By Erin Caine
Substance abuse and the celebrity world have always had a peculiar relationship. Granted, being rich and famous seems to help shield one from any truly devastating legal consequences. As Chris Arnade of The Guardian succinctly put it in his article about American poverty and addiction, “the wealthy ‘make mistakes,’ [and] the poor go to jail.”
Even so, though addiction amongst the wealthy and high-profile is accepted with way more leniency, this leniency has seemed to turn into a kind of desensitized expectation. American culture has perhaps come to embrace, without questioning it, the myth of the celebrity “lifestyle” being full of unavoidable vices.
Recent news about actor Ben Affleck’s return to rehab and pop singer Demi Lovato’s sudden relapse have only managed to remind us of an unfortunate truth: though the road to recovery is an incredibly strenuous and difficult enterprise, we seem to take it for granted that celebrities will eventually (and definitively) “bounce back” and resume their lives and careers as always.
On Aug. 5, Lovato posted a message to her fans on her Instagram, speaking honestly about her health and recuperation. “What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time,” she said. “It is something I must continue to overcome.”
Lovato isn’t by any means a strange case; it is estimated that somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of all people suffering with addiction will have a relapse after a period of seeming recovery.
Drug abuse has been the cause of countless celebrities’ premature deaths, surely due in large part to our tendency to aggrandize a “high-risk lifestyle” as the start of legends, rather than the social normalization of self-destructive habits.
Perhaps most callous of all is the cultural meme “The 27 Club,” which conspiratorially catalogues famous people who died at the age of 27 such as Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin.
Many of them, if not most, died because of continued substance abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that last year over 72,000 people in the U.S. died due to a drug overdose.
For better or worse, celebrities represent to many of us an ideal way of living, and they are the ones capable of speaking out and shedding a light on difficult issues that are currently being pushed under the rug in favor of an easier and healthier national fiction.
Though we’re indeed in the midst of a formidable health crisis (a beast seldom acknowledged especially in the shiny celebrity world), not everything is doom and gloom. If Lovato and other influential figures who have been in her position continue to take to public platforms and use their heightened visibility to dispel myths and begin important conversations, then the future perhaps bodes a little bit better.