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What Americans Don't Get About the Ravages of Addiction

For all the daily hand wringing about celebrity overdoses and DUIs, there is little real reporting on the science of addiction, or how to make progress fighting it.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Neno843 at Flickr.

 
 
 
 

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Just minutes after Whitney Houston was found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton last Saturday at the age of 48, a caravan of network trucks began slowly encircling the plush hotel, morbidly eager to document her untimely demise. Since then, it's been nearly impossible to turn on the TV or log on to the Web without witnessing a tribute to the singer, often including depressing video footage of her long, painful decline. Her memorial on Saturday had the pomp and pageantry of a state event—complete with dignitaries, crying onlookers and flags at half-mast.

But while speakers talked movingly about her battles, mention of the word 'addiction' was curiously scrubbed from the event.

It’s no surprise that the singer's death has struck such a chord in the country. Incredibly talented, beautiful and ambitious, Whitney Houston was a rare kind of legend who changed the face of American pop music. In her later life she also became an addict whose cruel struggle with the disease unfolded in full public view. That she lay dying for hours in a luxe bathroom suite while her bodyguards cooled their heels outside is a sad commentary on the state of modern celebrity. That it took less than 10 minutes for the press to begin broadcasting her death is an even more searing indictment of contemporary media culture.

Houston, of course, is not the only celebrity whose problems have received rapt press attention. Last month it was Demi Moore. The week before that it was Disney's Demi Lavato. Meanwhile, the weekly travails of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan have been breathless fodder for fleets of paparazzi. And for over a year before her death last year, fans of Amy Winehouse received daily updates of her ups and downs. One British tabloid even went so far as to embed a pack of paparazzi at her favorite pubs.

As a longtime editor at several magazines over the past two decades, I've admittedly been an active participant in this game—keenly aware that for ordinary readers grappling with the mundanities of daily life, stars offer a few rare moments of transcendence. But their intoxicating effect on the American public also gives them outsized power to shape public perception. In the 1980s, Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson forced the media to finally pay attention to AIDS only after it had already killed an army of Americans. Michael J. Fox's battle with Parkinson's helped bring invaluable attention and funding to the disease, while prompting a debate on stem cell research that promises to have profound effects on the treatment of other illnesses.

But substantive stories about alcoholism and drug addiction remain largely outside the media purview—focused on the tribulations of A and C-list celebrities, they're often ghettoized in gossip sites and channels like VH1. For all the daily hand wringing about celebrity overdoses and DUIs, there is precious little real reporting on the growing scientific understanding of the disease, the tragic lack of access to treatment or insurance coverage, or even the growing number of promising drugs that have begun to make real progress against this condition.

For a long time, I regarded this kind of journalism as business as usual. But my own perspective began to change as I was forced to confront the fact of my own addiction. For most of my early thirties I fancied myself a young version of the late Christopher Hitchens, a literary legend rarely spotted without a drink who once bragged that he couldn't write without a hangover. Alas, I soon learned that I possessed neither his talent nor his hardy constitution. As a result, I spent two years in a series of rehabs and sober living facilities, witnessing firsthand the ravenous toll taken by addiction and the abject failure of our medical and political system.