What Elton John taught me about getting sober

Elton John’s photography collection

“I got sober in 1990.” This was the opening line to Elton John talking about his photography collection, which is currently on view at the Tate Modern in London.

I wasn’t expecting a story about art to start THERE!

It is the first 30 seconds of this video (you can watch it below) that encapsulates some of the key things about changing your drinking. And you don’t need to a be a wealthy popstar to get it.

Getting sober

Elton sold all of his belongings just before getting sober: “…I must have had a premonition that my life was going to change.” There is something very important about understanding that you are not just changing a habit. You are shedding an identity that you may have held for a long time. You will be surprised at how much of your life has been shaped around the ‘drinking’ you. That includes the physical things around you. Reshaping your environment, and recognising that things will be different is a good first step in the process of change. For me, this included cutting my hair short.

Conversations remembered

He had a conversation … that he remembered and that enthused him. David Faye visited him, brought some photos with him, and introduced Elton John to the art of photography. We know how this would have gone if it had been another boozy weekend in a villa at the south of France. The focus would have been drinking, the subtleties of the conversation would have been lost. When we are drunk we remember the ‘feel’ of a conversation. It was great. But we rarely remember the detail. But it was sharing the passion for the detail that led to Elton John starting his amazing collection.

Developing a passion

He developed a passion. There is a regular conversation you will have when you give up a substance like alcohol. It often happens with people who are still partaking: “You have just transferred your addiction to something else”. Well actually no. This is what life is meant to be like. Our leisure time is not meant to be a series of visits to the pub, or wine in front of the telly. It is normal to pursue knowledge, find things that stimulate your intellectual curiosity, excite you. We don’t all have to collect art, we may have a number of mini passions. Mine has been learning about fine tea – totally unexpected by the way, which is part of what makes it so exciting. We need new passions, because we now have more time, more energy and more mental capacity to engage.

Creating a new identity

Creating something you don’t want to lose. More importantly, what we gain in terms of satisfaction and a developing skill becomes very precious. It is something we want to keep, and that we would lose if we started drinking heavily again. Every day, I feel what I have gained from quitting drinking is far greater than what I have lost. I don’t want to lose any of it. For the last 27 years, Elton John has created a deep knowledge of a subject, and a collection that stimulates him every time he looks at it. This is more than art, it is part of his new identity that he wants to keep.

I will always have a soft spot for Elton John. I used to work at Stonewall, and had to deal with press with his office, and then I ran an HIV charity that he funded. It was leaving that role during a period of bereavement, and ending up in a job that just did not suit me which led me to drink more and more. It is his story of reinvention, passion and identity that has inspired me today.


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