Guns N Roses legend Duff McKagan looked death in the eye and said, “I don’t think so.”
“Good morning, I’m afraid your pancreas has burst…”
That’s an ordinary start to the day in anyone’s language.
Duff McKagan screamed to be killed in order to end the pain.
He was then the bassist for Guns N Roses, who at the time were arguably the biggest rock band in the world.
The Gunners showed bands who bragged of being decadent what true decadence really was.
At the height of their powers in the early 90s, Guns N Roses embarked on a massive world tour that lasted over 2 years. Complete with sold-out shows, riots, parties and mental blanks.
McKagan had become reliant on a daily diet of alcohol topped up with other substances which intensified as he dealt with the pressures of constant touring under the constant spotlight.
Zero interest in time-wasting things such as nutrition and his only exercise was staggering to and from countless stages.
To his credit, McKagan kept himself well hydrated – with rivers of vodka and wine.
In an effort to reduce his drinking he switched from 2 bottles of vodka a day to wine. He was soon downing 10 bottles of wine a day, presumably without the brie and camembert plates.
After treating his body like a garbage tip for the better part of a decade his pancreas decided enough was enough.
You know what, I’ve had it with this guy.
It burst, leaking acids throughout his body which sent McKagan to the emergency room, writhing in pain.
It was a life-threatening situation and one that signified the lowest point in his life.
He survived somehow and started to reflect on his hospital bed as morphine and other drugs kept his pain and natural urge for alcohol at bay.
He decided that his life was at the crossroads.
A simple choice: either live or die.
After leaving hospital he declined to enter rehab and did it the tough way. He simply stopped drinking and using drugs.
The power of this decision transformed his life.
McKagan shocked his body by putting things into it such as salad and water.
His and his pancreas were friends again.
He started mountain biking. He slept better.
Plus he started to do the little things, the things overlooked when blotting out reality is the only priority.
He made his bed and returned phone calls.
His head was clearer. He had more energy and he was happier.
McKagan threw himself into exercise. It initially served as a self-punishment for his past behavior and soon became a daily requirement.
He loved being able to mentally escape and focus purely on the task at hand. The corresponding muscular burn and natural high of endorphins being released was something he could get used to.
Duff’s body was still leaking toxins and readjusting. He continued mountain biking and entered a race, attired in cut-off jeans and Converses. He surprised himself and was soon overtaking and beating hordes of seasoned mountain bikers.
Then he discovered martial arts. He was introduced to kickboxing champion Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.
Benny’s training brought not only a harder fitness base but a strict system of discipline.
The tough training began building mental toughness and Urquidez encouraged McKagan to take up daily meditation.
The purpose of the training and meditation was to create a mental haven to escape to in times of stress or discomfort.
In the past these situations would immediately trigger substance relief but McKagan was past that.
He knew that in order to stay sober he would have to come to terms with his demons and embrace a new philosophy.
Urquidez imparted a new credo, “Today is a good day to die”. McKagan was initially thrown by its meaning, thinking it a tad dark and fatalistic.
He came to realize that it was a positive way in which to lead your life. To be honest with yourself and those close to you. To wake up each day without regret, feeling strong.
After a year or so of his sober transformation, McKagan was invited by former his former bandmate Matt Sorum to play a gig at the Viper Room in L.A.
Play live without the aid of substances?
Also in the band was John Taylor from Duran and ex Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, a hero of McKagan’s. All were now sober.
McKagan hesitatingly agreed but was petrified of performing in front of people without a buzz.
His bandmates reassured him and he did the gig.
To his surprise he played better than he could remember. Sharp, focused and completely lost in the music.
Word was getting around that he’d had a facelift, such was his transformation.
Good things were starting to happen, just like that.
The he was introduced to his wife to be. Susan Holmes, a stunning magazine model.
She was beautiful and they married.
The turnaround was complete.
Musically he was able to successfully pursue projects such as forming the bands Revolver and Loaded as well as collaborations with other artists.
“Filling the hole in the donut” is an expression used for those coming from a lifestyle of heavy alcohol and drug use to sobriety.
There’s suddenly a void in their daily life that was previously taken up by getting high or hammered. People realize they have more hours in the day to do…stuff.
After hurling himself into exercise McKagan started taking an interest in matters he’d previously thought unimportant or time-wasting.
Reading was a biggie. Hemingway, biographies, world history. He devoured books he’d never contemplated reading and finished hid days with an early night and a book in bed, a ritual he still abides by.
Another was discovering how little he knew about his personal finances. This was worrying but he now had time and a clear head, plus a new-found optimism.
McKagan first had to attend classes at a community college which then allowed him to enroll in Seattle University’s business school.
He studied finance which he found fascinating and gave him the confidence to deal with future contract negotiations.
McKagan was then able to start investing his money and even advising fellow musicians on how to best utilize their finances.
He was invited to write columns for newspapers and other media outlets such as The Seattle Times and ESPN.
Today McKagan is not just healthy – he’s rock hard fit.
A ridiculously happy man with a great marriage and two daughters.
He opted against formal counselling or long stints in rehab because he simply wanted to change.
Proving that the will and desire to make change are the most powerful forces for actual change.
McKagan can offer plenty of well-learned, non-preachy life lessons however his favorite is his most succinct.
“Try not to be a dick”.
Well said sir, we concur.