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Shame, Guilt Pose Significant Hurdles For Those Recovering From Addiction


Today, funeral services are being held for Nelsan Ellis, the 39-year-old actor who was probably best known for his role on HBO's series "True Blood." He died last week from complications due to alcohol withdrawal. Upon his death, his family issued a statement saying Nelsan had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for years, but that he "was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life," unquote.

Now, he's certainly not alone among celebrities who kept their problems with substance abuse under wraps, but author Neil Steinberg, who's written a couple of books about overcoming addiction, says it's not at all uncommon for recovering addicts from all walks of life to feel extreme guilt and shame. But that can keep them from getting the help they need to save their lives. He's with us now from WBEZ in Chicago. Neil, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NEIL STEINBERG: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, you know, it's such a confessional age. I think a lot of people might be surprised to hear that people still feel this deep sense of shame. So, you know, what is the association between shame and addiction?

STEINBERG: I think it's not only not uncommon, it's the usual thing because everyone wants to be doing great. And no one wants to have any kind of problem, nevermind a problem which for so long was portrayed as this sin, as this sort of weakness and failing. And it's a secretive disease to begin with. Nobody says, here, wait a second, Mom, I'm going to go hide in the bathroom and guzzle vodka. You don't say that. So you're sort of used to being secretive and ashamed of it while you're doing it. And then when you go to get help, often, you know, something terrible has happened. You've had an accident. You've - there's been, you know, something that pushes you to do it because people are very reluctant to give up their addictions.

And so you find yourself giving up the thing you love the most at, like, the lowest point in your life being called upon to do the hardest thing in a society that's just reveling in all this. So, I mean, because some celebrities have come public with it doesn't mean that that's the common thing. I think most people are deeply ashamed of their addictions.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, you remember late last year, Carrie Fisher of "Star Wars" fame - of course, Princess Leia - she died after a flight from London to Los Angeles. And it emerged that she had traces of a number of controlled substances in her system. And, again, this was surprising to a lot of people because she's been very open for years about her struggles with drugs and alcohol. She became sort of a champion of speaking openly and honestly about it. I just want to play a clip from just one of those issues.


CARRIE FISHER: I didn't like illegal drugs, I liked legal drugs. So I liked medicine because I like the philosophy of it. You're going to feel better when you take two or eight of these.

MARTIN: That was Carrie Fisher on "Larry King Live" back in 1990. But her daughter now says, you know, that after the circumstances became clear about what was in her system, that she died - and these are her words - of drug addiction. So, you know, I think - so what lesson do we draw here?

STEINBERG: It's a lifelong battle. And I think anyone who comes out and speaks of it - I certainly do - you're reluctant to be the poster boy for recovery because relapse is always waiting under your feet. I don't think that undercuts the years of sobriety that she had. When I wrote "Out Of The Wreck I Rise," I wanted to give people an idea that it's heroic to be in recovery, that this is something that's hard. One of the many reasons it's hard is you can always slip back down. I mean, Philip Seymour Hoffman was sober for 17 years and then thought, I think I'll go back and start taking heroin again.

The quote we have in the book is "addiction is when you do the one thing you really, really most don't want to be doing." So he knew - you know, you know there is this problem. You know what you need to do. And sometimes people just can't do it or they do it for years and years and then something happens. And I think that the more the public is aware of what this is, that it's not just a bad decision that stupid people make because they're stupid, I think the more understanding they'll be and the more people - there will be help available.

I mean, this isn't an illness that even if you get the best help, it doesn't necessarily cure it. I mean, you never cure it. It's a battle you're always fighting. And I think people tend to take kind of a sneering, joshing look at it like it's just some excuse that you throw up when you get caught. And that's not the case at all. This is a terrible illness that afflicts millions of Americans.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, Nelsan Ellis's family in their statement said that they had made the decision as a family to go public because they were hoping that his experience would serve as, in part, what they called a cautionary tale. Do you agree with that? I mean, do you think it's important?

STEINBERG: Of course, it's very important. Oftentimes, you know, when someone dies and they're 39 and there's no cause of death given, it's because the family didn't want to say he was a drug addict. He was, she was an alcoholic. And so they're holding back even as it kills them. So, I mean, I think that's an indication of just how big the shame is. Your loved one has just died of this thing, and yet you don't want to name it, you know, because you're embarrassed about it.

So I do think you need more people like the Ellis family who step up and go, look, this was a young man with 30 years of successful life ahead of him who was cut down by a terrible problem that he recognized and fought and yet couldn't conquer this monster. I think it's very important for people to understand not to be silent about it. That's why I wrote the books I have and that I do things like this show.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any sort of last words or - for today - of advice for people who are listening to our conversation and are thinking, you know what, something's going on in my life, something's going on on a loved one's life, what should they do?

STEINBERG: There's a quote in the book from Russell Brand, the comic, which is a very serious sort of quote. And I'm going to read it really quickly because I think it sums up what the problem we're talking about here is. He says, "it is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and then forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?" And I think it's important to keep in mind that, you know, you can judge and dismiss people, or you can give them the help they need. And I think that it's easy to see which the choice should be.

MARTIN: That's Neil Steinberg. He is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He's author of the memoir "Drunkard: A Hard Drinking Life" and along with Sarah Bader, the creator of what they call a Literary Companion to recovery. It's an anthology called "Out Of The Wreck I Rise." Neil, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STEINBERG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.