In a week filled with sometimes lurid,often fawning stories about the death of Whitney Houston, it was once again evident how little most Americans know about addiction or, in fact, how little they seem to care to know.
The pop icon's longtime battle with drugs was well-known, yet when she died in unusual circumstances, the two most popular theories put forth were that she had suffered from a drug overdose or that her doctors -- the new media favorite suspect since the Michael Jackson case -- had somehow killed her by messing up prescribed medications.
Both are possible, of course. But it is also quite plausible that the years of abusing her body with drugs and alcohol had taken an early toll on her, as they had with an even younger Amy Winehouse. But the only fact of which anyone is certain right now is that no one will know what killed Whitney until an autopsy is completed.
At the same time, there has been a noticeable lack of criticism aimed at Houston for her drug-filled lifestyle while her fans ease their grief by remembering her in better times, on stage, in recordings, in the movies. It's as if Whitney the superstar, in death, was now finally beyond rebuke and, officially and irrevocably, a victim of addiction.
That's an awfully steep price to have to pay for society to at last acknowledge your disease. Unfortunately, it's not at all uncommon. People who struggle with addiction and who relapse -- but not die -- are more likely to feel the sting of society's tongue. Indeed, for those not afflicted with alcoholism or drug addiction, probably the least understood aspect of recovery is the relapse, especially when it follows a significant period of sobriety. The same questions inevitably come up. How could he drink when he knows how much he has to lose? How could she use drugs again knowing it would hurt her family?
The questions themselves define the disease of addiction. Quite simply, relapse, while not a requirement of recovery, is nonetheless a part of it for many people. Houston herself was an example. Addicts do things that defy reason and common sense, often to the harm of themselves and those close to them. That's why recovery programs stress the need for addicts to develop a new way of thinking, a new way of living, a new image of themselves that does not include using alcohol or drugs.
It is not easy to make this change, but with time, the support of loved ones and constant attention to the new behaviors suggested as a way of living a sober life, it gets easier. It becomes the addict's new normal way of living, in good times or bad.
Recently, another celebrity -- although not in Houston's orbit -- apparently forgot that basic fact of recovery life. Josh Hamilton, the star outfielder for the Texas Rangers and probably the best-known admitted addict in baseball, acknowledged that he had relapsed. He apparently had several drinks in a bar with "friends," called a teammate who talked with him and dropped him at home, then went out again and had a few more drinks. Hamilton said at a press conference the next day he had had a "weak moment" and was drinking over "personal reasons."
Being a high-profile professional athlete, Hamilton's history with addiction and recovery has been well chronicled. He has been dealing with it for 10 years, even being suspended from baseball for two years for alcohol and drug abuse. But he had been clean and sober for two years before his "slip" and his public honesty about his disease has been praised. At the same time, Hamilton has received a lot of criticism among sports reporters for his slip, mostly of the "how could he do that?" variety.
But the fact of the matter is that celebrities must deal with the same challenges in recovery as the businessman next door, the veteran teacher, or the local plumber while living in a pressure-packed public bubble. There is no anonymity for Whitney Houston or Charlie Sheen " or Josh Hamilton. There is no way for them to try to justify their risky behavior as acceptable just because nobody saw it. This means Hamilton, and other athletes and celebrities who live with addiction, must be even more diligent in following their sober routine -- in accepting their disease -- if they want to avoid relapse.
One of the striking facts in the stories about Hamilton's relapse is that he no longer had an "accountability partner" assigned to him by his team. The "partner," the equivalent of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, went everywhere with Hamilton when he wasn't playing ball or at home. But the coach who had the job recently took a job with another team and Hamilton was doing it on his own.
That may be possible for people with several years of solid clean and sober time, but it is not recommended. Besides, Hamilton's recovery has been a series of relapses, suggesting he still hasn't fully surrendered to the concept of addiction.
That's not unusual, but many people who have trouble staying sober and who relapse several times do eventually get sober and lead fulfilling, contented lives. For every Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse there are dozens of sober celebrities who are leading contented lives, not creating headlines..
That's why it's important when an addict relapses to resist the easy temptation to question and criticize him because "he has so much to lose" or "he let down so many people who care about him." Yes, it is about taking responsibility for one's actions, but recovery is also often about second or third chances. The Texas Rangers, with a manager who is also a recovering drug addict, appear to understand this. They assigned Hamilton a new accountability partner.
Hamilton also apologized to "fans, kids, people who have addiction who look up to me." That's all well and good. But he's been dealing with addiction long enough to know that other recovering addicts aren't putting him or any other celebrity addict on a pedestal. There are no all stars in the battle and there is no "I" in recovery. But no addict living with what is often a fatal disease should have to die for the rest of the world to finally get it.
Bob Gaydos writes a column on addiction and recovery.
Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)