Gary Stromberg says he easily could have died from addiction to narcotics, alcohol
He ran a famous rock star PR firm, with a large bowl of cocaine as centerpiece
Stromberg lost his house, business, wife, money, and blamed everyone but himself
He admitted the problem was inside himself and began his journey to recovery
Editor’s Note: Gary Stromberg, who runs the PR firm The Blackbird Group, co-founded Gibson and Stromberg, a music public relations firm that operated in the 1960s and 1970s and represented The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Boyz II Men, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, The Doors, Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He’s co-written several books that deal with addiction, including “The Harder They Fall.” His fourth book, “She’s Come Undone,” is due out this spring. He is active in service work to help people recover from addiction.
The Whitney Houston headlines last week sent a familiar shiver through me.
In the 1970s, I ran one of the leading entertainment business public relations firms. Celebrity clients were wildly indulging themselves, accountable to no one. It was money, power and prestige, with no one to say, “That’s enough.”
Drugs and alcohol were endemic. Today, the conversation revolves around prescription drugs, but back then we were into more basic mind-altering substances: pot, psychedelics, cocaine and heroin.
To be truthful, I had an amazing run before it all turned to garbage.
My office, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, was set up like a huge living room with couches, overstuffed pillows on the floor, rock star posters lining the walls and a coffee table, the centerpiece of which was a large crystal bowl, filled at all times with a generous supply of cocaine.
The house rules were “help yourself if you’re here on business – but no take-outs!” We were regularly visited by our clients, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Doors and Steppenwolf. As you could imagine, my office was a very popular place.
But 29 years ago, I stood at the precipice with a decision to make. With a career of impressive accomplishments in the rear-view mirror, I had what looked like only despair and death ahead of me. Alcoholism and drug addiction had rendered me into what the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” The choice seemed simple. Choose life or death.
Do I acknowledge I have a problem, or do I continue to live in denial?
Do I listen to my friends and family, or do I seek my own counsel?
Do I continue to deteriorate mentally and physically, or do I say, “I’ve had enough?”
Do I choose to live, or do I want to die?
If I once had a dream, I thought, it was long ago shattered. If I once had a dream, it’s floating face down in a bottle of Jack Daniels. If I once had a dream … ahh, screw it, I ain’t no Martin Luther King Jr.
Throwing in the towel and surrendering to admitting I had a serious problem should have been the obvious thing to do, given the state I was in. But at the time, change seemed impossible, unimaginable, incomprehensible and downright insane. Insane was the right word, all right, but it described my state of mind.
Alcohol and drugs are subtle foes; cunning, baffling and powerful. I seemed to be the last one to know I was in big trouble. When my high-profile career started to fall apart, it was other people’s fault. When my substantial income dried up, my business manager was to blame. When the beautiful house I so dearly loved was finally foreclosed, it was the bank that was screwing me. When she finally couldn’t take it anymore and left, I knew she was the type to do this to me. When my friends began to disappear, they were scum and didn’t deserve me. And when, at last, my only friends, my drugs and alcohol turned on me, I knew it was over.
And so a journey of unimaginable proportions began.
Not to any outward destination. No rehab, no trip to a far-off spa. I didn’t move to another city, as if a geographic change would fix it. No, I didn’t have to travel anywhere, except into the mirror, and by peeling the onion of my soul. The journey was within, to at long last discover where the real problem resided.
It was, of course, in me.
What a surprise – with the loving help and support of a 12-step program, I found the real culprit. We in recovery refer to alcoholism as a spiritual sickness. And if you look that up in the dictionary, you’ll find a photo of me. “Mr. Spiritual Sickness of 1982.”
If you ask me nicely, I might show you a picture of that lost soul that I still carry around in my wallet. Yes, I had long hair and a beard, the smug look of false confidence on my face and even the obligatory turquoise jewelry of that era. But look more closely, and you’ll see in my eyes shallow pools of emptiness, pupils like pinholes from the daily consumption of narcotics. As a friend remarked when he saw the photo, “The lights are on, but nobody’s home.”
After you shake your head in disbelief,and look up at me again wondering how this was possible and how I became such a different person, I will offer you an explanation.
I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who was spared from a life of misery, incarceration and death. I’ve been spared from the life of self-centeredness that led me to care very little about others and only about myself. I’ve been spared from the countless fears of inadequacy, failure, success, intimacy and anything else that threatened my well-guarded defenses. I’ve been spared a life of darkness and shown a path into the light.
We don’t yet know why Whitney died, but we know she struggled with addiction. It’s a pity that now, Whitney will not have the option I had.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary Stromberg.