This week, Elton John released his new book Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS. As John told Matt Lauer on The Today Show, the memoir chronicles the star’s life-changing journey—from a man consumed by drug addiction to an activist champion.
In the 1980s, John witnessed many of his friends dying of AIDS. “I did nothing for the HIV movement,” he admits of that lost decade. “I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My sense of values was buried under my self-destruction.” John’s rock star status didn’t help; he was surrounded by enablers. His friends and fans would let him get away with anything.
The turning point came in 1986 when John met Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana who had contracted HIV from blood-based treatments for his hemophilia. John calls his friendship with White, “the catalyst that helped to change my life.” When John saw the footage of himself at White’s funeral in 1990, he knew he needed help. “I look like a bloated, white, gray-haired old—you know, it was horrifying,” he said on The Today Show. “If there was ever a message, this was a message from wherever. It’s like, ‘You clean up your life or you’re gonna die.’”
Less than three months after Ryan’s death, John gave himself the dose of tough love that he’d been missing. He checked himself into drug treatment at a Chicago hospital—and he has been sober ever since. Today, he runs two widely respected AIDS foundations and is the proud father of a two-year-old son, Zachary, with his partner David Furnish.
John’s story is a refreshing departure from typical celebrity addiction headlines. All too often, we hear about celebrities who seem unable to extricate themselves from the grasp of addiction. During John’s Today Show appearance, Matt Lauer pointed out how frequently he’s interviewed “someone who’s been to rehab six or seven times and continues to fall into the same traps.” Due to the ubiquity of this type of media coverage, relapse is considered the norm—and the “once an addict, always an addict” stigma prevails.
John, for example, notoriously urged his in-and-out-of-rehab friend and tour-mate Billy Joel to check into a real, serious, no-frills treatment center for his alcoholism. “When I want to rehab, I had to clean the floors,” John explained. “I love you, Billy, and this is tough love…you have your demons and you’re not going to get rid of them at ‘rehab light.’ You’ve got to be serious.”
These are words of wisdom that many celebrities – and regular folks alike – refuse to hear: recovery is work, and it’s not something you can buy. As we’ve said before, pricey treatment doesn’t mean better treatment, and whether you’re scrubbing floors or lounging in a sauna you’re only going to get better if you learn the tools to make long-term positive behavioral changes. Luckily, there are luminaries like Elton John who bring long-term recovery into the limelight and spread the message that anyone – rock star or otherwise – can get clean and use their past struggles as a launchpad for success.
Kate Schmier and Emma Edelman
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