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How the Wrong Approach to Drug Recovery Killed 'Glee' Star Cory Monteith

From his first rehab in his early teens to the intervention staged by Glee co-creater Ryan Murphy in March, the star was failed in every possible way by an abstinence-only recovery culture.
 
 
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Cory Monteith, (second row, left) died following a drug relapse on July 13.

 
 
 
 

The following first appeared on The Fix

Glee star Cory Monteith’s tragic death on July 13 was preventable. Now that more details have emerged about what led up to his fatal alcohol and heroin OD, that conclusion is inescapable. As a adolescent, he was sent to many potentially traumatizing “troubled teen” schools—and as an adult, he received addiction treatment that did not follow government guidelines for effective care and did not provide potentially lifesaving harm reduction information.

Meanwhile, the media is doing its usual best to obscure the problem and keep stereotypes about addiction alive. Portraying Monteith as the “ new face of” and pretending as though the drug hasn’t long been used by both celebrities and the middle class, the networks and online media are recycling the  idea that heroin is just starting to escape the ghetto and affect people who don’t look like an addict “should.” That’s not news.

But what is important—and is not getting enough attention—is the fact that Monteith has just joined fellow heroin addict  Kurt Cobain as yet another famous and beloved victim of tough love and, as Anne Fletcher wrote in  The Fix on Monday, anti-maintenance stigma.

Monteith’s history with ineffective and harmful anti-drug programs started almost as soon as he began using, at 13. Between that age and 16, he attended some 12 different schools, including several aimed at “ troubled teens,” a phrase that has become shorthand for harsh programs that we now know can backfire.

During the years when he was locked inside troubled teen programs—1995-1998—tough love reined. Tactics were aimed at “breaking” youth through physical and emotional abuse—everything from solitary confinement, punitive restraint and sleep and food deprivation to public humiliation like wearing signs saying, “I am an asshole,” being made to dress in drag and being forced to scrub bathrooms with the same toothbrush you must later use to brush your teeth.

For a sensitive and depressed adolescent, these tactics are counterproductive. They can exacerbate any pre-existing mental illness, a condition of virtually all addicts whose use starts in pre-adolescence like Monteith’s. They can worsen the odds of relapse. Most perversely, they can turn a mild drug misuse problem into a chronic addiction.

So, this is the initial instance where tough love was likely to have harmed the future star. And it probably did so in two ways. First, by the damage itself that comes from harsh treatment. And second, by creating a fear of treatment as disrespectful and even brutalizing.

None of the “care” Monteith received as a teen “stuck.” And while the first “my way or the highway” intervention he got at 19 did initiate a period of sobriety, it was almost certainly his discovery of his talent as an actor at this time rather than anything he experienced in rehab that sustained it.  Paradedescribed Monteith’s first experience in front of a camera (in the role of a man contemplating suicide) as “life altering.” The actor told the magazine that it was the first time he’d felt the joy of “working hard and being good at something.”

Fast forward to 2013. Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of  Glee, learns that Monteith is using again—and probably, that opiate use was involved.

As Deadline Hollywood reported:

“As soon as I heard what was happening, when we had two episodes left to go, I brought him to my office where we had the intervention,” Murphy said. “He said he wanted to finish the rest of the season, and I said absolutely not. We were not going to put a stupid TV show before his sobriety. I assured him he was not fired, that his job was secure, that he would leave today. He went with a whimper and not a bang and it was very emotional. On one hand, he was thrilled that people wanted to take care of him, though he also felt shame and regret. We had experts in the room and tried to let him know this was a disease. It was a tough and very emotional day and the last thing he said before he left was, ‘I want to get better.’ And I believed him.”