To Endure Burning: The Cult of Celebrity and the Pressures of Recovery in the Public Eye

 “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Victor Frankl

A celebrity heiress is charged with driving while intoxicated and spends time under house arrest. When caught violating the terms of her probation, she is not arrested, but is sent to treatment in the California hills. She isn’t seen for three months. A Fortune 500 CEO pleads no contest to similar charges which are summarily dropped. He takes a 90-day leave of absence from his firm and catches a private flight to Malibu. Shareholders go into cloak-and-dagger mode and begin to watch the market without blinking. A two-time Oscar-nominated actor is walked off the set of his latest top-ranked network series. The director sweeps the contents of his desk onto the trailer floor in one angry stroke. He paces a while, then gathers himself. He calls a three-month break in filming, and sends his lead actor to rehab.

From Arapahoe, Nebraska, to Wilbur, Washington, tabloid newspapers leap off the shelves. Around infrequently washed coffee urns, daytime cubical dwellers loiter and discuss: frequently football; often the news; eventually the merits of the assumed lives of People More Powerful Than They. Of those who take any interest in these discussions, the breakdown in response might be said to go something like this: 75 percent bash the famous/powerful for what is assumed to be foolish behavior; 15 percent defend the famous/powerful in sycophantic defensiveness; 10 percent maintain neutrality out of a sense that even celebrities are people, therefore just as fallible as anyone else.

The heiress, the CEO, and the actor are all, of course, headed to treatment for addiction in an in-patient recovery center. They go voluntarily or not at all, otherwise treatment has little hope of working. The recovery centers they choose are places not unlike their own homes or vacation homes—beautiful, restful, places that will allow them many of the luxuries they have come to expect. Somewhere they may be able to feel comfortable rather than vulnerable. The owners and highly trained staff who work in such places understand why these qualities are necessary, but the public may not. The judging public may not believe that such luxury is in line with addiction recovery. It was only recently, after all, that addicts were treated punitively in “recovery,” and more recently that this means of treatment was finally understood to be not only ineffective, but also harmful.

Celebrity as Psychological Scapegoat

It is not a new phenomenon that public figures are held up as stars one moment then cast from the pedestal for very human failures the next. The cult of celebrity, with its fangirl-screaming, paparazzi-chasing, narcissistic-starlet-devouring masses has been around in one guise or another for millennia. For the few who find themselves lens-side of the paparazzo’s camera, being famous (for creative works of actual talent or simply for being a by-product of the cult of celebrity’s gluttony) has a way of making already hard to navigate human trials and traumas blow up. Culturally, we place people of celebrity under a magnifying glass. When they experience the heat of the sun’s rays—the considerable social pressures of life as a celebrity, and with little privacy from which to retreat—certain individuals may become vulnerable to addiction.

The cult of celebrity is itself a deeply imbedded psychological phenomenon. We hold up individuals of fame and power as our idols—those we wish we could become—in order to motivate us toward power, or to defend us against our own lack of motivation: “I’ll never be that beautiful/talented/powerful, so why should I try?” And when our celebrities fall from their pedestals—when they exhibit wholly human weaknesses like alcoholism, drug dependence, sexual compulsion, affairs—we castigate them. We experience a freight train of schadenfreude (you know, that feeling of enjoyment you get when someone you know experiences a failure?). And this is a psychological defense too. We transfer all of our failures onto our celebrities. This way, we don’t have to reckon with our own.

But what does it mean for those individuals who find themselves both famous and falling? And what does it mean for a public that watches so closely? If a celebrity crashes and burns and then enters rehab, the public may feel she’s inauthentic—that she’s just going to treatment to please her publicist and lawyers. And if a starlet goes to rehab and leaves early, even more than once, their suspicions may be verified. Yet the majority of people fail to get permanently clean the first time they enter treatment of any kind. If the public understood this, they might be more understanding. Getting sober is hard work. There is a lot to uncover, a lot of psychological work to do—it’s harder than just giving up a drug or a process, and that is very hard too. Still, what others think, even a public of millions, is irrelevant. There is no greater predictor of whether someone will succeed at recovery than what the addict thinks, and one of the biggest issues is very often that she has a fundamentally mistaken belief which has been guiding her life. Finding that mistaken belief and changing it is essential, no matter who you are, or how many Twitter followers you have.

Creativity, Addiction, and Mental Illness

Theories exist which hypothesize that certain highly creative and even highly productive people may have or be predisposed toward certain types of mental illness (such as bipolar disorder) as well as to addiction issues. And certain mental illnesses, such as the bipolar illness example, frequently manifest substance abuse as a symptom meant to self-medicate further symptoms such as depression or anxiety. It may be that famous actors, musicians, writers, and powerful business people share some of these traits or experiences. Learning that one may have a dual-diagnosis—addiction as well as mental health issue—can actually be a relief; one finally has an answer to problems that were previously confounding, as well as a path toward healing them.

It is surely a trial for those individuals who have chosen lives of celebrity to experience addiction and attempt to get treatment while under microscopic examination in the public eye. Tremendous pressure is upon them to be more than human, to be perfect, to remain erect atop the pedestals cast for them—lofty plinths with only enough room for a flawless shell, not the human beneath it, surely not for their needs. Any celebrity or other individual in the public eye who holds the weight of so much scrutiny should consider the merits of celebrity versus the merits of psychological and physical wellness. When the merits of one clash entirely with the merits of the other, decide which one you’ll get behind. Are you giving light, or are you just burning?