It’s often easy to look at life as though it has always been the way it is now, but addiction wasn’t as well-understood as it is today. Over the years, overdose-related deaths and the negative effect addiction has had on society have brought awareness to an otherwise shrouded issue.
Today, the number of people abusing drugs and alcohol is staggering. In the United States, it is estimated that over 15 million people struggle with alcohol use disorder at any time. Approximately 7.4 million people over the age of 12 struggle with illegal drug addiction, while a staggering 115 people die each day in the U.S. from an opioid overdose.1,2
Fortunately, we now know that addiction is not just a moral issue, but a complicated condition that is influenced by genetics, psychological history, life experiences, and coping skills, among other things. Addiction can happen to anyone, as we now well know from observing the modern opioid crisis. It wasn’t always this way; addiction used to be perceived as a moral failing, but is now widely understood as a more complicated condition.
A large number of historical figures have battled addiction, some of them losing the battle altogether and paying the ultimate price with their lives. Here are some well-known public figures and a little information about their journeys through substance use, dependence, and recoveries or downfalls through addictions.
Sylvia Plath was well-known for her poetry, which features themes of depression and substance abuse. Much of her work painted an anecdotal picture of her life and left many to speculate whether the substance abuse habits she wrote about were as factual as her struggles with a chronically melancholy outlook. Plath took antidepressants to treat her issues, and her husband has publicly blamed her potential misuse of them for her eventual death. There has been no official confirmation of substance abuse by Plath, but speculation is wide that she was an alcoholic. Not surprisingly, Plath suffered from manic-depression, now recognized as bipolar disorder.3
The poet committed suicide via gas from the kitchen stove in 1963 at the young age of 30. Since her death came only a year after having her infant son, there has been suspicion of postpartum depression as well.
Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia, committed suicide in 2009 — a sufferer of the same depression his mother battled. Plath is often remembered for the turmoil that plagued her death and the claims that her husband, Ted Hughes, was to blame for her emotions.4
Presley’s addiction woes led to a downfall in his career, weight gain that diminished the attention he’d received for his charming looks over the years, and the loss of interpersonal relationships. The 42-year-old star was found dead of no apparent cause on his bathroom floor in August of 1977, but toxicology reports would later note the presence of 14 drugs in his system, including codeine, morphine, diazepam, and several barbiturates.5
While the rock ‘n’ roll superstar’s family did their best to cover this up, drug abuse was no surprise to the King’s fans who noted his declining health and erratic behavior in his final years. During that time, his public imagine somewhat deteriorated, though his music is still considered legendary.
Chloral hydrate and barbiturates were at the root of the famous sex symbol’s suicide in 1962. At just 36 years old, Norma Jean Mortensen, better known as Marilyn Monroe, reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and she was known to misuse medications prescribed for the treatment of such. Several cover-ups and conspiracy theories shrouded the star’s death.6
Franklin lived to the ripe old age of 84 and did so while frequently abusing laudanum — an opiate and alcohol mixture used in the treatment of pain and ailments. Despite being addicted to the substance, it wasn’t an issue for the public. In those times, habitual use of the tonic wasn’t viewed as a major problem. Thus, Ben’s image never suffered.7
Praised still for his work in the psychoanalytical field, Freud was an avid fan of cocaine. He came to be addicted through his own research that began in 1894 on the coca plant’s abilities as a treatment mechanism for mental health ailments. Supposedly, he stopped using the drug after he began to suffer health effects a few years later.8
Vincent Van Gogh
The prized artist wasn’t a stranger to a depressed mood. Some have theorized that Van Gogh’s mental health issues were drug-induced. While it’s possible, data points to an underlying condition like manic depression leading him to abuse absinthe and Digitalis — a medicine he was prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy. The artist met an untimely fate in 1890 due to suicide.9,10
A man who frequented opium dens — an inspiration for future books — the literary genius was known to have suffered from depression. While it’s impossible to know for sure which was the cause of the other, most accounts of the author’s life are saddening at best and describe a troubled childhood laced with trauma. Thus, friends often reported the author’s depressive states as being present prior to his fame and worsening at the onset of new literary works in progress, which would develop into mania as he completed them, raising a red flag for suspicion of bipolar disorder.11
Another fan of cocaine, Edison used his favorite substance in an elixir form, as did many in his time. Generally, he would drink wine that was laced with cocaine. Interestingly, the incandescent light bulb inventor is now said to have had both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.12
The famous Nirvana frontman inspired countless Generation X and Xennial teens and adults. His sudden death in 1994 by suicide was often suspected to be associated with his struggles with heroin use and mental illness. Only 27-years-old at the time of his death, Cobain’s toxicology report revealed that he had high levels of both heroin and Valium in his system before he died. Friends had been planning a drug intervention for Cobain shortly before his death, but the intervention was too late. Cobain left behind a daughter and a music legacy that has rarely been matched.13
Stevie Nicks, a well-known rock singer, famous for her lead role in the band Fleetwood Mac, has struggled with anxiety most of her adult life, and remains candid about her struggles. She began a prescription of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine drug, at the advice of her doctor. The medication was intended to treat her anxiety, but things eventually got out of hand when Nicks became dependent on the medication.
She stated about her addiction, “Maybe I would have gotten married, maybe I would have had a baby, maybe I would have made three or four more great albums with Fleetwood Mac. That was the prime of my life,” she laments about the eight years she spent dependent on Klonopin. However, Nicks went on to continue to perform and still leads a successful life in recovery.14
The comedian’s fans were shocked when the news of his suicide broke in 2014. Williams was open about his struggle with cocaine and alcohol abuse in the 1980s, which came to a voluntary, screeching halt after his friend and fellow comedian actor John Belushi lost his life in an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 1982.
However, Williams would relapse some 20 years later and return to a battle with alcohol that would land him in rehab more than once in the years that followed. It is worth noting that addiction was not the cause of Williams’ suicide, but was actually related to Lewy Body Dementia, a rare type of brain disorder that affects mood and thinking.15
Substance Use in History
While there have always been substance abuse fads that have come and gone, certain drugs have stood the test of time. People have been abusing heroin since the late 1800s. The rate of its abuse has increased steadily over the years.16, 17
Similarly, cocaine was wildly abused in the 1800s, but continues to be abused today. Likewise, the raw ingredients of many prescription drugs have been around for centuries, but they’ve continually been growing in popularity. Non-medical use of prescription drugs is a reality for 52 million US citizens aged 12 or older. Still, alcohol has likely been the most constant substance of abuse over time.18
In addition, many of the drugs that people once abused were legal when they were using them. Meth was a drug that doctors once recommended to their patients to lift depression. Heroin was born as a substitute for morphine in 1874 and served as a cough remedy. The byproduct of an accident, LSD was legal until 1967.19, 20
Cocaine was promoted by Sigmund Freud himself as a medicine for sexual impotence and depression in the late 1800s. A few short years later, the drug made its way into the ever-popular Coca-Cola beverage.21
Of course, we’ve seen marijuana go from being unrestricted to tightly controlled, and now laws are again loosening regarding the plant-based drug. An added factor today is the regulation and taxation of legal marijuana use.22
The reasons why a person would abuse drugs or alcohol vary from person to person and always have. Many people are inclined to believe stereotypes that only criminals and those in poverty are plagued by addiction. There are also those who think that ongoing addiction is a choice that substance abusers make. Quite the contrary, addiction isn’t a problem that is specific to certain populations or demographics. While the first use of a drug or alcohol abuse involve choice, resolving an addiction is not a matter of determination or willpower.
The likelihood of becoming addicted to a substance depends largely on the substance itself. For example, only 9-10 percent of marijuana users become dependent, 15 percent of alcohol users end up as alcoholics, 15-20 percent of cocaine users and 23-25 percent of heroin users develop addiction.23
The History of Substance Use Treatment
Treatment for substance abuse and addiction has come a long way throughout history. Most historical methods of addiction treatment are no longer in use today. Some more interesting (and sometimes disturbing) historical methods of substance treatment include:
- Hot air boxes: Hot air boxes were similar to the light boxes we use today to treat patients that suffer from seasonal affective disorder — something a reported 10 million Americans deal with annually.24
- Aversion therapy (still used today): Aversion therapy still exists in some forms, such as the use of Antabuse, a drug that deters drinking by making the person feel ill once they take a drink. Aversion therapy deters substance use by inflicting undesirable side effects after consumption of the substance.
- The Keeley Cure: The Keeley Cure consisted of injecting alcoholics with a “double chloride” solution, but the mixture also contained potentially toxic components such as ammonia and cocaine and was far from safe. After reports of side effects ranging from insanity to fatality, it was viewed as ineffective and unsafe.25
- Sterilization was still in effect and legislatively encouraged in several states during the early to mid-1900s as a way to inhibit procreation among people suffering from alcoholism — a tactic that is now viewed as inhumane.26
- Serum therapy: Serum therapy involved the deliberate act of creating blisters on a patient’s abdomen and then removing fluid from them with a syringe that would then be injected into the patient’s arm. As painful as it sounds, this process was repeated several times a day for up to a week’s time in an unusual and ineffective effort to cure drug addiction.
- Lobotomy: The mid-1900s also brought the advent of the frontal lobotomy to the world of addiction treatment. It consisted of resection of the front lobes of the brain but never proved to be effective and is now widely viewed as unethical and inhumane.
Today, there are thousands of facilities that treat substance abuse, and many programs treat mental health disorders, as well. The first facility for mental health treatment opened in 1407 in Spain, and since then, treatment has progressed significantly over the centuries.27
The Outdated Stigma Surrounding Addiction
The stigma surrounding addiction has always existed. In the 1500s, addiction was as closely aligned with “faulty morals,” poverty, or “laziness,” much like it can be today. By the 1800s, alcoholism was viewed as the primary form of addiction and associated with a lack of morals and poor parenting skills. As legal ramifications have been imposed over the years and once-legal substances have been banned, those who still persisted in using them were often viewed as criminals. These false ideas started and perpetuated the stigma against addiction that continues to exist today.
Even though substance abuse treatment was available for some of the above historical figures, mental health screening and treatment weren’t part of addiction treatment for many years. Into the 1400s, the typical behaviors of a mentally ill person were viewed as indicative of demonic possession. Just 200 years ago, you could find patients suffering from mental illness chained to their beds in hospitals and institutions with little hope for a better quality of life.30
The real changes came in the 1800s on the heels of Dorothea Dix and Emil Kraepelin. Dix was an advocate for the mentally ill, rumored to be a sufferer herself, and fought for improved living conditions for the mentally ill community. Kraepelin was a German psychiatrist who discovered and defined the difference between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.31, 32
As deinstitutionalization came about in the 1950s and 1960s after President Truman’s signed the National Mental Health Act in 1946, research took off in pursuit of medication and treatment mechanisms for the mentally ill population — a feat that continues to grow and prosper today.
The failure of deinstitutionalization is thought to be one of the primary factors in the now prevalent and escalating 1.8 million mentally ill individuals who are going without treatment Before these changes, the mentally ill population was kept in safeguarded facilities where they were consequently separated from the general population, likely only aiding in the growing perception that people with mental illness are unstable, unsafe, and unworthy of human compassion and interaction.33
While deinstitutionalization improved the lives of those suffering from less serious mental health issues, it was not as successful for those dealing with more severe mental health issues. The debate continues of how to best help all people.
The importance of treating mental illness and addiction side-by-side cannot be stressed enough. When a patient enters rehab and completes detox and treatment for their substance abuse problems, but an undiagnosed mental health disorder is left untreated, they are only set up for failure. This pattern of poor treatment protocols repeated itself time and time again in the past.
It has only been in the past two or three decades that we have really begun to give mental health the attention it deserves, and we’re still a long way from where things need to be. Studies show that over 37 percent of the 20.3 million America adults who had a substance use disorder in the preceding year also had a mental health disorder.34
Without treatment, mental health disorders fester and often worsen, and the patient is discharged from rehab having the same symptoms of mental illness present that could very likely have been what led them to abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place. Some research points toward increased psychiatry severity of symptoms being correlated with an increased chance of a poor treatment outcome.
One study notes that those with three or four symptoms had a 30 percent chance of fully completing detox on an outpatient basis, whereas those presenting with no symptoms had a 95 percent chance.45
Get Help Now
While some notable people in history may have lost the battle with addiction or even mental illness, that doesn’t have to be you. There are more treatment options today than there ever have been before. Today, you could take advantage of all that modern medical science has to offer and beat the very same things that plagued some of the greatest minds in history.
1 SAMHSA. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States:Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Sept 2017.
2 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioid Drug Crisis. March 2018.
3 Cooper, B. Sylvia Plath and the depression continuum. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Jun 2003.
4 Mail Foreign Service. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s son commits suicide. Daily Mail. 23 Mar 2009.
5 Rodgers, G. Elvis Presley’s Death — What Really Killed the King? Huffington Post. 04 Feb 2016.
6 Markel, H. Marilyn Monroe and the prescription drugs that killed her. PBS. 5 Aug 2016.
7 Raymond, A. 10 People You Probably Didn’t Know Were Addicts. The Fix. 29 Feb 2009.
8 Nuland, S. Sigmund Freud’s Cocaine Years. The New York Times. 21 July 2011.
9 5 Famous and Iconic Drug Users That Inspired the World. Finer Minds. 11 May 2012.
10 Benjamin, K. 11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders. Mental Floss. 11 Sept 2012.
11 British Library. Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature. 15 May 2004.
12 Love, D. Meet The Science and Tech Geniuses Who Got High And Solved Amazing Problems. 22 Aug 2013.
13 Strauss, N. Kurt Cobain’s Downward Spiral: The Last Days of Nirvana’s Leader. Rolling Stone Magazine. 2 Jun 1994.
14 Greene, A. The Last Word: Stevie Nicks Talks Aging, Addiction, Fleetwood Mac’s Future. Rolling Stone Magazine. 15 Mar 2017.
15 Quinn, D. Robin Williams Quit Drugs After John Belushi’s Death: ‘Cocaine for Me Was a Place to Hide.’ People Magazine. 17 Jul 2018.
16 Scott, I. Heroin: A Hundred-Year Habit. History Today. Vol. 48, Issue 6. 6 June 1998.
17 Dee, S. Drugs Are Great. Google Books. 2013.
18 Popping Pills: Prescription Drug Abuse in America. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jan 2014.
19 10 Illegal Drugs That Were Once Legal. Business Pundit. 13 Oct 2011.
20 LSD: A Short History. Foundation for a Drug-Free World. n.d.
21 Cocaine: A Short History. Foundation for a Drug-Free World. n.d.
22 Motel, S. 6 Facts about Marijuana. Pew Research Center. 5 Nov 2014.
23 Szalavitz, M. Is Marijuana Addictive? It Depends How You Define Addiction. TIME Magazine. 19 Oct 2010.
24 Seasonal Affective Disorder. Psychology Today. 24 Nov 2014.
25 Lender, M.E. (1987). Drinking in America: A History. Google Books. 1987.
26 Significant Events in the History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. (n.d.). William White Papers. N.d.
27 Facility Locator. (n.d.). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. N.d.
28 Timeline: Treatments for Mental Illness. (n.d.). PBS. N.d.
29 Substance Abuse and Mental Health. (n.d.). Helpguide. N.d.
30 A Timeline in the Treatment of Madness. (n.d.). The Society for Laingian Studies. N.d.
31 Pan, D. (29 Apr 2013). TIMELINE: Deinstitutionalization and Its Consequences. Mother Jones. 29 Apr 2013.
32 Ebert, A. & Bar, K.J. (April – June 2010). Emil Kraeplin: A pioneer of scientific understanding and psychiatry and psychopharmacology. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Jun 2010.
33 Dr. Torrey, E.F. (n.d.). Homelessness, Incarceration, Episodes of Violence: Way of Life for Almost Half of Americans with Untreated Severe Mental Illness. Mental Illness Policy. N.d.
34 Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. (2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2013.
35 Hayashida, M. (1998). An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification. Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 22, No. 1. 1998.
Further Reading About Historical Figures and Addiction
- Abuse and Pregnancy
- Alcohol in America
- Alcoholism and Anxiety Disorder
- Alcoholism Nature vs. Nurture
- Are Heavy Drinkers Alcoholics?
- Binge Drinking and Depression
- Dilated Cardiomyopathy
- Disease Theory of Alcoholism
- Guide to Living With an Alcoholic
- Historical Figures and Addiction
- Is There a Cure for It?
- Liver Damage Caused by Drinking
- Long-Term Health Risks Associated
- Risks of Alcohol Poisoning
- The Science of a Hangover
- Using a Breathalyzer at Home
- What Is a Functional Alcoholic?
- What Is Wet Brain?
- Women and Alcoholism
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton