Tom Petty & His Story Through Drug Abuse

tom petty heroin addiction

Earlier this month, the world experienced tremendous heartbreak when we learned that Tom Petty – frontman of The Heartbreakers – had died after suffering cardiac arrest. The legendary musician left behind mountains of accomplishments for fans to memorialize, dying peacefully on October 2, 2017 surrounded by family and friends.

As much as we mourn the loss of Tom Petty, this is not a sad story we intend to share. This is not a story of drug overdose or the fatal effects of drug abuse. Rather, this is a story about overcoming drug addiction, about Tom Petty’s journey from darkness to fulfillment. This is a story to honor the courage, the strength, and the love that carried Tom Petty through some of the most challenging days of his life.

If you don’t already know, Tom Petty struggled with a heroin addiction throughout the 1990s.

Many fans don’t know this side of the beloved musician, largely because it was never revealed before 2015. We first learned of Tom Petty’s secret struggle with heroin in Warren Zanes’ unauthorized, Petty: The Biography a couple years ago. And by this point, Petty was already beyond it.

Tom Petty never wanted to be a bad example, which is the primary reason his addiction and recovery story was kept under wraps. He felt morally responsible for the young fans out there. He did not want to glamorize drug abuse, or allow them to think that using drugs is romantic, acceptable, or safe. He told Zanes, author of the biography, “I am very concerned that talking about this is putting a bad example out there for young people. If anyone is going to think heroin is an option because they know my story of using heroin, I can’t do this.”

Zanes ultimately convinced Petty that sharing his story could do just the opposite – it could help people. It could help others find the strength to overcome drug addiction. He could be an example, a teacher, the step forward that others need to see to take. And without a doubt, Zanes was right.

As we recognize the loss of the talented Tom Petty, let us remember his story of heroin addiction and recovery, and recognize the lessons we can learn from it.

I Won’t Back Down

Tom Petty had a difficult upbringing in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida. Like 60 percent of now-adults, he had experienced abuse during his childhood. He suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father, physically and relentlessly, and carried that trauma with him for the rest of his life.

We know that trauma is a contributing factor to drug addiction. Studies show that those who have experienced trauma in their lives are 3 times more likely to develop chronic depression and 4 times more likely to inject drugs. And from his 2015 biography, we know that Tom Petty was affected by both. He suffered from abuse from his father, lost and mourned his mother, and was also struggling through an abusive marriage of his own.

Tom Petty was married to Jane Benyo for 22 years, before divorcing in 1996. In his biography, he opened up about their constant fights, as well as Benyo’s struggle with mental illness and ongoing drug abuse. This led him into an even darker place. He felt overwhelmed, depressed, and more alone than ever.

Like many in the music industry, Tom Petty was constantly surrounded by drugs. He just never pictured himself to become involved with them, let alone become addicted. Does anyone? But they were there. And soon enough, people he wouldn’t normally associate himself with were there as well. He started using to ease his depression, and the addiction cycle started to take its course. Like many, Petty believed he could self-medicate the pain with heroin. He was about 50-years-old at the time.

When one Washington Post journalist asked Zanes, “How does a 50-year-old become a junkie?” the writer replied, “That happens when the pain becomes too much and you live in a world, in a culture, where people have reached in the direction of heroin to stop the pain. He’s a rock and roller. He had had encounters with people who did heroin, and he hit a point in his life when he did not know what to do with the pain he was feeling.”

Addiction and depression all too often go hand-in-hand. In fact, rates of depression are three times higher in people with substance addiction than the general population. This is because mental disorders like addiction and depression affect the same areas of the brain, altering the parts that are associated with pleasure and pain. When a person uses heroin, the risks of developing depression increase. When a person is depressed, the risk of abusing drugs also increases. It’s a vicious cycle.

Tom Petty, despite his regular drug abuse, knew he was heading down the wrong path. And like many, he tried to quit the habit alone. But as he stated in The Biography, heroin plays a “dirty trick” on the user, on the brain. “You start losing your soul,” he remembered. “I wanted to quit. Using heroin went against my grain. I didn’t want to be enslaved to anything. So I was always trying to figure out how to do less, and then that wouldn’t work. Tried to go cold turkey, and that wouldn’t work. It’s an ugly f—ing thing. Really ugly. I fear that if I talk about it, people will think, ‘Well, I could do it and get off.’ But you can’t. Very few people do.”

Tom Petty did eventually quit the drug, but he did so with the help of a specialized drug rehab and detoxification facility, therapy, and a new loving and supportive wife. Heroin is not an easy drug to quit, and Tom Petty recognized that. Addiction is a disease, after all, and requires strength, commitment, as well as mental, behavioral, and physical changes in a person’s life. But it can be done. We can see that through Tom Petty’s journey.

“It’s a funny disease because it takes you a long time to really come to terms with the fact that you’re sick – medically sick, you’re not just suddenly going out of your mind,” Tom Petty said of addiction.

Tom Petty overcame his addiction with a mix of professional help and healthy relationships to keep him sober. Tom remarried to Dana York in 2001. After they got together, Dana York encouraged Petty to go to therapy, to seek recovery, and she stood by him through all his efforts to get clean.

Learning to Fly

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, know that it is not a disease that should not be fought alone. Turnbridge young adult rehab center in Connecticut can help you win this battle. We can help you, too, overcome addiction and become the best version of yourself. In wake of Tom Petty's death this October 2017, we encourage you to learn about your different treatment options and seek the help you deserve. Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more about our preeminent recovery programs for young men and women.