StMU Research Scholars

“I’m Still Standing”: Elton John and His Victory over “The White Lady”

Would you try drugs to make yourself more outgoing? Would you ever have thought that famous artists go through depression? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to get hooked on drugs and have your life turned upside down? Elton John had those things happen to him at the beginning of his career. He had to learn the hard way how impactful drugs could be in his life. In one moment, Elton John came to a realization that he was in bad shape, and that he really needed to make a big change in his life. Ladies and gentleman, here is Elton John.

Dick James Music company vinyl | Introduced Elton John to cocaine | July 16, 2014 | Courtesy of Flickr

A week before Elton went into rehab in 1990, Elton said the words, “I need help.”1 When Elton mouthed those words, he suddenly felt different about himself, realizing that a light had been switched back on. Elton John stated, “It was like something had been switched back on inside me, like a pilot light that had gone out.” This pilot light “that had gone out” was Elton John as if his life had been on autopilot, with him not being in control of his life anymore. It was like he was flying blind from day to day. In the year 1990, Elton began realizing just how bad his life had become, and the cause of it was his consistent use of drugs. It led to him finally mouthing those words “I need help” after having wanted help for so long. His career and his life had revolved around drugs ever since he was introduced to them in 1971 by his recording manager Dick James. John Reid was the person who introduced Elton to cocaine that same year, when he signed with DJM records. Reid was doing a line of cocaine as Elton walked into the room; Elton tried it too, even though he was not really interested in it. But that moment started it all off with his use of cocaine. In Elton’s head, it would help him not be the introverted person that he was.2 Since that moment, Elton John knew that cocaine would help build confidence in himself and would help build his career. That cocaine then led Elton John to use all other types of drugs and alcohol, like Valium and heroin. But Elton John’s preferred drug was always cocaine, because it made him feel differently about himself. Cocaine is what he did the most, because he knew how it would affect his personality. Elton John began using drugs daily, and particularly before his performances. Using drugs would help him become his persona, or other self. It would help put him “in character” for who he wanted the audience to see, the character of someone who was not afraid to talk or be in front of people on stage, and not the person who was introverted or who wanted to hide from the spotlight. This act of his, with drugs, was how he lived for years, going from one performance to another, being seen outwardly as one of the most successful rock stars of all time.

Years later, Elton stated that he had been addicted to three things throughout his career: cocaine, alcohol, and food.3 In Elton’s early life, he had gone through hardship, starting with his parents’ divorce. He felt that he had never received someone’s love. While he thought that his drug use would help him become someone more appealing to others, in fact, his personality changed under the influence of his white-powdered friend. He lost some of his real friends and family because they did not like the person he was turning into or what the drugs were doing to him. Elton’s attitude was different towards people; he acted rude and cranky around everyone. Losing all these people who meant a lot to him forced him to turn to drugs even more as a substitute, but this did not help him either. This led Elton John to be convinced that life had nothing more to offer to him anymore. In despair, after losing many close friends and family members, Elton John needed help. A number of times he sought help by attempting suicide; but most people never knew that side of Elton.

And then in 1990, Elton attempted suicide again, at a family gathering. His mother, step-father, and boyfriend had all come over for dinner. At one point, Elton went upstairs and decided to take a lot of Valium, with no intention of taking as much as he did. He came back downstairs to the swimming pool and announced to his family what he had done, and that he was going to kill himself. He then jumped into the pool. Elton did not know what exactly provoked him to take that much, but when Elton John was drowning, he realized that he did not necessarily want to kill himself, but that he was looking for help and attention. Elton stated, “…[he] was convinced that life had nothing more to offer him and was filled with a longing for death’s merciful release.”4 Elton John had decided he had had enough, and that “[he needed] help” because the people close to him did not do anything for him. So on July 29, 1990, George King, aka Elton John, checked into Lutheran Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.5

Cocaine | Elton John’s main drug of choice | January 16, 2009 | Courtesy of Flickr

However, some time before Elton John went into rehab, he met a boy named Ryan White. Ryan White was an eighteen-year-old boy who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion.6 White was not allowed to attend school because he had contracted HIV, and Elton John, when he heard about it, wrote a personal letter to the school asking if they would reconsider letting White back in. The school said no, because of White’s disease. Sadly, on April 8, 1990, White passed away from the HIV/AIDS. Elton John was devastated hearing that he had passed. After his stay in rehab, Elton stated, “Ryan was the spark that helped me recover from my addiction and start the AIDS foundation.”7 Once Elton John was in rehab he was able to reflect on the person he was while on drugs. Then he realized the sad truth that he would have done anything for cocaine. Elton later stated, “Remember that romantic saying ‘I would die for you’? Well, I nearly did.” Drugs ran Elton’s life choices and almost caused him to commit suicide. Cocaine made his relationship with so many people horrible because this entity made Elton push away his family and friends.8 He even said he cared more about cocaine than he did his own family and he could not stop it because of how addicting it was. Drugs make any person different no matter what, and the toll it takes on the person and family is horrible to see. Elton John wrote a letter to a “white lady” on August 10, 1990, and we can infer that the “white lady” was cocaine and his cocaine addiction. This letter was written as a goodbye letter to cocaine and goodbye to his addiction. It had enslaved him, and how he was getting free.

During the time Elton John was in rehab, he was not sure if he wanted to continue with the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program anymore, because it was not working for him. Elton John had actually checked out of rehab after six days there, because he was not able to sleep. He would have bad panic attacks, mood swings, and depression while at the rehabilitation center. Elton got as far as the pavement outside the facility, before he realized he had nowhere else to go. He realized he needed this program, so he stayed. Elton had switched instructors for the program to a woman named Debbie.9 She had told Elton that he needed to take these AA meetings seriously. Once Elton started taking it seriously again, he grew to love the AA meetings that he attended. He wrote about his addiction with different types of drugs. Elton started to talk about Ryan White more, and focusing on the AIDS foundation, but most importantly, he started to understand how he was feeling. People would ask him how he was feeling, if he was mentality getting better, and even though he would say he was not sure, he still had some idea of how he knew this program was helping him get better.10

Elton John | Drenched after performing concert on stage 88 Commonwealth Park, Canberra | November 30, 2007 | Courtesy of Flickr

After several weeks of being in the rehabilitation center, he came to understand why he loved performing so much. It was because he could hide who he really was when he was off stage, as a guy suffering from many problems or as someone who was introverted and shy.11 He thought that since he could be a different person on stage, his problems would disappear; but sadly that is not what happened. It made him worse by hiding how he truly felt. After six long weeks of being in the rehabilitation center, Elton John was ready to go home. Elton John flew back to his home in London, and he decided to take a break from performing. No recording, no gigs, and no new songs to be made for awhile. Once he was back in London at home, he started his own routine of a “new life,” while continuing to attend some AA meetings occasionally, making sure he was still staying clean of all drugs and living stable at home.12 After a while, and getting used to living at home, he decided he did not need the AA meetings anymore and was able to move on with his life with no more meetings and no more drugs. Elton said that he did not think or dream about taking drugs anymore, and he stopped craving them.

Drugs had made Elton John’s life flip upside down with one incident that made him have a long battle with addiction until 1990. He also had a lot of battles to overcome, not just drugs, but also abusive relationships with family and partners. As we fast forward to 2020, Elton John has been sober for thirty years and counting. His life has forever been changed by this one decision of going into rehab, and he agrees that it has saved his life. He states, “If I hadn’t finally taken the big step of asking for help 30 years ago, I’d be dead,” and he wrote on an Instagram post “Thank-you from the bottom of my heart to all the people who have inspired and supported me along the way.”13 Elton John has proven that he will not let the sun go down on him, and that he is still standing.

  1. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 229-230.
  2. Biography, July 14, 2020, s.v. “Elton John’s Past Struggle With Drugs and Alcohol,” by Colin Bertram.
  3. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 230.
  4. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 132.
  5. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 227-230.
  6. Biography, July 14, 2020, s.v. “Elton John’s Past Struggle With Drugs and Alcohol,” Colin Bertram
  7. Biography, July 14, 2020, s.v. “Elton John’s Past Struggle With Drugs and Alcohol,” Colin Bertram
  8. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 229.
  9. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 233.
  10. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 233.
  11. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 235.
  12. Elton John, Me (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2019), 235.
  13. Danielle Garrand, “Elton John celebrated 30 years of sobriety, says he would “be dead” if he didn’t ask for help,” CBS News (website), 2020

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27 Responses

  1. This article was very interesting. As much as I enjoy listening to Elton John’s music, I never knew he had struggled with an addiction to drugs. I see many artists turn to drugs but never understand why until you stated that it is because it boosts their confidence on stage and allows them to become a different person. Him realizing he needed help and checked himself into a rehabilitation center shows what a strong person he is.

  2. Elton has been one of my idols far beyond growing up in my childhood . His lyrics somehow pull the very strings of the heart he sings them with, for most his own troubles are unheard of and for me I saw this as an opportunity to really see from his perspective what his fame had meant to him . The jewel encrusted glasses . The flamboyant outfits . Now while I get lost in the music ,I think of his friend and colleague Bernie Taupin, their relationship throughout all the years they spent in the highs. The lows . Millions saw his image as. Now , being a fan soon to be attending my first concert this summer in the last of his tours , Goodbye Yellow Brick Road holds more meaning than ever before not only for an audience cause , it is his last goodbye to all he had started . The end of the last chapter and the start of a new one with his happiness , his family , children, and husband David the years of addiction and drugs nearly blinded him from. This is why I see him as an inspiration, Elton John is a true symbol of life when you show your true colors , become the better version of yourself you may have never even thought was possible until you became it .

  3. I’ve been a fan of Elton John since his first major success( being the first artist to debut an album at #1 on the Billboard Album chart). I understood there was the public Elton and the Elton that was hid. But it was years before I realized that he had had a drug problem and was lucky to survive it as some other geniuses had not. This article sensitively talks about that.

  4. I always had a hard time understanding why artists turn to drugs so often. I see it as but not definitely as it starting as either a status symbol or as a way to escape from their problems. it being a symbol of their power that they can do things that others can not and can get a slap on the wrist. being an artist is a stressful job and they can often look for a way to truly enjoy themselves while escaping from their problems preexisting or newly developed.

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