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Elton John Recalls Performing for the First Time Since Getting Sober: ‘I Was Terrified’

Elton John Addiction and Recovery
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In Variety‘s Recovery Issue, prominent entertainment figures offer insights on navigating a sober life in Hollywood. For more, click here

After I finally surrendered and decided to seek treatment for my addiction, there came a point when I wondered if I would ever go back to work as Elton John again.

But at that time, I wasn’t thinking too much about being an artist. I had reached the lowest ebb in my life — the absolute bottom. I hated myself so much. I was consumed with shame. All I wanted to do was get well. I put all of the energy I had left toward my recovery. For the first time in a very long time, I listened to others intently as I came to understand that I had so much to learn.

When you come out of treatment, it’s like being reborn. You are so stripped down and completely vulnerable. It’s like starting life over with a new rule book for living. I felt trepidation about how I would be able to do anything again. But you are taught in the Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous program to keep life in the moment, to live one day at a time and one moment at a time. If the universe meant for me to continue performing and creating new music, I knew it would happen when it was meant to happen. You learn to hand those things over to a power greater than yourself. You have to accept that you are no longer in charge of your life.

The smartest move I made immediately after treatment was to take an entire year off from all work. I was determined to make my recovery the only focus in my life. I completely cleared my diary for a year.

Today, my best advice to people who are facing those difficult early days of sobriety is to get humble. Make recovery your absolute priority over everything else. Don’t go back to work too soon. Take the time you need to learn and heal. I don’t think I would still be sober today if I hadn’t taken that whole year off and thrown myself into my program of recovery.

At my peak during that year, I was going to as many as five meetings a day! I made and served tea at the meetings. I was determined to lock in all the things that I had learned in treatment.

The only exception to my no-work rule during the year was a long-standing charity commitment at the Grosvenor House in London that was scheduled right after I came out of treatment. You learn in the program that service to others supports the very foundation of your recovery. I didn’t want to renege on the Grosvenor House performance, even though I was committed to taking a whole year off from work.

When the day arrived, I was terrified, but I did manage to get through the performance. It was the only time I stepped on a stage that year, and I had to do it on my own without the band. In retrospect, I’m glad I went straight in at the deep end. I’ve always been an all-or-nothing kind of person. That show gave me confidence to know that I could still perform sober.

I felt such trepidation coming out of treatment about how I might function and what impact sobriety would have on my music. Thankfully, I was able to write songs in the same prolific way I always had. The first album I wrote in recovery with [songwriting partner] Bernie [Taupin] was “The One,” released in 1992. After that, I got to work writing the songs for Disney’s 1994 animated film “The Lion King” with Tim Rice.

The first true test of my mettle as a sober performer came in October 1991 during George Michael’s concert at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. I came out to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with George. It was a surprise for the audience. I turned up in a Versace outfit and baseball cap. The audience went wild when George announced me. I didn’t even have the protection of a piano to sit behind while we sang together.

It turned out to be a milestone moment for that song. We decided to release the track as a single, and it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. You can watch the video online today. The universe was definitely sending me positive encouragement.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my return to touring because I built AA/NA meetings into my tour schedule. Wherever I went in the world, I found a meeting to attend. That’s not as hard as it might sound.

Even if I didn’t speak the language, I still attended meetings abroad. I left every meeting feeling better and more empowered than when I walked in. Those meetings kept me grounded. The program gave me a structure for living so that I could go onstage every night, do my job well and actually enjoy it.

I found it so inspiring to meet other addicts from around the world. I was bowled over by the kindness with which I was welcomed. I was humbled by how people treated me like a human being first and allowed me to leave “Elton John” at the door of the recovery rooms.

—as told to Marc Malkin

Legendary musician, activist and philanthropist Elton John has sold more than 300 million records worldwide and earned countless awards during his five decades in the entertainment industry. His official autobiography — “Me: Elton John” — was published Oct. 15 by Henry Holt and Co.