A business contact who'd been pressing me for weeks to meet up with him finally e-mailed to ask, "Are you in recovery? You always avoid having a drink." Before I could respond, he wrote again, apologizing for prying.
Beyond wondering if he was lit when he e-mailed me—he has a reputation for being a hard drinker—I confess that I wish I could have written back, "Yes, I am, in fact, in recovery," adding a brief, stoic summary of my years as an alcoholic and a habitual freebaser, the four-car pileup I caused on the 405, my two nights in jail, the intervention staged by my family and friends, my stint at Promises, and my hard-won return to civilized society. How much more compelling that would have been than the truth: that I've never really been the sort to overdo drinking or drugs; that, when I tell people, as I have been lately, that I'm "cutting back," that means stopping at one or two vodka tonics instead of at three.
I'm not proud to say this, but I think I, like an increasing number of non-addicted Americans, have a case of recovery envy. Or, at least, a certain dark admiration for guys who lived hard, flamed out operatically, then rose from their ashes. Granted, this is not exactly virgin territory: Guys like me have forever sullenly watched from the sidelines as bad boys hoovered up all the attention. And yet over the past few years some change in the culture has led us to further romanticize not only the bad boy but the substance-ridden train wreck who triumphantly gets himself back on track. The rehab/recovery narrative, once secreted away, has taken on a strange sort of social cachet—and not just on reality TV and the self-help (and tabloid) shelves.
"I'm absolutely excited that wearing the scarlet A on my head—recovering addict, alcoholic—is actually cool," says Robert McClellan, the writer and coproducer of the documentary Real Sobriety. When he entered rehab 20 years ago, he says, people were still expected to be ashamed of it. "Now there are entire tribes of sober kids. It's out in the open, it's part of mainstream culture."
According to a Washington University School of Medicine study released last year, binge drinking—having five or more drinks on one occasion—has dropped "substantially" over the past three decades: 20 percent among males 18 to 20 and 10 percent among those 21 to 23. And U.S. alcohol consumption per capita has been in decline since 1990. Curiously, when friends I know turn down a drink or a bump—at parties, bars, work events—they are often met with conspiratorial "I just quit too" responses from people who have never blacked out or had a spontaneous nosebleed. For those conscious of their own actual addictive tendencies, kudos. But to those who are disingenuously hinting at a to-hell-and-back past, well, James Frey has already been there, done that.
The media, of course, adore a truly debauched backstory. How much more street cred does, say, Robert Downey Jr. have because of his many headlong plunges into the abyss? Rehab; relapse; jail time; rehab; relapse . . . recovery—dude saw the other side and had the fortitude to make it back to dry land. His personal Iron Man narrative surely echoes the classic rock-and-roll crash-burn-comeback arc, but now just about any D-level celebrity can get in on the action, thanks to shows like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
"There's a big wave of people that embrace recovery," says Brian, 31, an alcoholic who took his first steps toward sobriety 18 months ago in his native San Francisco. "I don't want to say it's, like, chic, but it's become popularized." While Brian (who asked that his last name be withheld) has problems with some addiction-rehab story lines on reality TV, he credits A&E's serious-minded Intervention with "making people—borderline people—aware that, 'Oh, maybe I do sort of have some control issues.'" For his part, many in his circle had no idea he might have a problem. "I thought you were just a partyer," a friend told him.
Not long ago, my friend David Carr, a columnist for the New York Times, told me that when his addiction-redemption memoir, The Night of the Gun, hit best-seller lists, he began attracting a strange set of groupies. "The vast majority of the audience experiences these as cautionary tales, but certain people find them alluring," he said. "People would come up and say, 'Tell me the really gross parts that you left out.' I would just say, 'For cryin' out loud, look at what's in there—isn't that enough?!' People assign all sorts of mysticism and glamour to my story, which I don't really understand."
Some of those people, of course, have never, figuratively speaking, been to Vegas, and they have no plans or desire to go there—they just desperately want to be leaving Las Vegas. I ask you: Is that sober behavior?