It was Christmas night. I was hosting my family here in Minnesota, feeling full and happy, watching my kids work their way through the morning’s spoils.
All of a sudden, my phone buzzed. I checked it to find that “celebrity doctor” Drew Pinsky had tweeted about me to his 2.8 million followers. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I saw it right, because I had never seen my name and the word “genocide” in the same sentence. But there it was:
It was by far the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in my mentions.
That is, until a flood of MAGA-loving, anonymous accounts took their cue and began, subjecting me to an epic, abusive pile-on.
It rather served to illustrate Dr. Drew’s journey—from respected authority on addiction medicine to quack and right-wing shill—over the last couple decades.
The whole Twitter thing started after I read a fascinating Mad In America article by Leah Harris: Trump Calls for “Keeping Very Dangerous People Off Our Streets” at Mental Health Summit. In it, she describes a December White House event which, “took a strong anti-civil rights and anti-housing tone, focusing primarily on expanding the power of state and Federal authorities to involuntarily treat unhoused persons, drug users, and people with serious mental illness diagnoses and disabilities.”
It was an important piece of coverage. The summit featured speakers like Steve Wagner—known for his role in the family separation crisis at the Department of Health and Human Services—and remarks from Trump himself.
But it seems the guest of honor was Dr. Drew Pinsky. He used the platform to rail against the civil rights protections due to people within the healthcare system. He advocated for drastically ramping up authorities’ ability to involuntarily commit people with certain mental health diagnoses, like schizophrenia.
Harris describes how the coded term, “anosognosia”—used to describe lack of insight into the nature and severity of one’s own mental illness—was strewn intentionally throughout Pinsky’s talk. She adds that the White House did not appear to include any directly impacted people in the event.
What’s more, she points out that “the system is stretched to its breaking point [and the mental health treatment] sector faces chronic workforce shortages and high levels of staff turnover.” There’s a serious question of how our field could even possibly accommodate the massive influx of coerced patients that would result from these policies—never mind the serious civil rights abuses they would entail.
So I shared the article and complimented Harris on her impressive take-down of Dr. Drew’s argument.
I wasn’t prepared for the backlash. Soon after Dr. Drew suggested I was an advocate for genocide, my notifications went into overdrive. At first, people simply chimed in either for or against my original tweet.
Within minutes, the replies took a darker turn. I was called a “clueless advocate who’s stupidity causes untold death.” Then, an “idiot” who is advocating doing “nothing to FIX this deplorable situation…then you throw in #racism for good measure.”
But slowly and surely a pattern emerged, and a flood of unverified accounts began to drop references to Trump, MAGA, and TDS/aka “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
For the next 24 hours, every time I opened my Twitter account, my notifications overflowed with a new barrage of tweets full of name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Anecdotes about million-dollar schemes that fleeced government money, and people “jumping over syringes” in their downtown areas were common. I was called a “leftist,” a “communist” or a “libtard” dozens of times.
I realized that Dr. Drew’s recent association with Trump had endeared him to Trump’s more extreme followers. This is strange, considering that as recently as August 2016, Drew was opining on Trump’s potential mental illness–and that of Trump’s supporters.
More recently, however, he’s been a guest of Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show to talk about—what else?—the “complete breakdown” of the City of Los Angeles.
I’m a therapist, not a public figure. I currently have 700 Twitter followers and my account is not verified. That Dr. Drew felt I was worthy of his wrath is pretty telling.
Though I don’t accuse him of genocide, his long history of advocating for outdated and harmful approaches to addiction treatment has resulted in a body count of its own. Back in 2013, author Maia Szalavitz pointed out that the mortality rate of his reality show, Celebrity Rehab, stood at a whopping 13 percent.
I soon stopped checking in on the Twitter vitriol and spent time with my family instead, feeling grateful for all that we had in 2019. It has been a long road for me in rebuilding my life after addiction to heroin.
Even in my darkest moments, I couldn’t see myself using millions of Twitter followers as a bully pulpit to target some random addiction therapist in the Midwest. But I guess that’s just the next step on a very different kind of career arc.
Photo of Dr. Drew Pinsky in 2008 by the 1 Second Film via Wikimedia/Creative Commons.