Beneath sparkling chandeliers hanging in the famed Rainbow Room, as a gala crowd dotted with rock stars sat around white-clothed dinner tables, Ringo Starr stood at a podium and described what it felt like to be 30 years sober.
With wife Barbara Bach Starkey — herself a recovering alcoholic — at his side, the former Beatle described what it took for him to get help and called for more resources and acceptance for the treatment movement that saved their lives.
“I was living my life so great,” Ringo said at the recent fundraiser for the addiction advocacy nonprofit Facing Addiction with NCADD. “I was one of those really nice pass-out, blackout drunks. Anyway, I came to one night and... out of a blackout, I came to the next day and I had done a lot of damage. I was about to lose the love of my life, Barbara, and everything else. It was my moment.”
Ringo was rewarded with a warm embrace from guests, some in recovery themselves or touched by addiction in other ways. But it wasn’t all that long ago, for the high-profile and the regular person, that the stigma of addiction was so great careers, families and lives were ruined if word leaked. For some stars, the disease of addiction turned them into public mockeries. The addiction battles of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse were comic foils for others, for example.
Such a backlash continues for many, but more celebrities are detailing their struggles and roads to recovery in the moment, taking advantage of social media and the 24/7 news cycle to reveal all, soak up support and reach out.
Demi Lovato took to Instagram with a health update not long after her recent overdose: “I have always been transparent about my journey with addiction. What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time. It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet.”
She thanked God and her family — and thousands and thousands of admirers offered up their love on her page.
Ben Affleck did the same after he exited a rehab programme for his alcohol addiction. Russell Brand even wrote a book about it, Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, calling this the age of addiction, “a condition so epidemic, so all-encompassing and ubiquitous that unless you are fortunate enough to be an extreme case, you probably don’t know that you have it.”
Celebrating sobriety, Macklemore recently headlined Recovery Fest, rocking a crowd of more than 10,000 at a drug- and alcohol-free concert in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that also included recovery yoga and recovery meetings.
“Whether it’s a meeting or whether it’s stage I rather just share my experience, strength and hope with the people,” the rapper told the crowd.
So how does all the truth-telling and wellness talk trickle down from celebrities to the streets? Nicely, said people on other sides of the equation.
“One of the greatest obstacles for individuals from seeking treatment for addiction is the stigma surrounding addiction and their experience of shame. The more celebrities who are willing to be transparent about their addiction and recovery, the more we can offer hope to all families struggling with addiction,” said therapist and drug counsellor John Hamilton, who heads outreach for Mountainside, which has a residential treatment facility in Canaan, Connecticut.
Addiction and alcoholism are the No 1 causes of death in the US for people under 50, according to government data. The cost to jails, courts, hospitals and the price of death itself, along with other factors, are estimated at $442 billion (Dh1.6 trillion) a year, according to Facing Addiction, which recently combined with the more established nonprofit the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence .
Mike Frasco, 29, knows about the power of sobriety firsthand, along with the power of music.
Those worlds merged at a crucial time in his life, thanks to a 20-year-old, New York-based nonprofit called Road Recovery. It offers at-risk young people the chance to work with music pros and recovering addicts like Slash, and Roger and John Taylor of Duran Duran, at live concert events and in the recording studio.
Frasco was fresh out of rehab a couple of years ago when he hooked up with the organisation, co-founded by ex-tour manager and recovering addict Gene Bowen and Jack Bookbinder, a former manager for Gregg Allman and Jeff Buckley.
As part of the programme, Frasco wrote and others in his Road Recovery group played on a single, No Rewind, with production support from the Taylors. The song was released in 2016.
“We went and we saw them live, which was cool,” Frasco said. “They talked about addiction and their problems. We shared our stories. It was nice to see somebody very successful be very humble about who they were... We made music and that was kind of our thing that we did that kept us sober.”
Fred Schneider, the 67-year-old frontman for The B-52’s, said he’s never had a substance addiction, but he signed on to Road Recovery nevertheless, working with a group of mentees on a song in the studio to pass on his expertise. Any celebrity is fair game for all kinds of outing these days, including drinking and drugging, but what has changed, he said, is more are “coming out as having problems” and “trying to inspire fans to take control of their lives, too.”
Clearly, not all celebrities willingly go public with addiction or abuse. Revelations often come after arrests, bystander phone video and hospitalisations are blasted around the globe by the tabloids or on social media. Many try to keep the secret. Prince’s death from a fentanyl overdose shocked the world. Others who make it through prefer to keep their recoveries to themselves.
Those who share freely and try to pay it forward are gold to therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists and advocates in the trenches of addiction.
“It’s as if the public can track their admission to having a problem after a tipping point where their well-being was at risk. People can also watch the recovery process via celebrity Instagram posts and media coverage of it in real time,” said Dr Duy Nguyen, a psychiatrist at Beachway Therapy Center, a drug and alcohol rehab in Boynton Beach, Florida.
He’s had several patients seek help after learning of a celebrity overdosing or dying.
“It inspires people to see that if a celebrity can admit to having a substance abuse problem, they can, too, and they can get help and succeed with assistance,” Nguyen said. “It also sends the message that celebrities, despite a perceived ‘perfect life,’ aren’t immune to struggles with alcohol and-or drugs.”