Close Encounters
By Laura Fissinger

Addicts, Compulsives, Hoarders, and We Who Watch

When The Learning Channel debuted Addicted this year, Variety Magazine ran a piece calling the television addiction theme "hot.”

The magazine listed Addicted, A&E's Emmy-winning Intervention, and Vh1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. The article left out Sober House, also with internist/addiction medicine specialist Drew Pinsky, plus Sex Rehab, also with Pinsky. That's seven shows. In television, seven titles makes for more than a trend. This month, in fact, the total goes to eight: TLC unveils a series on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called The OCD Project, launching May 27. If you add two other shows on a disorder with a number of addiction characteristics (A&E's Hoarders and TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive), the grand total stands at ten.

It seems obvious that substance abuse and compulsive behaviors can make for hard to ignore docu-television—if they're done with high production standards, thorough research, honesty, respect, and ample IQ.

Yet the naysayers feel intensely, their reactions ranging from disdain to real worry about the afflicted appearing on these programs, whether they be celebrities or civilians. If someone is motivated by the chances to get on television, can they possibly end up on the way to enduring sobriety?

Interventionist and recovering addict Kristina Wandzilak helps users to become sober and their family members to cope on the TLC show Addicted

Dr. Pinsky has responded to various media inquisitors with an emphatic yes—someone initially motivated by being on TV still has a great shot at lasting recovery. His Celebrity Rehab lead counselor (and famed alt-rock musician) Bob Forrest played a central part in persuading Pinsky. Forrest has long known many chemically addicted creatives and troubled performers.

"We're always trying to figure out how to get people into treatment. Well, hey, why not put them on TV and pay them for their appearances?" Pinsky explained on The View. "They start out wanting to be on television more than they want to get well—but they end up really getting into the [rehabilitative] program and really getting help." To People Magazine he said: "However you can motivate someone to get sober, we'll take it."

The United States has been both profoundly scared of and fascinated by illegal drugs since millions of people tripped and stumbled getting high in the1960s. Given the number of living and deceased casualties from that era, everyone was supposed to end up getting "scared straight.”

Regarding samples of present-day statistics: different sources offer different numbers. All the numbers suggest that the assorted wars on drugs fought in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties were lost.

—-Dr. Pinsky states that roughly one out of every eight Americans has a problem with alcohol or drugs.

—-"More than 22 million Americans struggle with addiction. Millions more—family members, friends, and colleagues—are touched by the disease." So states the Intervention web site, in its Recovery Project section.

—-Approximately 17 million-plus people in the United States are currently addicted to alcohol.

—- According to the DEA, the number of individuals abusing prescription drugs in our country has vaulted 80 percent in about six years to seven million people. Those experts state that this makes the prescription drug problem more prevalent than the problems of cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants put together.

—- Intervention has also centered episodes on severe compulsion/addiction-related disorders like anorexia, bulimia and gambling. The History of California web site asserts that one to two million pathological gamblers exist in the United States. As for the two eating disorders, which often appear in the same sufferer, there are no helpful statistics readily available. One site states that too many anorexics and bulimics deny they have the disorders, so even a good estimate count cannot be taken.

—-The opening text screens of cable's A&E documentary series Hoarders states that approximately three million Americans have this life-disrupting disorder. Currently science is studying the strong possibility that hoarding has a powerful genetic component.

This A&E series uses a visual format similar to Intervention's to track people so attached to their ‘things’ that their homes often become storehouses jammed to the ceilings with years of accumulated ‘stuff’; frequently, there remain no ways to use stoves, closets, sometimes even front doors and toilets.

I'm one of those viewers who think this topical “hot”-ness is, primarily, a good thing, because of the human needs inside the statistics. Dr. Pinsky's take makes sense to me: If these shows can get even a few viewers into treatment and a subsequent life of recovery, each iteration of each program is worth it.

I do recommend watching these shows: for the most part, documentary/reality TV, they range from good to excellent in both content and packaging.

The possible twist: the seven shows spotlighted here have the potential to be used as voyeuristic kicks, as car-crash entertainment, as chances to stare at humans in dire situations, and feel superior (or very relieved).

A lot of viewers, I'd be willing to bet, have personal experiences with either addictions and hoarding or both—I sure do, via my own mental health challenges and those of people I've known.  Sometimes I watch with a sense of retroactive fear: "there but for the grace of God go I.”  

I) Intervention
The pioneer program of this genre sets the quality bar high.Against a black background, white text moves in, leaving trails of colors and white, holds still to be read, then streaks white again as it moves out into the color frame of the next shot. Thesestylized motion graphics and pieces of text carry all the storyline and tonal information needed so the program can be voice-over/narrator-free.

The viewer's own inner voice ends up telling much of the story, too. That's one of the ways the show's producers make each episode so intensely connective to the viewer.
The other key way lies in the stories they choose to tell. I can't actually pick a favorite, but one of the unforgettable episodes came along this season. I emphatically recommend that you view Chris's saga at the Intervention web site. It represents the some of the best storylines on all seven shows, and also warns viewers that not all the stories told have encouraging or uplifting endings.

Chris, in his thirties, is an end-stage alcoholic when we meet him, being enabled primarily by his life partner, Shawn, and his immediate family. As unquestionably disgusting as Chris's behavior is when we meet him, the charm and heart of the man seep through. By the time Shawn visits Chris at a far-away rehab center, we're just elated that Chris looks so healthy, that he seems well on his way to healing.

The black screens and moving white text tell us that Chris relapsed several times upon returning home before taking his own life. When I read that last screen, I tear up.

‘That’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff’: George Carlin’s take on hoarding.

2) Hoarders
This season, A&E added a companion docu-series. It uses a visual format similar to Intervention's to track people so attached to their "things" that their homes often become storehouses jammed to the ceilings with years of accumulated "stuff"; frequently, there remain no ways to use stoves, closets, sometimes even front doors and toilets. Many residences devolve into bonafide fire hazards and contaminated areas of concern for the Department of Health. It certainly looks like an addiction of some kind—to acquisition, to "things,” to keeping objects that have come to embody a person or time lost and painfully missed. Hoarders rolls well scheduled next to Intervention.

3) Addicted
Right away, Addicted makes sure we know it's not trying to be Intervention. The presence of intense interventionist Kristina Wandzilak changes the narrative tactics and the emotional shadings of the show. Wandzilak is both a licensed treatment specialist and a recovering addict.

The show opens with authentic photos from her family's album as Wandzilak's voice-over tells viewers she had her first drink at 13, and got into harder stuff at 14. Before she got clean, she was homeless, she was a hooker, and she was pulling food and alcohol out of Dumpsters. Her final drink came out of one.

Wandzilak has been sober for 16 years. Helping other addicts gives her one key way to stay grateful for her sobriety and stick with the daily discipline of staying clean.

To her credit, Wandzilak lets her own story come in to the addict's story only when it helps either the week's "star" get sober,or it helps us understand more deeply. To a mother who didn't grasp that she was a part of her son's desperate state, Wandzilak said: "If you didn't give him a place to live and food to eat, he'd be on the street. He'd be me. The only difference between where I was and where he is is you." The mother understood: if the addict has a decent place to stay and the basics of life even while he's using, he has little reason to stop. 

That kid got to treatment and stayed there. As is the case with all the other shows in this genre, not all of Wandzilak's clients make it. Her caring about each substance abuser helps the viewer realize what a loss each one can be, to all of us.

4) Hoarding: Buried Alive
On the program's web site, look for the story of Cindy. One of her central traumas that well could have pushed her obsession over the line came in the seventh grade, when her father took all of her possessions outside and burned them. He forced her to watch. She simply possessed too much, he said. Later, in therapy on the program, Cindy's husband Mike finds out about this horror for the first time in 35 years of marriage.

He had been ready to leave her without being told of her father's unspeakable action.  At the end of the episode, the whole family is receiving help, and the house is becoming physically habitable again.

5) Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew
After an intervention, an addict often goes to detox to deal with the worst of the physical pain and discomfort of withdrawl. Following detox is rehabilitation, which introduces the addict to the psychology of staying sober.

Pinsky and Vh1 have been mocked for calling their patients celebrities when the ranks include people like Lisa d'Amato. d'Amato is known only for having been a contestant on a cycle of America's Next Top Model—hardly a celebrity. Minor stars or not, Dr. Pinsky and Vh1 invite people who need to be there, serious substance abusers also capable of grabbing viewer curiosity. For a large percentage of patients, even the most belligerent and surly, viewers eventually feel concern.

One of Pinsky's steadiest, most interesting on-camera staffers is Bob Forrest. It's not hard to imagine why, if you read some of his bio info online. The man embodies tenacity. Forrest, a guitarist/songwriter/singer, was a heroin user who went to rehab (or rehab via jail) 24 times before sobriety finally stuck. That was 13 years ago. When he speaks, the wiser addicts listen.

6) Sober House with Dr. Drew
Bob Forrest puts in a smaller but still-important amount of face time on Sober House.  In rehab, it's often recommended to recovering substance abusers that they go next to group sober living residences.

The newly straight inhabitants start facing the potentially major frustrations of everyday life there; they learn so-called ordinary responsibility, for things like cleaning their rooms, straightening up the kitchen, holding down no-glam jobs.

The level of celebrity isn't higher on Sober House. After a few episodes, most viewers won't care. The show holds out a message of encouragement to everyone who feels like they should be done growing up but they're not: it's never too late. It's always worth it, to do the dishes when it's your turn. It's never just about the dishes.

7) Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew
Pinsky stands among the respected medical specialists — and institutions like Minnesota's Mayo Clinic—maintaining that sexual addiction (also known as "compulsive sexual behavior") is a very legitimate diagnosis.

One of the comparisons that helps me understand is between gambling and sex. If most people nowadays believe that gambling can get out of a gambler's control, why not sex—whether performed solo, with one partner, or with a group?

Sex Rehab also aided my grasp of the disorder, thanks to the variety of patients seeking Pinsky's help as a last-ditch attempt to get their lives back. One man spent so much time masturbating while watching computer porn sites that his work and relationships started to disappear, while his fiscal problems piled higher. One woman couldn't bear performing in adult films anymore—but she didn't know how to find the sex she craved any other way. She didn't know how else to make a living, either.

By the end of last season, most of the patients appeared to be on their way to relatively normal sex lives. As they begin to care about themselves and other people more, we care more, that they keep going in the long travels of rehabilitation. Some viewers see more clearly where they're going themselves, as well.

Laura With the Blue Dress On illustration by Laura Fissinger. E-mail Laura at

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