News and Views

Op-Ed: Guns N’ Recovery

Emily Desmond, Masters of Public Health Student, UCC.

Emily Desmond, Masters of Public Health Student, UCC.

  • 26 May 2017

After 25 years, world-renowned rock band Guns N’ Roses return to Slane this weekend to play for 80,000 fans.

Three members from the original GNR line-up - AxlRose, Slash and Duff McKagan – are set to take to the stage for the highly-anticipated gig. The band, who fully embraced the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ attitude on their last visit to Ireland are now taking a different approach to life, particularly bass player Duff McKagan.

During his early years with Guns N’ Roses, McKagan was known as ‘The King of Beers’ and bought into the ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ mantra like many rock musicians of the 80’s. Despite his enormous success, he was a vulnerable figure. In his book It’s So Easy: And Other Lies and his music with GNR and his other bands Loaded and Velvet Revolver, Duff gives a vivid and honest account of the many physical and mental health challenges he experienced. The book reveals McKagan’s serious battles with depression, panic attacks and anxiety. Not knowing – like many young men- how to ask for help with these problems, and struggling to deal with them, Duff began to seriously abuse alcohol. It was not unusual for him to drink huge amounts of vodka a day. He combined this with large amounts of cocaine, which allowed him to drink even more for longer periods of time. In his 20’s, McKagan’s body began to gradually fail due to extreme alcohol and cocaine use.  

In the 90’s, McKagan’s alcohol use spiked to 10 bottles of wine a day,and he often drank his first bottle before noon. Although he realised that he was an alcoholic, McKagan had no idea how to tackle his problems. Alcohol and drugs became a form of self-medication that allowed him to cope with the pressures of being part of one of the world’s biggest bands and deal with his personal and relationship issues. According to McKagan, some people can experiment with drugs in their youth and move on,whereas others, like him, for whatever reason, cannot. As outlined in his autobiography, at his lowest point, he drank his own vomit as there was alcohol in it.  

1994 was a critical turning point in his life, the start of a remarkable journey towards recovery. After years of alcohol abuse, he experienced a near death experience in hospital. Suffering from acute pancreatitis, McKagan was informed by his doctor he would be deadin a month if he did not stop drinking. He noted how ashamed he was that his mother, who was ill herself, was forced to look after him. He had a strong belief that he could recover, though. Many people who have this belief cannot successfully act on it. However, McKagan managed to turn his life around. This was not easy. He found that simply functioning in day-to-day life was a significant hurdle after years of alcohol and drug-fuelled oblivion.   

McKagan cut himself off from his former drug-using ‘friends’. Hard work, mountain biking and martial arts replaced alcohol and drugs, and meditation replaced medication. Throughout It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, McKagan recalls how physical activity helped him gain perspective, and humility, while also helping him to find a safe mental place. Education also played a key role in his recovery. While looking for new ways to challenge himself, he discovered a love of academia and returned to university as a mature student in order to complete his degree. He began to read and write, and started his own newspaper columns with Seattle Weekly and ESPN in the United States, in which he wrote about sports and finance. While continuing to play music with his other band Loaded, McKagan embarked on a second career as a financial adviser with Meridian Rock, a wealth management firm catering to rock stars. Perhaps the most important change in McKagan’s life that consolidated his recovery was meeting his wife Susan, and starting a family with her. Rather than being a ‘drug addict’, he began to see himself as a ‘family man’, and all that entailed. 

Guns N’ Roses, and Duff McKagan in particular, are interesting because they are survivors. They have gone through experiences that would have destroyed, and in fact have destroyed, many other people, and in many respects they came out of these experiences stronger people. Duff McKagan’s story is not only instructive on a personal level, it also offers important lessons for researchers who are working on serious health problems such as addiction.   

What you see in the lives of people like Duff McKagan is resilience to adversity in action. This resilience is partly driven by innate personal characteristics such as intelligence, creativity, sociability and determination. However, it is also resilience driven by modifiable social characteristics including education, healthy diet, exercise, social support and disconnection from risky social networks (what drug desistance researchers refer to as ‘knifing off’ the past) These are all practical areas which health services can work on with people who have addiction and mental health issues.  

Another important lesson from Duff McKagan’s life is that recovery is not a fairy tale. The title of his autobiography It’s So Easy is ironic. McKagan, like many former addicts, did not change his life overnight and as he admits in his song ‘Seattlehead’, at many points he did not know “if I could do things differently”. However, he kept going through the hard times, drawing as much as he could on his own abilities and the support of people and structures around him. His life has taken him from direct experience of his generation’s ‘Appetite for Destruction’ to embracing a positive vision of who he is and where he is going.  

On May 27, McKagan will be playing GNR’s ‘Better’, to a huge crowd of Irish people for whom his music has had an important influence on their lives. We will be there as well. 

Emily Desmond, Masters of Public Health Student, UCC 

This article is from a joint UCC Dept. of Sociology and Public Health study that is seeking to map out rock musicians' drug use trajectories.  The study is also looking at the health problems that these individuals face, as well as their understanding of these health problems. The study is being conducted by Emily Desmond and Myles Balfe, Lecturer in Sociology, UCC. 

Five key Duff McKagan musical moments: 

Seattlehead: Duff McKagan’s key song as a solo artist. Summarises his attempts to distance himself from his drug-using past in Los Angeles and develop a new life for himself in Seattle. 

It’s So Easy: The title of his autobiography; this was originally a song on Appetite for Destruction. Nihilistic. 

Dead skin: A heavy, fast-paced song about not being trapped in past identities. 

IOU: A song Duff wrote about the importance place that his wife occupies in his life.  

The Academy gigs: Duff has played the Academy in Dublin numerous times with his band Loaded. These concerts are online on YouTube. Great gigs, full of humour and uncompromising punk-influenced rock. Much heavier than Guns N’ Roses.

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