April 27, 2012

Laurie Dhue: Recovering out loud

Outed as a recovering person against her will, Laurie Dhue has embraced her role as a champion of recovery.

By Steve Diogo

The former CNN and Fox newscaster talked with Renew about the power of celebrity in the fight against addiction, the imperative to speak up and why confusing anonymity with secrecy means people will continue to die of addiction.

At the height of her career, Laurie Dhue was at the depth of her alcoholism.

From the early 1990s through 2008, Dhue rode a successful career as the only person to hold anchor positions at all of the top three cable news networks: CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. To the world, she was the essence of professionalism—poised, intelligent, authoritative. Name the attributes on any news executive’s wish list: Dhue filled them all, at least when the cameras were on.

But off camera?

“It was just sad,” Dhue says. “There would be days I would come into work so hungover, I would have to curl up in a fetal position on the floor of my office and lie under my desk just to get through the time before I had to go on TV. I would be writing scripts fighting the urge to throw up, saying those foxhole prayers: ‘God, just get me through this show, and I will never drink again!’ And as soon as I walked out of that news station, I’d think, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just have a few drinks.’”

The double life is nothing new for us in recovery. We’ve all heard it, and most of us have lived it. But think back to that confused and frightened state before we found help, back when we all thought we were the only one, back when we had no idea what was happening to us or what help would look like if we could even imagine it was out there at all.

For many of us, that period tends to get forgotten among the horrors of using, the defining moments of hitting bottom and the joys and challenges of early recovery. But Dhue fiercely embraces that specific point in her history: the time when she just didn’t know. It is the energy that fuels her mission to use her celebrity podium to educate the world on addiction and recovery and make sure suffering addicts know three things: “Help is out there. You’re not alone. You don’t have to die from this disease.”

Today, Dhue is a leading voice calling for openness and access in the recovery movement. She serves on Caron’s New York Advisory Board and the boards of the National Youth Recovery Foundation and the Bridge Way School in Philadelphia. Her calendar is filled with speaking engagements in which she strives to educate the public on the nature of addiction and reality of recovery.

She never planned to be the poster child for sobriety. In fact, through the first four years of her recovery, she shared her story with few people. But the universe—or at least another reporter— had other plans. While most of us choose whom to tell and when, Dhue awoke one morning to find stories of her alcoholism all over the internet.

She had been outed.

It happened after a talk at what was supposed to be a private, off-the-record event. The setting was a private prayer dinner the night before President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast in 2011. The speakers were asked to talk about the role of faith in their lives.

“I decided to talk about the role of faith in my recovery,” Dhue says. “I was assured this was an off-the-record event, so I decided it was OK to go ahead and pull out the A-word. Little did I know that there was a reporter from Mediabistro in the room, and she decided to tell my story.”

The story was out before Dhue was asleep. By the next morning, it was everywhere. In the middle of the President’s Prayer Breakfast, her Blackberry started going crazy.

“I looked at the messages coming in: ‘Do you know your story is all over the internet?’ and ‘OMG—did you mean to go public?’ “When I got back to my hotel room, I Googled my name, and there it was. My first call was to my agent, who assured me it wasn’t a bad thing and to hang tight and see what happens next. My family and friends, both inside and outside the sober community, were incredibly supportive, though I couldn’t stop feeling panic. What if I was shunned? Would I ever get another job? How would my fellow alcoholics react?

“Within a couple of days, the producers of The Today Show called and asked if I’d like to tell my story. I said yes, with the understanding that I would focus on a message of hope. Meredith Vieira and the rest of the staff treated me with a great deal of respect that morning as I discussed the stigma of alcoholism, how it affects millions, how help is available, how you don’t have to suffer in silence and that there is no shame in asking for help.”

Today, Dhue calls the event a blessing. She’s found her calling, she says, and she is passionate about educating the public on addiction and helping sufferers find help. And that means breaking her anonymity, a tradition that’s not so much outdated as widely misconstrued, Dhue says.

“I think people in recovery confuse anonymity with secrecy, which just foments the stigma of addiction,” Dhue says. “I believe that every time a person in recovery shares her story—her experience, strength and hope—she helps create an environment of knowledge and understanding that’s free from shame and embarrassment. It’s an environment that makes it easier for more people to get help, to seek treatment, to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this sounds familiar. I have this problem, too.’ They need to know help is out there.”

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And so, today, Dhue’s anger points not at the reporter who outed her but at the media’s portrayal of addiction and what she sees as fellow celebrities’ aversion to stepping up and speaking out for recovery.

“There are so many celebrities out there whose success is 100 percent due to the fact that they are sober, but they don’t talk about it; they don’t put themselves out there,” Dhue says. “There are celebrities who should be dead 10 times over, and instead, they’re Hollywood royalty. And the fact that they are not advocates for sobriety really ticks me off. I wish these people in Hollywood would be out there, but that’s the stigma of this disease. People don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t get it.”

Instead, she says, the media focuses on the train wrecks and ignores recovery. This, in turn, causes celebrities to keep quiet, and that maintains the stigma that ends in death.

“The media likes to focus on Charlie Sheen imploding or Lindsey Lohan imploding or Demi [Moore] strung out on whippets,” Dhue says. “The media loves to focus on the salacious rather than on stories of recovery. The public and the media do not understand this disease. They lump all of us in together, like we’re all Charlie Sheen. We’re not. We need more understanding in the general society and more acutely in the media, but we all know that sexy stories sell, and it’s much sexier to talk about Demi Moore’s marriage collapse and anorexia than it is than to talk about people turning their lives around.”

Laurie Dhue

Dhue knows from experience that addiction is never glamorous and rarely as dramatic as the media make it seem. Her story is no different from the millions of others who suffer in quiet desperation, and it is crucial to her that people know the details so they can connect with what it felt like at the bottom.

“There wasn’t one specific moment for me,” Dhue says of her decision to get sober. “I jokingly referred to myself as a functioning alcoholic, and I knew that I was because I was an anchor on the No. 1 cable news station at the height of my addiction, and I seemingly had it all—from the outside. But there was this slow buildup of a lot of moments. It’s not like I got a DUI or ended up in jail. It wasn’t like I woke up in the hospital one day and said, ‘That’s it.’ It was a long, exhausting journey that just had to come to an end. I was so tired—mentally and emotionally tired. I knew it was the end of the road. I just knew.”

Like many alcoholics on their way to the bottom, Dhue had been seeing a therapist for years, seeking to work out all of her issues except the one at the center. Then, one day, her therapist fired her.

“He kept telling me I had to look at my drinking,” Dhue says. “Then one day he just announced to me that this was our last session. He handed me the card of an addiction specialist and said, ‘I can’t help you anymore; we’re done.’

“I said, ‘What … what do you mean we’re done?’ “He said, ‘Miss Dhue, you are an alcoholic, and I gave you this number to call a year ago. You still haven’t called, and there’s nothing more I can do for you because you are an alcoholic.’

“So I called the number, and the man on the other end said he’d been waiting for my call for a year. That’s pretty extraordinary for a New York shrink to say. So I started seeing this addiction doctor. I still see him to this day. We had a good two months of conversations before I pulled the trigger. He got me to understand what was wrong and to believe that I could quit. Once I admitted I was powerless over alcohol and I asked for help, I got help immediately.”

Learn more at Dhue's Facebook page Laurie Dhue Recovery Resources.

And that is the message she wants the world to know. It doesn’t matter that she’s a celebrity and you’re not. It doesn’t matter that she was outed against her will. What matters, Dhue says, is that we all use the platform we have—whether it’s a national spotlight or the local corner—to raise awareness, fight for recovery resources and get more people to step up, speak out and share our stories.

“It is my fervent belief that sharing a positive message will give hope to those people who are still sick and suffering,” Dhue says.

“But there is still such a stigma attached to this disease. It’s still such a dirty little secret. I liken it to AIDS in the 1980s. Back then, people wouldn’t even be in the same room as someone with AIDS. Then you had people such as Princess Diana going to AIDS hospices and putting her arms around people who had AIDS. People such as Elizabeth Taylor creating AMFAR and Magic Johnson—a straight man coming forward and saying, ‘I have HIV.’

“Look at where we have come in 30 years on that virus—millions of dollars raised and millions of lives saved. And that’s what I want to happen with addiction because this disease kills so many people. It’s the biggest drain on our healthcare system. When you look at all the different addictions in this country—booze, drugs, gambling, sex—it costs us billions of dollars in lost wages, lost productivity, hospitalization, institutionalization, incarceration. This is why I am glad to be championing this cause.

“You have to educate people, or people are going to keep dying.”

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