Royce Da 5’9, the stage name of Detroit-born rapper Ryan Montgomery, met his wife in high school. They were in the same Spanish class, but when he spotted her blaring from the latest Roots album from the speakers of her mom’s car, she really caught his attention. They quickly bonded over their shared musical tastes and more, and by the time they graduated high school, Royce Da 5’9 was ready to propose. He’d already earned enough from his fledgling rap career to buy her an engagement ring, and the couple tied the knot at the local courthouse. Over the next decade, however, the strength of their teenage romance would be tested time and again. As Royce Da 5’9 gained success as a rapper, he adopted unhealthy habits, and his home life began to crumble. Though the couple has overcome their early struggles, Royce Da 5’9’s alcoholism nearly put an end to their marriage.
The Complications of Emerging Adulthood
The years following high school are often a time of personal change and development. This period was dubbed “emerging adulthood” by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who noticed that most people in this age range grapple with similar issues of identity regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds or race. During the emerging adulthood period, young people explore who they are, who they want to become and who they want to spend their life with. Though emerging adulthood is a time of perpetual flux, as young adults move out of their parents’ home for the first time, it’s also one of possibility. Freed from the burden of parental supervision and thrilled with their newfound agency, most young adults are optimistic about their futures.
When young adults have a strong support system and a resilient roadmap for success, they can navigate this confusing period with success. When young adults are thrown into a lifestyle they’re not equipped to handle, however, it can lead them down a disastrous path.
The Life of a Young Rapper
While other teens were heading to college or getting their first jobs, Royce Da 5’9 entered the music industry. Thanks to his early success, he gained entree into the partying music industry scene.
“Unfortunately,” the rapper admits, in a candid interview with Pitchfork, “I did my developing in the music business.”
The music industry lifestyle soon took a toll on his home life. Royce Da 5’9 started drinking heavily at the age of 21, and his addiction to alcohol forestalled his emotional growth. Instead of figuring out who he was and who he wanted to be, like many people in their early 20s, he began to stagnate.
“I fell prey to the fun side of the industry,” he says, when speaking of these formative years. “I came into the game with a lot of principles, and loyalty was always a big deal to me, but I kind of lost my way.”
The rapper’s addiction clouded his sense of morality and arrested his personal growth. He wasn’t the only one affected by his addiction, either. His wife became collateral damage, forced to bear the brunt of his personal demons. Through the addiction and the infidelity, his wife stood by his side, waiting patiently for him to overcome his problems.
Nature and Nurture
For years, researchers have investigated the connection between nature, nurture and alcoholism. Does alcoholism have a hereditary component, or is it more impacted by environmental influences? Despite decades of research, the answer is still unclear.
According to the research conducted on the subject, family history is a strong predictor of alcoholism. The genetic children of alcoholics have a greater chance of becoming alcoholics themselves one day. While the adopted children of alcoholics are not as strongly affected, they too are at greater risk than the average person. These findings suggest that heredity does play an important role in alcoholism. It’s just one factor among many, however, and there are additional environmental and psychological risk factors to consider.
When it comes to an individual’s psychological makeup, there are certain traits and conditions correlated with alcoholism. People who have low self-esteem, low impulse control or a tendency for risk-taking are more likely to develop an alcohol dependency. Dependence is also connected to certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. As excessive alcohol consumption can exacerbate these conditions, however, it can be difficult to determine whether the mental health condition was brought on by the alcohol or vice versa.
Environmental influences are also a key factor. If children see heavy alcohol use being treated as normal, they’re more likely to drink heavily when they grow up. During a child’s upbringing, they internalize the modes of behavior modeled by their religious, familial, ethnic and social groups. When these groups normalize unhealthy behaviors, it can cast a long shadow on a child’s development.
The Early Family Dynamic of Royce Da 5’9
When Royce Da 5’9 and his wife encountered marital difficulties, they never really considered divorce. “We stayed together because of how we grew up,” he says. “Neither of us believed in divorce. My wife’s mom and dad weren’t really together. They were sleeping in separate rooms, but they never divorced.”
Throughout his childhood, the rapper watched his parents fight and make up and experienced their endless cycle of marital discord. These fights weren’t seen as a sign of incompatibility, however; they were viewed as obstacles to overcome. When discussing his parents, Royce Da 5’9 conjures up the idyllic image of “that old couple sitting in the wicker chairs on the porch.” To his mind, that old couple didn’t become a model of happiness by living a life of ease and comfort. “If you want that,” the rapper says, “then you have to be willing to sacrifice.”
To achieve fame as a rapper, Royce Da 5’9 made sacrifices. Unfortunately, these sacrifices often came at the expense of his wife and family. In his early 20s, he was not yet capable of juggling the responsibilities of family and career. This led to infidelity, which damaged his relationship with his wife and children as well as his wife’s self-esteem.
Alcohol Use and Marriage
According to studies conducted on the role of alcoholism in marriage, evidence suggests that excessive alcohol use is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It can lead to harmful patterns of behavior, unhappiness and even marital violence. Over time, excessive alcohol use becomes a daily issue in the marriage, acting as a chronic stressor. It exacerbates existing marital issues and creates more of them. This creates a cycle of discord; after familial altercations, for example, alcoholic spouses often turn to alcohol to dull the pain.
It becomes very difficult to break out of this cycle of behavior and bad choices. Sometimes, people crawl out of these cycles slowly by making incremental modifications to their daily behaviors. Eventually, the good habits replace the bad, and the cycle of pain and poor decisions is broken.
For Royce Da 5’9, on the other hand, the slow process of self-improvement wasn’t enough. He needed a major wake-up call.
The Shame of Infidelity
Discussing his years of infidelity, the rapper says, “When I used to be cheating, that was just me wanting my cake and eating it too.” He wasn’t looking for a woman who was better than his wife or a woman he could love more than his wife. He was motivated by greed and casual indifference to his wife’s feelings.
It was only later, he admits, that he truly understood what he put her through. Now, he believes that the cheating wasn’t the only source of her emotional pain. What really hurt her, he believes, “was the abandonment of her.” While his infidelity hurt his wife, it was the sense of loneliness that truly cut deep.
The rapper’s family continued to expand, but he didn’t reach his breaking point until his son was old enough to be ashamed of his father’s behavior.
In 2011, the rapper was caught on film cheating on his wife. The video was posted on MediaTakeOut, and he was unable to shield his family from the ensuing scandal.
“You can put me out of this industry before I ever will be looking like that again in front of my kids,” he says when discussing the turning point that led to his sobriety. “I had to try harder and do better. I made the decision to stop drinking and cheating.”
While the rapper acknowledges that he can’t blame things on his drinking, he does believe that alcoholism led him down the path of infidelity. “I start drinking and then I get into that bag of infidelity and everything else,” he confesses. “I just realized that it wasn’t going to work for me. And that’s basically all it was.”
The Power of Positive Habits
Royce has been sober since September 2012. He made the decision to stop drinking, and he’s now maintained his sobriety for years.
When discussing his sobriety, he says, “Everything affects everything else.” When he finally cut alcohol out of his life, he replaced it by focusing on the things that matter most to him: his music and his family. Royce started to focus on the important things, and his efforts paid off. “[E]verything—my music, being a husband and a father—just took off.”
For people in the throes of addiction, replacing bad habits with good ones can seem like an impossibility, especially when they don’t have a moment of truth like Royce Da 5’9.
While everyone’s road to sobriety is different, one Yale psychologist found a simple way to start the process. John Bargh, who specializes in social psychology, has spent years examining the invisible processes that govern our everyday behavior. He believes that many daily activities are the result of thoughtless responses to external cues. When an individual has a specific response to a situational cue, that’s a habit.
For many alcoholics, drinking is a habit. They may reach for a drink when they’re feeling stressed out, or maybe they drink a glass of wine every day at 9 p.m. If drinking becomes a habit, it becomes governed by the part of the brain that operates outside of active awareness. Oftentimes, alcoholics pick up a drink because of a deeply ingrained pattern of cue and response, one they may not be consciously aware of.
Bargh was a functional drinker, but when he realized how strong his urge to drink was, he knew it was time to kick the habit. As a longtime scholar of habits, he knew what to do and what not to do. He didn’t try to follow a punitive sobriety plan as lifestyle changes motivated by fear are less likely to stick. Instead, he quelled his urge to drink with something positive: Tootsie Pops. Every time he wanted a drink, he reached for a lollipop instead. This satisfied the physical aspects of drinking; the lollipop gave him something to hold in his hand and put in his mouth. It also gave him a mild sugar rush, helping to satisfy his body’s need for alcohol.
It can take a while for new habits to become second nature. Some people will adopt their new, healthier habit in a few weeks while others can take as long as 250 days. The body’s automatic processing powers are powerful, however, and adopting new rituals can be an effective way to begin the recovery process.
In 2018, Royce Da 5’9 released the album “Book of Ryan” to acclaim. The album deals with his personal struggles with sobriety and infidelity, and it offers a candid look into the rapper’s efforts to become a better man.
With years of sobriety under his belt, Royce is more sanguine. “One thing I don’t do is regrets,” he muses. “If it’s something in the scope of my control, I’m going control it. I’m also going to make mistakes. But I’m not that guy who is looking back.”
For Royce, the road to sobriety goes one direction. Forward.
If you or a loved one is dealing with alcoholism, you don’t need to go the road alone. Professional assistance can be a lifeline for people struggling with addiction.