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Celebrities in Rehab - Media Offering Addiction as Scandalous Entertainment

We live in a tabloid driven, soundbite culture in which celebrity gossip is at the forefront of our guilty pleasures. We seem to take great enjoyment from watching people who have it all, lose it all. Celebrities receive none of the empathy we have for suffering caused by mental illness and addictions. Instead, we revel in their superficiality, bad behavior and misfortune. Our societal preoccupation demonstrates not only insensitivity but emotional immaturity.

Bowling for Soup said it best;

“The whole damn world is just as obsessed
With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex,
Who’s in the clubs and who’s on the drugs,
Who’s throwing up before they digest.”
- High School Never Ends

Judging Public AND Private Lives

Our love of scandalous things extends to everyone in the limelight. Professional athletes, musicians, authors and actors intrigue us. We judge their performances and private lives alike and without compassion because we don’t see those we idolize as human. We overlook the pressure that being in the spotlight places. We hold them to impossibly high standards and are merciless when they disappoint us.

We expect to be endlessly entertained. When our heroes fail us we feel angry and cheated. Heath Ledger won’t ever make another movie for us. Kurt Cobain won’t sing another song and Hunter Thompson has written his last piece. We see not what addiction took from them, but rather what it took from us. We valued the contributions they made while under the influence. We just didn’t expect they’d be claimed by their drug of choice. We react with surprise when substance abuse becomes addiction and we’re outraged to find that our celebrities are fallible.

Celebrating Excesses

People discriminate based on the judgments they make. The disease of addiction does neither. It’s an absurd clash of values that we associate glamour with alcohol and drugs. High functioning addicts are celebrated and low functioning addicts are demonized.

We view mental illness in the same light. We celebrate manic behavior when it’s funny or quirky. If Robin Williams is off medication it’s hysterical and when Charlie Sheen is it’s disgraceful. We find humor in depictions of debilitating illnesses like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when it’s portrayed by Tony Shalhoub and eagerly embrace Russell Crowe showing us a thrilling portrayal of schizophrenia.

We celebrate Stephen King, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino because we love what they create from seemingly dark places. They are the modern day versions of Edgar Allen Poe, Van Gogh, and Mozart. Insanity is glamorous if those who live with it entertain us.

Collective Voyeurism and Losing the Self

We are drawn to serial killers and psychopaths (Dexter, Criminal Minds), sociopaths (Sopranos, Son’s of Anarchy), and criminals (White Collar, every movie starring Jason Statham). We gravitate toward the taboo because it offers something more interesting than daily life. We live vicariously through those who do evil but do it passionately.

There’s a fine line between vicariousness and voyeurism. We flirt with our desires but leave them unfulfilled. Most people live their lives in the safe and settling place halfway between the famous and the freaks. What this leaves us with is a poorly established sense of self in which we are more defined by what we are not than by what we are.

The success of mainstream media is evident in our progressively externally focus and morbidly curiosity. It’s not just celebrities we enjoy watching struggle on camera. We watch shows like Intervention, Hoarders, and My Strange Addiction. It’s simple; we feel better about ourselves because we’re not like those people.

Losing our Humanity

We distance ourselves from the experience of others to achieve a sense of security but in so doing we lose some fraction of our humanity. We laugh at the hot mess that is Lindsay Lohan until we tire of hearing about her. We barely seem to notice that Robert Downey Jr. made a comeback after a longstanding battle with cocaine but we applaud the success of The Biggest Loser.

The take away seems to be that addiction is tedious but thinness is a value that endures. It’s easy to overlook that we’re still sitting on our couch obsessed with other people’s lives. We’ve become a society that spends more time in front of screens than in social interaction. Somehow we do not expect that what we spend dozens of hours a week passively observing will impact our worldview.

It so obviously does. What we perceive and experience submissively affects our perspectives which guides our judgments and formulation of beliefs. As a culture we see fit to criticize what we do not understand and hold expectations that are based more in fiction than in fact. Our attitudes about the everyday person who is afflicted are impacted by what we’ve watched celebrities do on and off screen.

Soundbites contain too little substance.

  • We have known factually that addiction and mental illnesses are medical conditions for decades and still media portrayal encourages us to judge through an unrealistic and/or moralistic lens.
  • We understand rationally that media depictions are more about advertising and propaganda than they are truth.

Examining our beliefs and values critically not only affords us greater clarity into the world around us, but also into ourselves and our loved ones.

Remember Compassion and Humanity

When I find myself judging others, I recall the expression so often spoken in the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – “There but for the grace of God go I.

I am mindful that I have not walked in others shoes. I know that it is human nature to judge. I also know that voicing that judgment brings nothing positive into this world and so instead I choose to focus on all that I have to be grateful for.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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