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Addiction

Hunter Biden and Demi Lovato Are Addiction Recovery Heroes

Why their recent disclosures mean more than you might think.

Key points

  • Hunter Biden’s candid memoir is helping destigmatize addiction and recovery.
  • Demi Lovato shows that full abstinence isn’t the only valid recovery path; moderated use can be a right choice for some.
  • They also illustrate the importance of relationships to recovery.

It’s been a big week for celebrity disclosures about addiction and recovery. And like it or not, celebrities shape societal perspectives. Luckily, Hunter Biden and Demi Lovato are demonstrating aspects of addiction and recovery that are evidence-based but underrepresented.

Let’s start with Hunter Biden. His memoir, Beautiful Things, will be released next week, and early reviews from major media outlets show that it’s a candid and detailed account of his struggle with addiction and recovery. He admits to smoking crack cocaine frequently and shares details that apparently are hard for readers to digest. Because Hunter Biden isn’t what most people think of as someone struggling with alcohol or cocaine addiction.

Media representations of “alcoholics” and “crackheads” have perpetuated stereotypes so grossly that many people are shocked to learn that someone like the president’s son would engage in such heavy substance use. His brave disclosure will help destigmatize addiction and can help correct the misrepresentation of drug users in the media. The truth is, most drug users look more like Hunter Biden than Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman or The Wire’s Bubbles.

But I actually think there is a more powerful theme in his book—the importance of relationships and social support in addiction recovery. That message does a huge service to families affected by addiction. This area has been long neglected as discussions of recovery tend to focus on the individual's recovery journey, personal accountability, and making amends.

Some recovery programs outright discourage focusing on relationships in early recovery. But people don’t go through their recovery journey alone, and involvement of key relationships is linked to better recovery outcomes. I think that the interplay between relationship functioning and addiction recovery is so vital that I developed the Relationships in Recovery treatment program that is soon being published as a self-help workbook.

Hunter’s memoir reportedly describes his wife Melissa’s influence and his father’s unwavering support as critical factors in his recovery. Even the title, Beautiful Things , references his and his brother Beau’s intentional cultivation of beauty in relationships, places, and moments. This book builds on what was already an important story for people in addiction recovery.

I’ll never forget Joe Biden looking into the camera at a presidential debate and saying, “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.” Those words gave his son and millions of others with addiction history exactly what they need, compassion and support. Unfortunately, they often face stigma and demonization instead.

It seems that President Biden’s public statements are consistent with his private sentiment; Hunter states in his book that his father “never let me forget that all was not lost. He never abandoned me, never shunned me, never judged me, no matter how bad things got.” Now that’s a message I can get behind, and the relationship aspects of Hunter’s recovery are the parts of the book that I’m most excited to read.

I specialize in evidence-based addiction treatment—I teach about these issues and help people struggling with addiction and their loved ones improve their relationships. Many of the couples and families I work with have been trying for years to find ways to provide addiction recovery support without being labeled "codependent" or "enablers" (both controversial and often contested terms), and I spend a good deal of time helping them consider the differences between unhealthy dynamics and healthy supportive interdependence.

Many have been to Al-Anon meetings, staged confrontational “interventions,” made ultimatums, or tried to “detach with love” in attempts to help the person see the consequences of their addiction. But research shows those approaches often backfire by solidifying resistance to treatment, damaging relationships, and creating further disengagement, social isolation, and shame.

And when those “tough love” efforts don’t help or aren’t compatible with their values or beliefs about relationships, people don’t know how to be supportive in helpful ways because those types of approaches don’t get as much media attention. You don’t see movies about Community Reinforcement and Family Training or motivational interviewing , although hopefully, that’s in Hollywood’s future.

Until then, I look forward to seeing how Melissa, President Biden, and others demonstrated their support in ways that helped Hunter’s recovery. Hopefully, their story can help other people think about more helpful and compassionate ways to interact with their loved ones struggling with addiction.

But Hunter Biden isn’t the only celebrity making headlines about addiction right now.

Demi Lovato has recently disclosed her recovery path includes moderate use of alcohol and cannabis, what she calls “California Sober.” Her disclosure is equally important to people who have struggled with addiction because it illustrates that full abstinence isn’t the only valid recovery path.

Although it’s certainly going to draw criticism from some, moderated or controlled use paths are supported by research and clinical experience. Some people are able to use certain substances without problems, even when they have an addiction history and are abstaining from other substances. People are also more likely to meet goals they pick themselves instead of goals that are imposed on them by a recovery system or societal expectations. And certain substances have therapeutic effects that can be helpful for people in addiction recovery. Many of my clients have been able to sustain recovery only after including moderate therapeutic or recreational use of some substances.

Demi clearly points out that just as full abstinence wasn’t the best choice for her, moderated use isn’t the best choice for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all recovery path; thanks to Demi Lovato, maybe we will start having that conversation more openly.Taken together, Hunter Biden and Demi Lovato’s experiences are certain to help many people with addiction histories and their loved ones. Their stories challenge stereotypes, normalize recovery challenges, and instill compassion. Their honest disclosures of topics that are fraught with public scrutiny, judgment, and shame should be applauded. Hunter Biden and Demi Lovato truly are addiction recovery heroes.

Copyright 2021 Kelly E. Green

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