Stephen King: Alcoholism, Drug Addiction and Fame
Stephen King’s Addiction and Horror Stories
The American novelist, Stephen Edwin King, is one of the world’s most recognized and successful horror authors of all time. Throughout his journey to fame and during his career, King battled with Alcohol abuse and drug addiction. He wasn’t the first writer or artist to be tormented by addiction.
Over a span of 35 years, King wrote a total of 63 novels; his stories, including Carrie, The Shining, IT, Misery and The Green Mile, quickly became best-sellers and turned into Hollywood and television films. Although King is very successful and is estimated to have a net worth of 400 million dollars to date, the author has had his ups and downs along the way. In a new biography, King reveals that during the 80s he spent most of his time binging on drugs and Alcohol. So much so, King claims to have no recollection of writing some of his novels during that period.
A Childhood Escape
King was born in Portland, Maine on Sept. 21, 1947. His father walked out on the family when he was only 2 years old. He grew up in poverty and his family was abandoned by his father. King became convinced that his mother would one-day abandon him and his brother as well. He developed deep rooted emotional distress in childhood which continued to haunt him in adulthood.
‘From a very early age, I wanted to be scared…I wanted an emotional engagement with something that was safe, something I could pull back from.’
– Stephen King, Fresh Air
As a young boy, King found a box of his father’s fantasy and horror fiction books, and he soon was enjoying science fiction as well as monster films. By the time he was 7, King started to write his own stories.
An insecure child, plagued by nightmares and anxieties, he feared everything from falling down the toilet pipes to clowns and deformity. He developed a paranoia about death. As he grew older, King discovered that he was only able to deal with these horrors in his mind through writing about them. Unfortunately, Alcohol and drugs would also become a part of his coping and entwined with his writing practice.
Education, Family and Income
After graduating high school, King studied for an English degree at the University of Maine. During his time there, he discovered that mind-altering substances helped him to escape from his terrifying mental reality. When it comes to Alcohol or recreational drug use, there is typically an inescapable risk of developing a drug addiction. It is common for people with emotional and psychological problems to turn to drugs and Alcohol, especially in response to childhood trauma.
He began taking drugs such as Speed, Marijuana and LSD, which only resulted in drug addiction. About a month prior to his graduation, King was arrested after binge drinking at a nearby bar and stealing traffic cones. Such an arrest seems certainly innocent; however, this was a clear-cut warning of the more concerning behavior to come.
‘The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips… I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.’
In 1970, he graduated from UM with a degree in English, but he struggled greatly to find a job in the field. Forced to take a job in a laundry mat, he continued to use any spare time to write his stories.
In the summer of 1970, King had his first child with Tabitha Spruce, a fellow writer from the university. That following January, the two married and eventually had two more children. Near the end of 1971, King started working at Hampden Academy as an English instructor. When his second child was born in 1972, King and his wife struggled to get by on his minimal income as a school teacher.
‘You have to stay faithful to what you’re working on.’
During the school holidays, King worked in a laundry mat again to assist in paying the bills. In an interview with Stephen King by the Guardian, he touches on how he felt during this time in his life. He explains that the level of stress and pressure to keep moving forward during this period was borderline unbearable.
“Battery cables were hooked up to your head. Like your brain was a battery.” – Stephen King | The Guardian
Meanwhile, continuing to receive rejection letters from publishers, he grew frustrated with his failings as a novelist. Then, unexpectedly, in 1973, he sold his first book, Carrie. The novel about a bullied teenager who gets revenge gained a stream of popularity from its readers, making 100,000 on the copy rights alone.
Alcohol, Cocaine and Fame
Given Stephen King’s success as a novelist, some may say he is a high-functioning alcoholic or drug addict. His emotional and psychological struggles continued to shade his life, though, even after the sale and success of Carrie.
In an aim to work through some of his pain that was surely felt by his family, he turned to the technique learned as a child. If he wrote down his bad thoughts, it was easier to believe they wouldn’t happen in real life.
Fortunately, writing did help him escape the terrors of his mind. However, it did not stop King’s obsession to drink alcohol and use drugs. Accompanied by the two packs of cigarettes he smoked per day, he craved anything that drove him more into his writing. People who are addicted often feel that they need the substance to go on. Because King’s substance abuse and drug addiction was paired with his main coping skill of writing, he easily perceived it as necessary and important.
‘One snort and cocaine owned me body and soul. . . It was my on-switch.’
Drug Fueled Writing
During King’s middle of the night writing marathons, he supplemented the gallons of beer he consumed with Cocaine. He did so much Cocaine that sticking cotton up his nose was the only way to stop blood from dripping on his typewriter. So many artists enable their drug use and drinking of alcohol with the belief that it they need it for inspiration and to continue creating. This is a sad misconception, though, only perpetuating a deadly habit.
His spine-chilling novel, IT, became the best-selling novel of 1986 and he received a critical acclaim for his thriller Misery the year following. By this time, King spent roughly three hours a day sober. Moreover, he spent much of his time pondering a gun-induced suicide.
‘I love my life and my wife and kids, but I’ve always been somewhat quasi-suicidal, constantly wanting to push things past the edge.’
-Stephen King, UK Daily Mail
With King’s blackouts from Alcohol and Cocaine becoming more frequent as time went on, those near to him worried he was hitting rock bottom. From his perspective, his best-selling novels were created under heavy intoxication. The thought of getting clean and the potential harm it may have on his writing was crippling. Ultimately, his years of abusing Alcohol and living with drug addiction was driven by fear of writer’s block.
Of course, the addicted brain associates drug use with survival. Victims of addiction and alcoholism often develop illogical thinking and rationalization of their habits. Whatever the reason, King’s drug use was out of control and needed to stop.
A Road to Rock Bottom
After years of waking in the morning to find her husband asleep in a vomit puddle beside his desk, Tabitha King decided she was done tolerating the behavior. She searched through his office and gathered all paraphernalia of his obsessive drinking and drug use. Tabitha threw Cocaine spoons, bags of white powder, bottles of Listerine and empty beer cans into a trash bin. Then she brought together their kids and a handful of friends to intervene.
She emptied the contents of the bin onto the floor in front of King and warned that she would leave if he continued to self-destruct.
Writer’s Block to Relapse
When King finally cleaned up, he was forced to face his greatest fear. Initially, his utmost fear of no longer being able to write did come true. His loyal and loving wife, Tabitha realized that this fear could easily send him over the edge and into a relapse. With the fear of relapse in her mind, she remained by his side through the many painful days and nights.
‘Do it for joy and you can do it forever.’
She helped him write each word, one at a time; then slowly but surely, King’s ability to write a story returned. As King emerged from his crippling stint of writer’s block, his devoted readers claimed that there was new depth and intelligence to his writing.
The truth about drug addiction and Alcoholism is that it dulls the senses and plagues a person’s emotional and physical health. This kind of unhealthy practice does not amount to success as an artist. It was really his years of dedicated work, never giving up, that generated his wide success as an author.
“I think every alcoholic has a story comparable to that… where you actually hit rock bottom.” – Stephen King | NPR Author Interview
Even though his writing is no longer fueled by his obsession to drink and drug, he is still motivated and focused on telling stories to put to rest his many fears. Thanks to a family intervention in the 1980s, Stephen King is sober and has been for years now.
To Anyone Dealing with Addiction
You are not alone. Drug addiction can happen to any kind of person, even a famous author with a college education like Stephen King. To truly pull yourself out of the dark cycle of substance abuse, you need help. Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there for you. If you call (866)578-7471, you can talk with someone about those resources.
A healthier and happier life is possible, if you just get the help you need.