Battling Addiction and Depression Helped Russell Brand Find Purpose

Amos Barshad
·9-min read

When Russell Brand turned 40 five years ago, he found himself facing a crisis. He felt totally adrift. He thought, simply enough, I don’t want to live how I’m living.

The manic English comedian first broke out stateside in 2008, playing a ramped-up version of his lascivious self in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The next few years were a blur of tabloid and talk-show omnipresence. There were also brief, high-profile nuptials with Katy Perry. Then, for reasons both voluntary and otherwise, that all went away.

Brand is Zooming from the kitchen of his pastoral home in England, where he lives with his wife, Laura, and their two daughters. There are thick grey streaks in his beard; his hair, still long, stays hidden in his hoodie. When he was in the spotlight, Brand says, “there was an obvious cultural template that I was pursuing.” Today, “sitting back, older, with a family,” he wonders, What was the real value of that? His crisis, he says, was spurred by a universally recognised panic that comes with middle age. “It’s the end of fertility or of virility. Most obviously, it’s the recognition that there is more life behind you than there is in front of you. That sense of ‘Oh my God, I’m not ascending.’ ”

Photo credit: Jason LaVeris - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jason LaVeris - Getty Images

He turned to a few men in his recovery community who’ve supported him. (He’s been in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction for 18 years now.) One told him, “This is normal. You should feel this now. If you didn’t feel it, it would be worrying.”

Brand realised he had to come to terms with the death of his fame, because it represents an inauthentic version of himself that he’s still, inevitably, drawn to. “It’s a difficult thing to let go of,” he says. “There’s some things that I look at [and think], That looks so cool! I see me in the tight clothes or the crazy hair or the eye makeup and I think, Well, that in a way must have been simpler. But a lot of those clothes were a bit tight! And I don’t think those high-heeled shoes were good for my lower back!

“You go through little deaths,” he continues. “The little deaths of the phases of your life. And perhaps our progression as individuals is contingent upon if we are able to accept that.”

Photo credit: Lester Cohen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lester Cohen - Getty Images

Now 45, Brand has reinvented himself as, for lack of a better phrase, an Internet thinker. And just like everyone else, he’s got a podcast. Under the Skin with Russell Brand is an interview series in which Brand scrutinises “change,” he explains, as well as a “transpolitical and spiritual interpretation of life,” “whether there are genuine alternative models to how we organise society/reality,” and the “decentralisation of transnational corporations.” He stops to laugh.

Brand’s latest project, titled Revelation, is being released exclusively by Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, the biggest transnational corporation of them all. “I recognise I’m working for Audible—I don’t know what umbrella that comes under!” Revelation, out on March 25, is an exploration of the “sacred in our lives. I’m looking for what is sacred in my relationship with my wife, with my children, with my work,” Brand says. “Otherwise, because I’m a drug addict and selfish, I drift toward not caring. Since I’ve become spiritual, I have found that it’s easier to be alive.”

Through writing Revelation, he had grand plans to get out in the world. He wanted to hang with Wim Hof, the ice-plunge influencer, or “do an ayahuasca ceremony,” if his recovery would even allow that, he says. But then came the pandemic. In turn, Revelation “became a much more personal examination” of how to live.

But should Russell Brand be telling people how to live? His public behaviour hasn’t always been aspirational. After he split from Perry at the end of 2011, she told Vogue that Brand was a “very smart man, and I was in love with him.” Then she added, “Let’s just say I haven’t heard from him since he texted me saying he was divorcing me.” His open-ended investigation of lofty ideas can seem sincere; it can also seem flighty, messy, and performative.

Brand understands that you may never take him seriously. In 2013, when he was first “beginning to explore these ideas in the commodified celebrity space,” he went on Morning Joe. “And the way they spoke to me was like, ‘Oh! You are an idiot!’ ” he recalls with a smile. He realises that many people who encounter him, maybe even most people, still know him “at the point when I was most famous”—in a “high-octane, celebrity-marriage type of way.”

Has Brand actually earned the right to pontificate? Well, that’s your call. He’s not going to push you one way or the other. “The edicts I’m espousing that I would be comfortable with people living by aren’t mine,” he says. On his podcast and in his books, “I try to point out: This is a perennial system of belief that has been found everywhere from Iceland to Tibet—and this is something that I’m just making up on the spot!”

At 40, his crisis year, Brand also had the first of his two children with Laura. “A lot of the clichés have been really true,” he says. “It’s really joyful and exhausting. And when they’re asleep, it’s magic, man.” Parenthood has provided a clear “duty and purpose. I now have no doubt what the most important things are. I would have to make a really deliberate choice now to care about other stuff.”

In 2017, Brand enrolled in a master’s program—religion in global politics—at SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies). It was a dramatic break for a man who happily consumes most of his content via YouTube. “I was not as famous as I had been, but pretty famous. And I’m 20 years older than everybody. It was mad to be in the corridor of a university.” He studied Edward Said and Michel Foucault, and he did his best to hang with the kids. He says his presentations were solid—“I was able to bust out some performance skills”—but the written assignments, which had to be fully sourced and cited, killed him.

“I didn’t finish the course,” he clarifies. “I rather like having a freewheeling, undisciplined mind when it comes to understanding topics as vast as that. But I would like to do more of it.” Sometimes the students would ask for a selfie and a chat, and in the evening, he would get picked up and driven back to his home. “I was on safari. It made it all the more amazing.” It was all part of this thing he’s doing now, this constant, churning attempt at knowledge acquisition.

For better or worse, he floats his time at university—comedian–turned–YouTube sage goes back to school!—as the kernel of a film. He’s not really thinking about it as a movie project. He’s accepted the death of his old self. He’s gotten through his crisis. But, it seems, it’s nice for him to idly imagine that big-screen return. To go back, briefly, to being the movie star he once was. “I’m sure there’s something in it,” he says, smiling. “It was like a John Hughes movie. Is there a lane for this? Could this work?”

Brand On Brand

Russell Brand has lived through addiction and depression and uses these tactics to avoid downward spirals.

Focus on your extremities
During moments of internal panic, Brand recommends bringing attention to your breath, looking at your feet or the palm of your hand, and thinking something like I’m aware that this is my hand and there is life in it. It’s “very important,” he says, “to return to base.”

Lay foundations, then reach out
Brand relies on his recovery community and suggests building one of your own, with friends or people in your industry. “If I’m unable to regulate my own thinking, I reach out to someone who is not in the miasma of my own thought. I’m not so hubristic to think I can deal with darkness without help. Create a life that can withstand the inevitability of demons.”

Chase down your core fear
“I was taught this by the 12 steps: Write down the thing that’s happened and how it made you feel. Then you can ask yourself what your fear is. ‘Oh, this person was mean to me at work, I’ll lose my job, I’ll never work again I’ll be poor.’ You chase it down. What is actually motivating you?”

Reject late capitalism
“Late capitalism—this phase—is so immersive. The objective to sell. It is present even in this conversation. It has a corrosive effect on human beings. We were not evolved for these conditions.”

Don’t try to be happy, try to be grateful
“Joy is a by-product of purpose and gratitude. I stay in touch with gratitude, because otherwise I start thinking I should have more of everything. I find my way to gratitude by thinking of the many things in my life I have to be thankful for. If people are reading this, they subscribe to Men’s Health and have something to be grateful for. There is great beauty in the world.”

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Men's Health with the title How Russell Brand Escaped His MidLife Crisis.

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