. It was after a bout of bronchitis. I stopped thinking of myself as a victim and began celebrating my victory. I went on an art course and this is when I realized how much smoking interrupted my painting activities. I spent so much more time painting instead of frequent 10 min. breaks. I also realized that I no longer had to waste time “planning” for my cigarette breaks. I am so glad I quit. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about food!


Getting through the ‘wall’
by Pati Bannister, Diamondhead, MS, USA


“Scent of Summer”
original painting
by Pati Bannister

A large percentage of smokers who stop smoking experience anxiety and other “depressing” feelings, especially around 4-6 months. This is due to the fact that for many, the natural dopamine producing functions of the body have been replaced by nicotine use. So, even if life in general is okay, we don’t experience much of a sense of well-being. In time, the body corrects this. In the meantime, there are pharmaceuticals (such as Zyban) which can help. Or perhaps, like me, just knowing that the feelings are normal will allow you to get through the “wall.”


Difficult path for painter
by Marti Adrian, Lethbridge, AB, Canada


“El Andaluz”
acrylic painting
by Marti Adrian

Eleven years ago I said good-bye to my last cigarette, and felt that I had lost my best friend. The path to recovery was long and hard. I used my creativity to ‘see’ myself as a non-smoker, and held to that. Each time I felt the strong cravings, I would pick up a brush, pencil, go into meditation, go for a walk, call a friend, pace the floor if I had to, but having convinced myself that I was a ‘non-smoker,’ I could no longer see myself reaching for that cigarette. Smoking had become a big part of the process when I was painting. It made for a good excuse to stand back and look at the painting, and since I had a habit of getting too close and personal with my then very realistic paintings, it was a good strategy. Now I had to come up with a whole new way of seeing myself as an artist as well. I went through a long dry spell. During that time, there were countless canvases that never saw the light of day. Colors were muddied, drawings looked like an amateur had done them and every attempt looked unbalanced and without harmony. But I used those attempts to analyze my mental state. Art can show so much of what is going on inside. I eventually broke through that difficult time and found myself going in whole new directions. Colors became brighter, and the subject matter much more cheerful. I’ve never gone through a block like that since. Now I have the added knowledge that I can do anything I set my mind to.


Self-completion doesn’t work
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA


“After the Rain”
watercolour painting
by Jeanne Long

Spiritual master Eckhart Tolle addresses the problem of addiction by recognizing a compulsive behavior as an attempt to remedy a feeling of incompletion of a non-existent “self.” The antidote is to realize that supplying the food/cigarettes/shopping or other addiction does not really lead to anything but a temporary feeling of completion that very quickly switches to the return of the feeling of emptiness or incompletion. Instead of merely following the dictates of the craving, the person is encouraged to observe the process of the craving, the resulting repetitive (and usually ultimately damaging) behaviors, the short-term sense of satiety, and the perpetual return to the craving state. Once this is seen from a more comprehensive perspective, it becomes apparent that the repetitive behavior will not lead to the permanent self-completion imagined. In short, it doesn’t work. Clearly seeing that it doesn’t work is what short-circuits the cycle. An important understanding that is part of this antidote to addiction is that one cannot get a sense of completion from eating, smoking, buying, relating, or any of these types of behaviors. The desire to complete oneself is based on the illusion that the person is incomplete when, in reality, each person is already complete when considered part of the whole, rather than a separate ego trying to stand alone. The ego is on a never-ending, impossible pursuit to attain a sense of permanence when it is essentially impermanent, since it is only imaginary.


Lack of protein = addiction
by Rebecca Cody, Olympia, WA, USA

The Diet Cure, by Julia Ross, M.A., gives great insight into and help with the problem of addictions. Ross has a clinic where she works with people with various addictions, depression, etc., and has a great track record of success with her clients. She maintains (and quotes a lot of research) that people use addictive substances — food, alcohol, drugs, etc., because they aren’t getting enough protein. This lack of protein leaves receptors in the brain without the amino acids they require. The addictive substance of choice feeds these brain receptors. She supplements the diet with amino acids, which stop the craving for harmful substances within 24-48 hours, and has her clients eat 20 grams of protein at every meal and a lot of non-starchy vegetables. Eventually, as they get better, they can stop the supplements.

In my personal experience, the amino acid 5HTP, works far better and more quickly for depression, without side effects, than Zoloft. Artists, or those who have cravings and/or addictions would benefit by reading her book and finding a knowledgeable health professional to work with in solving their addictions while improving their health.


Positive behaviors for long term success
by Patrick J. H. Davis, Calgary, AB, Canada

Quitting smoking is an area in which I am an expert, having quit dozens of times. I think your ideas might help because too often quitting smokers start to view themselves as passively experiencing the miseries of withdrawal, and your suggestions make that less passive so they can feel they have some power over the process. I personally do not think it’s possible to ‘give up’ smoking as if one is making a great sacrifice. I do think it is possible to quit smoking, however, and the difference is that the successful quitter is aggressive in the process. Rather than sitting back and bemoaning the misery, she/he looks at the positives that begin almost from day 1 — that is, one’s breath, one’s body and one’s clothes no longer reek, one begins to breathe more easily, one no longer is a health menace to one’s family, etc.

The positive behaviors and attitudes, whether expressed in positive mental activity or positive creative activity, can make the whole process easier and more likely to result in long-term success.


Dancing the anxiety
by Minaz Jantz, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Minaz Jantz

I quit smoking two years ago January. Yes it did affect my creative flow. What was the most difficult was processing the anxiety experienced while embarking on a new painting. While a smoker I would just kick back, take distance, walk around, then light up a smoke. Once the cigarette was gone, I could get back to it. I had to chill out. Painting was too close to smoking. So I did easier projects for a while that were small and quick. After a short sabbatical from challenging the desire to light up, I substituted the “smoking kick back” for turning up the tunes and dancing the anxiety. While dancing around the loft, I pick dead leaves off my plants. Meanwhile I am still glancing at my developing painting but substituting uplifting action with dancing and my newly plucked plants are grateful to get the trim. I am healthy and the plants are healthy!





Double self-portrait

oil painting
by Edd Cox, Seattle, WA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Stella Reinwald of Santa Fe, New Mexico who wrote, “The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav has a chapter about addiction and its relation to issues of soul work and healing. This book is for those seeking to understand their higher spiritual purpose. For the few who are open, it can be ‘the teacher who came when the student was ready.’ ”

And also Helene Vinet who wrote, “Being artists, our fuel somehow needs to be redirected and challenged sometimes. Working on my own and spending too much time with my inner voice plays havoc with me.”

And also Gerti Hilfert of Langenfeld, Germany who wrote, “Keep busy with jobs that make it impossible to hold a cigarette: Using both hands and both arms — like painting (holding a palette and concentrate on mixing colours), also carving, sculpting, etc. Keep yourself busy with jobs you really love.”

And also Rick Moulton of Lake Oswego, Oregon who wrote, “Tony Couch has a book out titled, Watercolor: You Can Do It. I say, ‘Quit smoking, you can do it.’ ”

And also Anonymous, who wrote, “I figure that every cigarette was to cover a feeling: fear, anger, boredom, depression, frustration, and plenty more. Now it is time to find new ways to deal with all those feelings. It’s no job for sissies!”




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