Actress Mackenzie Phillips, 52, was once so drug-addled that she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cocaine, lost jobs and lovers, used drugs while pregnant with her son, watched as close relatives died from drug abuse, and says she was even reduced to a years-long incestuous relationship with her equally addicted father, musician John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.
She should be dead, she says, and she gives herself credit for battling back from the brink. True, most of her family cut her off because of what she says about her late father, but she feels she has finally escaped her past. "At last I'm living the health and happiness that I always described but never experienced," she wrote in her 2009 memoir, High on Arrival.
There's nothing new about celebrity addiction. Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer who died in 1959, may have been one of the first major celebrities to go to her grave too early (she was only 44) because of the effects of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Nor is there anything new about addiction among non-celebrity Americans. According to the government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 23.5 million people 12 or older needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem in 2009, but only 2.6 million actually were treated at a specialty facility (aka rehab).
As for addiction deaths, those happen among ordinary people, too, but we don't hear about them because they're not celebrities.
A new addiction
What is new is that increasingly Americans are getting hooked on prescription drugs, and ending up dead or close to it by accidentally taking too much or mixing them with alcohol. The number of overdose deaths from painkillers more than tripled from 1999 to 2006, to 13,800 deaths that year, according to Center for Disease Control statistics released in 2009.
Conservative radio king Rush Limbaugh, 61, was pescribed powerful painkillers after back surgery. He ended up hooked in 2003, was caught trying to acquire them illegally, was arrested and spent a month in rehab.
Prescription drug addiction has become "an epidemic," says psychiatrist Marc Galanter, director of alcoholism and substance abuse treatment at NYU Langone Medical Center/Bellevue.
"There's a whole new raft of (narcotic) drugs available that will compromise you, and you don't have to be a celebrity to afford them -- middle-class people can afford them," Galanter says.
Why do people who are rich, famous, beautiful and talented feel the need for drugs and alcohol? Life coach and family advocate Lisa Nkonoki, who says she helped Ray Charles Jr. overcome his addictions, has offered her services to her longtime friend, Brown, father of Houston's teen daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who as the child of addicts is at risk of stumbling down the same path. Nkonoki says celebrities, like anyone else, can become addicts because they don't feel strong or good about themselves at some level.
"It's an escape (from) the persona people want them to be instead of the person they truly are," she says. Stepping away from addiction, she says, comes only after accepting that it's a disease.
"When you get this disease, you have to deal with it, manage it, emerge from it and move on."
The key factor in treating addictions, celebrity or otherwise, is recognizing that there's usually an underlying mental-health problem, says Kathleen Bigsby, CEO of The Canyon at Peace Park, an exclusive and ultra-private comprehensive treatment center in Malibu that has treated celebrities (no names, she says) for addiction and "co-occurring disorders."
Actress/writer Carrie Fisher, 55, was addicted to drugs and drink (and food) almost from the time she became a star playing Princess Leia in Star Wars. Was it fame that made her a mess? Probably not, because she's also bipolar and her childhood as a Hollywood princess (daughter of Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher) left her plagued by insecurity and despair, she says. Fame didn't help.
Fisher turned her difficulties into successful comic memoirs and stage shows, writing in her latest book, Shockaholic, that she tried everything to cure herself over the decades -- therapy and retreats, overeating and fasting, 12-steps, meditation, rebirthing, walking over hot coals, jumping out of airplanes, climbing mountains, floating down the Amazon, speaking in tongues you get the picture.
And yet, "I still did not feel -- how shall I put this -- mentally sound," she writes.
The problem for celeb addicts is they have to struggle and recover in public, in the glare of social media and the 24/7 celebrity-media industrial complex, Bigsby says. Nowadays even D-list celebrities are in the spotlight.
Meanwhile, tragic deaths can teach grim lessons, but sometimes not, addiction expert Galanter says.
"It alerts people to the danger, but can also make it attractive, because if a celeb is doing it, people think maybe they can risk it, too," he says.
"Deaths might sober people up, but it depends on how sensible people are. I hope so."
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