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Jeff Tweedy on Addiction, Anxiety and ‘A Ghost Is Born’

Read an exclusive chapter from the Wilco songwriter’s memoir, ‘Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)’

Jeff Tweedy, 2016

Jeff Tweedy performs in the Popload Festival at Urban Stage on October 8, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Raphael Dias/Getty Images

In his new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), due out November 13th, Jeff Tweedy writes with humor and honesty about his life in music, from his childhood in Belleville, Illinois, to his early success with Uncle Tupelo to his two decades (and counting) as Wilco’s lead singer and songwriter. This story is excerpted from the chapter titled “Toby in a Glass Jar,” in which Tweedy discusses the opiates addiction that led to his 2004 rehab stint, and the making of Wilco’s A Ghost is Born.

“Jeff Tweedy? Like Jeff Tweedy from Wilco?”

The kid in rumpled blue scrubs behind the window at the pharmacy drive-through was staring at me. He looked like he was straight out of pharmaceutical college—a big clean-cut kid, but disheveled like a drunk altar boy or someone who just woke up from a nap. I smiled back at him and tried to look like a guy with his shit together.

“I’ve seen you play a bunch of times, man,” he told me, glancing at my prescription again. “My friends . . . we’re all fans.”

I said, “Thanks,” and struggled to make eye contact. “I really appreciate that, yeah.”

I never know what to say during encounters like this. I’ve learned that saying thanks is all that is required, but it never seems like enough.

The guy disappeared into the maze of shelves behind him, and I tapped impatiently on my steering wheel. I was here to get Vicodin, which I had somehow talked my psychiatrist into prescribing for anxiety. I’d been taking opiates on and off for years, but most of my prescriptions had been for migraines. This was the first time I felt like a doctor had gotten tired of me begging and knew he was doing something wrong, but just didn’t care.

For years, the standard pattern had been to get someone to write me a script when my migraines became unbearable and then stop cold turkey when I ran out of refills, or when I started to panic about all the pills I was taking. Now something different was happening. I was depressed and I had started to only feel normal and human when I had plenty of drugs on hand. Before, I had always needed to be in actual pain to rationalize asking a doctor for painkillers. An air of legitimacy had always propped up my self-esteem; I wasn’t a drug addict if my use was sanctioned by a health-care professional. Now those pretenses were disappearing fast.

The pharmacist kid came back and handed me a big bag. It felt heavier than usual.

“I took care of you,” he said, giving me a wink.

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

He gestured toward the bag. “I tripled your prescription,” he whispered through his teeth, motioning with his eyes to be cool.

I was flustered but grateful. “Oh, well, wow, thanks, you can do that?” I blurted, still not quite comprehending what he was saying. Was I the lucky millionth customer?

“Listen, man, if you ever need anything . . .” He then put his thumb to his ear and mouthed, “Call me” into his pinky.

“No shit? Awesome. Okay,” I said. My hands were shaking, and I felt high already. “Thank you again. I don’t know what to say.”

I drove away slowly, elated and a little scared. Up until that moment, getting large quantities of drugs had been hard. And having it be difficult had created the delusion that I was living safely behind some natural barrier that would, circumstantially and without any willpower expended on my part, protect me from having access to the amount of drugs it would take to be a “real” drug addict. Now it was going to be easy. Even in what felt like a lotto-winning moment of euphoria, I knew that making this connection was one of the worst things that could have happened to me.

Jeff Tweedy, "Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)" 2018

Jeff Tweedy, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” Photo: Penguin Random House

I honestly do not remember a time in my life when I didn’t have headaches. I think I was six when I learned they were called migraines and that it wasn’t something that happened to everybody.

They do run in my family, though. My sister gets them and so did my mother. It’s possible that when I was a little kid, migraines felt normal to me because my mom had them and it was a way of feeling close to her. I remember her being knocked out for whole days, and I would make tall glasses of Coca-Cola on ice to bring to her in bed, just like she did for me when I was sick.

Every school year I’d end up missing many, many days because of migraines. In addition to the pain, I’d get sick to my stomach and end up vomiting so much I’d have to sleep by the toilet. Sometimes I’d get so dehydrated I’d end up in the hospital. One year I missed forty consecutive days of school because of my migraines and vomiting. When I came back, I had to remind the other kids who I was.

When I was eight or nine, they determined my migraines were probably the result of allergies, so they gave me one of those allergy tests where they scratch your back and introduce allergens to every scratch. It turned out I was allergic to everything. Literally. I got allergy shots twice a week after school for years. We also had to keep my beloved teddy bear, Toby, sealed in a jar, because I was allegedly allergic to house dust. Try to picture something sadder in this world than a teddy bear stuffed inside a glass jar. But the shots and the imprisoned bear never helped the migraines.

My theory, and I don’t know if it’s born of any kind of scientific research, is that migraines, or at least my migraines, were connected to mood disorders.

I grew up in a house full of caring people—my parents were nurturing and wanted me to be happy and healthy. But it was a different time. If a kid from my generation moped around a lot and was frustratingly inconsolable, my parents’ generation’s typical response would be “What is wrong with you? You have nothing to cry about. I’ll give you something to cry about.” I could try to tell them “I just feel sad for no reason” but it was much easier for them to understand if I was visibly in pain. In other words, the migraines were a way of making psychic pain visible to the people around me. It’s obvious your kid is hurting when he can’t stop vomiting and can hardly open his eyes. And since my mother had migraines herself, she could identify—she knew they were real.

Who knows where the mood disorders ended and the migraines began? They could feed on each other and make everything worse. When I’d have a panic attack, my stress levels would skyrocket for days and even weeks afterward because of the fear of having another attack, and that anxiety would contribute to the next headache, and it would begin a cycle that was hard to stop. When I’d get a migraine at school, they’d always send me home because they didn’t know what to do with a kid curled up on the floor and crying. They wouldn’t have been as sympathetic, I don’t think, if I’d explained that I was having a panic attack because my mom was going to die someday and then I’ll be all alone because I don’t think my dad can take care of me! The migraines were real, and so were the panic attacks. But which came first? And which one needed to be treated?

Aside from my mother, sister, and me, nobody else in my extended family (that I know of) suffered from migraines. But there were a lot of diagnosed and undiagnosed mood disorders and the coping was done mostly in the form of alcohol.

My dad’s father died before I was born, and I never heard a word about him other than that he died on a barroom floor. My grandfather on my mother’s side drove a cab when she was growing up, and apparently, in those days, “cabdriver” also meant “pimp.” When I was growing up he lived in a run-down apartment above the tavern where he tended bar. My grandfather had a colossal whiskey nose, like some cauliflower-beetroot hybrid, and he chain-smoked Camel straights right up to the day they killed him. Dropping me off with Grandpa Werkmeister was the absolute last-ditch solution to childcare. My mom hated him for good reason, so I hated him as well and would beg to not be left with him. I never spent any time with him, not one second, when he didn’t smell like booze.

My dad was a lifetime drinker. He’d come home from work every day and drink a twelve-pack of beer. That was his standard beer consumption. If it was a day off or a weekend when he wasn’t on call, he could down a case of beer. This wasn’t just over the course of a rough year or two, this is how he subsisted for the majority of his life. He got sober at 81 years old, on the advice of his doctors, and he did it on his own, without rehab or any type of AA support group. He had to stop, so he stopped. Then he started having panic attacks for the first time since he was young.

That’s when it became clear to me that he and I shared the same mood disorders and that he had been clumsily, yet semi-effectively, treating depression and anxiety with alcohol since his teens. Everyone identified him as an alcoholic—my mom, his sister, our neighbors, the mailman, everyone. But he somehow avoided the usual trajectory of alcoholism. He had no progressively worsening consequences. He was reliably unreliable emotionally, but other than feuds with my brothers and occasionally embarrassing us at wedding receptions, his behavior was maddeningly consistent and predictable. I have a lyric about my dad’s drinking where I sing, “Head for the cooler and drink your fill.” I think it kind of sums up my family’s resignation and acceptance of my dad’s relationship with alcohol. It wasn’t ideal, but we knew it could have been worse.

I was always a reluctant drinker. Even when I drank a lot, I could never quite get over being disappointed in myself that I was letting my mom down. I had promised her, and myself, that I would never drink even a drop of alcohol, so I spent a lot of time wallowing in the guilt of being too weak to resist what felt like destiny, and guilt only made it easier to keep drinking. It was a vicious cycle, and when I was able to put it to a stop and quit drinking at the relatively young age of 23, I was convinced my problems were solved. No one in my family had driven their car off the road on weed, so I smoked weed until eventually my anxiety disorder began to make every bong hit result in an almost instantaneous heart-pounding panic attack. For a while my drugs of choice were mundane and relatively benign — Diet Coke and cigarettes — which would have been a resounding victory for a guy with my DNA if I’d been able to freeze my drug use at that level of potency. Alas, the Diet Coke and cigarettes weren’t enough. Nothing relieved the pain or helped me feel relaxed and normal, the way I pictured other people feeling, for very long.

Then we went to Canada.

It was 1997, and we were part of the Tragically Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction tour with Los Lobos and Sheryl Crow. I didn’t know much (or anything) about pills at the time. I’d taken plenty of non-narcotic pain medication in my life, but mostly in suppository form due to my inability to keep solids down during a migraine. What’s that? You didn’t need to know that? My bad. The point is, I was unfamiliar with pills, okay? Anyway, in Canada it was apparently much easier to find pharmaceuticals than in the States, so Jay Bennett and some of the guys from the other bands were starting to carry stockpiles around that made them sound like maracas when they walked up stairs. I was bored and homesick and they all looked like they were having a blast.

“What should I try?” I asked Jay. He astutely recommended Valium because, duh. It’s what they prescribe for anxiety anyway, isn’t it? So technically I wouldn’t even be abusing the drug. But, meh, the sensation was just . . . okay. I wasn’t as anxious about going onstage anymore, but I didn’t like how tired it made me. The sedating quality wasn’t particularly helpful for someone who already likes to nap 20 percent of the day. So I took a Vicodin—just one, because I was still nervous about it—and within an hour I was like, “Oh yes, okay, there it is, now I see, that’s the one. I’ll have more of those, please.”

Not everyone has this reaction, but opiates energized me. The warm maternal sense of well-being that every opiate addict loves was there, too, of course, but for me at least, it was like waking up from the perfect night’s sleep. I was alert, motivated, and clearheaded. I felt normal.

I had never really been attracted to oblivion as a key component of some dunderheaded rock & roll mythology. You know, “Sex, drugs, and rock & roll”? I always kind of looked down on championing anything but the rock & roll part. Anyone can do drugs or have sex or do sex-drugs or have drug-sex. To me, rock & roll required more awareness and commitment. I didn’t even like the lack of control that came with drinking. I tried to be the guy who could drink too much and never seem drunk. Even slurring my words felt like surrendering too much. But with Vicodin, there was none of that. I thought this was what other people felt like all the time. So why was I not allowed to feel that way, too? I could go for a walk or read a book or write a song and I wouldn’t fall into a heap on the floor in a fit of weeping and panic.

When I ran out, I quit, partly because I didn’t want to become addicted, but mostly because the pills ran out. But in a few months, I’d get down or I’d have a migraine and it would pop back into my head that I knew of something that would, without a doubt, make me feel normal again. I was never particularly great at making connections with people who had access to illegal substances, but being in my line of work (especially in the Nineties) was a good starting point. We’d go to a club, and I’d casually ask anybody who worked there, “Do you know where we could get some painkillers? I really hurt my back.” And within a few hours someone would cough some up.

It never felt like a problem. I thought they were good for me. “How could this be bad?” I’d bargain with my conscience. “I’m not panicking anymore, I’m able to function like an adult, I’m not debilitated by my thoughts.” And I was good at quitting them! At least until I started taking them again.

It’s impossible to worry that you’re making the wrong decisions when everybody around you is treating it like perfectly rational behavior. I didn’t feel like some weirdo for liking Vicodin, because everybody liked Vicodin. It was like walking into a dinner party and asking the host, “Um . . . I don’t know if you’re into this, but, uh . . . Do you have any red wine? Maybe something in a California zinfandel?”

I pulled into the pharmacy drive-through wondering how to ask what I needed to ask.

My guy was there. The big kid with the mussed hair.

“Hi,” I said, waving at him and then immediately feeling stupid about waving at a pharmacy employee.

“Hey, Jeff,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“I, uh . . . I can’t get a prescription right now, so I was wondering—” “I’ve got you,” he interrupted me. “I get off at eight. I’ll just swing by, okay?”

He came to the Loft with a big ziplock bag full of painkillers in every shape, size, and color: Percocet, Lortab, Norco, tons of Vicodin.

“You don’t take more than one at a time, do you?” he asked, looking me in the eye. “You take them as directed, right?”

Then he laughed and tossed me the bag.

“Call me earlier next time. That’s all I could grab in one night.”

“Aren’t you going to get in trouble for this?” I asked.

“No. Why?”

“Isn’t anybody going to notice that all these pills are missing? Aren’t you worried about getting caught?”

He laughed again. “First of all, I’m the guy who counts the pills. And that one pharmacy filled about 250,000 prescriptions for Vicodin this year. Nobody is going to miss a few hundred pills.”

“If you say so.”

I gave him tickets to Wilco shows, but I never knew if he came. He never asked to go backstage. I worried about him sometimes. He was obviously addicted to pills, too.

When I went to rehab, many years later, one of my roommates was a former pharmacist who claimed he took 80 Vicodin a day. During his first week there, all he did was sleep. I barely saw his chest rise and fall. When he finally woke up and introduced himself, his skin was yellow. It was a miracle he didn’t die, or at least didn’t lose his liver.

The drugs couldn’t keep up. Because of course they couldn’t. There were never enough drugs to keep up with keeping me normal. We were on tour opening for R.E.M. in Milan, Italy. There were 70,000 people there, just an enormous audience packing an old dusty soccer stadium, and I couldn’t stop crying and vomiting long enough to get myself to the stage. I was in terrible shape — for seemingly no reason, the bottom had just dropped out. I was constantly having migraines, which led to panic attacks, which made the migraines worse. Or maybe I was panicking so much I was giving myself migraines, I could never be sure. So I just stayed in the dressing room sitting on a chair in the shower with cold water raining down on my head, because it was the only thing I could do that felt comforting.

Our tour manager got the local paramedics to come backstage and take a look at me. At the time I thought they were confused, but now I think they recognized an addict, but had somehow gotten cause and effect reversed. “What did he take?” they kept asking. It was really hard to explain in broken English that I wasn’t OD’ing. What I wanted was for them to give me narcotics. It was like being seven again, and feeling ashamed at the arched eyebrows of disbelieving adults, who frowned at me and said, “Migraines? Come on. Isn’t it all in your head?”

I kept telling myself that I wasn’t being weak. “I’m not some junkie who wants to disappear. I have real migraines. I have real panic attacks. And I’m only being responsible by finding a way to control them so I can keep doing my job. I know all about addiction and that is not what this is.”

In November of 2003, we went to New York to record with Jim O’Rourke. Myself, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach and Mikael Jorgensen were going to hole ourselves up at Sear Sound in midtown Manhattan and start work on A Ghost Is Born. It’s also where I was pretty sure I was going to die.

I mean that in all seriousness. I thought I was going to die. Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last. Every note felt final.

I don’t know if anybody else noticed. They were aware that I was unhappy and struggling with depression, but they had no idea how serious my drug use had become. I wasn’t staying up all night partying or doing anything that would make them say, “Hey, man, you have to cut it out.” I tended to keep myself away from people when I was at my worst. They only saw me during the most functional part of my day. Like my dad, I was always able to maintain a work ethic and not shirk responsibilities. I wasn’t always as spiritually present and mentally alert as I should’ve been, but my body always showed up.

The worst of it happened when I was alone in my hotel room having panic attacks, taking too many pills and then panicking because I’d taken too many pills. Every night I’d lie in bed — or just as often, in the tub until the bathwater would get cold — telling myself, “If I fall asleep right now, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not waking up. People die in this situation all the time.” Sometimes, if I called home, hearing Susie’s voice could pull me out of the abyss, but it was more likely she would hear the fear in my voice and get scared, which would make things way worse. It was easier for me to keep her in the dark and feel some comfort imagining her cuddled up on our couch with our boys, unaware that her husband has potentially overdosed.

I think the looming sense of imminent demise came across in the songs. The lyrical elements of A Ghost Is Born were originally conceived as a sort of Noah’s Ark analogy. That’s why it had so many animal songs: “Muzzle of Bees,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Hummingbird,” the fly in “Company in My Back,” “Panthers” (which never made the album). I had this vague idea that the album was built around, where all of the songs were animals representing the different aspects of my personality worth saving. I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it made perfect sense. The dread I was feeling was profound and definitely biblical in its scope; it felt like a big flood was coming, something no one could survive. So I was saving anything I could, piling it all onto this ark as a way to salvage whatever I could of myself. I was a goner, but I didn’t have to lose everything. A Ghost Is Born would be a gift to my kids, who could turn to it when they were older and put together the pieces of me a little bit more than I’d been able to put myself together for them in real life. “There will be a new day someday,” I thought, and I wanted this record to be an elemental tool for Spencer and Sammy to reconstruct my worldview, to have some deeper connection to the dad they’d lost.

Grim stuff, I know. And more than a little maudlin. Which may’ve been why I dropped the whole thing. Or maybe I just got tired of writing animal songs. Looking back, I didn’t think my kids would be able to reconstruct a surrogate father or that they were going to be parented by an album. I just wanted them to know I cared about them if I wasn’t around anymore.

Setting all of my grandiose album conceptualizing aside, the hard part was staying functional as a human. When you are an addict, logistics become complex by orders of magnitude. Nothing is easy or simple. It’s all quantum mechanics. You’re simultaneously there and not there! There was rarely more than a two-hour period in any day that I could guarantee the others I’d be present and capable of making music in a way I felt good about. The rest of the day would be spent trying to time my pill intake, hoping to catch some golden hour of lucidity and alertness in the studio.

I really tried hard to avoid recording high, so for a lot of the time I spent in the studio, I was in enormous throbbing migraine pain. A lot of material on A Ghost Is Born reflects that fact. “Less Than You Think” has an outro built on glacial electronic drones and slowly evolving repetitive mechanical noises arranged to mimic the isolating alien landscapes migraines often induce when the pain wraps itself so tightly around your skull it starts to warp your perception of light and time. I can’t remember if that was the original intent during tracking, but that’s what my mind was focused on when we were doing the final mix.

“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is another recording where I feel like you can hear my condition pretty clearly. Because of its length, getting a great full take felt unlikely with the window on my ability to remain upright closing fast. So we restructured the song to be as minimal as possible with the fewest number of chord changes. This allowed me to just recite the lyrics and punctuate them with guitar skronks and scribbles to get through the song without having to concentrate past my headache too much. We attempted two takes and take one is the one on the record. Take two was incomplete.

Things didn’t get better when we returned to Chicago. I have vague memories of being awake but not really awake and wandering through my house, going through all the closets and rummaging through the pockets of every coat, because, goddammit, I knew there was some Vicodin in some of those pockets. And then thinking, “What am I doing? I have to stop this!” For weeks and sometimes months, it would be over. And then it would come back.

I’ve done horrible things that I’d rather forget. My wife, Susie, she remembers when her mother was dying from lung cancer, and she was still living with us, and the morphine that her doctors had prescribed to make her more comfortable in the end started disappearing, and Susie figured out that I was the one stealing it. I barely remember that, and I wish I didn’t remember it at all. I want the memory to disappear forever, to be expunged from my permanent record. But there it is.

I had a therapist making everything worse. This guy was a quack, and I was vulnerable and desperate. He was under the illusion that I was a celebrity client, and that just made him more eager to tell me whatever he thought I wanted to hear. When I told him I was an addict, he disputed it and reassured me that the Vicodin my psychiatrist prescribed me was perfectly okay. He also recommended that I avoid antidepressants because they were blocking my creative energy. I didn’t listen to him about the antidepressants (at first), but his advice about the opiates was too alluring to ignore.

“You’re an artist, let it fuel your art,” he said. “The pain comes from the conflict between enjoying yourself and capping your joy with mood stabilizers.”

I bought into it for a while. But then one day he told me he should probably be coming on the road with me and Wilco. That set off alarm bells in my head. “Oh, I get it, this guy is evil,” I thought. “He’s not trying to cure me. He needs me to need his help. I’m his best customer.” I wasn’t thinking clearly about a lot of things, but I knew I had to get away from this guy immediately, just sever all ties and never look back. I unloaded on him, called him “the actual devil,” and then I asked him to drive me home because I could feel a panic attack coming on. My whole body was vibrating. We drove in silence — he must’ve realized I’d had a moment of clarity and was onto him, because he wasn’t trying to convince me to stay — and when he pulled up to my house, I got out and he sped away almost before I could close the door behind me, squealing his tires as he took off down the street.

I decided to quit cold turkey. Not just the painkillers, which I was pretty sure were killing me. Anything that came in pill form suddenly seemed like poison. I was convinced any medication I had been taking was making me sick, so I threw out everything. It didn’t go well. I lost 30 pounds and stopped being able to function. I couldn’t play music anymore, couldn’t be a father or a husband. During the day I’d stay in bed, but I couldn’t really sleep. I was panicking all the time, and I’d spend most of my days walking around the park, because I didn’t want to scare my kids. Susie didn’t know what to do, and after what had just happened, I was too terrified to trust a doctor. I thought maybe after a few more weeks of panicking and not sleeping and pacing all day in the park, I’d start to come out of it.

Five weeks later—theoretically, I was clean by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t on drugs—I suffered a serious mental collapse. My brain chemistry crashed, and my body was revolting against me. I tried taking the antidepressants again, but they couldn’t work fast enough. I told Susie, “I know I’m not having a heart attack, but I feel like I’m being chased by a bear.” She took me to the emergency room, and they shot me up with a heavy dose of antianxiety medication. That worked for exactly a day, and then the panic returned. We went back to the emergency room the next evening, and I begged them to admit me into the psych ward.

They suggested I go to a dual diagnosis clinic, which is basically a mental hospital that also treats addiction. This was the first I’d heard that such a place existed, and it immediately made sense.

“I need that,” I told the ER nurses. “I need that now. Where is it? Can I go there today? Do they have an open bed? Can you call them and tell them I’m on my way?”

“Are you sure you want to go?” Susie asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Anything is better than this.”

From LET’S GO (SO WE CAN GET BACK) by Jeff Tweedy, to be published on November 13, 2018 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Scot Tweedy. Also available in the U.K. on November 22, 2018 by Faber & Faber.

 

In This Article: Books, Jeff Tweedy, Wilco

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