Pete Davidson’s Path to Recovery: Work, Collaboration, Responsibility

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on June 8th, 2020 - Last updated: September 28th, 2023
This content was written in accordance with our Editorial Guidelines.

Pete Davidson is an American phenomenon. The youngest cast member ever to appear on Saturday Night Live, at age 20, now 26, he stars in and wrote the forthcoming movie, The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow (director of The 40-Year Old Virgin, Trainwreck and much else). The movie will be released on demand June 12th 2020.

By Greg2600Pete Davidson, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link


Despite his early success, Davidson is almost as famous for his trauma and suffering. His father, a fireman, died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 when Davidson was seven. In 2017 Davidson had a famous mental health breakdown that interrupted his career.

What’s wrong with Davidson; what’s right with him

Davidson began doing stand-up comedy in New York at age 16. He was also diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease as a teen.

Both of these things were connected with marijuana use for Davidson. He only got the courage to perform, he said, while high on cannabis. And medical marijuana relieved his Crohn’s condition.

So add addiction to his mental health issues.

Let’s jump to the present. Davidson no longer takes drugs, he says. By which he means he only takes marijuana. And, he says, he “has cut back considerably.”

Key clinical question: Can an addicted drug user cut back drug use?

According to Davidson: Yes.

What does work mean for Davidson?

Davidson says that at the height of his mental health crisis in 2017, he contemplated suicide. Davidson sought psychiatric treatment. But he also continued to appear on SNL.

Work seems to be a great inspiration to Davidson. Who appears on a New York stage at age 16, and a national television program at 20? While marijuana may have assisted his anxiety, he seems to be a person with confidence in his ability who revels in work. For example, he says, “I always felt most comfortable onstage.”

And now, at 26, he is the star, writer, and co-producer of a major movie. How did he pull that off?

Going beyond your boundaries

If you’re a person beset by anxieties with a mental health diagnosis, going into public performing and making a movie can be challenging propositions.

Of course, you might consider your alternatives. To quote Davidson himself:

“When you grow up in Staten Island, one of the easy choices is being a drug dealer. Seventy to 80 percent of my friends, growing up, were doing that. If you had an aunt that had a Xanax prescription, you were the king of Staten Island.”

There remained professional difficulties for Davidson in making the movie. When you are the centerpiece of a major movie, those funding it want assurances that you will complete the project. There is insurance, which is typically taken out for stars and directors of movies.

And, then, some people are uninsurable, or hard to insure. “That was my main fear. I was like, how’s anybody going to insure a movie with me in it?”

Step in Judd Apatow. Twice Davidson’s age at 52, Apatow had made a similar leap from New York City boy to comedy stardom. And he had had his own issues. Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 11 and he moved in with his grandparents. Like Davidson, he began performing in comedy clubs at an early age.

“I definitely felt like Pete when I was young. I was running around interviewing comedians at 15 years old. I was trying to make contact, I was trying to learn things and wishing people would pay attention to me. I moved to California when I was 17 and never went back.”

So perhaps that is partly why he invested his own career in the younger comedian’s. The King of Staten Island, including Davidson’s father’s death and his own mental health problems, is unlike any other film Apatow has made.

Then there’s work and responsibility

The New York Times featured their professional relationship in an article entitled, “Pete Davidson Comes Out of His Basement with Judd Apatow’s Help.” Davidson lives in the nicely done-up basement of his mother’s home in Staten Island. In fact, that is the setting of the film Davidson and Apatow made.

Apatow is a great believer in Davidson’s talent. But wasn’t he a little anxious about relying on the younger actor-writer with a somewhat spotty past?

And what about Davidson?

Here is how they dealt with the challenge:

Davidson is intensely proud of the film and its therapeutic benefits. He described the movie as a welcome opportunity to “just really lay it all out there and be able to heal and move on from it, instead of, every day, feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “Now we can put that in the past.”

“We open the movie with a suicide attempt and then making fun of my dead dad within minutes.”

Can you share things like that outside of therapy?

“It was really hard because it’s stuff I would share with my therapist. But Judd really cares, and the hard work that he was doing to find out about my life made me feel so comfortable.”

But here is Davidson’s bottom line: “I’m happy to work and this is what I love to do.”

And how did Apatow cope as a seasoned professional who nonetheless had a lot on the line for himself and Davidson: “Collaborating on this was fraught with the possibility of failure, and I didn’t want to hurt Pete.” So he sat down with Pete:

“Pete’s one of the producers of the movie as well. When we began the film, we sat down and said, we’re responsible for all of these people here. This isn’t just about you as an actor and a writer. This is your crew. Everyone is counting on you. And Pete took such great pride in being responsible for that.”

Didn’t Apatow have to submit Davidson for mental health examinations and have a therapist on set?

“No. I have a long history with the studio and they were very excited the entire time. There were certainly moments where they were like, ‘How’s Pete doing?’ And I’m like, ‘We’re good.’ It wasn’t much more than that.”

A formula for mental health and addiction success

Davidson and Apatow are obviously not average citizens with average skills and strengths.

Still, in their finding, relying on, expressing and perfecting their skills and strengths, they provide a model for dealing with life issues like mental health and addiction problems.

This is the path we choose for our work with clients in the Life Process Program. We help people to focus on their skills and strengths, set goals, overcome difficulties, and move ahead in life. They do so by building on work and personal successes, accepting responsibility for themselves and others, and creating a solid life that can’t be assailed by the types of life problems that everyone, sooner or later, faces.

And we believe that everyone has the strength within them to meet this challenge, like Pete Davidson, no matter what ups and downs life has held, or holds for them, past, present or future.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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