Drew Barrymore and the Case Against Labeling Children as “Addicts”

    Drew Barrymore appeared on the cover of People in 1989 under the banner “America’s Youngest Addict.” She had been consuming marijuana, alcohol and cocaine on her own since she was 12. She confessed, “I’m Drew, and I’m an addict and alcoholic”—i.e., she was “in recovery,” meaning, presumably, that she now abstained from all psychoactive substances.

    She entered rehab at 14, attempted suicide and spent 18 months in a mental health institution. She then went to live with David Crosby because she “needed to be around some people that were committed to sobriety.” In 1990, age 15, she published a memoir, Little Girl Lost.

    Addiction experts had a field day with Barrymore—a name associated with alcoholism and addiction. They explained how she had inherited her disease from her famous paternal grandfather, John, who was addicted to alcohol, and from a father who was addicted to heroin (her parents divorced when she was nine). The solution: a lifetime of abstinence.

    That didn’t happen. Barrymore outgrew her addiction to become a film power player as an actress and a producer while, early on, she combined this success with being a wild child. She posed in Playboy in 1995, age 19. The same year she formed her own production company, often making films in which she starred. In 2009 she won a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her role in Grey Gardens. She also directed her first film in 2009.

    In 2009 she said, “I’m not sober.” Rather, she had found “balance” in her life.

    In 2013, now age 38, Barrymore re-appeared in People with the new heading, “Drew Barrymore: She’s a Vintner,” “unveiling her eponymous pinot grigio at the Nantucket Wine Festival … [she has] lots of knowledge and is passionate about her wine.”

    Barrymore had come a long way from being institutionalized in her early teens for mental illness and addiction. But she doesn’t make a big thing about it. In 2009, then in her early 30s, she said, “I’m not sober.” Rather, she had found “balance” in her life.

    In 2017, now in her 40s with two daughters, she starred in the popular Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet. In 2018, she did a deep interview with Willie Geist around the show’s new season. Barrymore had retreated from acting prior to Santa Clarita in order to raise her two young daughters, and because she thought she was overexposed. In that time her marriage broke up, and she was in a “dark and fearful placewhen she signed on for the series.

    Despite life’s ongoing challenges, we should note that neither Barrymore, nor anyone who knows her, is on record as considering her relapsing to addiction as the remotest of possibilities. Barrymore embraces her entire life, accepting the adversity she faced as a child. Rather than seeing this as a lifelong disease, she announces that it made her the person she is.

    Indeed, she told Geist, she worries about how her daughters might never face adversity, which she feels people must in order to fully develop. She cautions her children about maintaining two primary guide lights: kindness and safety.


    Undercutting a Dominant Paradigm

    A life like Drew Barrymore’s—a large life, but a typical one with respect to outgrowing an addiction—undercuts the American recovery meme that not only adults, but increasingly children, must be permanently diagnosed as “addicts.”

    Here is how the Orchid Recovery Center, for example, addressedChildhood Drug Addiction, Drew Barrymore” in 2008: 

    Though Drew certainly went through some very rough years, she seems to have kept her sobriety for a long time. Though she has done some quirky and questionable things as a celebrity, there have been no reports of her relapsing into drug use. She seems to have found good work that matches her talents, service and charity efforts she believes in, and good people around her.

    This version of Barrymore subtly portrays her as being on the precipice of being re-addicted at all moments, which she is somehow barely avoiding.  

    But even this perspective grants Barrymore too much, according to people like one commenter on Stanton’s blog about Barrymore in Psychology Today: “She’s just in denial and I hope SOMEONE around her will sit her ass down and tell her the TRUTH that she is bound to die addicted and alcoholic.”

    As extreme as that thinking is, it is the fundamental view that our society applies to addiction. In the US, a long list of US Surgeons General and Drug Czars have claimed that addiction is a brain disease that can never be escaped. And yet government research itself, as well as the experiences of people all around us, show that the opposite is true.

    From the age of 26 and older, the substance use disorder figure shows a precipitous drop of 56 percent.

    According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15 percent of Americans age 18-25 had a substance use disorder, defined by the DSM V as “A pattern of repeated drug or alcohol use that often interferes with health, work, or social relationships.” Substance use disorder (SUD) thus exists along a continuum, from serious problems to all-consuming addiction. And more than one in six of young people display this condition.

    The good news: From the age of 26 and older, the SUD figure was 6.6 percent—one in 15—a precipitous drop of 56 percent. Youth is certainly a high-risk time for drinking and other substance use problems. But older teens and young adults often cut back in a few short years, so that the percentage of people with an SUD after age 26 drops to less than half the number of the younger group.

    Recall, too, the NESARC odds that a person, over their lifetimes, will leave a drug dependence behind are 84 percent for nicotine, 91 percent for alcohol, 97 percent for cannabis, and 99 percent for cocaine. And the majority of those who escape addiction to alcohol or other drugs, especially in their youth, like Barrymore, continue drinking

    The National Survey data nonetheless raise several critical questions: 

    * How can we convince more teens and young people to eschew problematic drinking and drug use by maturing at an earlier age?

    * What is the consequence of telling young people with an alcohol or drug problem that they are lifelong alcoholics or addicts?  

    * How can we build on the natural ameliorative tendencies of age to get even more people to recover from their drinking and drug problems?

    Barrymore doesn’t lecture on the topic of how she outgrew addiction. She would rather focus on her accomplishments. But there are essential, helpful lessons to glean from this process in her and so many others’ lives:

    * No one is destined to be addicted. 

    * Early childhood recreational substance use may (or may not) have downsides, perhaps severely negative ones, but such experiences are not lifetime sentences.

    * The route out of early substance problems is to embrace as full—and as fully rewarding—a life as possible.

    * This goal is not enhanced by calling a child (or anyone else) an “addict,” and we shouldn’t do so.


    A Case of Childhood Gaming Addiction

    It is clear that young people often enter self-defeating involvements with alcohol and other substances that may cause serious, possibly permanent, damage. But these involvements do not exhaust the kinds of problems that children encounter. Not all addictions involve substances.

    In 2018 gaming addiction was classified as a disorder by the World Health Organization. This condition occurs, according to WHO, when “gaming has priority over other life activities and there is continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.”

    Video games gave Mark a feeling of excitement and connection that compensated for the lack of such experiences in the rest of his life.

    Mark was an 11-year-old fifth-grader (a child with whom Zach later worked, whose name has been changed per his family’s request). He complained that nobody liked him, and that even the few people who were nice to him had no interest in being his friend.

    Mark had many academic skills: visual/spatial, linguistic and logical/mathematical. After school, Mark played video games, often speaking remotely with strangers as they played, because “it’s super fun, and the people on the other end actually understand me and like me because they’re gamers too.” That is, video games gave Mark a feeling of excitement and connection that compensated for the lack of such experiences at school and in the rest of his life.

    Mark became so involved with video games—and so out of touch with other aspects of life—that he began staying home from school, even pretending to be sick, in order to play games all day. He fell behind on his assignments and lost touch with his school life. When he returned to school, he had to do his missed schoolwork during recess. Perversely, Mark’s missing recess deprived him of the opportunity to do what he needed most—to bond with people.

    Mark was trapped in a negative, self-perpetuating loop. His difficulty making connections was a problem that led him to isolate himself, a consequence of which was his falling further outside of a rewarding engagement in school, making it harder for him to find friends. On top of this, he also faced the stress of overdue homework and additional burdens being placed on him at school, to which his response was to play more video games—the one thing he knew to do to relieve stress and gain self-esteem and form connections, however short-lived and artificial.

    Mark’s developing problem needed to be addressed by finding avenues into real experience, with real people.

    We can see that Mark was embarked on a deepening negative path. And he was only 11 years old, with so much life before him, a life to be lived fully.

    Mark could clearly articulate what a good life was and what that looked and felt like: “being a good person, which means being honest, polite, taking care of yourself like eating good food and exercise, and doing well in school.”

    Instead, Mark felt bad about his own life. Rather than acting according to his expressed values, he did the opposite: He secluded himself; he missed school; he fell behind on class work; he was alienated from his schoolmates; he lied to his parents about what he was up to—for fear that by admitting the truth (that he was going downstairs to play video games instead of doing homework) he would cause his parents to punish him and forbid the one thing that made him feel good.  

    Mark’s developing problem with excessive, detrimental gaming needed to be addressed by finding avenues into real experience, with real people—which is precisely how Mark’s teacher helped him.


    Mark’s Retracking

    Mark’s parents brought up their concerns about their son to his teacher, Mr. Stevens,* who took their concerns seriously but didn’t panic. The next school day, Mr. Stevens began a technology unit—one he had already planned for Mark’s class.

    Mr. Stevens gathered his students into small groups in which they would study different video games. The aim of the project was to create their own games using computer software. Mr. Stevens knew that being in groups made Mark anxious. But he knew that Mark had strong computer skills, that he wanted to be helpful, and that he knew a lot about video games. On that basis, Mr. Stevens made Mark his technical point person with all the groups.

    It didn’t take long for Mark to become the most sought-after person in the class, answering questions from “How do I do this?” to “What is your favorite console?” This was Mark’s area of expertise.

    In short order, Mr. Stevens asked Mark to set up an online discussion board for students in the class. Mark happily created this clearing service at home, which added another way for him to interact with classmates.

    He wasn’t actually playing fewer games; but he was balancing his gaming with personal, social and academic involvements.

    Mark was now going to school, engaging in class, and playing with friends during recess. His parents reported that he was much more polite and more present at home. He wasn’t actually playing fewer games; he was playing a wider variety of video games with the purpose of building his knowledge base. But, at the same time, he was balancing his gaming with personal, social, and academic involvements.

    Although he certainly didn’t consider himself an addiction expert, Mr. Stevens was a sensitive and flexible teacher. By drawing on Mark’s strengths and the available opportunities in the classroom, he created a new pathway for Mark, one that integrated Mark’s skill-set within the class environment. With this support, Mark was able to find a positive balance in his life without having to give up his gaming passion—an example of harm reduction.

    Mark’s case illustrates how gaming, in and of itself, isn’t a disorder, but becomes one when it curbs a young person’s cognitive and social development. Rather than simply labeling gaming “addictive,” a better way to describe this process is to say that young people who are not well adjusted may seek out gaming as one kind of unhealthy outlet. 

    We should question whether it would have helped in this situation to diagnose Mark with gaming disorder.” And no matter how much his behavioral cycle resembled an addiction, under no circumstances, no matter what categories WHO creates, should we define Mark a “gaming addict,” as though this were an embedded part of his being.


    This article is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 5 of Stanton Peele and Zach Rhoads’ book, Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy, published by Upper Access Press in May 2019.

    *Name has been changed to protect privacy.

    Photo of Drew Barrymore in 2014 by zuko1312 on Flickr/Creative Commons

    • Dr. Stanton Peele is a psychologist who has pioneered, among other things, the idea that addiction occurs with a range of experiences and recognition of natural recovery from addiction. He developed the Life Process Program for addiction and has authored many books since the 1975 publication of Love and Addiction (co-authored by Archie Brodsky).


      Zach Rhoads is an author and educational consultant working with families in Vermont. He is also an addiction coach in Dr. Stanton Peele’s Life Process Program. He hosts the podcast FSDP Presents on behalf of Families for Sensible Drug Policy.

      Their book Outgrowing Addiction: With Common Sense Instead of “Disease” Therapy was published by Upper Access Press in May 2019.

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