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Essayist Examines Addiction in Media and Everyday Life

May 7, 2007 at 6:50 PM EST
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: They are proliferating up here in the lovely and expensive hills of Malibu, residential rehab centers, I’m talking about. With names like Promises, and Passages, and Renaissance Malibu, they are protected by gates and unlisted addresses.

They offer a well-heeled and often famous clientele a luxurious place to stare down the demons of alcohol and drug addiction while staring out at the luminous Pacific. The young pop star, Britney Spears, had her tabloid- chronicled, 28-day, $48,000 stay in Promises, this glamorous spa-like facility, complete with massage therapists, elegant sheets, and gourmet food.

There seems to be a veritable trail of celebrities signing on for a now-trendy stint in one of these high-end places, often after a very public fall from grace.

Think Mel Gibson after his arrest and racist chatter, or other high-profilers who confessed to being powerless over alcohol, like Congressman Mark Foley and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Then, it’s on to Oprah or Barbara Walters to tender an apology for bad behavior and complete the disgrace-to-redemption cycle.

It is easy to be a little cheeky about all this — and hard not to be, at least a little — given the vast majority of people who couldn’t possibly afford this kind of detox deluxe. Currently, addiction affects 22.2 million Americans, but only 10 percent of them get any kind of treatment at all.

Of the roughly 2.2 million prisoners in this country, at least half are alcohol- or drug-dependent and will be released back into society addiction intact. But even among the treated, whether they’ve gotten their help in prison or in an AA meeting in a church basement, or in Malibu’s lap of luxury, the relapse rate is huge. Only about 20 percent of first-time rehabbers will stay clean and sober for a year.

Addiction is daunting, as any of us know who have watched a loved one battle fiercely against it. It is understood now as an insidious disease with genetic, biochemical and behavioral factors, a fancy way of saying it seems to be a thing deep in, a craving of mind and body, a habit of self-anesthetizing that is extremely difficult to break and extremely easy to fall back into once broken.

The pharmaceutical companies are trying very hard to come up with a magic pill, but, meanwhile, one in four Americans must watch a family member struggle with addiction, and that is not an easy thing to do. There is so much wreckage.

That goes for the celebrities, too, and their families. They might start on the road to recovery up here in the opulence of Malibu, but down there it will be the same slugging, slugging, day-to-day fight to the finish, the same amends to make, the same repair work to do.

For some — Britney Spears and the other party-girl of the moment, Lindsay Lohan, who has also tried a residential rehab program — it will be plenty tough. They are still so young, so pampered, victims not just of their own party-girl appetites, but also of a celebrity worshipping culture that is, in effect, an enabler, to borrow the addiction lingo. And they and their loved ones will pay an unknown price of it for the rest of their lives.

Turned off as I have been by some of their antics, I nonetheless root for them, as I do for anybody and everybody trying to wrest themselves free of an addiction.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.