On the morning of October 2, musician Tom Petty was found unconscious in his Malibu home. Suffering full cardiac arrest, he was transported to UCLA Medical Center. That afternoon, several media outlets reported that he had been pulled from life support. These reports proved false. But despite the premature reporting, Petty ultimately passed later that same evening. Due to the proliferation of false reports, certain aspects of his death remain unconfirmed.
As far as we can tell, however, Tom Petty died sober. This is a relief, as we just learned in 2015 about his secret struggles with heroin addiction in the 1990s. Petty kept his addiction and recovery under wraps from all but his closest friends for the bulk of his later life, but ultimately decided to share his story when Warren Zanes wrote the unauthorized Petty: The Biography. Until then, he felt motivated to secrecy. Not by shame, but rather by moral responsibility. As he told Zanes:
“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 him that sharing his story could help people. And Zanes was right. As America honors the loss of a beloved and talented musician, let us examine some of the lessons we can learn from Tom Petty, and how they can lead to a better understanding of our own struggles with addiction and recovery.
A Difficult, Abusive Childhood
Tom Petty grew up in Gainesville, Florida. As is unfortunately the story with many who later turn to addiction, his childhood was not easy. He suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his father. As he explains in Petty: The Biography, it began at the very young age of just 5 years old. After Petty dinged a Cadillac with his slingshot, his father came home to punish him by whipping him with his belt.
“He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well. My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.”
While he continued to suffer abuse at the hands of his father, his mother always supported him. Unfortunately, her death came in 1980, after his rise to stardom began. His fame made it difficult to mourn her properly. Already exhausted from the constant hounding by fans, he cringed when he walked into his mother’s hospital room to see several pictures of his own face. A nurse, innocently believing that it might comfort him, had laid magazine clippings about Tom Petty across his dying mother’s chest. He described it as an act of corruption.
“She was just lying there, beneath these clippings from magazines and newspapers. I walk in and…it was the strangest thing. I thought, ‘Even this moment, even this someone had to corrupt with some reaction to fame, or whatever this was.’”
Tom Petty did not receive the closure he deserved. And he didn’t have much time to seek it. Petty continued his rise to stardom throughout the 1980s, releasing many of his biggest hits. His fame gave him little downtime to process his feelings. To complicate matters further, he was also heading toward the end of a dramatically unhealthy marriage.
The Heartbreaker’s Heartbreak
The union between Tom Petty and Jane Benyo lasted 22 years, beginning in 1974 and ending in 1996. In the early 1990s, Petty opened up about their constant fighting, but noted that he still very much loved his wife. Unfortunately, Benyo struggled with mental illness, complicated further by her ongoing drug use. The two fought frequently as a result, but they struggled to work through their differences. Having met at the age of seventeen, neither wanted to admit that they just couldn’t make their marriage work.
Petty stayed in the marriage due to more than just his love and attachment to his wife. While these definitely played a large role, he also experienced a sense of something akin to complacency. As he told Zanes during the writing of his biography:
“I was used to living in hell. My parents’ marriage was hell. I lived through being terribly abused as a kid, and then I found myself in an abusive marriage.”
For an individual who both witnessed and suffered abuse as a child, this sort of thinking is not uncommon. But things did eventually come to a head, and the couple divorced. After that, Tom Petty achieved something that many abuse victims find difficult—he began a stable relationship. His marriage to Dana York proved far healthier in the long run. But in the years before they married, Petty had one major issue that he needed to sort out.
An Addiction He Never Wanted
Subsequent to his divorce and prior to his relationship with York, the musician found himself in a rough patch. He moved into a smaller place, which he compared to a chicken shack. Living in a house that didn’t feel like a home, he found himself alone. His busy lifestyle slowed down a bit, and the numerous pains he suffered over the years came back to haunt him. He lacked control over his life, and he quickly felt overwhelmed. This led Tom Petty right through the gates of sorrow and straight into heroin addiction.
Due to his work in the music industry, Petty knew all about drugs. But he never in a million years predicted his own downfall. He felt his soul crushed under the weight of an addiction he never wanted. Before long, he knew he had lost himself. Petty found himself surrounded by people with whom he would never regularly associate. More than that, he felt that the cycle of addiction betrayed his very concept of self. Like many addicts who find themselves in this place, he tried to combat the feelings through attempts at moderation.
“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.”
He did eventually get off the drug, but not without help. A therapist eventually suggested that he seek professional help at a medical detox facility. They helped him flush the heroin from his system, but it wasn’t easy. Petty suffered spasms, and slept for two days. But when he awoke, he felt like a new man.
Tom Petty overcame his own addiction through a mix of professional help and sheer desperation. He knew who he wanted to be, and that he couldn’t be that person while under the influence of drugs. A changed man, he stopped performing songs from that period of his life. He simply couldn’t stand the reminders. As he soon found out, however, working in the music industry makes it difficult not to encounter drug use. He would suffer one more reminder of his days with heroin, and it would prove emotionally devastating.
The Dying Tree in the Backyard
During this period of Petty’s life, The Heartbreakers no longer worked with original bassist Ron Blair. Replacing him was Howie Epstein, who struggled with his own heroin addiction. The band did everything they could to help Epstein through it. They tried sending him to treatment. Even when he relapsed and got pulled over with heroin in the car, they kept him on tour. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wanted desperately to keep Epstein in the band. But as the new millennium rolled around, things only got worse.
Epstein started missing shows. His physical health began to noticeably falter. But he remained with the band until their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Not long after, the band released him from their company and rehired Blair. The following year, heroin overdose claimed Epstein’s life.
Tom Petty spoke poetically of his death, echoing sentiments shared by anyone who has lost a person they cared about to drug addiction.
“It’s like you got a tree dying in the back yard. And you’re kind of used to the idea that it’s dying. But then you look out there one day, and they cut it down. And you just can’t imagine that beautiful tree isn’t there anymore.”
While Petty suffered a major loss, he didn’t let it steer him from the path of recovery. He continued to improve his life, and for that he was rewarded in a beautiful way.
True Love and Success in Recovery
Two years before Epstein’s death, Tom Petty and Dana York officially tied the knot. He kept making music, but he decided to dedicate more time to becoming a family man. Petty and York settled down in Malibu, and Petty became a more hands-on father with the two daughters that he had fathered during his marriage to Benyo. He credited this decision not just to his recovery, but from his life experience in general. As he puts it, the trials and tribulations he suffered in life actually played an active role in improving his marriage and family life.
“The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems. You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods.”
Despite his renewed focus on home life, his career continued to gain speed. His next major work, The Last DJ, did not break any records for album sales. Largely because it strongly criticized the music industry, making it somewhat unpopular with radio stations. But he continued to sell concert tickets, and his faltering record sales did not affect his passion for making great music. This led all the way up until 2014, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Hypnotic Eye. It would be the last album they ever released—and it would also become their first Number One.
Prior to his death, Petty announced that his 40th anniversary tour would be his last.
“It’s very likely we’ll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don’t think so. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”
He felt at ease in the direction his life was heading. And despite reaching the age of 66, one cannot help but feel upon hearing his words that perhaps his life was cut short. But while he may not have lived as long as he planned, there is one thing we can say—the man died sober. More importantly, he died while living a life that he loved.
Anyone Can Be Tom Petty
Addiction is a strange paradox. We begin using drugs to escape our pain, yet only seem to succeed in creating a new kind of pain. Tom Petty recognized this, and he sought help to break the cycle. Afterward, he decided to make some radical changes to his lifestyle. He honed in on the aspects of his career that made him unhappy, and decided to change them. That may sound easy for a man with wealth and fame on his side, but in truth this type of radical change presents difficulties for anyone. We all feel stuck in our routine from time to time, and it takes effort to change it.
Tom Petty made that effort anyway, and he reaped the rewards of a fulfilling life. For him, recovery wasn’t about finding reasons to avoid drugs. It was about living the kind of life that ensured he wouldn’t want to do them in the first place.
Your new life can start today. If you’re struggling with addiction, seek help. And if you’re sober but unhappy, take a moment to identify where that comes from. Then develop a plan to change it. Perhaps the change will feel difficult at first. You might meet resistance, just as Petty did when he released The Last DJ. But you can weather the storm and keep moving. Be like Tom Petty. One day, the people in your life just might remember you with the same love and reverence that we now hold for this talented, wonderful man. A man who is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, currently resting in peace.