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Enough with celebrity 'rehab-abuse'

By Simma Lieberman, Special to CNN
  • Simma Lieberman says it's routine to see celebrities very publicly checking into rehab
  • This trivializes the hard work of rehab, she says, makes it fodder for late-night gags and reality TV
  • When celebs lapse, seem not to take treatment seriously, she says, it sends harmful message
  • Lieberman: Let's stop feeding fascination; get serious about addiction's costs, responsibilities

Editors note: Simma Lieberman is a diversity consultant in Berkeley, California, and co-author (with George Simons and Kate Berardo), of "Putting Diversity to Work."

Berkeley, California (CNN) -- At some point, the "rush to rehab," reached the ridiculous. Does a week pass without some celebrity, politician or famous athlete heading to a rehabilitation treatment center? And often with the cameras rolling.

Rehab is getting a bad name from this, and I worry that this will rub off on our perceptions of the average alcoholic or drug addict who works hard to stay clean and sober, takes responsibility for his or her actions -- and knows that there is still work to do after the first 30 days.

Doubt it? Then how to explain the cynical jokes on late-night TV, the tearful confessions from the talk-show couch, or this: "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," a VH1 reality show that features famous or almost famous people in treatment for addiction or behavioral issues.

The cases of Lindsay Lohan (in and out of rehab; now off to jail) and Mel Gibson (reportedly in therapy after the release of the alleged tirade tapes) are just the most recent examples of a high-profile practice in vogue since the 1980s, when Betty Ford opened her famous center in Rancho Mirage, California. The celebrities followed.

Video: Lohan lockdown under way
Video: What happens to Lohan now?
Video: Andy Dick on rehab

Of course, there are famous people who benefit greatly from a stay in treatment, who do it privately and with sincere purpose.

But it's common, too common, to see the well-known on TV, after completing a 30- or 45-day program, proclaim themselves "saved," only to show up on TMZ the next week partying or running people over with their cars. This "rehab-abuse" (used maybe to wait out a public relations storm after bad behavior, or draw attention to a stalled career?) devalues and trivializes the very real, very unglamorous struggle of pulling free of addiction and making amends for harmful behavior.

More than others, the famous have a responsibility to treat the process with respect.

As a former drug and alcohol abuser (clean and sober for more than 26 years), I know something about the work that goes into transforming a life. One of the first things I learned in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous was that alcoholism and drug addiction are not excuses for injuring yourself or others. Part of recovery is making a list of people you've harmed, making amends to them personally and accepting the consequences of your past actions. I didn't make an announcement to the world and I still don't think I have all the answers, but I came out of it knowing a lot more.

I also learned that I need to have a connection to something greater than myself, which to me is a higher power that I call God. Like other recovering substance abusers, I know I'm not the center of the world and life doesn't start and end with me.

I've found that people who stay clean and sober the longest have some kind of spiritual belief, whether it's God, life force, universal energy or a sense of oneness with the world.

They also realize that amends and apologies have to mean something and indicate a change in actions and thought processes. "Apologies by proxy"-- when celebrities (or noncelebrities, for that matter) make inappropriate, racist remarks, then apologize to well-known people from the group targeted by the comment -- just don't cut it.

Entering treatment for addiction means you get treatment for your addiction. Any other changes you make are up to you. That also means that a racist alcoholic who gets treated for alcoholism can still be a sober racist, anti-Semite, homophobe or engage in inappropriate behavior.

Someone who spews hateful prejudices can stay in rehab forever, but unless he has some education, time for self-examination and the willingness to get to see people from diverse backgrounds as human beings and understand their lives and experiences, he'll be the same.

The media could stem this perverse fascination by remembering the young people (and older people, too) struggling with substance abuse who see "role models" regress on national TV and feel hopeless for their own chance for recovery. What else can they think but, "What's the use? If they can't stay clean with so many people helping, how can I?"

In the last 26 years, I've experienced the death of my parents, the death of my partner of 18 years and a new life as a single parent. I was hospitalized and came close to death. I was run over and couldn't work for a year. I didn't use drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with these experiences. Life happens to everyone.

Let's stop glamorizing these celebrity addicts and adding to their out-of-control drama. Let's get real about their addictions and the impact on their families. Let's discuss solutions, and all the options for help. Let's sensationalize being clean and sober.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simma Lieberman.