Eric Clapton’s battle with addiction was one that nearly cost him his life. Drugs, for a long time, were like an albatross around the guitarist’s neck for a lengthy proportion of his early career. The former Cream man could have easily found his way onto the all-too-long list of rock ‘n’ roll drug casualties but, thankfully, Clapton managed to escape before it was all too late—and he knows just how fortunate he was.
Due to his immense fame, drugs became a coping mechanism and, of course, Clapton also had finances that meant that he could over-indulge as often as he’d like. For over three years he had a serious addiction to heroin and, instead of immediately replacing that high with sobriety, the musician instead turned from heroin to alcohol in a bid to fill that void instead of opting for the cold turkey approach. “The presence of music in my life has always been the salvation element of it. Not necessarily the playing, as much as just being conscious of it, listening to it, has kept me moving,” Clapton wrote in his autobiography about how he eventually got himself clean.
In 1982, he knew that he was drinking himself into an early grave and finally sought help for his substance abuse. After calling his manager in a cry for help where he finally admitted he was an alcoholic, Clapton flew to Minneapolis–Saint Paul in January 1982 and checked in at Hazelden Treatment Center, Minnesota, in a bid to rid himself of addiction.
“I don’t know how I survived, the seventies especially. There was one point there where they were flying me to hospital in St Paul [Minnesota] and I was dying, apparently,” he admitted to Classic Rock in 2017 about that rescue mission. “I had three ulcers and one of them was bleeding. I was drinking three bottles of brandy and taking handfuls of codeine and I was close to checking out. And I don’t even remember. It’s amazing that I’m still here, really,” he added.
“In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead,” he frankly wrote in his autobiography. “It was the only thing I thought was worth living for, and the idea that people were about to try and remove me from alcohol was so terrible that I drank and drank and drank, and they had to practically carry me into the clinic,” Clapton continued.
During the peak of his heroin addiction, Clapton was spending the equivalent to £8,000 a week in today’s money on securing the drug which almost left him financially devastated. “I was close to running out [of money]. I was running on empty, financially. But I think management was very shrewd – it was Robert Stigwood who was keeping an eye on it,” Clapton said in the same interview with Classic Rock. “But I think his optimism, and I suppose his hope, was that there would be light at the end of the tunnel. They didn’t police me that much. I was out on a long leash. And I think it was his hope that I would see sense eventually. Which of course I did,” he added.
“I don’t know how close I go and the people around me too. I was taking people with me. That’s always the worst part about an addict or an alcoholic: people are dragged along, and sometimes they go down before the principal character,” Clapton added with more than a pinch of honesty.
Now though, he has been sober for a number of decades now and has never been tempted to break his sobriety. However, he did admit that he doesn’t regret this period of his life which helped make him the man he is today.
“I don’t know that I can honestly regret any of it safely, because it’s brought me to where I am. My life would not be the same, and I would not have what I have today, were [it not] for the fact that I went through all this stuff,” Clapton said in the documentary A Life in Twelve Bars. “But I suppose if I do have any regrets, it is that musically I lost something there,” he added remorsefully.
Clapton’s admission that he’s not the same artist today because of his drug abuse may have an element of truth to it, but there is also an argument that the drugs may have played a part in him creating the incredible sounds he did in his heyday. The most important thing, however, is Clapton managed to beat this battle and is still alive and well all these years later when so many of his contemporaries didn’t make it this far.