Sober Is the New Black

What was once a social stigma is now a point of pride. For everyone from Hollywood players to New York City power brokers, getting sober is a rite of passage, today's definitive status symbol. Forget the A-list—the AA-list is here.

An Alcoholics Anonymous coin marking five years of sobriety.

Prop styling by John Robinson.
An Alcoholics Anonymous coin marking five years of sobriety.
In a screening-room annex of a North Hollywood Holiday Inn, the third annual REEL Recovery Film Festival drew to a close. The mid-October festival's films ranged from a 2010 documentary on the 75th-anniversary Alcoholics Anonymous convention to the 2004 recovering-cokehead indie drama Down to the Bone to 1996's heroin-shooting, toilet-diving Trainspotting (whose program warning about "scenes of explicit drug use" rather understated things). But of all the boozer and druggie classics in the festival, the closing film, from 1957, proved the most revealing.
Scandalous in its time, Lionel Rogosin's groundbreaking On the Bowery showed an image of the alcoholic that would rule the rest of the century: a rumpled, stubbly, bleary-eyed man who rants away his days in dive bars and sleeps it off on trash-blown sidewalks. Far more real than reality TV, the film was cast with drunks from its New York City locale to tell a short, bleak tale, including the darkly handsome lead, Ray Salyer, who rebuffed Hollywood offers and vanished not long after his costar Gorman Hendricks died during a bender following the end of shooting. As the stark, black-and-white end credits faded, the lights came on and one of Rogosin's friends and disciples stood up to give a quick Q&A.
"Lionel was a giant," said the director Robert Downey Sr., a member of the New York independent film scene that included John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. "His films were real, but they weren't 'reality.' He saw these people with compassion." Compassion had become a theme during Downey's short visit to L.A., which began two nights earlier at the 25th annual American Cinematheque tribute in Beverly Hills. There, the white-haired veteran of outsider cinema and the Hollywood drug culture joined Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Jodie Foster, and others to honor the famous son to whom he gave his first film role at age 5 and his first taste of drugs at 8—prepping one of the most striking recovery arcs in modern culture. As Robert Downey Jr. received the prestigious award (which is presented annually to one person for extraordinary achievement in motion pictures), he made the kind of ninja move typical of his public life these days, using the stage to deliver a headline-grabbing testimonial on behalf of Mel Gibson, who gave the addiction-addled actor a lead role in 1990's Air America when the rest of the industry had blacklisted him, much as it now has Gibson (whose transgressions, to be sure, may not be explained away by his history of substance abuse). "I humbly ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin—in which case you are in the wrong fucking industry—in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me," Downey said.
Hollywood has gone well beyond forgiving Downey, whose fame as an actor was eclipsed for a decade by the notoriety that followed his lurid stumble toward oblivion. His very public struggle for a viable career eventually took him to the summit of his profession and not only destigmatized addiction but blazed a trail for a new wave of real, recovery-made superheroes.
A quick scan of the pop-culture landscape shows a collection of sober, serious operators—Rufus Wainwright. Far from being regarded as pariahs, this been-there, kicked-that creative class has turned recovery into a gateway to society's upper tiers. "The recovering alcoholic is sort of the paradigm of the model citizen," says Anna McCarthy, a New York University associate professor who sits on NYU's Council for Media & Culture and is the author of The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s America. "Someone who has come to terms with himself on the inside and the social world around him and so speaks from a position of moral virtue."
Along with moral virtue, sobriety actually bestows social cachet in certain quarters. "In L.A., your sober companion is often seen as some glamorous accessory," says sobriety coach and interventionist Joe Schrank, who worked at Promises, Malibu's famed celeb-train-wreck rehab center, before opening the Core Company in New York City in 2007 and cofounding the sober-lifestyle website last March. The Core Company's beachhead is Loft 107, a sober-living "home" in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, where a 7,000-square-foot warehouse has been converted into a loft-plan living space, with a high-end kitchen, a pool table, plush club chairs, sectional sofas, and wall-mounted guitars providing a luxurious layover for well-heeled addicts.
"We have everyone from Wall Street guys to trust-funders to famous actors and actresses to the late-thirties Internet guy who hit it big but is facing divorce," says Core Company executive director Melissa Burton. "We see the Williamsburg hipster and the Waspy kids from Yale, Penn, and Dartmouth, and we show them how to bring sobriety back to their urban lifestyles." In other words, Ivy League partiers, indie-film stars, and dot-com moguls—the once-libertine cultural elite—are now the standard-bearers of a rebranded recovery. "Many of [our clients] are alcoholics maintaining high-powered jobs, surrounded by people who don't want them to give up their drinking because they're so successful," Burton says. "They get through their day running top companies but cannot get off these prescription pills. Or they're a twentysomething enmeshed with their parents and deeply rooted in a philosophy that life is really good. We're able to take a client and say, 'Hey, for you, Bikram yoga works—that's your AA meeting. That spirituality works for you.'"
Prop styling by John Robinson.
Across the East River in lower Manhattan, Tribeca Twelve, a new venture of the Minnesota rehab institution Hazelden, was launched in October, offering "collegiate recovery housing," says its executive director, Barbara Kistenmacher. "On one end of the spectrum is the undergrad who might've taken a leave of absence due to addiction-related problems. On the other is the graduate student who's longtime sober but needs support during the stress of, say, finishing a dissertation." Tribeca Twelve's 12-foot ceilings, fireplaces, roof deck, and Brazilian-cherry hardwood floors are "trendy and fun and definitely luxurious," Kistenmacher says. "But the goal is to support the independent side of an adult as well as the part that needs more structure, establishing a healthy community in a space that gives them dignity."
Such modish settings are meant to rewire the addict's core assumption that abstinence equals deprivation, a notion that's typically reinforced by the image of the stereotypical induction into sober life: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a church basement, full of older men who smoke, complain, and scold. While the 12-step model remains central at these chic, upscale facilities, their founders say that as the profile of the typical addict has changed, so, too, has the method of recovery. "AA was developed for alcoholics in the gutter who were not functioning at any level," Joe Schrank says. "The truth is that AA is a wonderful organization that does not work for everybody, but in certain respects they're becoming the evangelicals of the recovery movement."
David Vieau is the youthful 41-year-old president and CEO of Turning Point, in New Haven, Connecticut, which uses paintball, music, snowboarding, and mixed martial arts as part of a program that gets referrals from treatment centers all over the world. The facility's vibe suggests an Internet start-up more than a halfway house, which makes sense given that increasing access to more addictive prescription drugs has been accompanied by a drop in the average age of Turning Point's clients from 33 to 20 in the nine years it has been in operation. "A lot of kids go from Ivy League schools to here," Vieau says. "Today, treatment needs to be cool in some way. So rock stars, movie actors, and others in the public eye can help or hurt us in doing our job. We run groups dissecting songs or movies with respect to sobriety. Last week there was a group intensely studying Eminem. So you have an unhappy person seeking happiness in the form of narcotics and it didn't work. Now he's singing about it, talking about it, and telling you guys, 'So what are you getting out of it? What are you going to do about it?' Let me tell you, that did not happen in treatment centers of the past."
From his vantage point in the power corridor between Boston and New York, Vieau traces the emergence of a more dynamic view of sobriety to one youth-culture touchstone of the past decade. "The Red Hot Chili Peppers started it. There's a lot of people who saw them singing about it," he says. "That's what I think Eminem is taking over now."
Less-triumphant celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Pete Doherty, and the not-so-winning Charlie Sheen are, surprisingly, often just as helpful. "They have their place in it too," Vieau says. "We have groups where we talk about Charlie Sheen. You know what they say? 'He's just an idiot.' Here's what I say to them: 'Listen, the game's not over. You're watching a guy that hasn't committed, he hasn't surrendered to the fact it's not working for him—he's just justifying his life. How many times have you done that?'"
It's safe to assume that Hollywood Recovery Services is the only addiction-treatment center with photos of Darby Crash and Sid Vicious hanging on its walls—reflections of the twisting, and twisted, path its founder took to get to this place. Years before Bob Forrest was Dr. Drew's sage, wizened, fedora-wearing consigliere on Celebrity Rehab, his renown was spreading on two other fronts simultaneously: on stage (and records) as the often-crazed singer-songwriter of the critically acclaimed L.A. band Thelonious Monster, and offstage as a drug buddy to, apparently, pretty much everyone. "I'm the Zelig of show business in the last 20 years," he says, settling into a club chair in his main office. "I was always in the room—I don't know why or how."
Forrest, 50, wears scruffy steel-toed Doc Martens with white laces, Levi's cords, and a vintage polyester shirt over a black T-shirt featuring Rick Ross' crew Self Made. He has three silver rings on his abbreviated right ring finger, which was cut off in a childhood bicycle accident, a Clash tattoo on one wrist, and a Beatles tattoo on the other ("because I can't slit my wrists over the names of my favorite bands," he says).
A lifelong Hollywood resident, Forrest has seen an absolute inversion in the culture of rock and roll. "In L.A. now, it's uncool to be high and be in a band," he says. "That's how much the tide has turned. In my generation and the generation before it, we thought drugs were the thing helping you achieve your goals. Now kids see them as problematic to their success. If your reputation is doing coke all the time, there's other people that are sober who will replace you. That's a seismic change."
When Celebrity Rehab went on the air four years ago, the most formidable authority wasn't the host, Drew Pinsky, but Forrest, his longtime partner at Las Encinas Hospital's chemical-dependency clinic, whom Pinsky calls "the most talented addiction-treatment specialist" he has ever worked with. A man whose talent wasn't acquired accidentally.
"I was one of the worst drug addicts I've ever seen," Forrest says. "And by accounts from my friends and family, it's true." A new documentary, Bob and the Monster, by Keirda Bahurth, supports the claim by following the transformation Forrest began in the eighties, tracing how a fringe rock performer became a lucid but minor presence in reality TV and then a confidant of members of the pop-culture elite, who privately consider him much more than a stand-up guy. "Bob's been a mentor to me because he practices what he preaches," says Courtney Love. "He's the first one who gave up his career and didn't just pout but became a fucking hero." In this sense, he's one leader among many. "There's a certain heroism attached to recovering addicts now," says McCarthy of NYU. "It's almost like in the television program Heroes, where people all over the world discover they have these new superpowers, but they're painful and they must struggle and come to terms with them. It's almost as if addiction is a rite of passage for becoming a more fully aware person."
Not everyone, of course, lives to reach this stage of awareness. "I wish the fuck Bob had been in on Kurt's intervention," says Love, who put Forrest in touch with her 19-year-old daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. "My daughter sees the people Bob refers her to and they're always perfect," Love says. "She'd be suffering a lot more if he wasn't out there." (For her part, Love claims to be doing her own bit to help one cartoonishly recidivist substance abuser. "I've taken up Lohan because nobody else will," says Love, adding that her successor to the title of Celebrity as Circus Act is "further down the line than I was, because there was no TMZ then.")
But to Forrest, abstinence is one stop on a journey toward an extraordinary life, a process that transforms the addict from a helpless mess to a human being who is smarter, tougher, stronger, more enlightened than those around him. "What is it that turns Robert Downey from a guy who's smoking coke naked outside a crack motel into the guy on the awards show?" Forrest asks. "How does that happen?" This kind of change is now in the public consciousness, promising that even the most unredeemable fuck-up may become his own version of Iron Man.
Bill Clegg, a hotshot literary agent whose 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, catalogued a spectacular crack-fueled fall from grace, says, "What's useful about celebrities who are flaming out in full view is that there's a way in which it is a relief to people who, like me, struggled privately … people see some of them get sober and go on to lead successful, brilliant lives." The availability, and visibility, of so many compelling role models ("I have 100 days of sobriety today!!! Life is beautiful," David Arquette tweeted recently) are key components of the recovery revolution, especially when the going gets tough.
"Recovery is a serious challenge," says Turning Point's David Vieau. "You've made very difficult changes and you've grabbed hold of your life. Anyone who makes an active struggle with addiction need not consider it a dirty secret. Rather, it's a badge of honor."

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