Why it matters when celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Brad Pitt talk about sobriety

Hearing success stories from celebrities can encourage others to recognize a problem in themselves and seek help, the experts say.
/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

At the end of January, Jessica Simpson sat down with Hoda Kotb and revealed that she struggled with alcohol abuse in the past, even admitting that she was drunk during an interview with Ellen DeGeneres in 2017. Still, that “weak moment” wasn’t her rock bottom. That Halloween she filled her sparkly cup “to the rim with alcohol” at 7 a.m. and drank continuously throughout the day.

“I was just dazed and confused and I just wanted to go to sleep,” she told Hoda. “I didn’t take (my kids) trick or treating. I didn’t show up for my family.”

After that day, Simpson began working with a therapist to become sober. More than two years later, she is amazed at how far she’s come.

“At this point in my life now I am strong enough to deal with anything that comes my way because I don’t have something to retreat to that will numb me to going through it,” she said.

Simpson is one of a number of celebrities sharing stories about their sobriety. Recently Ben Affleck said Bradley Cooper helped him get sober and Brad Pitteven thanked Cooper at an awards ceremony.

“I got sober because of this guy. And every day’s been happier ever since,” Pitt said of Cooper, while accepting an award for best supporting actor from the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala.

In the past, celebrities canceled tours or dropped out of movies because of “exhaustion.” But now being sober is chic in Hollywood and the experts agree this transparency helps people better understand addiction and its treatments.

“It is really admirable that people are willing to speak up and share their stories,” Dr. Jody Glance, a medical director at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told TODAY. “It can only be helpful to others and also to yourself. The more you talk about it the more you will see you are not alone and there are others walking your same walk.”

Transparency reduces stigma

Being secretive about addiction only increases the stigma associated with it and allows misconceptions to flourish.

“There are millions of Americans living with a substance abuse problem and not talking about it,” Glance said. “Until we start talking about it, it will remain in the shadows and remain stigmatized.”

Often people think of alcoholics or addicts as those who can’t function — they don’t have jobs, they live on the streets, they have no friends or families. Celebrity stories show that people can look like they’re successful but really are struggling.

“Addiction doesn't just look like a person who is living out of the car,” Dr. James C. Garbutt, a psychiatry professor at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina, told TODAY.

It's this stereotype that often stops people from seeking help because they feel like if they’re functioning, they don't have an addiction.

“People have a defensive rationalization, like ‘Well I have a job so … My problem is not that big of a deal,’” Garbutt explained.

Many people struggling with substance abuse have lives that look like Simpson’s — perfect holiday pictures hiding the underlying problem.

Misconceptions about what addiction looks like aren't the only stereotypes stopping people from seeking help. Many still believe people choose to abuse substances and being addicted is a moral failing. Yet, experts know it is a brain disorder and hearing stories about it can show how widespread the disease is.

“It is a medical condition. This is a brain disease with viable treatments — either medications, psychotherapy or mutual help groups,” Dr. Edwin Kim, medical director of the Charles O’Brien Center for Addiction Treatment at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY.

Garbutt agrees.

“It’s not a moral choice,” he said. “There is inherent biology that puts people at risk. That awareness helps people realize, yes, this is a disease.”

Success stories inspire those to seek help

While hearing celebrity addiction stories can help erase the stigma, these tales can also encourage people to seek help.

“The things that we talk about a lot of times with treatment are having both motivation and confidence,” Garbutt said. “When people have examples of others getting better, of things changing, that helps them build confidence and motivation.”

And, celebrity testimonials give people context for their own relationship to alcohol and drugs.

"Whether it's a tragic event or a joyful (story) we often reflect upon ourselves and and we may wonder if we, in fact, have a problematic relationship with a substance," Kim said.

If people are looking to become sober the experts recommend visiting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — to find local resources for recovery, which can include psychotherapy, medications or 12-step programs.

Glance also suggests that people reach out to their friends and family for support. That way someone holds them accountable while recovering and they have someone to rely on when things get tough.

“Everybody could use a Bradley Cooper,” she said.

Celebrity successes show average people that they can become sober by seeking treatment and support.

“Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Addiction is a disease that might require special care just like cancer,” Garbutt said. “Asking for help is really a sign of strength.”