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Hollywood Embraces Recovery: How Industry Insiders Get and Stay Sober

In Variety’s Recovery Issue, prominent entertainment figures offer insights on navigating a sober life in Hollywood. For more, click here

The premiere screening of “Knives Out” at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival last month went fabulously well. The audience and film critics in attendance loved director Rian Johnson’s darkly comic whodunit.

By the time the post-screening party began around midnight, the mood among the movie’s ensemble cast was jubilant. Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and other stars were rushed by a crowd of industry insiders and festivalgoers ready to gush about their film. It was the kind of reception actors dream of.

But after 15 minutes, Curtis was done. She’d had enough of what she calls “wine breath” in her face and bodies uncomfortably close to hers in an overcrowded space. In an instant, she knew it was time to leave.

“I’m not going to pretend that I enjoy being around drunk people,” Curtis says. “I don’t.”

Curtis listened to her gut at the “Knives Out” party because for her, making the choice to avoid difficult situations is part of being in recovery, or the long-term management of the disease of addiction. She has been sober since 1999, after becoming addicted to Vicodin in the late ’80s. In public and in private, Curtis does not hesitate to discuss her recovery. Being open about it is one way she stays sober.

Curtis argues that those who have been able to acknowledge their drug and alcohol abuse should wear it as “a badge of honor” as a means of combating the shame and the natural instinct to deny the force of addiction.

“There’s great power that comes from self-declaration: This is who I am, this is what I do, and I am going to try to stop,” she says. “For me to say that the reason my life is so much better is because I am sober is me controlling it. I gave up that information, specifically as a public figure, to acknowledge the reality of my life.”

Curtis is a vocal example of a growing movement among industry insiders who embrace the hard work of living in recovery and maintaining sobriety. Although Hollywood has a well-earned reputation as a town where the party never ends, there’s greater awareness than ever of the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse, and more pathways to recovery for those who seek it.

The social stigma and the sense of shame that many addicts feel about their lack of control remain big impediments to seeking help. That’s why it’s significant when prominent figures speak out about their experience.

“There’s been a culture shift in the last 20 years in the growth of the recovery movement,” says John Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It also decreases the stigma for a person’s family and friends, which are usually the prime mover in getting people into treatment.”

Experts say the culture of the entertainment industry presents unique challenges for those in recovery because so much business is conducted in social settings, at premiere parties and receptions, or over drinks and dinner meetings. Filming on location for months at a time can be hard on actors, other creatives and crew members in any circumstances, let alone those in recovery. Festivals, conferences, press tours and the globalization of the industry add up to demands to travel and be away from regular routines. Disruption to the norm can be debilitating to addicts and those in recovery.

That’s why so many people in recovery find that being upfront about addiction in professional settings is crucial.

“For every platinum album certification, there’s a Champagne toast. For every sold-out arena, there’s a Champagne toast,” says music manager Michael McDonald, founder of Mick Management and chairman emeritus of MusiCares. McDonald marked 20 years of sobriety this year. “I’ve never hidden my story. Now people just hand me a champagne flute full of club soda, and we get on with it,” he says.

Last month, McDonald raised $400,000 for MusiCares by competing in the Ironman Kona World Championship triathlon in Hawaii. It was a full-circle moment for McDonald because watching an Ironman championship race one day when he was dealing with a terrible hangover was one of his early inspirations for getting sober. He solicited pledges for the race through candid discussions via the MusiCares website and other venues. That he could raise so much money proves how many people have been touched by the pain of addiction.

“I love my sobriety. If I don’t have my recovery, I don’t have my successful, wonderful life. My recovery always has to come first. It just does.”
Katey Sagal

“When you share your story, people reach out to you and share their stories — it becomes a really symbiotic relationship,” he says.

The rampant spread of opioid abuse across the U.S. has helped change public attitudes toward addiction as being a problem stemming from a disease that changes the chemistry of the brain in some people, rather than the byproduct of immorality or a character weakness. It has also spurred a groundswell of efforts to address some drug-related crimes with addiction-treatment options rather than as a law enforcement issue.

“The opiate epidemic more than anything else has driven home the notion, among a large portion of the general population, that addiction is a disease,” says Kenneth Leonard, director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo. “In part that’s because a lot of people were given [opioids] as a prescription and then developed a problem.”

Industry figures who have been sober for years say that even a decade ago, it was common to face eye-rolling and even chiding for declining a drink in a social setting. Not anymore.

“There used to be a time at the end of a day on a shoot at the camera truck — you’d have cocktails, and someone would have some coke, and that would be OK,” says director-producer Paris Barclay, who has been sober for more than 30 years. “Now that’s just impossible to imagine. At wrap parties, people would always get sloppy drunk. Now it’s just not cool anymore.”

Our Lady J, an actor, writer and producer whose credits include FX’s “Pose” and Amazon’s “Transparent,” has felt a sea change in attitudes about drugs and alcohol among younger people who aspire to build careers in entertainment. She has been sober for about 10 years.

“I know quite a few young folks who get sober at a young age, and their stories of using and drinking are similar to mine,” Our Lady J says. “This younger generation is focused on health in a different way than previous generations. Having everything be online and on Instagram is such a healthy resource. They want to portray a healthy lifestyle because it’s trendy.”

Like Curtis, many recovering addicts say the key to maintaining sobriety is a level of self-awareness about the problem and its triggers. There’s a saying popular in the recovery community: “If you sit in the barber’s chair long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” That translates to: Don’t put yourself in harm’s way if you can avoid it.

John Feldmann, a songwriter and producer who has worked with Blink-182 and others, echoes Curtis’ sentiment in emphasizing that it’s important to know when to leave the party, literally and figuratively.

“If I’m at a work event, talking about work, and people are drinking — that’s one thing,” says Feldmann, who got sober in 1989, after a decade of drinking that began when he was 12. “Past a certain time, it’s not about work anymore. When I see that I’m hanging out with drunk people, I just leave. I won’t make a big deal of saying goodbye. I just get up and leave.”

Actor Katey Sagal has been sober for 33 years. She recalls that early on, it was hard to attend industry functions without her fix for social awkwardness — namely, doing drugs and drinking. She recalls seeking out “a famous person” who she knew was sober when she was feeling unsettled while attending her first Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony.

“There used to be a time at the end of a day on a shoot at the camera truck — you’d have cocktails, and someone would have some coke, and that would be ok. Now that’s just impossible to imagine.”
Paris Barclay, director-producer

“I remember running up to this person and saying, ‘I have three months of sobriety, and I feel really nervous,’” Sagal says. “She gave me that look of commonality that allowed me to know I could get through the night.”

Decades later, Sagal has been that person with the knowing look and helping hand for many in the industry. The tools she learned to use in managing her addiction to drugs and alcohol have served her well in every aspect of her life — particularly in dealing with the ups and downs of an actor’s career.

“I love my sobriety,” Sagal says. “If I don’t have my recovery, I don’t have my successful, wonderful life. My recovery always has to come first. It just does.”

Andy Lassner, an executive producer of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” marked his 20th year of sobriety in March. His life today has none of the desperation, shame and physical degradation he experienced during his years as a “hope-to-die” heroin addict and alcoholic, as he puts it. But having relapsed before 1999, Lassner knows from experience that complacency about the long-term status of his recovery is dangerous.

“As a producer, you have a lot of the same insecurities and the same ego problems as actors and actresses,” Lassner says. “A lot of times you believe that you’re only as good as your last show. There’s not a lot of job security, so this is a business that is not always the healthiest place for an addict because it can feed into every insecurity and every stress level you have.”

Curtis often puts up a handwritten sign — “Recovery meeting in Jamie’s trailer every day” — near the catering area when she’s working on location. Curtis and millions of others have been helped by connecting with 12-step programs rooted in building community among addicts who support one another in their quests to stay sober. “I find recovery wherever I go,” Curtis says.

For many, the 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s becomes the foundation for managing their addiction. Meetings are free of charge, open to all comers, sober or not, and they can be found all over the world. Of course, nowadays numerous apps help people connect into 12-step communities. The Los Angeles area alone is estimated to have about 2,500 such gatherings a month. At most major award shows and festivals, it’s not hard to find a room in the backstage area that will be dedicated to a meeting. A sign taped on the door might say “Friends of Bill W.,” a reference to AA co-founder William Griffith Wilson.

“One thing that’s certainly true about people in entertainment: Because they are in such high-risk environments, they need greater support,” says Mass General’s Kelly. Participation in 12-step programs also has been proven to help people with the larger lifestyle changes that are usually necessary for maintenance of sobriety.

“Those groups mobilize other therapeutic mechanisms that are important,” Kelly says. Individuals are encouraged to connect on a one-on-one basis with a fellow addict who can serve as a “sponsor” — someone who commits to being there in times of need — to help keep the person on the sober path. However, experts are quick to note that there’s no tried-and-true solution that works for everyone, just as the effectiveness of treatments for other chronic diseases can vary greatly from person to person.

“Recovery is the goal of being out of the chaos of addiction. There are a lot of different pathways to that and there isn’t one right pathway for everyone,” says Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. “There’s counseling, treatment, medication, getting physically fit, family counseling. We’re trying to de-stigmatize all of these things. These are complex medical, social and emotional issues.”

Elton John has attended 12-step meetings all over the map while on tour since he got sober in 1990 after years of hard living and substance abuse. “Even if I didn’t speak the language, I still attended meetings abroad,” John told Variety. “I left every meeting feeling better and more empowered than when I walked in.”

Dina LaPolt, a lawyer who specializes in entertainment and intellectual property rights, has been sober for 21 years. She usually attends three to four meetings a week and talks to her sponsor daily. “The first thing you learn in a meeting is that you’re only as sick as your secrets,” says LaPolt, who heads West Hollywood-based LaPolt Law. “There is great freedom in being able to tell everybody I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. If you tell everybody, it keeps you accountable.”

One of the pillars of 12-step programs is that meetings are a sacred trust of confidentiality for all participants. Information and stories shared in a meeting go no farther than the room. That spirit is one reason why recognizable stars such as John and Curtis are able to attend meetings without generating tabloid headlines. Nobody understands or respects the struggles that an addict faces more than a fellow addict.

Another tenet for participants is to be of service to the world, and to give back by helping others find their way out of the chaos of addiction. Many people in recovery feel an obligation to assist others who reach out for help. In the entertainment community, those who speak publicly about their addiction and recovery are often contacted by others who are struggling. Providing a shoulder and a lifeline to someone who is in dire straits is more than fulfilling — it’s part of the recovery process. “When I help people, it helps me more,” LaPolt says.

Another factor that can be crippling for those in the grip of addiction is the fear that there will be social and even professional costs to cutting out mood-altering substances.

Early in her sobriety, Sagal kept her momentous life change to herself because “I didn’t want to be the bummer in the group,” she says. “Now it’s cool to be sober.”

Elton John worried that he would never be able to take the stage again after cleaning up. Joe Walsh, famed musician and longtime member of the Eagles, was afraid he would never write another song. He got sober in February 1994 after years of watching dear friends “crash and burn,” as he puts it.

“I tried to write, and I’d get frustrated because everything felt like something I’d already done,” Walsh says. “My alcoholic mind said, ‘Well, if you want to write a good one, you’ve got to get a little buzzed.’ But that wasn’t an option. So I had to accept that I might never write another rock ’n’ roll song and move on.”

After about six months, Walsh found his footing with a song, “One Day at a Time,” that addressed his sobriety head-on.

Well I finally got around to admit that I was the problem
When I used to put the blame on
everybody’s shoulders but mine
All the friends I used to run with are gone
Lord, I hadn’t planned on livin’ this long
But I finally learned to live my life
one day at a time

Finding the way to express his commitment to sobriety in his art was a significant step in his recovery. “That’s when I discovered that maybe if I stay sober, I can show people there is life after addiction, and it’s good,” Walsh says.

The fear factor that keeps some from taking steps to get sober — particularly among people with the means to explore treatment options — is tied up in the stigma long associated with substance abuse. It can feel overpowering, which is why it’s such a crucial first step for people to simply admit that they have a problem.

“In early sobriety, it can feel embarrassing and shameful, but I have found that people are extremely supportive and rooting for you,” says Mike Management’s McDonald.

Sagal and many others also say that a measure of humility is a necessary part of the recovery process. Sagal speaks of her sobriety as if it’s a living being that she needs to nurture. “I really practice not taking it for granted,” she says. “I stay very close to my recovery. I’m humbled by it. It’s bigger than me. I don’t like to mess with it.”

Curtis has been outspoken about how sobriety has transformed her life, because she knows how powerful it can be for an addict in denial to hear the testimonial of someone who has been to the depths of despair and back.

“There is recovery available for free anywhere you choose to find it. You have to want it,” she says. “Once you want it, there are millions of people who will help you achieve it. That has been my experience, that has been my strength and that is my hope for anybody reading this issue.”

Marc Malkin contributed to this report.

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