Once an Addict, Always a Train Wreck?

From George W. Bush to Lindsay Lohan, celebrities shape our view of alcoholism and addiction

If we have a confused notion of what an alcoholic or addict looks like, it’s easy to see why. Lindsay Lohan strolls in and out of rehab like it’s her favorite place to get a mani/pedi. Just Friday, she was spotted taking a shopping break from her latest stint at Betty Ford. Around the same time, Charlie Sheen’s attorney was doing damage control after the actor tore apart a suite at the Plaza Hotel that he shared with a porn star. Allegedly, he was high on booze and blow. His attorney’s take: An allergic reaction to “some medication.”

Hot off the presses, George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points matter-of-factly discusses “his decision to stop drinking.” As he has never used the words “alcoholic” or “addict” to describe his affinity for alcohol, it’s the closest he’s come to admitting he had a problem. This way, he can keep it all in the past tense, wrapped up and packed away. After all, only alcoholics relapse, and he just simply liked his hooch. Meanwhile, in December’s issue of Glamour, Fergie tells readers that while she is recovering from an addiction to crystal meth, she is not sober, because she drinks on a regular basis. "I'm not claiming to be sober -- I think it would be misleading.” Though in some ways it’s an admirable distinction, does it lead others with alcohol or drug issues to think they, too, can dabble in other substances?

Not everyone knows someone who is an active or recovered addict. So the only images that may inform our perception of alcoholism and addiction are those we see in the tabloids of stars whose problems have become so unmanageable, they can’t help but make headlines.

“A lot of people think an alcoholic is someone who starts drinking in the morning and drinks all day, and that they’re drunk all of the time. That’s the farthest from the truth,” says John Bradshaw, senior fellow at the addiction treatment center, The Meadows, in Wickenberg, Ariz., who is the author of Healing the Shame That Binds You. More likely, they’re high-functioning members of your community like Bradshaw, who, at the height of his addiction, was voted best teacher of the year. People who have years of sobriety under their belt are even harder to spot, because many are in programs that advocate anonymity. With few examples of celebs who have recovered from addiction, and so many stars going in and out of rehab, it can make us think, once an addict, always a train wreck.

“We can delude ourselves [into thinking there’s no longer a stigma], but if I told you I have a great babysitter for you, and she has been sober three years, would you hire her?” asks Harris Stratyner, Ph.D., vice president of Caron Treatment Center in New York. For that reason, Stratyner, who treats CEOs and celebrities alike, always tells clients to keep their business to themselves. After all, he asks, “Would we really want to know that Bush is in recovery when his finger is on the button? Rational or not, I promise he wouldn’t have been elected if he came out and said it.”

So should we laud Bush for disclosing as much as he has, and should people who have been living sober happily for decades open up about it in order to dispel these stigmas? The problem is, good role models don’t make for great gossip. “Martin Sheen is a very sober man. You could set your clock by him,” says Stratyner. “But that’s not who we’re seeing on TV. The Lindsay Lohans overshadow the Martin Sheens.”

Watching celebrities battle their addictions in public is a problem, says Stratyner. And while he would like nothing more than to see the Martin Sheens of the world challenge our mistrust of alcoholics and addicts, he thinks people just aren’t ready for it. “It’s a catch-22,” says Stratyner. “Those people who come out, I give them a world of credit, because others will stigmatize them.”

Besides, says Bradshaw, it’s not a celebrity’s duty to change the public’s view of recovery. Battling an addiction in the public eye is tough enough without having the added pressure of being sobriety’s poster child. “Everyone has their own journey,” he says. “It’s not up to us to judge it.” What we can do, though, says Stratyner and Bradshaw, is stop sensationalizing it.

Do you know someone struggling with addiction? Chime in below!

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