Commentary: Time for Recovery’s Close Up

Addiction has become a hot topic in media coverage, given the on-again, off-again escapades of celebrity addicts, and the popularity of reality television’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Sober House, Intervention and Addicted. Apparently, addiction sells, or at least the drama and nail-biting narrative that often accompanies it.

On the up side, such attention has raised awareness of the disease and may even prove an aid in its prevention. The down side: perpetuation of the ugly stigma of addiction and the neglect of its prettier-yet-not-as-compelling counterpart, recovery.

During a recent phone interview with Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab fame, I asked how he answered the criticism that his television shows promote stigma by focusing on fallen D-listers at their most vulnerable and volatile. “Look at the objective reality,” he said. “We have raised awareness of the nature of addiction, how common addiction is, how it doesn’t discriminate. We have pulled the curtain back on this mysterious thing called treatment.”

Pinsky communicated a real concern for educating the public about addiction and treatment and using whatever means in his power to reach the widest audience. He believes the portrayal of addiction and recovery in the media is getting better. “It’s just getting more accurate, more realistic.”  He also notes that Celebrity Rehab follows each season’s patients in Celebrity Rehab Revisited, to underscore the possibility and promise of recovery.

And realistic it is: some of the show’s stars have relapsed, some have succumb to the disease (former Alice in Chains bassist and one of the show’s graduates, Mike Starr , died last March), and some have gone on to lead healthy, happy lives. Such is the nature of addiction and recovery and Pinsky cannot be faulted for presenting addiction as the cunning, baffling, and ugly foe it is.

Still, media coverage of substance addiction recovery and all its glory is spotty, at best. Television leans toward the sensational and seedy side of addiction, while scores of radio shows, both traditional and web-based, provide news and views on addiction, treatment information and fellowship opportunities, but largely ignore the benefits and maintenance of a recovery lifestyle and fail to impact the larger public consciousness.

Yes, we’ve moved away from those lovable portrayals of family drunks on the big screen (think Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life) in favor of exacting portraits of addiction (Ray, 28 Days, Walk the Line), but few films follow the narrative arc past the addict’s redemption or demise to explore recovery’s happy ending. Exceptions have sprouted in both print and digital media. Some bright spots on the horizon are the webcasts fueled by the search engine powerhouse, YouTube. Recovery Community Organizations (RCOs) such as Minnesota Recovery Connection report utilizing YouTube to upload video of their recovery events to promote advocacy and, says Executive Director Nell Hurley, allow the general public “to see the reality of recovery.” Original web programs such as “Recovery Now” produced by highlight the possibility of recovery by following the stories of addicts before and after their recovery journey.

Such a window into the wonderful world of recovery shows promise, but is largely overshadowed by the mountain of preventative and educational programming on addiction and treatment provider promotions. And it is still unclear just how many viewers are actually tuning in on a regular basis, or who those viewers are. Such programming may prove to be a wonderful tool for prevention and intervention, and especially good at connecting addicts or their loved ones to treatment options, but again, leaves little or no impression on a public that continues to marginalize active and recovering addicts.

As the former editorial director of Renew magazine, the only national recovery lifestyle publication, I was reminded by the grateful communications from our readers that there is a healthy and hungry audience for positive recovery messages. But our work has just begun. If we are to diminish addiction’s stigma while also conveying to addicts still suffering that the future does indeed hold promise, we must effectively communicate the positive, empowering, transformative nature of recovery across all media and in a way that engages all audiences.

I recently asked retired General Barry McCaffrey what he had learned in his many years as an advocate for addiction prevention. The former director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy immediately offered his impression of the recovery community as a lesson he had learned and hoped to share.

“What I’ve found that has been consistent for 15 years is, the recovery community is a place of charity and kindness and optimism and hope and lack of violence,” McCaffrey said. “And it’s people who have been in abject misery and now their struggling to be free. So lesson number one that I’ve learned is, it’s an incredibly uplifting experience and an honor to work for the recovering community.”

Cut. Print. Wrap.

Kelly O’Rourke Johns is the former editorial director of Renew magazine. For more information on Renew, visit

6 Responses to Commentary: Time for Recovery’s Close Up

  1. uncleb42 | January 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I am an Addiction Counselor and believe the most challenging aspect of recovery, from any substance, is consistent envolvement in the recovery process. Case in point, a friend ofsome years relapsed on alcohol after 20 years, why? To me, an easy and a usual answer is that he got lazy, gave up support amd stopped doing what enabled him to not drink alcohol anymore. no matter the organizarion one adheres to absence spells relapse, unles you adhere to one of those,”Stop drinking by keep on drinking program alcoholics, or any other drug user, dreams about. Oh, and anything tht has “esay” attached to it. It in’t easy but it is sure way ahead of whatever in in second place, usually six feet under.

  2. Sandra | January 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    I’m not in the media, or a publicity person, but I know that in prevention education with teens, a recovering addict’s story of addiction, through the depths of disease and the difficulty of treatment to the life of stable recovery can be both helpful and not. While many young people get the point that ordinary people become addicts, that the horrible things that she went through could happen to them, the inspirational story of the addict’s recovery actually gives some students the impression that they could triumph over addiction, or that the noble struggle would be worthwhile in some way. So while I agree that the stigma against addiction must be fought against, for the good of active and recovering addicts, and for society, I think we need to consider carefully what kind of messages are really being received.

  3. Skye | January 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I couldn’t agree more that recovery seems to be consistently overlooked in the media and this perpetuation the stigma of addiction. Due to this I worked with an author to compile a collection of recovery stories. For any who are interested the book, Waking Up Happy, is out now and available on Amazon.

  4. Ken Wolski | January 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Unfortunately, a number of people in the substance abuse industry have been the most outspoken opponents of medical marijuana. They apparently feel that since they themselves cannot use this substance that NO ONE should be allowed to use it. Yet less than 10% of marijuana users ever experience withdrawal symptoms and these symptoms are relatively mild, about equivalent to caffeine withdrawal. The heartfelt and passionate opposition to medical marijuana by recovering addicts is keeping this relatively safe and effective therapeutic agent from countless patients who could benefit from it.

  5. mark | January 29, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I have written many articles of alcohol addiction and the life I lived with it. I surrendered to my addiction in October 2009 on my own. I was one of the fortunate ones that didn’t need Rehab.AA or 12 step programs. I write everyday in hopes that someone will see that there is always hope in finding your sobriety. I give many thoughts and ideas in my writing hoping it may help someone in our world to get and stay sober. Great article

  6. Jason Powers | January 30, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Great article and true: we do need more balanced coverage. However, sound clinical therapy, devoid of drama and lose boundaries, is boring and makes for bad TV. I am a fan of Dr. Drew but disagree with the concept that any coverage is good coverage. Advocates for recovery must say NO when opportunities present themselves to be one-sided about the mess and not the message.

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