IT HAPPENED TO ME: Dr. Drew Got Me Sober
Well, not really. Not in person.
But my last drunk, a sad, lonely affair just shy of three years ago, included a Netflix binge on the recovery community's favorite punching bag, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
Drew Pinsky stopped making his controversial show after six seasons and five deaths. He didn't manage to cure addiction, and he took a lot of heat for that.
What he did manage to do was to put recovery into the public discourse, which is where I rediscovered it, putting it front and center in my own life ever since. He got society's attention -- imperfectly, exploitatively -- and got us talking about recovery. And he'll always be a part of my story.
Like many last drunks, mine was boring and pathetic. I had no idea it was my last drunk while I was doing it, but it was time. I won't say that my compulsive clicking of “Next episode playing in 17 seconds...” was the sole reason that the next day was my first day sober, Googling my way to three meetings, but it was part of the matrix.
There were a lot of factors at play. I was 31, newly divorced, and had recently moved to a city where I knew not a soul. I'd been exposed to sobriety before: a stint in treatment at age 20 after a foray into full-time crack addiction led me to a few months of abstinence and meeting attendance as well as a very poorly thought-out sobriety-themed tattoo.
I lied to my family for more than a decade, letting them think that my post-rehab sobriety had stuck. I wouldn't even call it a relapse: I just got back to it. I lived far away from them and white-knuckled my way through dry visits. My real life was a bourbon-soaked (cold months), gin-blotted (warm months) mess.
So two Junes ago, I found myself in a mid-size Midwestern city, running from what I didn't quite see as wreckage at the time. I'd idioted my way into a relationship with a man who asked me to marry him on the second date, and was rapidly proving myself thoroughly dispensable at the alt-weekly job I'd moved a thousand miles to take.
I had fancy plans for that fateful weekend: My sophisticated lady-friends and I would have a champagne brunch at my apartment and then walk the few blocks to the park, mingling urbanely with the fabulous set at the day's scheduled Pride festivities. But it rained. And they flaked. And I had all this champagne.
My would-be fiancé was a musician (bartender) and he was touring at the time. I was responsible for his cat, which was a bigger job than you'd think. The cat was diabetic so he needed daily injections, which meant I had to go over there no matter what.
Now, I'm one of those insufferable snobs who can't help but find a way to tell you that I don't own a television. But the cat-owning bartender had a big fat flat screen and a Netflix subscription, and watching at his place left me with relatively clean hands on the no-TV front.
Part of the reason for that is my absolutely atrocious taste in programming. When I'm deigning to watch, I watch the worst, most lowbrow crap I can find.
That night, pretty well wasted I staggered over there and shot the cat up with his insulin, settling in with the last bottle of bubbly. I wasn't going to have to justify my Netflix choices to anyone. The cat didn't give a damn.
Something in me was powerfully drawn to "Celebrity Rehab." It felt furtive and wrong, like watching some kind of delightfully horrifying porn that you'll only partially enjoy because you're so busy thinking “Must. Delete. Browser. History.” I knew I hadn’t chosen it idly, as much as I told myself I had.
Of course I loved it immediately. It was Season 3, with Dennis Rodman and Heidi Fleiss as outsized caricatures of humanity, fame, addiction, and ways the rich are not like you and me.
It was shocking, but also really really banal. Sure, they had money and notoriety and things I always wanted, but they had the same fundamental problems I did. And most of them failed to get and stay sober, just like drunks in the real world.
The next morning I woke up with what was definitely not the worst hangover I'd ever had. I had to meet some sources for a story at a church service, and I was struck by the peace the people there had. Also I almost threw up on a seminary president's shoes while interviewing him.
For me, the rest is history. I went to meetings that day and have gone ever since. A whole lot of factors -- real friends, great sponsorship, stubbornness, luck, God -- have so far kept me in sobriety. I talk about Dr. Drew and Dennis Rodman and Heidi Fleiss and her parrots every time I speak at a meeting. It always gets a laugh.
I won't say without my tongue firmly in my cheek that Dr. Drew got me sober. But, like I said, he's part of my story, which is so far a pretty great one. Yet people laugh when I mention it, and Pinsky's detractors say he put ratings above his responsibility to his patients.
Three people from that season are dead. Pinsky didn't kill them. Their addictions killed them. I've been sober in a midsize city for almost three years. This disease has killed and is killing people I know, today and the whole time I've been a member of this fellowship.
I don't know if the show was great television. Maybe not. I've never seen it sober. Pinsky has said he stopped doing it because he was tired of the criticism when his methods weren't 100 percent successful.
People say he held desperate people at their worst up to a world full of voyeurs and lookie-loos and made a buck off them. Both of those things are true, but I don't think either one makes him a bad guy. The viewing public and the 12-step peanut gallery seems to think that because he's famous and highly educated, Pinsky needs to play the role of super-sponsor, and that because he's the face of a brand, he's personally responsible for the sobriety of the people on the show.
Ultimately we're all responsible for our own, whether we're famous or not.
Dr. Drew is a clever guy with really good hair and a sense for what makes compelling television. That's all he needs to be. Celebrities court the spotlight, good or bad. That's on them. And Pinsky provided one. For this particular alcoholic, the runoff from that spotlight was light at the end of the tunnel.