Russell Brand: Redemption, recovery and the Big Issue of addiction

On the eve of his new book about tackling all kinds of addiction, Russell Brand meets with 
Big Issue vendors to discuss how people 'embrace their demons'

Russell Brand is sitting in a small chapel near the altar at St John’s Church in Waterloo. He is flanked by four Big Issue vendors: Anthony, aka Drummer, Steve, Mary and Peter. They are sitting in a semi-circle, the subsequent hour-long conversation more therapy session or counselling meeting than interview.

For Brand, this marks a return. Stung by criticism after wading into politics ahead of the 2015 election – remember him channelling Che Guevara, exhorting young people not to vote, before changing his mind and backing the Labour party? –he retreated from view.

Russell Brand, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London
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Russell Brand, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London

A new podcast, his show on Radio X, the new book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions and a recent wedding to Laura Gallacher announce his comeback. And he’s chosen The Big Issue as his platform.

Techniques used by addicts to stay clean from drugs and alcohol can be used for people in other situations

Brand explains why he has brought us here, to this church with such a proud history of working with homeless people.

“I have written this book about how I dealt with my addiction and continue to deal with it,” he says, to kick off the conversation with our vendors. “The idea is that it uses different language to describe the processes around abstinence-based recovery. Staying clean one day at a time. It puts it in plain language.

“It also puts out the idea that the techniques used to stay clean from drugs and alcohol for people with what you might call obvious addiction issues could be used in less obvious situations – for people with more moderate conditions, that are spending too much money or in relationships that don’t work.”

Brand and our four vendors all have a history with addiction or homelessness of some kind. The understanding between them is clear from the start. The overwhelming feeling is of camaraderie.

The conversation flows, but the focus is on experiences of addiction and recovery. Any nerves the vendors felt at meeting a hairy superstar dissipate as Brand proves an attentive listener, learning names instantly and breaking the ice by talking about Millwall FC and grandkids with Steve, Mary’s daughter’s studies, and Drummer’s nickname…

‘EVERY TIME I RELAPSE THE STOP BUTTON GETS HARDER TO FIND’

Russell: Can I shut the door? I feel shy.

Drummer: Don’t worry, I’m not claustrophobic.

Peter: Can I just congratulate you, Russell?

Russell: Can you?

Peter: I would like to. Because that is a big shout. Not everyone has addiction issues, but I would say everyone selling the magazine has some sort of issue. For myself, I have done drink, drugs – I have done more cocaine than Scarface. I’ve been clean for 10 years. But I am still an alcoholic.

Steve: The booze, eh?

Russell: Have you had a drink today?

Peter: I have had about 16 cans of Holsten. I have more in my bag.

I have done more cocaine than Scarface. I’ve been clean for 10 years. But I am still an alcoholic

Russell: Sixteen cans of Holsten? How come you are drinking low-alcohol drinks?

Peter: Good question. I blew my liver out. I knew I couldn’t drink spirits any more. I sized it down so I could carry on my addiction but it wouldn’t kill me. I am trying to find the stop button. In the last six years, I have been clean for 18 months then another 15 months. I saved up money and went to Mauritius in March. But every time I relapsed, Russell. And every time the stop button gets harder to find. This is the sixth time around. My sister Sharon believed in me. She said, I’m not going to bollock you, but you are going to run out of last chances. And that is the most emotional thing, because I know it is true. I went to Mauritius and came back pissed again. I was almost there. I’m an idiot.

Drummer: No you’re not.

Russell: That was pretty fucking moving, that mate.

Peter: You being a celebrity, but recovering from addiction – to me you are like the Amy Winehouse…

Mary: That didn’t die.

Peter: Correct.

Big Issue vendors meet Russell Brand at St John’s Church, Waterloo
Big Issue vendors (from left) Drummer, Steve, Mary and Peter meet Russell Brand at St John’s Church, Waterloo

Russell: That’s cool, thanks mate. I appreciate you saying that, because I see myself as very fortunate that I was given these techniques. Without them I don’t know what would have happened. There were times when I had nowhere to live, but I would always be able to stay at my nan’s. So I had breaks – even before the dollar and the fame. I wasn’t famous until I was 30, so I have seen enough to know there is no distinction between the people who are washed up on the shores of life and the people earning proper good money.

Peter: Well, look at Nigella.

Russell: Hold on! What do you mean, look at Nigella? Given half a chance I would…

Peter: Well, her rock bottom is probably a lot higher than a lot of other people’s because of her finances.

Russell: Money can stop you going quite so low.

Peter: Exactly. That is the only difference between the people who are on the street and people at home thinking: it couldn’t happen to me. Miss a couple of wage packets and anyone could be on their arse.

Russell: I was chatting to a homeless bloke who said: You know when you get those letters that are red? If you ignore that for about a year, this happens.

Mary: It only took six months for that to happen to me. Since the last financial crash it doesn’t take a year any more.

Russell: It has become more brutal, more ruthless? What I would like to know, if I may, is what if any history you each have – we’ve heard about Peter’s Holsten Pils. What is your alcohol and chemical situation? What about you, Drummer?

‘A COPING MECHANISM FOR A WORLD THAT CAN BE BRUTAL’

Drummer: For me, it is a very personal thing. I am an alcoholic. That is my demon. It is my devil, you know? I was an alcoholic back in Nigeria when I was six years old. That is a different story. I have been in the gutter and come up and been down in the gutter again and come out.

Russell: Bless you.

Drummer: Alcohol is worse than anything. I haven’t had sleep, I am tired. I have been homeless since yesterday after three years of living in a shed. It wasn’t comfortable…

Russell Brand, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue in Buckinghamshire

Mary: It wasn’t the Hilton, but it was home?

Drummer: Exactly. But at least there was somewhere I could go. The damage that alcohol has done. As a Big Issue vendor, as a homeless person, the system is not helping us.

Russell: I thought what you said there is important, Drummer. Because it sounds like the alcohol is fulfilling a medicinal role in your life.

Alcohol is my helper. You embrace your own demon. Sorry to say that in the house of God

Drummer: It is my helper. You embrace your own demon. Sorry to say that in the house of God.

Mary: Where better to talk about demons than in the house of God?

Russell: What I got from Drummer is that your whole life you have lived with a lot of pain. And alcohol became a way to manage that pain – whatever was going on in Nigeria when you were six years old or in this shed until yesterday, your coping mechanism for dealing with a world that can be indifferent, cold and downright brutal has been to drink alcohol. That is something I strongly identify with. The thing that interested me is what we can do to address what Drummer calls the demon. You haven’t spoken too much yet, Steve. Do you want to have a go?

Russell Brand with Big Issue vendors Drummer and Steve, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London
Russell Brand with Big Issue vendors Drummer and Steve, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London

Steve: My demons were heroin and crack – I’ve been clean for four-and-a-half years.

Russell: Are you on script?

Steve: I am. 10ml.

Russell: That is fuck all.

Steve: Exactly. I am this close from walking away from it all.

Russell: And you’re not using on top?

Steve: Never.

Russell: What do you feel is the reason you use drugs?

Steve: Resentment of my parents? They told me it wasn’t allowed and I thought: “It must be good.” When they broke up it was absolute shit. From having quite a comfortable childhood to having nothing.

Russell: How come it has taken you so long to get to 10ml?

Steve: I use it as a bit of a crutch. If I step away, I am worried about relapsing. I feel I am in a bit of a transition now. I went to the 12 Steps and didn’t think it worked for me going to NA. But, after reading your book, Russell, I see if you work them, they work. I’d see people at the meetings, three years, five years, 10 years and 20 years – I still didn’t think it worked. I thought they must be getting a secret book. But they weren’t, it is something inside of you. We live in a fucked-up world and we all want to be happy. But happiness? You have to find it inside you. I am slowly learning that. But it is an uphill struggle.

Happiness? You have to find it inside you. I am slowly learning that. But it is an uphill struggle

Russell: How are you feeling today?

Steve: I’m feeling a bit of everything today. I’m feeling a bit shy. Looking forward to seeing my grandson this evening, I’m pleased to meet you.

Russell: Thanks Steve.

Russell chats with Big Issue founder John Bird and our new agony uncle Mark Demspter

‘SUBSTANCE MISUSE IS ABOUT SEEKING OBLIVION TO TACKLE THE PAIN’

Peter: Russell, can I ask you? Everyone has started from the beginning. Could you talk us through it from scratch, before your fame and fortune? How did you start? Because you don’t walk into crack cocaine overnight, there is a path to it.

Russell: I will do that, mate. When I was little, I always felt there was this absence, this sense of worthlessness, this wound, this emptiness. I was already eating chocolate the whole time then making myself puke up. When I was around 13 and started getting interested in pornography, that was in a very obsessive way. And I was using every single progressive drug to either feel a sense of connection or cope with a sense of alienation and loss. In the end, those things all make it worse. Each of your individual stories, I don’t know the outcomes yet, but I feel like whatever substance misuse is present, it ain’t fucking helping. I think there are techniques that are less self-punishing. Mary, do you want to talk, because you used your time earlier to ask political questions – that I thought I handled rather well! Tell us about yourself…

Russell Brand with Big Issue vendors Steve, Mary and Peter, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London
Russell Brand with Big Issue vendors Steve, Mary and Peter, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London

Mary: My addiction has been cigarettes, since I was 14. It might not sound as dramatic as heroin, but if you are eating your fingers at 3am because you can’t have your pharmaceutical help of choice, I don’t think it really matters. My daughter, your fan, has just finished a psychology degree…

Russell: You must be proud, aren’t you?

Mary: Proud to bits. And she found that around 85 per cent of all people who are addicted to something have had traumatic events in their childhood. And over 70 per cent have been sexually abused. I know you brought it up in one of your books. If that was general knowledge, in the same way that heroin being illegal is general knowledge, I think people might be far more understanding of people’s need to seek oblivion. Because that is what it starts out as. You are a kid that is scared looking for a blanket to hide under. Whether it makes you feel tougher, more vocal, invisible, whatever it does for you, that is why you do whatever drug you do. But if someone has 14 cans of Holsten…

Russell: We are talking about Peter, by the way…

Mary: … that is considered unusual. But somebody who has a 9-5 job then goes home and spends seven hours arranging tiny trees on a homemade train set – that is considered normal.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Russell: That was wicked, that was. Can I share back? I really liked how you said it doesn’t matter the substance, what matters is seeking oblivion because you can’t deal with the pain. I liked when you said that about the shame and the trauma. I sometimes don’t refer to it as abuse because I don’t want to diminish the extreme things other people have gone through, but I was felt up and groped and abused as a kid. I reckon it takes you off your path. The reason it is called Recovery is because it is as though we have an intended path as a human being, in the way that a plant has a direction it will grow if unimpeded. And we have to recover this because trauma takes you off your path. I also liked when you said it should be as common knowledge that there is a relationship between trauma and addiction as it is that heroin is illegal. Because then people would look at it different.

Drummer: I connect with you. When you are in your subconscious mind – whatever happened to you when you are very young, do not underestimate it – not everyone realises. I watch you on TV. You look more handsome on TV.

Russell: That’s an insult, isn’t it?

‘THE BIG ISSUE IS MORE THAN A MAGAZINE. TO ALL OF US’

Drummer: [Smiles] I am going to sleep next to my pitch tonight. And I am prepared for it. I have been through the worst of the worst that I can handle. And I treat people with kindness. Just be happy. Be happy.

Russell: Is there anything you want to say on behalf of the magazine?

Russell Brand, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue in Buckinghamshire
Russell Brand, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue in Buckinghamshire

Drummer: The Big Issue is more than a magazine. To all of us. That is why we came here today.

Russell: I am really glad you came. It is really lovely when we talk so openly and truthfully. It is always moving and we really find a connection. The point of writing this book is to think of addiction differently. Not only in a moral sense, but as something for which there is a solution. It is a journey from suffering to compassion. The broader point is that if you are looking for self-satisfaction, whether that is through consuming products or consuming drugs, it won’t work. But when that mentality shifts, to trying to make yourself happy through helping others, it gets better.

The point of writing this book is to think of addiction differently. It is a journey from suffering to compassion

Steve: I love it. You have analysed yourself.

Russell: I have analysed myself a lot. I have written a book and come up with an answer.

Russell Brand signs his copies of new book for Big Issue vendors Steve and Peter, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London
Russell Brand signs his copies of new book for Big Issue vendors Steve and Peter, photographed by Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue at St John's Church in London

Peter: Well done. That’s great.

Russell: Well done you, Peter. Getting it together to be able to go on holidays – that is amazing…

After signing books for his new pals and confidants, Brand gives his verdict on this special meeting: “We delve collectively into our madness – the truth around addiction, the truth around mental health issues,” he says. “I learned a lot and hopefully you will learn something from getting closer to the people that sell this fine publication…”

Russell Brand’s book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions (Bluebird) is out September 21

Words: Adrian Lobb
Photographs: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Videos: Andrew Burns