Music Heals: Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus on a Lifetime of Addiction

Music Heals
05/20/2019
Jake Uitti
photo by Ray Concepcion

New Jersey-based songwriter, Patrick Stickles, has led a life oversaturated with substances. From the age of five, he’s been on drugs in some form or another. The verbal, eloquent musician, who fronts the band, Titus Andronicus, however, is candid about his experiences. He’s an open book, nervous but unashamed to speak on his experiences both as an artist and as a user and consumer of drugs, both elicit and prescribed. We caught up with Stickles to talk with him about his decades as a drug user and to ask him how making music helps him cope with his addictions and his neurodiversity. 


KEXP: How did you start writing music? 

Patrick Stickles: How did that happen? Well, I guess to go all the way back to when I was a little kid, I was interested in the arts. As a real little guy, I would make a lot of drawings, comic books, and stuff. I would make little movies with my action figures and things like that and write little stories. I was always looking for avenues through which I could express myself and exercise my burgeoning creativity at that time. I guess it’s still burgeoning but when I got to be about 12- or 13-years old, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be a high school star athlete like my brother was, so I had to go in the opposite direction and pursue music and playing the guitar and that was going to be the new cornerstone of my identity. That was going to be how I got to be cool. Basically, once I picked that up, I pretty much started writing songs right away. You could hardly, like, call them songs. I was plunking out a little rinky-dink riff on one string, or something. But then it just evolved from there.

How about your singing voice, how did that develop?

Ugh, if you want to call it that. My singing, you know, back in school days, I got a lot of discouragement about my singing from the choir teachers. They used to tell me that I was completely tone deaf and that I would never be any kind of singer and I would be better off going out for the drama club not trying to be in the musical, or anything. But I basically said, “Fuck that, I’ll show ‘em!” And now I’m pretty much the third most famous singer from my hometown, so jokes on that mean choir teacher who will remain nameless. 

How did your signature growl, that punchy vocal develop?

I don’t know. When you can’t really sing very melodiously and you don’t have a naturally beautiful tone of voice, that’s pretty much the only way to go, right? Unless I decided I wanted to be a rapper, which I might still do. I was interested in punk music so it seemed like a perfectly natural thing for me to do and it was basically my only option. I couldn’t, you know, sing Frank Sinatra if I wanted to. 

I should let you know I’m also from New Jersey. I grew up in Princeton. I know the suburbs of that state pretty good. So, I’m wondering how did the New Jersey suburbs influence the way you think about and process the world?

You probably hung out at the Princeton Record Exchange a lot, huh? Just as a side note.

Yes, I did.

It would be difficult for me to properly quantify the influence that my surroundings had in my formative years because I don’t really have anything else to compare it to, you know? I’ve spent my whole life, the first 22 years of my life, in basically the same, like, 12-mile radius back in New Jersey. So, I don’t know. Would I have turned out substantially different if my childhood had been in, like, Montana, or something? Very probably. But difficult to say exactly how. 

You’ve talked about having mental illness or mental illnesses throughout your life.

No, I haven’t. I don’t agree with that term. 

Oh, I’m sorry.

I don’t like the word “illness.” But I am an example of what we call “neurodiversity.” My brain functions in a way that is different from certain other people’s brains but I do not like words like “illness” or “disorder.” 

Sorry.

It’s okay. I only just learned the term “neurodiversity” a few weeks ago but I’m all about it now and I’m telling everybody that I can. 

You’ve also talked about having addictions to drugs and I’m wondering if your neurodiversity led to that?

Yup, yup, yup. Absolutely the two things are very closely connected. But of course this is a very long story, you think you got enough time to unpack the whole thing with me? 

I do if you do!

Well, let’s go back to the beginning then, okay? Maybe the year, like, 1990, or so, when the evidence of my neurodiversity began to emerge as a very young guy. I flunked out of pre-kindergarten. The people at the schools and my family, they didn’t really know what to do with me. They hadn’t encountered too many kids like me at that point, so they put me on a drug called Ritalin, you remember this stuff?

Very well.

Oh yeah, it used to be very popular in the late 80s and early 90s. I guess, it probably still is. But yeah, they shipped me off to this special school, if you want to call it that, and they put me on this Ritalin drug and that was pretty much the beginning of my history of drug dependency. I basically had five years of sobriety and then for the next maybe five-to-seven years after that I was basically beating my brains out on Ritalin. They sent me to this special school, which is kind of a crazy place. They would do wild shit, you know? Like, they had a padded cell that they would lock the kids in at times when they refused to behave and leave them in there until they could calm themselves down or wait for some sort of sedative that they would give them to take hold. Who knows? But I only got locked in there one time, myself. But boy that’s not an easy thing to forget when that happens to you at an age like that. So that was a funny thing that they did. It was funny because I had done really bad in pre-kindergarten, sufficiently bad that when I got sent off to this special school I had to do it over again, or maybe it was like I flunked out of pre-kindergarten the second time and they made me do it in the public school and then I had to do kindergarten at the special school. Who knows? I just did what they told me to at that time up to and including taking this Ritalin every day. So, even though I had been a total flop at the public school, once I got into this special school, I crushed it. I really excelled to the point that they would sometimes have these Board of Education meetings and they would trot me out in front of this board and be, like, “Yo, look at this kid. A year ago he was flunking out of pre-K in the public school and now we got him in here and he’s just crushing it and he’s, like, a superstar!” As a matter of fact, they had this system at this school where they had a rubric that they would follow and they would assign kids points based on their performance in various facets of school life and I was fucking crushing the game so hard at this point that I once won this contest, accumulated the most points and was named student of the day for 16 days in a row. Can you believe that?

Amazing!

I was really crushing it. You can say what you want about a system where they take these neurodiverse kids and try and make them compete to be the golden child. Looking back on it, there’s maybe an argument to be made that that was kind of fucked up. But in any case I won a lot. A while after that, I thought, “Maybe I’m just, like, the smartest kid in the world!” Looking back on it now, though, it could be that I was doing so great because I was super hopped on these goofballs, you know? That Ritalin is no joke. College kids, like, snort it to party and they’re giving it to a five-year-old. That seems a little crazy. 

It must create a weird incentive system, because you’re, like, “Wow, I’m excelling. But I’m using drugs.” 

Right. But I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I didn’t have the language to describe it as such. Even though I definitely think that way now. They wouldn’t have called it drugs. Maybe they would have called it medicine, or something. And maybe that’s fair enough to a certain degree. But Ritalin is no joke. I can distinctly remember when I was, like, 13, or so, I got my hands on some of the stuff again. I won’t say who it was that gave it to me, not to throw anybody under the bus. But the idea was that this could be some kind of performance supplement so that I could step up in middle school. Because I wasn’t crushing it hard as I did when I was a little kid. I can remember taking this stuff and it was the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, do you remember when they used to have that?

Yep!

And this was when the Fatboy Slim video was out that Spike Jonze did about the community dance troupe. Remember that video, “Praise You?”

Yeah, they’re in, like, a mall and it’s this one shot.

That’s right. So, I’m sitting there and I’m watching them recreate that performance on the big VMA stage. And I’m watching them and I’m basically high out of my mind. Again, I didn’t have the language to describe it that way at the time. But I was, like, “Holy shit. This is awesome! I wish I could feel this way all the time.” Very fitting thing for a young, burgeoning drug addict to say, wouldn’t you agree? That was another turning point, I suppose. I guess that was when I got the sense that, like, I could possibly be the curator of my internal emotional climate. 

How would you describe your brain to a stranger?

I have tried to do that with my words and I very much have tried to do that with my art but that’s a very difficult thing to do because ultimately none of us can ever know what it feels like inside the brain of another person. Even if this person is the closest person in your entire life, you know? We’re all only ever going to really understand ourselves, if we can even do that. That’s quite a hard thing to do. The totality of our personal reality, that’s nothing but the totality of our perceptions. So, I don’t know. My boy Ted Leo might call this the “Tyranny of Distance.” There’s a huge, yawning chasm between our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves and the way that we understand other people and try to speculate as to how they might perceive the world. 

There’s a huge, yawning chasm between our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves and the way that we understand other people and try to speculate as to how they might perceive the world. 

You talked about your experience with drugs as a kid but what has been your experience with drugs and addiction as an adult?

I’ve definitely done plenty of drugs. Not every drug in the whole book but a bunch of them, a lot of the famous ones. And there have definitely been periods of time when I’ve gotten into trouble with all of them. It’s not a difficult thing for me to push my luck with that stuff. There’s plenty of shit that I’m addicted to, like cigarettes. Cigarettes are drugs, right? I’m very deeply addicted to those. The other ones less so. But a big thing that’s informed my perspective on the whole drug dependency concept relates back to my place along the spectrum of neurodiversity, as well. And relates very much to my particular bipolarity, which is sad. A lot of people don’t see it this way, but the concept of true sobriety that we should, like, let our brains do the things that they would do naturally — maybe that’s not how everybody sees it. But there have been times when I’ve tried to do things similar to that and that can be a very dangerous thing for me, too, know what I mean? 

Yup.

Again, this is not to say that there’s anything wrong with me necessarily. I’m just one particular person on a wide spectrum that encompasses all of humanity. But I take my Lamictal everyday, you know, 100 milligrams. That’s what we call an anti-convulsant and the purpose of this drug is that it’s supposed to prevent me from careening into one of my episodes, particularly my manic episodes, which always start out being really fun but they can pretty quickly get to be pretty wild and pretty destructive. The way that I look at my Lamictal, one could easily say that that is me continuing to try and be the curator of my own emotional internal climate, like we were just saying. Just because it was a doctor that gave it to me doesn’t necessarily mean from my perspective that it’s not drugs. As we’re starting to learn more and more, sometimes the drugs that the doctor gives you are pretty dangerous. Look at this opioid crisis that we’re having now. There’s a lot of dead people now who started along that road by saying, “Well, the doctor gave it to me, so how bad could it be?” People that I have known personally. Not to draw an equivalency between my Lamictal and other anti-convulsants and Oxy. But from my own personal experience, the same doctor that gave me the Lamictal has given me Klonopins in the past. And I started out thinking, “This has got to be pretty harmless, right? Everyone takes these.” Benzodiazepines, you know? But I got to tell you, Benzodiazepines are pretty god damn dangerous. Those drugs are actually really, really serious. I’ve definitely been guilty of looking at them in the same way that maybe my parents and the people at the schools back in the day were looking at the Ritalin. Like, this is FDA approved, or something. So, it’s got to be harmless. But Benzodiazepines are far from harmless. It ain’t hard to get hooked on those. Once you get really hooked on them, you can get yourself in real trouble. Like, serious withdrawals with Benzodiazepines. Last I heard, you can die from that. That’s what I heard, anyway.

Did I take drugs because I was crazy? Or am I crazy because I took drugs? 

What do you think it is about yourself that tends toward addiction or this idea of wanting to control or curate your inner emotions? What do you think that is about your physiology? 

My physiology? Hmm. Well, you know, like I’ve been saying, I’ve been on drugs almost my whole life. So, there is maybe a bit of the “chicken or the egg” scenario there. Like, the people in charge of my life when I was a kid saw fit to put me on drugs so there must have been some kind of an egg. But when I’m considering my own neurodiversity today it’s difficult to say am I crazy because I’ve taken so many drugs or did the drugs — I don’t know. Did I take drugs because I was crazy? Or am I crazy because I took drugs? Who can say? But I try to live in deference to my own bipolarity. Not my bipolar disorder, mind you. I don’t use that term anymore and I also don’t like when people say, “I have” even if they just call it bipolar. I don’t like it when people say, “I have bipolar.” Because that sounds to me like you’re talking about something that’s distinct from yourself, you know? It sounds like you’re talking about some foreign substance that got on your brain somehow, some stain that could be wiped away. And I don’t think of it like that. I just think that my brain is many properties and the bipolarity in my brain is just another property, you know?

How about being a musician? Does that lend itself toward a lifestyle of addictions?

ABSOLUTELY, it does. Hell yes, dude. As soon as you show up somewhere in a new town they’ve got a whole bunch of beers for you and they’re free and if you drink them all you can get more. Not to say nothing of all the other stuff that people will put in front of you and let you have it for free when you’re a rock star like I am. So, yes. For sure.

Is there a particular story you remember where it just seemed out of control?

Not like a funny anecdote. But you could go right down the line. Like, 2009, I was drinking way too much whiskey and other brown liquors and I was fucking barfing all the time. I can’t really touch the brown stuff anymore. Fucking, like, 2011 around the time that I had my first severe manic episode I was getting really into smoking that K2. Spice, they would also call it. They used to say it was, like, synthetic marijuana. But it was nothing like marijuana. It was a totally different thing. I would imagine that to be more similar to PCP, or something. That shit was crazy. 

I remember that stuff.

And I could fucking go to the corner bodega and get a bag of it for 10 bucks 24 hours a day. Holy cow that was wild. In 2013 I got super into sniffing coke and doing ecstasy and partying my face off. That was a reactionary measure, that was me trying to take back control because in 2012 I had my first real major depressive episode. I went to a new doctor that was supposed to help me out with that stuff, but the drugs that they gave me were really no good. They really fucked me up. It was bad. So, when I got off those I was kind of like, “I’ll show ‘em!” And I just went into another pretty fucking severe manic episode. I was like, “Whatever, I’m the smartest guy in the world. I’m going to ride this one until the wheels fall off.” And boy they sure did fall off. But those drugs that I was on in 2012 that were supposed to take care of my major depressive episode, again I got them from a doctor but they were pretty god damn dangerous. This is not to say that I’m against people taking their medicine. I take my medicine. I took it today and I’m going to take it tomorrow, as well. But it’s definitely a wild, treacherous journey to try and find the proper everyday medication. Because if you get the wrong stuff you can really get screwed up. That goes for the Lexapro they were giving me too from 2006 to 2010 or 2011. Those SSRIs aren’t always good for bipolar people but the doctors didn’t appreciate that I was bipolar at that time. 

Man…

When I got off of that stuff and went into my next episode it was bad news because I was living in this very loosely, semi-legal living space, which was basically immediately post-industrial-warehouse kind of vibe. I lived in this windowless room, 100 square-feet, or so. And my next-door neighbors, they had quite the cute little drug dealing operation there. So, to get this coke or ecstasy that I was so infatuated with doing, I wouldn’t have to walk two feet from my own door. And I don’t mean the front door. I mean the door to my room. So, that made it a little bit too easy. That was a crazy summer. That was a summer of a lot of grandiose delusions. If you couldn’t guess, that was also the time when I conceptualized my 93-minute rock opera. I was quite the 70s rock cliché at that time. Thank god that’s over. Then in more recent years, I’ve had trouble with those Benzos. Because, again, I thought, “They come from the doctor, how bad could they be?” I definitely leaned on those a little bit too hard at times and that was bad. I have to stay away from that stuff. I haven’t taken any of those in a long time, knock on wood. Once I figured out that I couldn’t really lean so hard on the Benzos, then I was like, “Well, when I’m feeling anxious enough that I want to take a Benzo, maybe I’ll just take a drink.” And as you can probably guess, that’s a slope that’s very nearly as slippery. Even if we were having this conversation one year ago, there’s no way that I couldn’t have had a drink before this. I would have been so nervous. I’m still a little nervous now but not so nervous that I had to have a drink. So, you know, it’s a long story.

Yeah.

It’s taken lots of different permutations. I got in trouble with a bunch of different shit. And I’ll tell you what else. In 2012 when I was having my first severe major depressive episode, which is to this day the worst episode like that I ever had, knock on wood again, that was a real nightmare, I got my hands on some of those Oxys that we were talking about before, don’t ask me how, but I got some. And I would pop them from time to time when I felt like I deserved a little treat. And, like, holy cow. I hate to admit it but that was the best I felt that whole year. So, I definitely can see why people would be so attracted to those and get so hooked on them that they end up killing themselves, you know? Because so much of all this drug stuff, it just comes down to pain management. Everybody’s in pain to varying degrees and this fantasy that we can live a life without pain is super-appealing. Like, who wouldn’t want that, right? Wouldn’t you? You would, wouldn’t you? If you could just have it for free? Like, we know now that that is an illusion. But I think we can agree it definitely — when you don’t have all the facts about it, it sounds very appealing. 

There’s a long history of addiction in my family. So, all of this stuff is either fairly or very familiar. 

Yeah, same here. I can’t throw anybody under the bus. We can probably agree that it’s not polite to talk about other people’s struggles like they are our own. I think that everybody has the right to address those thing in public when they decide it’s the correct time to do so, whatever “the public” is for them. 

Let me ask about selective eating. You’ve been vocal about struggling with that. Does that feel like an addiction at all? Or is that different? 

No, that’s very much related. But we don’t call it that anymore. Not to keep trying to son you on the terminology, but we have a new term for that, which I’m still not 100% in love with, but now we call it “avoidance/restrictive food intake disorder.” And, again, I don’t care for the word “disorder” but, you know, I’m going to leave it to somebody smarter to come up with a better thing to call it. But for now I will say that my food intake is both avoidant and restrictive. That’s been going on forever. That one I definitely can’t lay that at the feet of the Ritalin because I was doing that before. But yes. It definitely relates to the drug thing because these are all related to control, you know what I’m saying? These are all efforts to cast the illusion of control. We have such limited control over the outside world that a lot of us sometimes will look for that safe and secure feeling by trying to control our bodies and being in charge of the things that go into them. So, when I’m intaking food in my avoidance/restrictive way, I’m not thinking to myself, like, “This is great. I really feel like I’m in control right now.” In fact, I kind of don’t feel like I’m in control because it’s become an involuntary reflex. If I put a substance in my mouth that I perceive to be foreign or potentially dangerous, or something, then I’ll just gag on it. I can’t even hardly choke it down most of the time. And if I do choke it down, it’s very likely that I’m going to barf. Without pulling the trigger, or anything. Whatever part of my brain it is that’s led me to be so interested in doing drugs, I would say that’s definitely next door to my particular food issue. It might have something also to do with the fact that when the decision was made that I had to go on Ritalin, the first time that it was administered to me, my parents didn’t — this is going to sound like a little bit of a throw under the bus situation but I have told this story a bunch of times already so whatever — when they first tried to administer it, they didn’t tell me what they were doing, they hid it. They hid it in my applesauce hoping that I would just eat it and not know what I was doing. But I was too smart for them. They couldn’t fool me. I found it. Then I had to find out what the stuff really was. So, even though I was already exhibiting signs of avoidant/restrictive food intake, that may have been the moment where I became fully radicalized. But who knows, right? That’s another one of those chicken and the egg situations. But they are definitely related.

Man, that’s a heavy story. 

It’s pretty heavy. But to be clear this was, like, 1989-90. We weren’t having the discussions then that we’re having about neurodiversity nowadays. The research that’s since been done hadn’t been done at that point. We didn’t have the science that we have now. Not that we’ve totally nailed it now, there’s still plenty of work to do. And a lot of these doctors aren’t as smart as they think. The people that were in charge of my well being at that time, they were doing the best that they could. So I ain’t mad, to be clear. I love my mom and dad to death. 

How does music or art in general help you cope with these struggles with these addictions today? 

Well, I guess there’s a bunch of ways. For starters, making music gives me a job. I have constructed ways to occupy my time. Idle hands are very dangerous things for a person that is inclined to mess around with drugs too much. If I had nothing to do but just sit around, heaven knows what kind of trouble I would get myself into. But because I do have this job, I don’t have as much liberty to do that, not responsibly anyway. Not that it’s ever responsible to fry your whole brain on drugs, but you know what I mean. And secondly, my art gives me a place to put my feelings. It’s one of the ways that I’m able to avoid just bottling this stuff up all the time. Even if I never showed it to anybody and I only put it onto the page, then that’s still externalizing my feelings. And when we don’t externalize our feelings, when we push them into the dark, dusty corners of our psyche, that’s a really good place for them grow in strength. And when they eventually raise their ugly heads they’re going to be too powerful to deal with a lot of the time. So, I’m grateful that I have that outlet. But I have even more gratitude for the fact that by externalizing these feelings and putting them before my audience, that is my way of attracting people to me that have had similar experiences and feel a similar way about the world and their place in the world as individuals. So, I am able to offer them validation about certain things, which is the cornerstone of my public service, such as it is. Not only am I validating them, but when I see that they are validated, they in turn are validating me. And in the way that I’m working to make them feel like they’re not as alone as they thought, by them realizing that, they are allowing me to realize it about myself. We create this mutual validation loop amongst ourselves, which is a very nourishing thing for my spirit. Because I put these things out there, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people that I have validated and they have validated me in turn. At almost every concert that we do, after the show when I talk to the people at the t-shirt store, almost every night there’s somebody who’s got some kind of crazy confession for me. Not “crazy,” but they’ve often got personal things to tell me about how their own journey or struggle - or whatever one you want to call it - might relate to my own. I’ve given and received many meaningful hugs in this process. It’s good. I’m very grateful for that. But I wouldn’t get that reward if I wasn’t able to speak openly and transparently about these things, which is a scary thing to do. 

Well, I appreciate you doing it with me, Patrick, being so open.

Hey, no problem, man. That’s my business. Though it is scary, a lot of the good things in my life come from my willingness to do that. Furthermore, it’s good for me because I’m not carrying a bunch of secrets around, you know what I mean? A secret is a very heavy burden, you know?

Yeah, you talked about that in one of your songs. About keeping things in a diary and keeping things secret.

Right. “Inside my diary I hide my private shame.” To be clear, though, that’s not me talking, that’s the narrator. 

Right.

The narrator hasn’t really learned how to speak openly about his own position on the spectrum of neurodiversity. He has a certain understanding of it but doesn’t know how to talk about it, that’s why he’s spent so much of his time lashing out at the powers that be, real or imagined. Which is not to say that there isn’t plenty to lash out at, the powers that be are really fucking around and they’re not — they’re doing us all pretty dirty. So, the narrator’s not wrong when he says our system is really fucked up. But that doesn’t excuse him from not doing the work to recognize his place and his complicity within the systems, as well. 


A new Titus Andronicus album titled An Obelisk will be out on June 21st via Merge Records. 

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