Celebrity Rehab Tradgedy

In the past 18 months, four of the past 43 participants in VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew have died from either drug use or illnesses related to their drug addictions. The tragic roster includes Alice in Chains’ bassist Mike Starr, 44, actor Jeff Conaway, 60, police brutality victim Rodney King, 47, and reality TV star Joey Kovar, 29.Celebrity Rehab

As the show enters its sixth season on Sunday—with non-celebrity addicts for the first time—the question of its effectiveness in treating alcoholics and substance abusers in front of cameras is at the forefront again. It’s an issue the show has faced from its inception, but is now more gravely spotlighted in light of the succession of public losses. Is rehabilitation just impossible to attain for some addicts, or does the endeavor become hopeless when cameras are introduced and addicts are paid to participate?

Starr, who appeared in the show’s third season and often spoke about the overdose death of Layne Staley, the Alice in Chains singer, died in Feb. 2011 from a prescription overdose. Two months later, Conaway, who was also addicted to painkillers because of back pain and participated on the show in its first and second seasons, died after he aspirated medications into his lungs and developed pneumonia. King was featured in the second season and maintained his sobriety for over a year. In June, he drowned in his pool after mixing alcohol and marijuana and going into cardiac arrest. Kovar was in the third season and was found dead in a friend’s home on Aug. 17. His autopsy was inconclusive and toxicology tests are pending.

“Once in a while the disease wins,” said Dr. John Sharp, the show’s on-call psychiatrist. “And it’s really not infrequent.  It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me glad that I’m in the healing profession all at once. My wife has to remind me that it doesn’t always go well.”

The deaths of King and Kovar this summer especially shook up the Celebrity Rehab production because both men were believed to be progressing, even though the show’s head counselor said that he was aware that King had been periodically drinking as he wrote his memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, which was released in April. His death, followed by Kovar’s two months later, called into question again whether addition treatment in a reality show context can be effective when staying clean—even without the demands of a show and so much public attention—is already so challenging for most addicts.

“It’s not hopeless, but it’s just really hard,” said Bob Forrest, a former addict who appears as a counselor on Celebrity Rehab. “It’s hard to stay sober because there’s so much accessibility and life is so difficult for addicts to live. Every addict that gets sober is a miracle. Rodney was the biggest shock to me. He had been sober a year and a half, and I knew he had relapsed but, still, when he died, I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’”

When VH1 committed to the series with Dr. Drew Pinsky in 2008, the network signed up to tell the story of a “devastating disease without making it prettier than what it is,” said Jeff Olde, VH1’s executive vice president of original programming and production and an executive producer on the series. The show introduces the addicts by showing them in their home life abusing drugs or alcohol and then checking into the recovery center in Pasadena where they are followed as they suffer through withdrawal and undergo individual and group therapy. After production ends, VH1 offers all the participants free outpatient care five days a week for six months.

The show has had some notable successes, such as Tom Sizemore, featured in the third season, has been clean since May 2009 and is working regularly in film and television, with a recurring role on CBS’ Hawaii Five-0. But there have also been some high-profile falls from sobriety. In just the last few months, Kari Ann Peniche (Season 3, plus Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew and Sober House), Seth Binzer (Seasons 1 and 2 and Seasons 1 and 2 of Sober House), Brigitte Nielsen, and Chyna (Season 1) have all been the subject of drug-or-alcohol-fueled headlines.

“Not all of them make it,” Olde said. “Not all of them stay sober and that is an absolute reality of people dealing with addiction. I’ve learned a lot personally about how the process works. The show does a real service by showing what the journey is like, how difficult it is, and how fragile it is. Like Dr. Drew says, ‘You have to fight for everyone of these people to make it and not all of them will. But if you don’t fight for them and they don’t fight for themselves, they definitely won’t make it.’”

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