Duff's Second Chance
After eight years with legendary rock group Guns N’ Roses, bassist Duff McKagan says he’s lucky to be alive. At 19, Duff says he was thrust onto a road paved with rock ‘n’ roll decadence — daily drug and alcohol binges, international partying, backstage blackouts and the ever-present risk of a drug overdose.
“At 29, I became an acute alcoholic and an acute drug user,” Duff says. “I was drinking from the moment I woke up to the moment I’d go to sleep; it would take me a gallon of vodka a day. I started hiding from my family and friends. My hair started falling out. My hands would crack open. My feet would crack open. The cocaine was just burning a whole through my septum.”
Duff says he knew he could die from alcohol addiction so he stopped drinking hard liquor, and turned to wine.
“I was drinking like 10 bottles of wine a day. I thought that was the solution,” he explains. “May 10, 1994, I awoke and had a sharp pain somewhere inside. My pancreas had burst. The pain was so bad that I told the surgeon, ‘Just kill me.’ On the third day [in the hospital], my doctor came to me and said, ‘You’ve been given a second chance.’”
[AD]At 30, the rocker survived the painful surgery that nearly took his life and immediately decided to change. He quit drinking alcohol completely and found a new group of friends. Now 17 years sober, he says he’s a healthy, happy father.
“My only advice to anyone who is suffering from addiction is that you’re going to have to want the change,” Duff says. “To anybody who has a loved one or family member who is suffering from addiction, you can’t change them — period. They’re going to have to want it. If I can get clean, sober, lead a fulfilling life and be genuinely happy, if I can do it anybody can do it.”
Duff chronicles the terrifying turns he took as a famous musician and how he finally kicked his substance addiction in his new book, Its So Easy (and Other Lies). Dr. Phil sits down with the rocker-turned-writer to talk about the book and his life as a changed man.
“It is frankly amazing that you’re alive,” Dr. Phil begins.
“Every day when I wake up, I’m really thankful for what I have now,” Duff says. “For me to even be here with a wife who loves me, and two daughters who depend on me, is just a miracle.”
“Now, you said at one point you were doing a gallon of vodka a day,” Dr. Phil observes.
“What does that even mean, right?” Duff asks, noting that the average person can’t even visualize a gallon of vodka.
[AD]The rocker explains that he started using substances at an early age, so he had developed habits before joining Guns N’ Roses. Duff smoked marijuana for the first time in the fourth grade, had his first drink in the fifth grade and tasted LSD in the sixth grade. By seventh grade, he admits he was an expert at picking out the most potent mushrooms that could get him high. He did cocaine, valiaum and Quaaludes by the tenth grade.
Having grown up in the ‘70s, Duff explains that many children abused substances, and older kids in his neighborhood would oftentimes give him drugs.
Duff also says as a child, he suffered chronic panic attacks, which worsened after a traumatic childhood experience: One day he returned home and found his father cheating on his mother with another woman.
“My dad started having affairs around the neighborhood, and we would come home and see this. I was in the first or second grade,” Duff explains. “I was trying to formulate a story. What would I tell my mom when she got home from work? When I had my first panic attack, it was a result of keeping things hidden.”
“So, you think keeping a secret from your mom weighed on you across time?” Dr. Phil asks.
“I don’t blame [my father] for anything,” Duff says. “But yes, I think holding the secrets in and trying to protect my mom [did take a toll on me]. Those are your formative years.”
Dr. Phil asks Duff if his panic attacks worsened while playing with Guns N’ Roses.
[AD]“It was all cool and fine. In fact, Slash and Axl knew about my panic attacks,” Duff says, explaining that they were the designated “safe people” who protected him during an anxiety attack. “But I wasn’t always with my safe people. In that band, we were traveling a lot, and there was extraordinary success with that band. Suddenly, we were in this fish bowl, and I think that fish bowl brought back that tight feeling in my chest.”
Duff says a swift swig of liquor was the only way he knew to curb his panic attacks. While on tour, he recalls drinking so much that he couldn't even remember playing a concert in Prague.
The rocker says his substance abuse escalated to such a critical state that during a visit home, his family tried to stage an intervention.
“I came in the room, and there was this lady standing in the corner, and she stands up and says, ‘We have a van outside, and we’d like to take you. Your family’s here to show support.’ I got this hot feeling, and I was confused and terrified. I ran and got back down to L.A. It became so frightening to me that I ended up in my closet with a shotgun. I was so desperate and scared relying on drugs that I had alienated any people in my life that had some worth. I was just alone.”
Dr. Phil recounts a passage in Duff’s book where he describes his mother visiting him in the hospital. She was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was in a wheelchair. “She came to visit you and what were your thoughts?” Dr. Phil asks.
[AD]“I’m supposed to be taking care of my mom,” Duff replies. “I’m the last of eight kids, and she has Parkinson's, and I’m only 30. The order of things is wrong here. That definitely was my turning point. It was like, You screwed things up. You really let your mom down. She was a lion and I let her down, and that was really the thing I needed to see. I saw it, and I turned things around. I was really glad that my mom got to know my first daughter, Grace, before she died, and see that I was OK.”