We alcoholics are sensitive people. It takes some of us a long time to outgrow that serious handicap.
The A.A. Big Book. Page 125
I remember one of my first A.A. friends, Angela, saying “OUCH!” when I told her I was a painter turned photographer and also an addict to my bones. “Why ouch?" I asked, somewhat confused by her response. “Ouch because you got the double whammy." She told me that she believed artists experience the world in a different way than most other people. "Y'all have that 'artistic temperament', don't you?" she laughed "Touchy touchy touchy. Artists," she went on, "are highly sensitive people". "Ok. Fine, but what does that have to do with being an alcoholic?" I asked. "Well...", she paused, as if afraid to tell me the truth, "addicts are usually highly sensitive people too. Artists like you have this need to self-express and addicts like you have this urge to self-destruct. That's the double whammy."
I decided immediately that I did not want this so-called "double whammy." So there I was in a midtown Starbucks, sipping coffee with Angela, and trying to figure out if there was a course of treatment, a pill or an ointment that could help me get rid of a bad case of the double whammies. Angela informed me that there was no known treatment and then added a casual "I've heard the double whammies are actually not that bad". "Oh really?" I scoffed derisively. “Why don't you tell that to Mark Rothko, Chris Cornell, Vincent Van Gogh, Alexander Gudunov, Ernest Hemingway, Kate Spade, David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain and Kurt Cobain? All suffered from addiction, all were artists, all were highly sensitive creative people and they all killed themselves. They couldn't hack it." They couldn't hack being that sensitive in a world that does not take into account the double whammy nature of an overly sensitive soul. Not that I am anywhere near being an artist of that caliber but I certainly have the "artistic temperament" down pat, which is funny because I don't think anyone meeting me would think “Oh dear, Blenderhead is sooo sensitive”. But the human condition actually scares me. I’m extremely sensitive to the fact that I'm not in control. And that sense of lack of control, my anxiety about the appallingly capricious nature of the world, went away when I was drunk or high. That was the pull.
"Is offing one's self the only way out of the the double whammies?" I wondered dejectedly. Thankfully, according to Angela, it's not. She told me that having the double whammy could be a gift...if I was able to learn how use it. "Being sensitive and open to the world can be amazing", she explained, "if we don't let our demons take us down. Demons" she informed me "come with that extra sensitive territory, they just do." Angela seemed to believe that this sensitivity could be harnessed, enjoyed even. “I think artists”, she told me “might feel too deeply sometimes but maybe the flowers smell sweeter for you" And then I remembered that Leonardo DaVinci once wrote "The artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of". I think, for the great artists, that must be true. Their deep sensitivity enables them to see and hear and taste and play what we could never even dream of. Then they conjure masterpieces out of thin air and present them to us civilians as offerings. But sadly, a lot of great artists feel the need to anesthetize themselves against the painful side of their sensitivity with drugs and alcohol. And a lot of them do lose the battle. But then there are the success stories. Brilliant artists, almost destroyed by addiction, who have gotten sober and are living their best lives today. Elton John, Nikki Sixx, Slash, Bradley Cooper, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Russell Brand, Eminem. The list goes on.
Embrace the double whammy, I was advised. Take that sensitivity and do something with it. If that means nothing more than being open and empathic to the people in recovery with me, then so be it. I was asked to accept and enjoy the fact that I might exist on a different plane than most people. One where the pain of not being in control may be more intense but at the same time where the flowers may smell sweeter and the sky might glow a brighter shade of blue. If I look at the double whammy through that lens, then it seems that Angela may have been right all those years ago. Turns out that having a case of the double whammies is actually not so bad after all.