Patty Schemel is a musician who hails from the Pacific Northwest, and rose to prominence as the drummer for Washington grunge band Hole, alongside frontwoman Courtney Love. Since then, Schemel has also worked with Juliette and the Licks and Death Valley Girls. In 2017, she published a book called Hit So Hard, which offers a frank account not only of her life as a musician, but also of her personal experience with addiction. This year, Schemel celebrated 14 years sober! Ahead of Music Heals: Addiction & Recovery, KEXP spoke with Patty Schemel about the impact of drug abuse on the Seattle music scene in the 90s, her personal journey, and the role that music continues to play in her recovery.
KEXP: A couple years ago, you published a book called Hit So Hard, which offers up an extremely honest account of your life, not only as a musician, but also as an addict. In it, you're unflinching in sharing details about your experiences with drugs and alcohol. Why was it so important to you to be so open and honest in sharing your story that way?
Patty Schemel: It was important for me to share what it was really like. There was nothing exciting or cool or unique about it. I just wanted to be super honest. That whole kind of cool romanticism around heroin in the '90s — there's nothing cool about being a heroin addict at all. The other side of it is: homelessness, 48 rehabs...
It sounds like you wanted to be really honest about your experience as a way of dispelling a lot of myths that people seem to have about addiction.
Yeah, and also not being in denial about where it took me. I was homeless. So, there's nothing cool about that.
Do you think that when you share your story, you mean it to be a cautionary tale for other people?
I didn't think of it that way in writing it. It was more about, 'This is what happened. This is the way it was.' I wanted to share it just because I felt the need to sort of close that chapter and move on. You know, I deal with my alcoholism and my addiction every day. I deal with all the things that it brings. It turned out to be a way of being of service, I guess, because people say, 'I related to this part in your book.' That's nice you hear — that there's other people that it helped. It's the musicians, but it's also the guy that's the plumber. We all have the same issue of addiction. It's not because I was different.
Do you feel that in any way, your story is unique, even amongst other addicts who read it? Do you think that yours is different?
I mean, only in the fact that I play music and I traveled. The kind of challenges I had as an addict were different things like trying to smuggle drugs into Brazil or things like that. There's also a lot of similarities to every addict that's in every room and does every other kind of thing. The thing about being an artist playing music was [that it was] the job to have if you're a drunk or a drug addict. Like, it's part of that [lifestyle]. You kind of get a free pass for a little bit. Until things aren't so cool, like not showing up for your show. There's consequences.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about that because your book gives a lot of insight as to what it was like to be a musician, specifically in Seattle, but also L.A. and some other cities in the '90s. You focus on the prevalence of addiction in that scene in Seattle in the '90s and talk a lot about how everyone was using the same drugs, but they were all kind of doing so in private. That was pretty striking to me — kind of a culture of isolation in the midst of a scene that otherwise seemed really close knit. Can you elaborate on the influence that drugs had on that community at the time?
In the book, I talk about when I first started playing music, and coming into Seattle from where I grew up in Marysville, playing in bands was all about drinking and getting together after the show and getting drunk. Everybody was doing that. It was like the word "partying," [but] we kind of took it a little bit further than just that, and continue[d] to seek out other drugs. And pretty soon the social part of it wasn't about hanging out with your friends and listening to records. There were those moments: everybody gets drunk and puts on [Nirvana's] Bleach. But then there's also those of us that, like, that was our everyday: drinking, drunk every day. And then then you don't see anyone anymore. They're all locked away in their apartments doing heroin or whatever. That's how it was for me. It's funny, when people say "partying." That's such a funny word for that, because it's not fun. It becomes a way to just live, to survive. Like, you discover this drug — this thing that makes you feel okay with the world — and so you need to continue to do that to be able to create, to be able to leave your house, just to be part of the world. You know?
Yeah. When you were in that time, when you were living it, was there ever a time when you kind of looked around and you're like, 'Man, all of our drug use is going to kill the scene here. We're not able to make the music that we want to make and we're not able to have the relationships that we want to have.'? Was there ever a time when you were living it that it seemed detrimental to the music scene?
Yes. When people started dying, yes! There were bands that I would go see and I would just love to watch. And then a member would die. That was the kind of stuff — that was when it got real. Like when Stefanie Sargent died, from 7 Year Bitch. Or like [Mother Love Bone frontman] Andrew Wood. That was when it sort of shook the community. Personally, I was just kind of floating through stuff, doing my thing. And then someone dies and it sobers you for a minute, you know? But for me, that didn't stop me. Nothing did for a long time.
What was it that ultimately did make you stop?
You know, there [were] all these things: the deaths, and billions of trips to rehab... and the warnings. Nothing worked until the cliche of, 'You're going to lose everything.' And that's what happened. Losing everything and getting to a point where I just couldn't deal with it anymore. A friend reached out and said, 'Do you want some help?' I took the help that last time because I had nothing really to lose. And it was the first time I was getting clean not because someone asked me to or [because] I was taken to a rehab in an intervention or... had to do it because [I was] gonna get kicked out of [my] band. It was the first time I got clean because I just thought, 'I've got nothing to lose and I'm going to try this one last time and then take away what I used to be.'.
There's so much ego... Being in a band that's successful, and the places we went. There's so much ego in that. So, letting go of the ego and then just being cut down to, 'Yeah, you live in the corner of an old empty lot. So, really? You're going to have some kind of ego about the kind of person you want to be?' Letting go of everything and sort of changing my thoughts around how I wanted life to be moving forward. [There's] so much caught up in that identity of being that drummer and trying to keep it all together.
Between the ego and the culture of drug use in the music community — not just in the '90s, but still — do you think that it's particularly difficult for working musicians to get and stay clean?
I mean on one hand, you're in that situation every [day]. If you want to go back to playing music and working, you still have to go in that same room and you still have to sit at your drums — the same place you sat when you were high. You still have the same rituals. You have to change all that, and that's really hard. When you hit those moments and the struggles, you just want to make it easy and have a drink or get high. You can't! When you hit those places where it's a struggle, you reach out to other people who have done it and who've been there. That's what helps: asking for help. Saying like, 'I can't write a song. I can't! Because I just don't feel as creative as I used to when I was high.' And there's other musicians that can talk about that.
I think back to the time before I ever picked up a drink — when I was a kid and I was playing music or listening to music — and what got me excited about the Beatles or whatever I was listening to. I try to get back there and think about that, and that's the inspiration.
Going to shows and watching other bands play — there was such a thing about going to watch a band play and getting drunk. Sort of changing that behavior of just going to watch a band play and not getting drunk. I mean, it takes a while to walk back into a place like a club after you get clean. But for me, going to watch a drummer play is inspiring and so that's what I'm there for. Not to get drunk. For me, to go to that bar and to decide to get drunk — it's not about enjoying myself. If I pick up that drink... there's nothing respectful about this person after a couple of drinks. It becomes pretty sad and pathetic. Usually when people go, 'Why can't you have one beer?' I say, 'Well, I don't know...do you see that guitar on the stage right there? Later on, if I have a drink, that guitar's not going to be there and I'm going to have stolen it! It will be at the pawn shop.' So, those are the things that I think about sometimes. I can really get caught up in the fact that I can't just get high. I can't. I just can't! There's more things that happen that are deadly than just getting high and writing songs.
How is your relationship with music different now than it was when you were using?
There are so many records that I used to listen to when I was high and I would, like, have such a connection with them. Or, when I play now — it's a different thing. Because I don't like the person I am when I'm under the influence of drugs and alcohol. So I think about that person listening to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless — my favorite record — and I think about that person. It was like, 'Oh, I can't listen to that record because I have to get high and listen to it.' So now, I think about, what kind of ears do I have when I'm that messed up? You're really not appreciating the subtle nuances of what Kevin Shields is doing on his guitar or whatever. I don't really like that person that I was, so I always think about that. I can listen to music with pure ears. I know it sounds so corny, but the way I listen to [music] — the way I appreciate it — is better when I'm this way, clean and sober. And also, playing music! I remember moments when I was high: like when I was on crystal meth, I could really play super fast. You're not skilled that way, under the influence. I might have this advantage just because I'm on this drug or whatever, or that I think I have. But it's not a thing that can last. There's a lot of times when you think you're playing something epic because you're high and then you listen back and you go, 'God! What? That's crazy.' Knowing that I play better and I hear better and I appreciate better when I'm not on drugs.
Did it take you being sober for a while to come around to that realization, or do you think that you were aware at the time like, 'My drumming is altered when I'm under the influence of something.'? Were you aware of that at the time, or did you come around to that?
You know, I started playing when I was 11 and I didn't have my first drink until I was 12. So I remember that I knew kind of how I play. And then when I had my first drink, I noticed the difference: how it was such a struggle to do the simplest things when I was under the influence. So I knew there was a difference and that I was fighting against that. From there, [I remember] thinking, 'Well if I could just come up with the proper combinations.' So then it's a chemistry experiment of, 'Well if I balance it out with this drug and then add...' All that thought, when it should just be about playing my drums. Simple as that. If you're in a band and you're messed up and the other players in your band aren't, you're not in the same place, musically. You're kind of at a disadvantage. So there's really no collaboration there either because you just can't keep up or you're just on a different wavelength from [them].
Do you think that there are any misconceptions about addiction that need to be dispelled? Maybe specifically in a music community?
I thought everybody kind of knew about addiction, I guess, because it's been such a part of my life for so long. People still think that if you have a drinking problem, you just need to get your life together and then you can have a glass of wine now and then. But for me personally, I know that for me it's a disease. It's the way that I learned to deal with feelings. I feel like it just became part of my DNA; like it created the neural pathways that my brain operates on. So today in recovery, I have to change all that behavior.
What advice do you have for those who might currently be struggling with addiction?
People ask me all the time, 'So how did you do it?' For me, it was like all those cliches happened. You're going to lose everything. And I did. People you love in your life are gonna go away. And I lost my ability to play music with my band. So all those things happened eventually and I had to go into rehab one last time. [You] literally surrender yourself and let go of your old self. So it's like a reset. I had to let go of what I used to be and what I thought I was and all of those things that I would say in my head. In early recovery, I wanted it to all be fixed right away, really quick. I hate saying it, but it takes so long to get your body back to balance. I didn't really know what it was like to not have any drugs or alcohol in my body. It had been so long [that] I didn't know what it was like to live more than six months clean and sober. Your brain chemicals change after a while.
You have to hang in there and it's so hard because it's mental, too. Your brain is depressed for a long time and it wants something and it's easy to go get something to change that. That's easy. But sitting and talking to somebody about changing your behaviors is the worst and the hardest. That's the hard thing to do. And I'm just gonna say it: I hate that! But you have to do it.
There's little things that happen [over the course of recovery] that you have to start to collect. Like little moments: you can breathe a little bit better, or just wake up and you go, 'Wow, I feel kind of good today cause I didn't have to tell a bunch of lies and I am waking up in a bed!' Being grateful for that. It's hard to get there sometimes.
When recovery was feeling particularly hard like that, what were some of the things that you leaned on? What are some of the things that you continue to lean on?
I have to say that, as an addict, I don't just use drugs and alcohol. I use food. I use people. That's the downside, too. I find myself wanting to change myself with other things that are like, you know, the chocolate cake or the interesting person. I have to do that work too. So that's a struggle to keep an eye on. If I don't stay connected in recovery, I start to do things like... if I have a feeling that it's not a great feeling, I'm just going to go hit that bakery down the street. That kind of stuff happens.
When someone asks me about when they're struggling in early recovery, I always say, 'You know, you can do anything you want, but don't pick up a drug or a drink. We'll get to the other stuff later.' I have to be honest: lately, I've really had a hard time dealing with food stuff. And that comes up so much because it's easy to just walk down to the bakery — it's a lot easier than you know shooting heroin sometimes. Not comparing! Just saying.
I want to thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it, and I really appreciated reading the book and watching the documentary and just how frank you've been about your experience. I think it helps a lot of people.
Hit So Hard: A Memoir is available as a book from DeCapo Press, and was released as a film documentary in 2011, directed by P. David Ebersole.