Published in the March/April 2012 issue of Renew
There’s more to this pop icon addiction doc than meets the eye.
By Kelly O’Rourke Johns
Make the mistake of discounting David Drew Pinsky as a self-promoting TV doctor, and you’d sell yourself short of an addiction specialist inspired by passion and powered by some serious, in-the-trenches experience.
Best known as Dr. Drew to his huge following of television and radio fans, Pinsky is board-certified in internal medicine, an addiction medicine specialist and a self-described workaholic who served as the director of a chemical dependency program when he was just a young internist.
His storied career from graduate of the University of Southern California School of Medicine to host of the talk show Dr. Drewon HLN, the daytime series Lifechangers on The CW, producer and star in the VH1 shows Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, SexRehab with Dr. Drew and Celebrity Rehab Presents Sober Houseand host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show Loveline is serendipitous. Pinsky briefly entertained a career in opera before diving into internal medicine as a resident at USC County Hospital. While there, he moonlighted at a psychiatric hospital and became fascinated by the “structured clinical discipline” the hospital used to detox their patients. The exposure made him something of an expert in detox and psychiatry at his internist day job, and in following patients through the recovery process, his passion for addiction medicine ignited.
Pinsky became board-certified in addiction medicine and started a private practice. But his introduction to mass media, which beganwith regular appearances on the radio show Ask a Surgeon while he was still a medical student, segued to a regular co-hosting job on Loveline that went national in 1995 and became an MTV show, hosted by Pinsky and Adam Carolla, in 1996.
Critics have denounced Pinksy’s dual career in medicine and mass media as attention-seeking and his television shows as exploitative. But Pinksy argues that his practice of paying screen-hungry D-listers to appear on Celebrity Rehab at least gets sick people the help they need. And although you may not agree with his methodologies, you can’t argue Pinsky’s broad reach and impact on social consciousness. He was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “My goal was always to be part of pop culture and relevant to young people, to interact with the people they hold in high esteem.”
The charismatic doc, 53, called in from his home in Pasadena, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Susan, and follows the college careers of their triplet kids, Douglas, Jordan and Paulina, now 19.
Renew: What made you want to you to pursue addiction medicine?
Drew Pinsky: [During my residency, I was] somewhat disdainful of chemical dependency treatment. I always wondered, you know, “What goes on in that room there—that treatment room with those goofy Twelve Steps on the wall?”
It wasn’t until a couple of patients I was following for medical reasons asked me to stay with them all the way through treatment, and I watched these people go from young people who were dying to these amazing, productive, flourishing individuals who were better than they ever knew they could be. And that to me was so astonishing. There was just nowhere else in medicine where you could do that—it usually went from dying to chronically ill. It didn’t go from dying to amazing, to better than ever!
I was absolutely enraptured with addiction treatment. It’s such a window into the functioning of the human being on many levels—spiritually, emotionally, biologically. It’s the crossroads for me of all the fields of medicine; they all come together in addiction medicine. You have to know family systems; you have to understand interpersonal, inter-subjective relations; you have to understand medicine very carefully; you have to understand psychology and neurology. They all come to bear in the treatment of addiction.
I really think it’s the problem of our time. It’s the final common pathway of so much that’s going on today in this country: destroyed families, abused children, the culture that suggests the answer to your ills is to put something in your mouth or in your vein.
Renew: Much has been said about the high score on the Narcissism Personality Inventory you admitted to in your book The Mirror Effect. How does narcissism manifest itself in you?
DP: No, I’m a 16, I’m average. I think I would have had a higher score if I hadn’t had years and years of therapy. I’m what they call a “closet narcissist.” I was a severe codependent. My own trauma would be mobilized by the trauma I would see in patients. In other words, I could almost acutely feel the injuries they had had. And I would sympathize so deeply for the patients and feel for the injured child so deeply that what do you think the patients would do with me? They’d have their way! They’d do whatever they needed to do to get drugs.
Renew: What would you say to critics who believe Celebrity Rehab perpetuates the negative stigma of addiction by showingpeople at their most vulnerable and volatile?
DP: Whatever the criticism is, I’d urge them to look at the objective reality. We have raised awareness of the nature of addiction, how common addiction is, how it doesn’t discriminate. We have pulled the curtain back on this mysterious thing called treatment. [Bob Forrest is] the reason I went ahead with Celebrity Rehab. He came into my office one day and said, “I hate turning the TV on every day and seeing our patients”—we treated a lot of celebrities—“being talked about as if they’re on a spa vacation when we know how sick they are and how miserable they are and how hard they’re working.” The misperceptions were profound at that time. And Celebrity Rehab changed it.
The biggest criticism that I was concerned with was that I wanted to put regular people in with the celebrities to make the point that celebrities and everyone in treatment were treated exactly the same, that if you watched a treatment program with regular people and celebrities in it, you’d soon forget who the celebrities were. In the first season, we were starting to collect some regular folks to put them [in the show], and when I’d sit down with them and try to tell them about the experience and what it’d be like for them, doing this publicly and on television, they’d look at me with confusion. I realized there was no way they could understand what this is. The celebrities, on the other hand, were like, “No, I totally get it. I understand exactly what I’m getting into.” And even during that first season, every day I was anxious with how the cameras would affect them. And what we’ve had, in every single season since then [is] something I would never have predicted: We have resistant, unmotivated patients who are primarily there to be on TV and get paid. By week two, they end up really engaging in the process, feeling value in the process and then wanting to share it with the rest of the world. The cameras are adding something to their experience. Now that is something I would never have predicted.
Renew: How do you feel about how addiction and recovery are portrayed in the media?
DP: Generally, I think there’s a slowly but steadily increasing awareness and accuracy about the disease. I know there’s mixed feelings about this in the recovery community, but I think people need to step up and talk about—without telling any secrets or pulling the curtain all the way back or talking about a member of any particular Twelve Step program—the benefits of the Twelve Steps.
In the first season, we didn’t even use the words Twelve Steps or Step. People were doing the Steps; we just weren’t talking about it on TV. And of course, what was one of the biggest criticisms of our program? Where are the Twelve Steps? Then we started talking about the Twelve Steps, but we didn’t talk about particular meetings or particular organizations. We made it clear that the Twelve Steps is the organizing principle of our treatment.
Renew: People are confused about the conflicts between advocacy and anonymity.
DP: That’s exactly right. We need to advocate. The medical community doesn’t understand us very well, and they are not advocating very strongly on behalf of recovery. It has to continue to be a grassroots effort, and if people aren’t aware of it, the medical community is not going to be very effective in referring or supporting it. They’ve gone a different direction, and I consider that problematic.
Renew: In the March/April issue of Renew, we discuss the controversy over medically assisted treatments. Where do you weigh in on the topic?
DP: The so-called harm avoidance, what they’re calling medically assisted [treatment], can be helpful and may save lives, but it has to be deployed in very carefully selected patients, and, in my opinion, it needs to be those for whom there is no alternative.
Renew:I have two young teenagers. As the parent of triplets, what is your advice to me in helping steer my kids clear of addiction?
DP: If you have addiction biology in your family, you raise awareness about that. You say: “Look, there’s a 50 percent probability that you’re gonna get this gene, and it’s serious business. Be careful with it. You could activate something. I know you’re going to try things, but I hope you will delay them as long as possible because it will diminish the risk that you have with this genetic predisposition.”
By the way, I don’t allow any illegal activities. I actually said this to my kids when they were about 15. I said: “You know what I do for a living. What I see every day is parents not bringing the force of God to bear and bailing the kids out and making excuses for them. And as much as it will kill me, you have to understand that if you do drugs and get caught, you’re on your own. I will not bail you out. In fact, I will make sure they will throw the key away. If you go over to another kid’s house and those parents provide you with alcohol, I will be along with the sheriffs as they haul those people away. So just know this is how it’s going to go.”
And nothing happened in high school. At least I got them to 19!