By Steve Beard
Long considered one of rock ’n’ roll’s iconic guitarists, Eric Clapton had a problem. He was in the middle of a tour in Australia when he realized he couldn’t stop shaking. “For the second time, I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink and I couldn’t live with one.”
As a new father, Clapton knew he had to get back into treatment. In his new autobiography, he states that he did it for his son Conor. “I thought no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he writes. “I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.”
Clapton had been to rehab and tried to control his drinking, but once again it was controlling him. “I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”
His love for his son was a prime motivation. Clapton wanted things to be different for Conor from what he had experienced as a boy. “I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father,” he writes. Clapton had grown up believing that his grandparents who raised him were actually his parents. His childhood was miserable and he was scrambling to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Ticking off the days in rehab, he came to the terrifying realization that nothing had really changed about his desires and that he was going to go back outside the safe confines of the treatment center completely unprepared to deal with his addiction.
“The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he writes. “It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.
“At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with,” Clapton confesses. “Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
That was in 1987. Eric Clapton has now celebrated 20 years of sobriety.
It took only a few days after that experience for him to realize that something profound had taken place within his life. “An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that,” he conveys. “I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.
“From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continues. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”
In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son died from an accidental fall from a Manhattan highrise. “I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program,” he writes. The song “Tears In Heaven” emerged out of the anguish of the tragedy in order to help him cope.
Clapton would go to his 12-step meetings and people would get him coffee and let him vent. On one occasion, he was asked to chair the session on the third step—the one about handing your will over to the care of God. During the session, he recounted the mystical experience he had when he fell to his knees and asked for help to stay sober. “I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered,” he relates. “Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.”
Much to his surprise, a woman came up to Clapton after the meeting and said, “You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” He asked her what she meant. “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that, if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk,” she said. “You’ve shown me that’s not true.”
Clapton came to the sudden realization that perhaps there was a way to turn his excruciating pain and tragedy into something that could help someone else. “I really was in the position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober then anyone can.’ At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”
Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org. This article appeared in 2007 in Risen.