The death of ex-Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr raised a number of questions for his fans, as the loss of anyone who publicly struggled with drugs or alcohol often does. Why wasn't his treatment, documented on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" and "Sober House," a success? Why can't someone like Starr just stop using drugs?
"[The addiction] literally hijacks the person's brain and takes over," Robert J. Lindsey, president and CEO of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, told MTV News on Wednesday (March 9). "For somebody who has become physically and emotionally addicted, stopping and staying stopped is the hardest thing in the world to do.
"The first thing to understand about alcoholism and addiction is that it's similar to other chronic illnesses, like heart disease or diabetes. It's chronic, it's progressive and it's fatal if it's untreated," he added. "Some people, despite the best efforts on their part and others, will die from their addiction. It's our hope that Mike's death will serve for many as the opportunity for them to either seek help for themselves, a friend or family member."
The NCADD estimates that there are more than 23 million people in the United States who are addicted to alcohol and other drugs. "That's almost 10 percent of the population," Lindsey pointed out. And while Starr's death made headlines, as the seemingly endless relapses of other celebrities do as well, he's quick to illustrate the growing picture of treatment. "It's equally important to highlight the fact that we estimate that maybe 20 million individuals and family members are living lives in recovery today."
The history of Alice in Chains is unfortunately tied to drugs, specifically heroin, in many ways. The group wrote several songs about it and regularly disappeared from the limelight while singer Layne Staley battled his demons. He eventually died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 2002 while living as a virtual recluse. Starr had been gone from the group for nearly two decades already, reportedly fired for his inability to manage his own drug habits.
In more recent years, he seemed to be doing well on "Celebrity Rehab" and "Sober House." He was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, and reportedly making music with Days of the New when he was arrested on suspicion of drug possession during a traffic stop last month. TMZ reported on Wednesday that Starr had been mixing methadone and anxiety medication just hours before his death, according to his roommate. The report maintains that Starr was using the drugs as part of his effort to stay clean and had been "doing a pretty good job."
"In terms of recovery, for most that are successful, it starts with abstaining completely from the use of alcohol or other drugs," countered Lindsey. "At the same time, we certainly have had some experience that in some cases some medications can be very helpful in people's recovery. But it needs, absolutely, to be managed by a physician who is both specifically trained, experienced and certified in addiction medicine. This is not something that can or should be done by the individual or done with a physician who is not certified in addiction medicine."
So what separates someone like Starr from rockers like Keith Richards or Lemmy from Motörhead, who seem to be managing their lives just fine while actively engaging in the use of alcohol and most likely other substances? In the recent documentary "Lemmy: 49% Motherf---er, 51% Son of a Bitch," much was made of the 65-year-old rocker's seemingly consequence-free use of Jack Daniels and methamphetamine. Metallica's James Hetfield, who himself has been in treatment for alcoholism and other addictions, was in awe of Lemmy's resilience.
"Well. the keyword there is that he seems to be OK," Lindsey explained. "If you talked to his family, his friends, his physician, would they agree with that statement? The important point is the other pieces that are at play here are both physiology and genetics. For some people, they are able to use alcohol and other drugs with little or no consequence in their life, whether that be physically, emotionally, financially, legally or at work.
"People ask us all the time: 'How do you define alcoholism and addiction?' " Lindsey said. "Our best and simplest definition is continued use despite negative consequence. It doesn't talk about how much, how often or what. The only thing that matters is what happens when you drink or use. If it causes problems for your relationship, your health, or you get arrested and you continue to drink or use, it's time to get to somebody who is both trained and successfully experienced in dealing with alcoholism and addiction."
Perhaps the saddest part of Starr's story is that the last memory his fans had before his death was his appearance on "Celebrity Rehab," where he encouraged new castmembers with his own six months of sobriety.
"[Many people] tend to approach the issue from a commonsense perspective, and common sense says: 'If I haven't drank or used for six months or more, I should be able to go back and use a little bit like a regular person does,' " Lindsey said. "But addiction is chronic, progressive and fatal if untreated. The addiction literally starts up right where the person left off. That's why abstinence is the basis for most people's long-term successful recovery.
"[Starr's death] is alcoholism and addiction played out to its logical conclusion [when] absent recovery," he added. "As tragic as that is to watch, almost 20 million people are living in recovery. The public needs to know that story.
"There's hope, there's help, and there's healing."
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or other drugs, please visit NCADD's website for information on how to get help.
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