The first UNITE to Face Addiction rally was this past weekend, and we recently talked about some of the brilliant musical performances in our article on music therapy for addiction. But we came to realize that the music itself was not the most moving thing about the rally. Between many of the musicians and speakers, there were a lot of well-known faces at the National Mall who were familiar with addiction. When they said that addiction kills, they were speaking to the loss of friends and family with the disease. And when they said that there is an unfair stigma against those in recovery, they were speaking with first-hand experience. These sober celebrities reminded us that we are not alone.
There’s more of them out there than you might think. A number of sober celebrities have come forward to share of their experiences. In a world where people spew filth in the form of ignorant comments regarding the deaths of beloved performers such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Winehouse, we need more celebrities showing us the lighter side of addiction and alcoholism. We need to bask in the ray of hope that they provide addicts, their families, and those who aren’t quite sure what addiction is to begin with.
We couldn’t possibly detail each and every famous person in recovery, but we want to name a few of those who have been most open about their recovery and the positive effects that it has had on their lives. The following sober celebrities teach us that addiction can afflict anyone, regardless of wealth or status. More importantly, they teach us that we can still lead successful and fulfilling lives if we are willing to recover.
Again, we couldn’t possibly mention everyone out there. There are many sober celebrities we left out. Anthony Hopkins, Craig Ferguson, Craig T. Nelson, the late Roger Ebert, Paul Williams, Joe Walsh, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Rzeznik, the late Robin Williams…the list goes on. Feel free to write us in the comments below, sharing a bit about your favorite sober celebrities. We’d love to hear some more names we missed!
In Film and Television
One of the most well-known cases of addiction in the acting world is that of Robert Downey, Jr. While he had already been in a few movies by 1987, his role as Julian Wells in Less Than Zero (an adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name) helped establish him as a truly gifted actor. In the film, he played a privileged young man whose life is torn asunder by addiction. Downey would later become known for his own drug habits, and did not achieve the post-Iron Man levels of success for which he is currently known until after he got sober. He now worries about passing the addiction gene onto his son, although he hopes that his own sobriety will help keep the family unit strong. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Downey tells fellow addicts that “Job one is get out of that cave. A lot of people do get out but don’t change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal.”
Bradley Cooper is known for many film roles, but many might not know that the 40-year-old star of the Hangover films has actually been sober for over 10 years. And if sober celebrities stand to teach us that we are not alone, then Cooper’s story is an important one. When most people see a man with his looks, they might easily think that he has it made in life, that he doesn’t understand common human struggles. This, however, is not the case. Sober celebrities such as Cooper teach us that you can have money, friends, and good looks while still being uncomfortable in your own skin. “I was so concerned what you thought of me, how I was coming across, how I would survive the day,” he told People in 2012. “I always felt like an outsider. I just lived in my head.” Fortunately, he was able to see the damage that addiction was causing in his life.
Edie Falco played a prescription drug addict on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, which just aired its final episode in late June of this year. She had a lot to draw from while playing the character, since she has struggled with alcoholism in her past. She has now been sober for more than 20 years, and she feels as if playing an addict has helped to strengthen her sobriety a bit. Not only was she grateful to be able to portray the pain of addiction through her television character, but she is also grateful to be the strong and sober woman that she is today. “I’ve kind of my whole life hoped to one day feel the way I do right now,” she stated in an interview last year, “which is that everything is going to be fine.”
Ben Affleck shares something with Falco, in that he believes sobriety to get a little bit easier with age. As much as Affleck and Falco care about their careers, they care even more about their careers. Both of these sober celebrities have talked about the importance of putting family first, and Affleck’s take on the issue makes it sound as if his 2001 stint in rehab may have been undertaken for the purpose of getting his life together so that he could settle down. “When you are in your 20s and you’re not married with kids, you’re having fun,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Mirror. “But when you’re in your 20s and you’re not married and don’t have kids, you begin to develop a Peter Pan complex. As you grow older, you have more responsibilities and you have to step up to them.”
It’s important to note that Affleck’s apparent insinuation here is that he quit because he wanted kids. This is very different than quitting for the sake of a family that already exists. And to be honest, quitting for one’s family does not always work. Rob Lowe, another prominent name on most lists of sober celebrities, elaborated on this point in a 2011 interview with Piers Morgan. “You want to get sober for your parents, you want to get sober for your job, you want to get sober for the cops, you want to get sober to protect your image,” said Lowe. “A lot of good reasons, by the way, but unfortunately, the only thing that works is that you have to want to get sober for you.”
Kat Von D of LA Ink fame is also sober, having hit her six-year mark in 2013. While she experimented with a few different drugs, alcohol was her ultimate drug of choice. Then, she simply decided that she didn’t want to live that way anymore. It was making it harder for her to work on her tattoos, and she couldn’t deal with the stress any longer. Like so many of us, she learned through sobriety that many of her friendships were not as solid as she had previously thought. Since getting sober, she has made sober friends and is learning to enjoy life on different terms. “My friends aren’t really my friends,” she said of the friendships she maintained throughout addiction. “I’m just a party favor.”
Russell Brand is another famously sober screen actor. Not only is he quite open about his own struggles with addiction, but he actually penned a 2011 article about his friendship with Amy Winehouse. Brand is also a very vocal proponent of overhauling the legal system in favor of ensuring that addicts and alcoholics receive rehabilitation rather than jail. He strongly believes that the only alternatives to rehabilitation are “jail, mental institutions or death.” Brand may be a comedic actor, but he takes addiction as seriously as any of the other sober celebrities out there. Since he has survived his own addiction while watching a dear friend lose her life to the same disease, Brand is able to speak on the subject with profound knowledge. “Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant,” says Brand of Winehouse’s death. “It is not preventable today.” He notes that recovery is technically easy to come by, although it is not always easy for the addict to seek the help they need. There is no telling when it will be too late. “All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way,” he writes, “there will be a phone call.”
In Music and Dance
Steven Tyler is one of the most well-known sober celebrities in the music industry, having dealt with addiction throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s. He was shooting cocaine, was less than 130 pounds soaking wet, and sought rehabilitation at mental institutions multiple times. He notes that it wasn’t a lack of success that fueled his addiction. He has sacrificed his AA anonymity to deliver the message that addiction recovery is not a one-time thing, but a lifelong process. “I am a drug addict and alcoholic, and fighting it every day,” he told graduates of the Maui Drug Court. “I had it all, I didn’t care. I hurt my family and my children and my friends. If it wasn’t for AA, I would have nothing. If you stop going to AA meetings, you’re going to wind up using again. I express my joy all because of AA.”
Ozzy Osbourne is another famed singer who has discovered the hard way that addiction is a lifelong struggle. He has lived through multiple overdoses, at least one of which was on purpose. He has lost friends. He has previously admitted that he cannot remember the birth of his first child. Yet despite the knowledge of all he stands to lose, he suffered a relapse that went on for a year and a half without his wife’s knowledge. He is now sober once again, and shares Tyler’s view that he cannot do it without going to meetings. He also does it out of respect for his career. “People pay money to see me perform so it’s not right that I should be falling over drunk, behaving like a clown,” he said in an interview. “I can’t do it anymore.”
Two of Osbourne’s children have had their own battles with addiction. Kelly and Jack were both known for their somewhat rambunctious behavior on the reality show The Osbournes, and Jack specifically found himself in trouble for drug use on a couple of occasions. Jack sought treatment for addiction to OxyContin when he was 17, celebrating 12 years of sobriety this year. He has completely changed his lifestyle for the sake of his two daughters, Pearl and Andy Rose, as well as for the sake of his health (he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012). As for Kelly, she has admitted that her battles with addiction have not resulted in abstinence. “I don’t tell people I’m sober,” she told British tabloid Daily Mail, “because I do have the occasional drink but I never take drugs. I don’t mess around. When I think about how much my life has changed for the better and all the things that I’ve overcome, what is the point in going back to that?” Neither Kelly nor Jack is very much involved with the music industry these days, although they have both appeared on Dancing with the Stars.
Tim McGraw is pretty open about his addiction, and has even written a few songs that seem to be directly inspired by it. He began his career when he was still a teenager, and he recalls that the warning signs were already there. He had a mild case of stage fright, and he couldn’t stand before the crowd without at least a little bit of alcohol in his system. His mother told him that it would become a problem if he didn’t learn to take the stage with a clear head every once in a while. As his career wore on, things got worse. “I drank too much,” he told Men’s Health. “I partied too much. And did other things too much. Chemically. No needles or that kind of stuff, but…use your imagination.” He ultimately credits his wife, Faith Hill, with bringing him out of it and helping him realize that he was on the verge of hitting bottom. “When your wife tells you it’s gone too far,” says McGraw, “that’s a big wake-up call. That, and realizing you’re gonna lose everything you have. Not monetarily, not career-wise, but family-wise.”
Fellow country star Keith Urban has equally kind things to say about his wife, Nicole Kidman. While he originally thought he was a functioning alcoholic, his disease eventually spun out of control and Urban was forced to seek help. He had been sober for about eight years when he and Kidman were married, but he would often find himself lonely when she was off on a movie gig. He began using again, and Kidman found out about it upon returning home from a shoot. Luckily, she was able to stage a successful intervention and get him the help that he needed. “I felt like I was just sitting dormant,” said McGraw of his wife, “and she came along and I came to life. I was born into her, so who I am now was waiting the whole time.”
Ann Behringer is one of the more interesting sober celebrities in the music industry. Of course, she might not qualify as a “celebrity” to most people who aren’t dedicated Tina Turner fans. Behringer was one of Turner’s backup dancers back in the 1970s, also accompanying her on vocals. She was also a regular user of cocaine, needles, and copious amounts of liquor. After her mother died of alcoholism and Behringer’s work began to suffer, she began to feel the true weight of her addiction. And once her tolerance was high enough to keep her from feeling the euphoria of her substance abuse, it wasn’t even fun anymore. In 1979, she got sober. Five years later, she left the stage and decided to become an addiction therapist. She now aids in the creation of other sober celebrities through her therapy, although she is willing to help just about anyone. She helped found Promises back in 1988, sold her half four years later, and opened a private practice another two years after that. Her primary goal at this stage in life is simply to remain content. “So many people have suggested that I start a treatment center or write a book or conduct seminars,” Behringer told The Fix. “But in my sobriety, I don’t need to be the center of attention and I’m happy living a simple life. That said, I wouldn’t mind dancing with Tina again.”
Quite frankly, the music industry might be more saturated with sober celebrities than any other branch of entertainment. Aside from those mentioned above, a small sample of well-known sober celebrities in the music business includes Eric Clapton, Topper Headon, and Nikki Sixx. Headon was the most well-known drummer for The Clash, until Joe Strummer had to fire him. That only caused him to use even more. Over two decades later, Headon has finally forgiven the now-deceased leader of the band. “Joe wouldn’t have sacked me if I hadn’t been a raving heroin addict,” Headon told The Independent, “trashing hotel rooms, throwing up, late for rehearsals.” He is now involved in charity work for young musicians. Nikki Sixx, bassist and co-founder of Mötley Crüe, recalls his own heroin addiction as being rather similar to that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. A dedicated AA member, he remains alert, believing that “your addiction is sort of waiting there in the shadows—the monster—and it doesn’t care if it’s five years or 22 years or 30 years.” Clapton, one of the most well-known guitarists and sober celebrities of all time, launched straight from a heroin addiction to a cocaine addiction, battling alcoholism the whole way through. Sober today, he does not wish to close the door on his past. “I don’t know that I can honestly regret any of it safely,” he told NPR in 2007, “because it’s brought me to where I am. My life would not be the same, and I would not have what I have today, were [it not] for the fact that I went through all this stuff.”
These stories do not even begin to illustrate the wide array of sober celebrities in the music industry, but we can learn something from each and every one of them. Headon teaches us the power of forgiveness and amends. Sixx teaches us that, as Philip Seymour Hoffman discovered, there is no length of sobriety that may justify letting our defenses down. And Clapton teaches us that, while we may have some regrets, we cannot close the door on our past. Without it, we would not be who we are.
In Sports and Athletics
Josh Hamilton is one of the most famed outfielders in baseball right now. Just three years ago, he managed to hit four two-run homers in a single game, which helped him earn an American League record for the number of bases earned in a single game. But the five-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger has been chased by his addiction for a long time. His abuse of alcohol and cocaine got him suspended from the league in 2004. He’s relapsed multiple times since then, with the most recent being near the beginning of this year. Now he’s back on the field and, while he isn’t quite his old self, he’s still doing pretty well. He knows that his addiction hasn’t cured itself, and that he’s always at risk. But he also knows that he must accept at least some of the blame, and that he’s charged with maintaining his own sobriety for the sake of his family. “Life after baseball is very important,” said Hamilton to USA Today. “That’s why I’ve made some decisions. I want to be able to get out of baseball what I can.”
Cris Carter is one of the more notable sober celebrities in the world of sports, having made it to the Hall of Fame as a wide receiver. He sometimes stirs controversy with his very firm stance on addiction, such as when he said that the Cleveland Browns should cut receiver Josh Gordon from the team due to his drug abuse. Carter, however, was not speaking out of sheer ignorance. He was simply stating what worked for him. And sadly, Carter may have been right. By the time Carter issued his statement, Gordon was already quite familiar with NFL drug tests. But that didn’t stop him from getting suspended yet again, keeping him off the field until 2016. Carter’s a great player who has learned to overcome a powerful disease. His words concerning Gordon may sound harsh, but this is a man who knows that the addict must suffer consequences. Many sober celebrities quit in part because of family, or because their addiction was hurting their career. These concerns don’t seem to be keeping Gordon at bay. It might be time to take Carter’s advice.
As the juxtaposition between Gordon and Carter should demonstrate, not all sober celebrities are able to recover as easily as others. Dennis Rodman is one famed athlete who has found it very difficult to stay sober over the years. Just last year, Rodman played a booze-addled game in North Korea, even appearing drunk for an interview on CNN afterward. He stayed drunk the entire trip, checking into rehab upon his return. But he would not admit that he was an alcoholic. Rodman has always marched to the beat of his own drummer, but his self-destructive and damaging behavior has followed him around for years. His story is still important, as it demonstrates the folly of dipping one foot into sobriety while the other is plunging haphazardly into the deep end. He is one of the occasionally sober celebrities, entering into short periods of recovery at a time before once again taking a running leap off the wagon. Those with enough money can afford to enter states of chronic relapse, as they always have the option of checking into rehab for a week or two to save face. But most of us could not pull this off. After a few times, we would likely stay off the wagon forever.
Tennis star Andre Agassi is almost the opposite of Rodman in a number of ways. He has never been considered particularly wild, so people were a bit surprised when he failed a drug test for crystal meth in 1997. Luckily, we discovered that the whole thing was a fluke. His assistant had spiked one of his sodas, and the case was promptly thrown out. Then, in 2009, we discovered that Agassi had been lying all along. Not through eyewitness testimonies or anything of the sort, but because Agassi himself felt the desire to come clean. We can certainly learn from this story. Unlike our other sober celebrities, Agassi was not using drugs on a frequent basis. There was also no risk of anyone discovering his lie. He chose to reveal the truth simply because keeping it secret felt wrong. Agassi knows the value of honesty. He also knows that, even if he is not a frequent substance abuser, it can still be a dangerous act. “I can’t speak to addiction,” Agassi said in an interview with People, “but a lot of people would say that if you’re using anything as an escape, you have a problem.”
Ronda Rousey is one of the few sober celebrities we have actually discussed before. Before she became arguably the greatest female MMA fighter alive (and probably one of the best fighters in general, for that matter), Rousey spent a period of time abusing marijuana, alcohol, and Vicodin on a regular basis. She had no money at the time and was living out of her car, but she managed to scrape together enough cash to secure her next high. She has also struggled with bulimia since long before her substance abuse grew out of hand. But once she found her niche in mixed martial arts, she was able to move on from these vices. She teaches us all that finding our passion, while not enough to sober us up on its own, can help to alleviate the stresses that sometimes lead to addiction and self-harm. A notable role model for the women of today’s world, Rousey credits her strength and passion to her mother. “In our family, we were always told that we were meant to be something extraordinary,” says Rousey. “It’s not your job to maintain a home and have kids. You’re supposed to do that. It’s your job to leave the world better than how you found it.”
The fame and recognition garnered by Michael Phelps is almost implausible. It isn’t too often that a swimmer becomes a household name throughout America. Then again, it isn’t too often that a swimmer wins 18 Olympic gold medals. In 2009, when Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana, most people thought little of it. Many of us did not even know about his drunk driving incident in 2004, and many of those who did know about it simply wrote it off as a one-time mistake. This changed when he was arrested on a similar charge last year. He sought inpatient treatment and addiction therapy while also attending AA meetings. He admitted that he made a mistake, but there is admittedly some concern as he expressed similar contrition in both of his prior incidents. It is possible that Phelps does not believe he is an addict. And maybe he isn’t. Maybe he just gets into a lot of trouble. Maybe he’ll never be one of our truly sober celebrities of the athletic world. But since his arrest resulted in his disqualification from the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, his story teaches us that actions have consequences. Even when we tell ourselves that a single slip just can’t be that bad, we never really know that for sure. We only have to mess up once to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.
In News and Politics
There aren’t as many sober celebrities in this category (at least that we know of), so we’ll just pick a few of the big ones. Glenn Beck is one of the first names that comes to mind. While some may disagree with the views he espouses through his radio program and his former show on Fox News, his story of addiction and recovery is relatable to all. He has actually written a book in which he details his story, entitled The 7: Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life. Up until he began attending AA in 1994, he spent fifteen years drinking and imbibing cannabis, something he attributes to deep depression and grief over his mother’s suicide. He also had major control issues, which truthfully stemmed from low self-esteem. “Deep inside,” he writes in his book, “I was so scared of having no real direction in life that it had to be my way or the highway. My sense of self was so fragile I had to reinforce it in every way imaginable, including wielding the little power that I had in ways that were terribly destructive to others.”
George W. Bush is much like Beck, in the sense that some are predisposed to dislike him. But there’s probably a reason that Jeb wants addiction treated as a disease, and that reason is probably his brother. George has stated on multiple occasions that he owes his life to his sobriety, that addiction would have killed him if it had continued. He has been sober for nearly thirty years, claiming to have kicked his drinking habit in 1986 when he decided that he’d had too much. Not only does Bush recognize the dangers of addiction and the importance of sobriety, but he also understands that sober celebrities can help instill hope in those who might be lacking it. During his term as POTUS, he spoke to a teenage girl about her addiction and decided to share parts of his own story with her. “I was trying to encourage her to stay strong,” said Bush of his discussion with the girl. “I wanted her, this young girl who’s struggling with drug addiction, to know that others who might be famous have the same issue, that she’s not alone.”
Patrick J. Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy, is also very vocal about his struggles with addiction. The younger Kennedy believes that the deaths of JFK and RFK were ultimately what led to Ted Kennedy’s drinking problem, as the extreme emotional trauma may have led to PTSD. Patrick has received some flak from his own family after writing a book entitled The Common Struggle, which discusses his and Ted’s addictions. But Patrick, who began drinking at 13 and checked into the Mayo Clinic five years ago as a congressman, did not write his book to shame his family. His goal is far nobler, as he hopes his story will help push addiction research. Kennedy wants to know more about the human brain, specifically that of the addict and how the brain is affected by this disease. He knows that his family does not fully support what he is doing, that many would rather he keep quiet on sensitive issues for fear of causing his family any embarrassment. But he recognizes the importance of a greater cause, and he continues to fight for it. “We still have a ways to go,” said Kennedy to People, “both in society and in my own family.”
Former First Lady Betty Ford might be the most well-known of all sober celebrities in politics, due to the popular treatment center which has long carried her name. Despite her death in mid-2011, her name continues to brand one of the largest treatment centers in the whole of the United States. Back in 1987, The New York Times ran a piece on Ford’s story and the many stressors that led her down the path of alcoholism and opioid addiction. “Her family is stunned,” the piece reads, “to find merely human the woman they had always taken for granted as the gracious and unshakeable center of their world. Accepting that something has gone terribly wrong, they gather as a group and, with professional help in what is called an intervention process, bluntly insist that she seek help.”
We like to think that sober celebrities, especially those involved in politics, are strong individuals capable of managing the world on their own. But Ford and others illustrate that, like us, these people are only human. They are prone to the same emotional weaknesses as all of us, and they often need help to overcome their struggles with addiction. Rare is the addict or alcoholic who is able to conquer their disease alone. If you or someone you know suffers from this disease, use the above stories as a guideline for what is needed to recover. Through faith, willingness, and the support of friends and family, just about anyone can walk the road to recovery. Don’t allow this disease to take another life.