Why Professional Creatives Seem to Drink So Damn Much

Why Professional Creatives Seem to Drink So Damn Much - Illustrations by Zohar Lazar - H 2016
Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

James T. Webb, Ph.D. — clinical psychologist, author and expert on the effects of trauma on the gifted — talks to THR about the origin of angst and why people with higher IQs are more likely to binge-drink.

Does trauma lead to greater creativity? Certainly, trauma by itself — which can mean anything from an accident to an assault to losing a loved one — isn’t necessarily going to result in creative glory. But a trauma can create that thorn that will prompt and drive you to be creative. Often this drive follows what’s known as a “disintegration,” a concept that has made the rounds in gifted education as part of a theory of positive disintegration by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski. He said people, particularly brighter folks, will experience a trauma or major challenge, more often in childhood or adolescence, that causes them to “disintegrate” emotionally. It can be a nervous breakdown, a mental anxiety or a depression prompted by a disillusionment, or not being able to make sense of the world’s injustices.

Some people will stay in that place. But creative people often take that very experience and positively re-integrate it to a higher level of functioning. In other words, they use their creative processes to try and cope with the trauma in a way that gives them — and eventually others, from the result of their work — some sense of meaning.

We know that the brighter you are, the more likely you are to be intense, to be laser-focused about what you do. That intensity on the one hand is a person’s greatest strength — but it can also be his or her Achilles’ heel. When you combine creativity and intensity in an individual, that person can start to feel isolated because there are few people who can relate to this kind of high-level thinking. When you feel that no one understands you, you can become depressed.

Many creative people, particularly in theater and the arts, experience this existential angst. To try to cope, they can use alcohol, drugs and/or have an addiction to relationships that aren’t healthy. They try to find ways of coping, and out of this, some of them become very creative; others cope in ways that are not beneficial to society.

One interesting factor: The brighter you are, the higher the incidence of alcohol use and binge-drinking. There are two longitudinal studies that came out a few years ago, one conducted in Great Britain and the other in the U.S. They point out that when you possess an above-average IQ, for each 10 points higher, it’s almost a linear relationship between intelligence and the amount you drink, binge-drink and abuse substances (until about age 45, and then it drops off). That’s because so many of these creative folks possess an openness to experience and an increased level of risk-taking. But it also largely seems to be an attempt to numb themselves to endure that creative angst.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.