I spent the better part of Sunday surreptitiously watching clips from Lindsay Lohan’s "Saturday Night Live" performance.
I say “surreptitiously” because I didn’t watch the show as it was broadcast. Maybe I was trying to avoid my wife playfully taunting me about watching one of those “sordid celebrity redemption” stories--I’m partial to that genre and this time "Saturday Night Live" had that kind of vibe.
I think the real reason I didn’t watch it initially was because of a mixture of fear and guilt. But curiosity--or compulsion--finally trumped those impulses.
Celebrity recovery has an undeniable fascination to an ordinary addict like me.
When I watched the first clip of the opening monologue, it had an amusing familiarity. It was an almost campy parable about trust and the stigma of addiction: Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet goes off when she moves forward, her pupils are checked for tell-tale dilation, and she’s patted down to see whether she’s holding a stash. Of course, all of this came with the heartfelt encouragement, “Everyone here believes in you.”
Laughing along with Lindsay Lohan’s monologue was my way of acknowledging having played both roles depicted in the sketch. In my initial years of sobriety, I could tell that friends would use their affirmations of “my new life” as a cover for probing whether I would go back to drunken dialing. Friends of addicts have well honed skills of veiled communication and roundabout questioning--it’s often crucial for their own protection.
Of course, I had also developed the same kind of hyper-awareness and covert investigative skill. Back before I got sober, I managed a homeless shelter where I was king of the drug test. I could hear crack smoking in a labored cough and see opiate addiction in sleepy eyes. When I ordered up the drug tests, they invariably came back positive, along with plaintive protests about trust. Momentarily comfortable in my authority and distance, I was satisfied knowing that I was bringing truth and consequences to these desperately addled addicts.
If I was amused by the first sketch, the second one left me feeling sympathetic. In it, Lindsay Lohan plays herself in a “scared straight” parody with the punch line it ends up in “rehab in Malibu.”
The whole idea of playing yourself in a comedy sketch is a mind-bender to begin with--good enough for a course on post-modern performance art or contemporary literary theory. But it was the oblique commentary on celebrity and recovery that unexpectedly got me, if only for a moment.
When I sought help for my addition twenty years ago, I had changed from being a public partier at college to a shut-in alcoholic at grad school. Maybe I was playing a role in that I had a double life, but this role would have interested very few people, except for professors drawn to its intellectual and perceptual implications. During the early phases of my sobriety, I so much wanted to place any academic shortcoming at the feet of my alcoholism. But the advice I always got was to keep it private, and not to use the repentant recovery role as leverage for sympathy and gain.
Celebrities, for all their power and fame, have a much more limited set of options when it comes to recovery. I would go as far as to say that whole “scared straight” motif reflects the impossible dream of celebrity sobriety--when there’s no boundary between the private and the public, no division between the real and the role, life can never fit neatly onto a grid. You can be “scared” but you’ll never be “straight.”
For me the funniest sketch was “The Real Housewives of Disney.” Punctuated by surreal references to charity for dwarves and a cooked monkey, the sketch starred Lindsay Lohan as Rapunzel, locked in intractable rivalries and resentments. Candied colored dysfunction is always quite attractive.
I laughed hard--really hard. This was a send up of the low-end celebrity reality show. No sordid tales of shame leading to redemption. It was only the sordid in its shameless, unredeemed, power.
Laughter is a healing thing, especially for addicts. I can always think back to the absurdity of my alcoholic insanity-like the time when I made a drunken vow to take legal action against an ex-girlfriend because she had yet to return a sweater of mine: If I couldn’t reverse the break-up, my hurt feelings might be assuaged by monetary damages or at least some sort of court-ordered apology. Laughing about it now is not to assert that I am a totally different person than the one who thought those crazy things. It’s to recognize the deep absurdity of addiction for what it is.
But humor does have its dark side. You don’t need years of clinical experience to understand that conflicted feelings often find easier expression in humor. And so, in laughing so hard, I was back to the fear and guilt that originally kept me from watching “"Saturday Night Live"” when it first aired.
Just as there are many ways to get addicted, there are many ways to get sober. But there is an underlying spirituality of sobriety, even for those who got sober without invoking the name of God or a higher power of the supernatural sort. This spirituality should actually be a fundamental human inclination, and you don’t need to be a monk, metaphysician, or martyr to realize it.
The spirituality of sobriety rests upon a sincere effort to wish someone well.
Of course, if it’s an effort, it’s not natural. But for an addicted brain, this does take some doing.
For addicts, love is finite; there’s very little of it to go around. That someone else might experience love--or success or fame--necessarily means that there will be less of it for me.
I intuitively acted in accord with this logic of scarcity, which is why during my drinking days, I derived a perverse kind of hope for myself by sabotaging the hopes of others. It was vulnerability compensated by grandiosity; an illusion of internal strength made possible by exploiting external weaknesses.
These conflicting feelings can be projected onto celebrities very easily. Celebrities are the objects of love and awe. The celebrity addict is the object of pity and scorn. Inevitably, the celebrity addict in recovery forces us to confront simple yet troubling questions not only about what we really want for someone else but also about how we really feel about ourselves.
Clips of Lindsay Lohan were sometimes posted with commentary and links to on-line polls evaluating her performance. While saying she did well was an option, one notable survey was highlighted by the suggestive and leading headline: “Was Lindsay Lohan the worst "Saturday Night Live" host of the year?”
The power of sobriety lies in realizing the infinite availability of love. While the rise, fall, and redemption of celebrities might evoke pious discussions about the wages fame, there is something more going on when we are drawn to Lindsay Lohan’s trials and rehabilitation. I can’t speak for the non-addicts who watched her performance. Speaking for myself, an ordinary addict, I can say that I watched her in the hope of finding the ordinary in the celebrity. But getting there meant I had to confront not a small amount of fear and guilt. There were impulses, issuing from long twisted synapses of my addict brain, to find something else: self-satisfying proof that sobriety was an extraordinary thing that only ordinary people can achieve.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an On Faith panelist and professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross.