Jayhawks' Gary Louris on painkiller addiction: 'I didn't do my best work loaded'

The Jayhawks' Gary Louris
The Jayhawks' Gary Louris performs onstage during the 2012 Stagecoach Country Music Festival in California.
Frazer Harrison | Getty Images for Stagecoach

It was half a decade ago when Gary Louris hit rock bottom.

"I was standing on a ledge on a hotel in downtown L.A., thinking of jumping. I guess I was just hopeless," he said.

"I was trying to kill myself — mostly through the drugs and alcohol," Louris, the longtime singer and a songwriter of Minneapolis band The Jayhawks, said. "I reached a point where I just wanted to die because I couldn't envision ever being happy."

After that moment in the Los Angeles hotel room, he decided to get help with his drug use.

For much of the previous decade, he had struggled with an escalating addiction to opioid pain pills, Louris told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer. Like many others, his addiction to opioids started with prescribed painkillers after a medical procedure.

"I found I just felt good on these things," he said. "I finally felt not-anxious, which is what I had growing up and all of my life, a low-level depression and anxiety."

At first, the pills didn't seem like a problem. But Louris soon found himself getting them from wherever he could, whether it was from a friend, his mother's medicine cabinet, or multiple doctors.

"I'd have a doctor here, and then I'd have a doctor in L.A.," he said. "And when you start making special trips out to L.A. and justifying it by saying, 'I can meet some people about songwriting, or I can have some meetings.' But you're really going there to get pills, then you know you're in trouble."

Many people who get hooked on prescription opioid painkillers soon find themselves seeking out heroin, which can be easier to get, stronger and cheaper. Louris snorted a little heroin once, but he'd had enough early exposure to the drug to avoid it.

More stories: Opioid overdose — and the families and friends left behind

"I thought about dabbling with it, thinking maybe I could probably find a way to handle it," Louris said. "I knew some heroin addicts who said, 'Don't even entertain that idea. It will creep up on you, then the next thing you know, you'll be dead.'"

His wife at the time and a couple other people tried to get him help. But he kept to himself.

"Addicts are isolators in many ways, especially opiate users and heroin users," Louris said. "It's not like the most social drug. Drinking, you can go out to a bar — opiate users tend to be a little more introverted."

Louris decided it was time to make a change. The group MusiCares, which offers assistance to musicians, paid most of the cost for him to attend Eric Clapton's treatment center in Antigua.

"Opiates are very hard to come off of, those things stay in your system," Louris said. "So they weaned me off."

"Addiction is a symptom of something deeper," he said. "You're trying to get at the root of the problem, not just that you're medicating, but why you're medicating."

Louris and his fellow Jayhawks are releasing a new album later this month. As a musician, an inner voice had always had told him that great artists do their best work while they're screwed up.

"What I found is that I didn't do my best work loaded," said Louris, whose songwriting is still on the blue side. "Although I'm pretty happy, relatively speaking, I have a very deep well of misery and melancholy to tap into for the rest of my life."

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