Celebrity Rehab took more than its share of heat during its six seasons on the air. The issues it dealt with were not pretty and when anyone who’d been on the show died—along with the 200,000-odd others who lose their battles with addiction every year—the show was blamed. The deaths of Jeff Conaway, Mike Starr, Joey Kovar and Mindy McCready were indeed tragic but the public at large seemed unwilling to look at the real issues. The tragedy, in other words, was not about a television show that once-famous folks appeared on during the later days of their respective struggles. The tragedy is that addiction takes so many lives.
The Sober Survivors
But guests were treated to the other side of the coin last Wednesday at the Pasadena Recovery Center’s Speaker Series, which featured several thriving celebrities who’d appeared on various seasons of the show: actress and model Amber Smith, One Day at a Time’s Mackenzie Phillips and former Laguna Beach star Jason Wahler.
Smith, who has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Elle and in the 1997 film L.A. Confidential, will celebrate five years of sobriety next week and much of her recovery work has been, as she told the crowd, on learning what the disease is (“It’s an intimacy disorder—a deep wound we all have, whether we like to admit it or not”) and working on her love addiction and love avoidance. “I’m trying,” she said, “to work all this stuff out as I go along.” Faithful viewers will recall that she appeared in the spinoff Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, and she says that she continues to search within herself for opportunities to grow. “The biggest issue right now, which I started treatment for in a 12-step group, is co-dependency. I will attach to every narcissist that walks in this room.” Despite the seriousness of her disease and the work needed to get better, the PRC grad had much to say about the joys of her new life—from the major (she’s begun the process of adopting a child) to the minor (she’s just decorated her apartment).
Mackenzie Phillips, who appeared on the third season of Rehab, railed against the idea that people think addiction is different for the boldfaced names. “There’s this belief that it’s different for celebrities when in fact we’re all just a bunch of drunks or addicts,” she said. According to Phillips, getting better was a product of her own willingness to humble herself. “It’s my responsibility,” she explained. “As the addict leaving treatment, what am I going to do with this stuff? Am I going to put my pride in my back pocket as a celebrity and show up at a program of recovery? Or am I going to continue to think that I’m different and that the rules don’t apply to me because I’m somebody? Everybody’s somebody.”
But perhaps the most compelling words of the day were offered by former teen idol Jason Wahler, when discussing the role stardom may have played in the recent death of Glee actor Cory Monteith. “I had to remove myself completely from the entertainment business and environment [in order to stay sober],” Wahler confessed, adding that his addiction was fueled by “the accessibility [of drugs]and the people riding your coattails.” Wahler now works in the field of addiction treatment.
A Spotlight on the Happy Endings
Thelonious Monster and Celebrity Rehab head counselor Bob Forrest was also on hand and he spoke about the way positive addiction stories are under-reported while the tragic ones steal all the headlines. “There’s dozens of examples of people who completely transform themselves,” he said. Later he spoke to me about learning patience, tolerance and compassion. “When somebody tries to choke you, spits in your face, calls you an asshole, then comes back five years later and tells you with tears in his eyes that he’s sorry, what more can you be taught about life?” he asked rhetorically. As for those who don’t make it, he offered, “The people who don’t make it are in the process of making it. It took me nine years and 26 rehabs. Unless you’re dead, you’re in the process of making it.”
Shelly Sprague, Celebrity Rehab’s other famous counselor—who opened a Hollywood treatment center with Forrest and earned the nickname Shelly the Shark for her harshness—explained what many addicts new to recovery are unwilling to face. “Patients think I’m mean because they’re not used to people talking to them in a direct way or telling them things they don’t want to hear,” she said.
The Infamous Dr. Drew’s Cameo
As the panelists wrapped up, a surprise guest appeared: Dr. Drew Pinsky himself. He emerged from the back of the room and didn’t insert himself in the proceedings; he seemed content to bear witness to the presenters as they shared the wisdom they obtained on the show and beyond.
If the heat—the judgments and blame leveled at Pinsky by those who sought to lay the disease of addiction’s work at the show’s doorstep—still affects him, it couldn’t be seen at Wednesday’s event. His focus was a positive one. When asked if he had anything to add, Pinsky’s comments were brief but heartfelt: “I’ve had goose bumps 30 times during this presentation. For some people maybe that only occurs on a rollercoaster. For me, it’s watching this.”