Gifted Talented Addicted

Writer Pearl Buck commented, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.” Winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, she also added, “By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.”

A number of people with exceptional abilities have used drugs and alcohol as self-medication to ease the pain of that sensitivity, or as a way to enhance thinking and creativity. Sometimes they risk addiction.

Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music, and was an alcoholic or at least a problem-drinker.

Among the many other artists who have used drugs, alcohol or other substances are Aldous Huxley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Allen Ginsberg, composers Beethoven and Modest Musorgski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and Tennessee Williams.

At least five U.S. writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been considered alcoholics.

Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin said that he had been an alcoholic for several years before the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, and had quit drinking only two days before the historic flight, but resumed after his return to Earth. He became an active crusader against alcohol abuse.

Scientist Carl Sagan was reportedly a regular user of marijuana from the early 60’s until his death in 1996, using it on occasion to inspire some of his acclaimed scientific papers.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988; Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) used marijuana and LSD while in his mid 50’s, mostly while exploring consciousness in a sensory deprivation tank.

Naturopath Andrew Weil wrote in his book The Natural Mind (1971) about the advantages of “stoned thinking” in understanding health and diagnosing illnesses, and says he has tried about every drug in his book From Chocolate to Morphine.

While the National Institute on Drug Abuse says addiction to hallucinogens is almost unknown, some research they publish indicates that people who use or abuse one kind of drug are vulnerable to abusing other drugs, which may lead to addiction.

Actor Johnny Depp admits getting drunk to deal with his sensitivity, and having to go to functions like press appearances: “I guess I was trying not to feel anything.” He thinks drug use “has less to do with recreation and more to do with the fact that we need to escape from our brains. We need to escape from everyday life. It’s self-medication and that’s the problem.”

Jane Piirto, Ph.D., Director of Talent Development Education at Ashland University notes in her article “The Creative Process in Poets” that the “altered mental state brought about by substances has been thought to enhance creativity – to a certain extent.”

But, she adds, “The danger of turning from creative messenger to addicted body is great, and many writers have succumbed, especially to the siren song of alcohol.”

She quotes poet Charles Baudelaire on using alcohol to enhance imagination: “Always be drunk. That is all: it is the question. You want to stop Time crushing your shoulders, bending you double, so get drunk – militantly. How? Use wine, poetry, or virtue, use your imagination. Just get drunk”

Addiction psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D., notes that altering one’s state of consciousness is normal and that a destructive habit or addiction is “mostly an unconscious strategy – which you started to develop at a naive, much earlier stage of life – to enjoy the feelings it brought on or to help cope with uncomfortable emotions or feelings. It is simply an adaptation that has gone awry.”

Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado, notes in her article “Emotional Intensity” that intensity “is one of the personality concomitants of giftedness. It is natural for the gifted to feel deeply and to experience a broad range of emotions.”

Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski and psychologist Michael Piechowski have called this capacity for feeling “emotional overexcitability,” and found it is strongly correlated with high intelligence.

In their article “A Bioanthropological Overview of Addiction,” Doris F. Jonas, Ph.D. and A. David Jonas, M.D. consider that such a “nervous system so exquisitely adapted to perceiving the minutest changes in environmental signals clearly becomes overwhelmed and produces dysphoria when its carrier must exist among the exponentially increased social stimuli of a modern environment.”

Those with a less sensitive nervous systems are, they write, “better adapted to our more crowded living conditions. The more sensitive can only attempt to ease their discomfort by blunting their perceptions with alcohol or depressive drugs or, alternatively, by using consciousness-altering drugs to transport their senses from the dysphoric world in which they live to private worlds of their own.”

In her article “Overexcitability and the gifted,” Sharon Lind says that people with emotional excitability “are acutely aware of their own feelings, of how they are growing and changing, and often carry on inner dialogs and practice self-judgment.” If they also experience psychomotor excitability, when feeling emotionally tense, they may “act impulsively, misbehave and act out.” Drug and alcohol abuse can be one form of this.

Heather King, a National Honor Society scholar, and a commentator for All Things Considered on NPR, says in an article of hers (“Quitting the Bar, Twice”) that she made a decision to go to law school because it would force her “to study so hard I would naturally cut down on my drinking. Somewhere along the line I would be transformed from a person with a nervous system so sensitive that, when sober, merely being addressed by a fellow human being almost caused me to hyperventilate, into a bold, assertive, self-confident advocate for victims of racial oppression and gender discrimination.”

Her addiction grew from her need to deal with her “sense of alienation and deficiency, this intuition that I had missed some kind of essential truth available to everyone else… it was the very reason I so ceaselessly craved the oblivion of alcohol. People sometimes ask me, How could you have gotten through law school drunk? My answer is that there is no way I could have gotten through law school if I hadn’t been drunk.”

A concept related to excitability is “CNS augmenters” who have central nervous systems which augment or enhance the impact of sensory input. In his article Somatosensory Affectional Deprivation (SAD) Theory of Drug and Alcohol Use, James W. Prescott, Ph.D. cites studies indicating that being an “augmenter” is linked to substance abuse.

Stephanie S. Tolan, a well known author of young adult and children’s fiction, as well as an author and speaker on exceptionally gifted children, says in her article “Discovering the gifted ex-child” that gifted people “frequently take their own capacities for granted, believing that it is people with different abilities who are the really bright ones. Not understanding the source of their frustration or ways to alleviate it, they may opt to relieve the pain through the use of alcohol, drugs, food or other addictive substances or behaviors. Or they may simply hunker down and live their lives in survival mode.”

A push toward addiction often starts at a young age. In the book Gifted Grownups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, Lisa, 14, talks about being given Valium by a doctor: “Taking pills or smoking a joint helped get me through the day.” She said gifted kids take drugs “To dull themselves… there is so much of the wrong kind of stimulation going on around you.”

Psychiatrist Leon Wurmser, M.D. comments in his article “Drug Use as a Protective System” that anxiety “of an overwhelming nature and the emotional feelings of pain, injury, woundedness, and vulnerability appear to be a feature common to all types of compulsive drug use.”

In her memoir “Looking for Gatsby: My Life,” actor Faye Dunaway admits eating compulsively “to counter the stress of filmmaking. I’ve never stopped guarding against a return to that kind of emotional reliance on food, and as I grew into this sophisticated world, alcohol. I’m finally beyond that now, but it was the pendulum I would swing on for years.”

Many gifted people are also susceptible to mental health issues such as mood disorders, and may self-medicate.

Writer and actor Carrie Fisher at times took 30 Percodan a day, and said in an article, “Drugs made me feel more normal. They contained me.” At age 28 she overdosed, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Maybe I was taking drugs to keep the monster in the box,” she said.

The use of substances, and the attitudes about that use or abuse, are very much tied to the social climate of the times. Researcher Stanton Peele, J.D., Ph.D. notes that although definitions of addiction are “putatively rational and scientific, they are actually historical and political.. not based on pharmacological criteria, but in order to create a basis for disapproving of and proscribing drugs.”

Addiction may be a convenient term, but the concept is not simple, and there can be a wide spectrum of behaviors and qualities of relationship with various substances.

Studies have reported that individuals exposed to stress are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. But there are, of course, healthier strategies to manage stress.

One of the crucial questions is how much does use of a substance or engaging in a behavior help us cope, versus limit the expression of our unique selves and talents.

Dealing with addiction can be not only life-saving, but releasing. As musician Elton John has commented, “A lot of good things have happened to me, and it’s all because of sobriety. I went into treatment [for drug and alcohol addiction], and I emerged with my eyes open.”

gifted talented addictedgifted talented addicted


For references, see online version of this article at

Douglas Eby writes about psychological and social aspects of creative expression and achievement. His site has a wide range of articles, interviews, quotes and other material to inform and inspire: Talent Development Resources

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