Tuesday, July 21, 2009

MJ and the Myths of Addiction

MICHAEL JACKSON’S death may have shifted the spotlight to prescription drug abuse, but the wall-to-wall news coverage of the King of Pop’s untimely demise has proven once again that American media remains clueless when it comes to the subject of drug addiction.

I’ve dabbled in the Jackson story over the years as a journalist, most recently filing a couple of stories for a Hollywood news site on his memorial service. I also attended his molestation trial in Santa Barbara County in 2005, along with nearly a thousand credentialed news types. Jackson was clearly medicated in the courtroom.

Then, and now, the same myths about drug addiction popped up in local and national reports. They included:

* Jackson was hooked on pain scripts because of his fiery accident filming the Pepsi commercial, repeated plastic surgeries and ongoing back problems.

* Jackson needed scripts to deal with chronic insomnia.

* Jackson was an addict because opiates are “physically” addictive.

* Jackson couldn’t be that “badly drugged” because he “could sing and dance” in a rehearsal filmed not two days before his death.

Despite a half century of major scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of addiction – including two federal institutes (NIAAA & NIDA) devoted to the subject with reams of information available online – reporters and commentators still go with their misinformed guts rather than do any meaningful reporting. Let’s debunk the above bullet points:

* Lots of folks have surgery and get pain medication. Millions of Americans have insomnia. Most will never become drug addicts.

* Other drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, are not thought to be “physically” addictive, but people can become hopelessly dependent on them nonetheless.

* As for the notion that a dope fiend can’t perform, one need only watch a few episodes of VH1's Behind the Music to put that one to rest. I’ve known addicts who’ve performed surgery, sat as judges on murder trials and piloted commercial jets while ingesting drugs in the kind of amounts that would put any non-addicts into a coma.

In short, it’s the old stereotype. An alcoholic or drug addict is the homeless guy on the street with a trench coat and brown paper bag. And the subtext is: If you don’t look like that, then you don’t have a problem.

My accuracy award goes to psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, who reported on the Fox News Channel something along these lines: “People need to realize that addiction has little to do with numbing physical pain or the physically addictive properties of the drug, and more to do with the addict medicating his painful misperception of himself and the world around him.”

Now that’s insight – and it’s right in line with the leading research into addictive behavior and brain chemistry.

The misinformed coverage doesn’t make sense. I’ve spent 30 years reporting as a journalist and nonfiction author. When I cover a story – and when most normally accurate reporters or commentators cover a story – researching the underlying subject matter is Journalism 101.

But, for some reason, that same vigilance didn’t apply to Jackson – or Heath Ledger or Anna Nicole or Elvis or Marilyn. It’s a long, bright line of show biz drug tragedies. But for every star OD, there are hundreds of thousands of Americans and their loved ones impacted by the same disorder. They’re the regular folks who watch TV and read the newspapers and magazines.

For them, at least, we ought to get it right.