Johnny Depp: I Started Taking Drugs “at a Very Young Age”

It has been well-reported and I have been open about my challenges with alcoholism and addiction throughout my life. In fact, I started drinking and taking drugs when I was still a child. I am not in any way embarrassed to say this.” ~ Johnny Depp

Movie star Johnny Depp has lived what seems to be an enviable life — rich, handsome, and ultra-famous for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

But he has also had more than his share of well-documented struggles with substance abuse, which often makes him cannon fodder for the tabloids. For example, it has been reported that bon vivant Depp spends over $30,000 a month on wine.

Now 57, Depp is going through a very painful and very public libel suit involving claims of spousal abuse against his ex-wife, Aquaman star Amber Heard. Vicious allegations are being hurled from both sides, and Depp recently had to take the witness stand in his own defense. One of the things he was questioned about was how he “found drugs and alcohol” early in life.

“It was Not a Particularly Stable or Secure or Safe Home Life”

My mother used to ask me to go and get her ‘nerve pills’ and I think I was around the age of 11 that it dawned on me that ‘nerve pills’ were calming her nerves, so I brought her her nerve pills and I took one and that began [my drug use].” ~ Johnny Depp

There are several important revelations in Depp’s courtroom statement.

First, there is the fact that his mother evidently had “nerve” issues, i.e., anxiety. This is significant because like addictive disorders, anxiety, and other mental illnesses tend to run in families. To deal with the emotional pain of clinical anxiety, sufferers abuse substances at a much higher rate than the general population.

This is borne out in Depp’s own words when he said that his early alcohol and drug use was “the only way that I found to numb the pain.”

Second, the most common “nerve pills” when Depp was a child were barbiturates such as Luminal or the then-newer benzodiazepines Librium or Valium.

But tranquilizers like barbiturates or “benzos” are extremely habit-forming, even when taken exactly as directed. In fact, dependence can develop in a matter of weeks, easily paving the way for abuse and addiction.

Third, and perhaps most influential in Depp’s individual case is the fact that he started misusing his mother’s prescription medication when he was only 11 years old.

At that prepubescent age, the human brain is still developing and is particularly vulnerable to the effects of mind-altering substances. In a very real way, Johnny Depp the boy contributed to the later struggles with addiction faced by Johnny Depp the man.

This is because early substance use triggers changes that “prime” the brain for more alcohol and drugs. For example, a child who drinks before the age of 15 is six times more likely to develop an Alcohol Use Disorder at some point as one who waits until age 21 or older. Likewise, teenagers who use marijuana before they turn 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a Cannabis Use Disorder.

“It was a Pretty Dark Time for Me”

I was poisoning myself beyond belief…There was a lot of liquor. A lot of liquor. I was pretty unhealthy.” ~ Johnny Depp

Predictably, Depp’s early experimentation led to ongoing issues as an adult. According to a 1997 Vanity Fair interview, he admitted to drinking heavily and was evasive when asked if he had also used heroin.

The problem evidently continued, because in Depp’s own words in another interview for Playboy in 2004, he said, “I was poisoning myself with alcohol and medicating myself. I was trying not to feel things, and that’s ridiculous.”

In still another interview for Rolling Stone in 2005, Depp confessed, “I spent years poisoning myself. I was very, very good at it.”

It is very revealing that Johnny Depp keeps using the phrase “poisoning myself” over and over again in interviews. That shows that he was fully aware that his behavior was self-destructive, but he was still unable to stop.

That is one of the primary symptoms of full-blown addiction.

It is also telling that Depp has revealed that he did not drink for fun, saying, “I never had that. It was never about recreation. Not. Ever. That was never my motivation.”

Is it the Price of Fame?

I never wanted to be the guy people looked at. I felt I could only be myself when I was alone, that I turned into some kind of novelty. The only way I could get through that time was to drink.” ~ Johnny Depp

So why does Depp “poison” himself with alcohol and self-medicate with drugs?

Like other celebrities who have battled substance abuse issues, Depp believes the pressures of celebrity are to blame. The constant scrutiny, the lack of privacy and actual personal life, the need to maintain the illusion of perfection, and incessant demands to perform.

In some ways, he has a bit of a point, because chronic stress does contribute to increased substance abuse. According to a recent study published in Neuron, acute stress changes the brain on a neurological level, prompting the person to drink more alcohol.

Researchers discovered that the neurons within the brain’s reward center responsible for regulating alcohol intake “flip” after exposure to severe stress. As a result, the brain incentivizes heavier drinking. The current theory is that this ability of the reward neurons to switch off and on is an evolved biological trait that allows humans to overcome physical injury or trauma faster.

This study backs up the accepted disease concept of addiction. In addition, it highlights the biological reason why some people — like Johnny Depp — feel the need to “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol when they are overly-stressed. Unfortunately, as Depp’s example also shows, self-medicating easily becomes abuse, dependence, and addiction.

Johnny Depp and Mental Illness

I was as low as I believe I could have gotten..the next step [for me] was, ‘You’re going to arrive somewhere with your eyes open and you’re going to leave there with your eyes closed. I couldn’t take the pain every day.” ~Johnny Depp

But there are other reasons why Depp found solace in substances: mental health issues that helped cause and were perhaps caused by alcohol and drug abuse.

Back in 2014, Depp was officially diagnosed with primary dopamine imbalance, clinical depression, ADHD, and chronic Substance Use Disorder, including nicotine addiction.

These diagnoses help explain a lot. Individually, Each of these conditions increases the likelihood of substance abuse. But taken together, it becomes an almost certainty. The dopamine imbalance is particularly relevant.

Dopamine and Addiction

These mechanisms of dopamine signal reinforcement and once you have experienced it, getting conditioned to it is an extraordinarily important way for nature to ensure that humans, as well as animals, will perform behaviors that are indispensable for survival. So therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that behaviors such as eating or sexual behavior are linked with increases in dopamine and in the same areas that drugs do it.” ~ Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Whenever someone performs an activity necessary to survival, such as eating or sex, their brain releases dopamine, a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter associated with reward, pleasure, learning, and motivation.

When the action is performed, that person is rewarded with a flood of dopamine that causes pleasure. Over time, they learn to repeat the action, because the pleasurable reward is their motivation.

But over time and with repeated use, this artificial over-stimulation disrupts the brain’s normal reward system. The dopamine response to the substance is reduced, meaning it takes increasing amounts to achieve the same pleasurable effects. This is known as tolerance.

Eventually, however, dopamine receptors become fatigued or burned-out from overuse, so the brain shuts down the natural production of dopamine. As a result, the tolerant person is unable to feel pleasure or motivation unless they are actively drinking or drugging. This can leave them virtually unable to function.

This means that they are now dependent. When the substance is not available, or they try to quit using, they experience harshly-unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal.

Specifically, alcohol addiction changes the brain so profoundly that abrupt, “cold turkey” withdrawal can be extremely dangerous…or even fatal.

It is unclear if Johnny Depp’s dopamine imbalance preceded his SUD, or if decades of abuse caused the imbalance, but one thing is clear — his condition would cause him to look for relief anywhere he could find it.

Depression and Substance Abuse

person struggling with depression and addictionI poured myself a vodka in the morning and started writing until the tears filled my eyes. I kept trying to figure out what I’d done to deserve this.” ~ Johnny Depp

Research has confirmed a link between depression and Depp’s known substances of abuse, particularly alcohol. In fact, having either Alcohol Use Disorder or depression DOUBLES the chances of having both. According to the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism:

  • Over 40% of men with AUD suffer either major depression or depressive syndrome.
  • Less than 17% of non-alcoholic men within the same families have either condition.
  • 57% of female alcoholics battle major depression/depressive syndrome.
  • Among males, AUD precedes depression 54% of the time.
  • The opposite is true among females, where depression manifests first in nearly 60% of cases.

But Depp is also known for abusing opioids. In addition to the possibility of heroin in the 1990s, he has admitted to being “quite addicted” to oxycodone, following a stunt injury suffered while making a film in London.

A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine also found a connection between long-term opioid use and depression. This means that Depp’s particular drugs of choice — opioids and alcohol — made him especially vulnerable.

Finally, SUD, by its very nature, causes sufferers to engage in self-destructive and dysfunctional behaviors that trigger negative consequences that worsen depression – relationship difficulties, money problems, and legal issues, for example.

Johnny Deep is experiencing ALL of these and more.

ADHD and SUD

person suffering from ADHDIt’s not enough to treat addictions and not treat ADHD, nor is it enough to treat ADHD and not treat a co-occurring addiction, both need to be diagnosed and treated for the individual to have a chance at ongoing recovery. Too many people with ADHD, learning and perceptual difficulties, are incarcerated or dying from a co-occurring addiction.” ~ Wendy Richardson, The Link between ADD and Chemical Addiction

Although ADHD is generally thought of as a childhood disorder, in actuality, 60% of cases persist into adulthood. Evidently, Johnny Depp is among the 5% of U.S. adults struggling with some degree of ADHD.

This is relevant, because 15% of ADHD patients struggle with addiction issues, compared to just 5% of those without ADHD.

  • Greater than 1 in 3 individuals with ADHD also abuse alcohol or drugs.
  • Among people with untreated ADHD, the rate jumps to over 50%.
  • Only 20% of those without ADHD struggle with SUD.
  • 10% of ADHD patients have “significant problems” due to their addiction.
  • Among patients without ADHD, the percentage falls to just 3%.
  • 13% of girls and 21% of boys with ADHD drink to excess.
  • 13% of people with ADHD develop a dependence on marijuana.
  • That rate drops to 7% among those without ADHD.
  • 30% of teenagers who smoke marijuana have ADHD.

Remember, Johnny Depp did not receive an ADHD diagnosis until he was already in his mid-40s.

The Wrong Relationship

Depp had relapsed into a cycle of substance abuse. His drug and alcohol abuse has increased dramatically in recent years, as has his violent behavior.” ~ Amber heard in court documents

Depp has battled substance abuse demons most of his life, and they spiraled out of control following his breakup with long-time girlfriend Vannessa Paradis in 2012. He was able to get back on track with the help of Sir Elton John, thanking the music legend in an email.

I got sober off alcohol and remained sober…I don’t remember how long it was exactly, but it was a long while” Depp later recalled.

Shortly thereafter, Depp began a relationship with Heard, eventually marrying in early 2015. But their union was extremely volatile and short-lived. They divorced 15 months later. And then the allegations came flying from both directions.

Heard accused Depp of spousal abuse and out-of-control drinking and drugging. Pictures circulated showing Depp passed out, with lines of cocaine, glasses of whiskey, and a box of pills nearby.

For his part, Depp accused Heard of domestic violence and claimed that she undermined his sobriety efforts. Perhaps the biggest bombshell was the claim that Heard withheld Depp’s recovery medication when they went to his private island in 2014 so he could detox from his addiction to Roxicodone.

Depp would later say that “it was one of the cruelest things that she had ever done.”

Obviously, the truth about their relationship probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it is worth noting how often substance abuse plays a role in intimate partner violence and other dysfunctional relationship problems.

For example, over 90% of assailants use drugs or drink on the day of the violent incident, and almost 40% meet the criteria for a diagnosis of AUD. Of special relevance, the odds of male-to-female physical abuse spike 11-fold on drinking days.

Also relevant, a 2013 study found that substance abuse by one or both partners is cited by 35% of couples as a reason for divorce.

The Importance of a Good Personal Support System

Even when he was at a low point, Johnny Depp realized that he needed to surround himself with people who were understanding and supportive of his sobriety efforts. We know this because he praises Sir Elton John for standing by him, just as he condemns his ex-wife for undermining his recovery efforts and enabling his addiction.

Contrast that with one of his acting peers, Ben Affleck, who has also waged a very public battle with alcoholism. But even though he has suffered several slips and relapses along the way, Affleck has mostly stayed sober, thanks to the support and active efforts of his younger brother Casey and his ex-wife, Jennifer Garner. Even after their divorce, Garner has been there for him, at one point personally driving him to a rehab facility.

What Can We Learn from Johnny Depp’s Story?

  • The first takeaway from all of this is that ANYONE can struggle with problematic substance abuse, even someone who outwardly seems to be successful — not just celebrities, but also people who are educated, professional, and seem to have a happy home life. Addiction can strike ANYONE.
  • Second, we must understand that people with SUD have very little choice in the matter. Addiction changes the brain, taking away almost all ability to make positive choices. It’s not a matter of willpower or character.
  • Third, it is also important to realize just how often substance abuse presents simultaneously with other mental illnesses…anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, gambling, and unhealthy eating, for example.
  • Fourth, his story shows exactly how absolutely necessary outside support is. Addiction is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease that is beyond the ability of any one person. The best support system includes professional recovery specialists, family, friends, and peers who are themselves in active and successful recovery.
  • Finally, all of this points to the most important lesson — to have the best chance at a life of successful and enduring sobriety, anyone struggling with an addictive or emotional disorder needs specialized professional care if they are to safely regain their long-term sobriety.

If you live in Southern California and you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction and/or mental illness, your best resource is Lasting Recovery, the oldest and most-trusted outpatient rehab program in San Diego.

To get immediate help, contact Lasting Recovery today.