McKagan's issues with drugs and alcohol have been well-chronicled throughout his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
But what's gone largely unexplained is that McKagan's substance abuse was less the result of a 'rock 'n' roll lifestyle' and more the symptom of chronic anxiety and a dangerous way to self-medicate his panic attacks.
McKagan was 16 years old when he had his first panic attack. While the attacks are common in his family, he tells Lily Cornell Silver on her Mind Wide Open podcast that he didn't learn that he shared the plight with anyone else until years later.
"I found that alcohol was a great coping mechanism for me, so I spent the next 12, 13 years with my coping mechanism of a lot of alcohol and drugs," he said.
Now sober for most of the last 25 years, McKagan went on to explain the brutal side effects of his substance abuse.
"With alcohol, there's so much sugar in alcohol and with a guy like myself — and I think with your dad [Chris Cornell] as well — you can't just do a little because a little doesn't work after a while. So you've gotta do more to get that same feeling," McKagain said. "So in my case, I got up to two half-gallons of vodka a day — one full gallon of vodka a day. There's so much sugar in that. And then I was doing cocaine so I could drink longer. Cocaine is not good for panic attacks. ...It's the opposite of good for panic attacks. I would take pills as well to bring me down. Too much cocaine, the alcohol's not working, so I'll mix alcohol, pills, cocaine and still function in [my] band."
Perhaps McKagan's biggest enabler was his own miraculous constitution. He was high-functioning as an extreme addict, he says, "until I couldn't" do it any longer.
In his late-20s, his body began to show the effects of his toxic lifestyle.
"My hair started to fall out — like break off," he continued. "My body started to show it, like huge boils and my feet would crack when I walked. My body was drying out."
The next part of the story is more well-known to GN'R fans. McKagan's life started to turn around after he nearly died from a ruptured pancreas, cause by his drinking.
He was hospitalized for two weeks as doctors set about saving his life and detoxing him.
When he was finally discharged from the hospital, McKagan laughs that he was technically "sober," though doctors had used a variety of powerful sedatives and opiates to shepherd him through the worst of his withdrawal.
At rehab, the multi-instrumentalist began learning how to treat his mental health in a progressive way. After returning to Los Angeles, he took up the martial art Ukidokan, which he says also helped him develop an additional peace of mind and confidence handling panic attacks.
Despite his progress, McKagan says his anxiety is never as far away as he'd like it to be. Psychiatric medication — Xanax in his particular case — leads him rapidly back down the path to dependency, he's learned, proving that his battle with addiction will never be over.
"A lot of things can trigger my panic attacks and I figured out one of them was shame, disappointment in myself. ...In my life I believe I've gone through certain things just to help others, and I think that was one of them."
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