This week, we learned that Ben Affleck has gone to rehab after a supposed “intervention” with Jennifer Garner and a sober coach. Sources like Us have weighed in on what happened and that he knew he needed help, with pieces peppered with links to round-ups of other celebrities who have been to rehab and/or battled addiction.
Which, like, sure. Should Affleck and his family feel fine about this development being reported on and analyzed over, by all means report on it. But while we are getting better about talking about mental health and our understanding of the complexities that define it, we still seem to be stuck on the way we talk about famous people and addiction. Meaning, their addiction is front page news. And instead of using it as a jumping off point to talk about what fuels addiction, what makes it so prevalent, and what we need to change about our language and conversations around it, we dig into a person’s past, recruit friends and coworkers to weigh in on their thoughts, and make the stigma even stronger because said addiction becomes a defining factor. (Case in point: pieces about Demi Lovato following her overdose last month, and the way more than a few outlets spun it into an excuse for armchair psychiatry, complemented by assumptions and soundbites by people like Wilmer Valderrama.)
The thing is, we know that addiction is very commonplace. To learn that someone you know or know of has grappled with it shouldn’t be (and isn’t likely) a surprise. And yet, when a famous person is outed as an addict, our logic is replaced by our craving for drama — or maybe more realistically: an excuse to look into someone’s life and try to map out where it all began and subsequently went wrong, as if we’d know. Which is actually quite dangerous. First, because it sends the message that there is something sensational about addiction (and that creates a stigma), and second, because it doesn’t afford anyone the opportunity to talk about it without a sense of judgement or shock or awe or any reaction that makes it impossible to have honest conversations.
Frankly, it’s not weird or amazing that Ben Affleck, a 40-something-year-old man, is making headlines for getting help. Instead, it’s great. It’s good. It’s helpful. It’s a tough choice that he decided to make with (I’m assuming) the help of his family, and will have to continue to make since addiction doesn’t end when treatment starts. It’s not the jumping off point for our inability to write or cover or talk about it like normal people; it’s not an excuse to round-up all the other famous addicts and see how they’re doing in 2018. It’s an opportunity for the rest of us to talk about alcoholism or drug addiction in ways that don’t incite pity or wide-eyed gasps or jokes or, or, or. It’s an opportunity to begin changing our language around something that we like to think has been embraced by our recent-ish lean towards acceptance, but is still quite taboo. (See: the opioid crisis and the way we talk about anyone in the middle of it. Specifically, we don’t.)
After all, normalizing doesn’t mean not giving a shit. It means giving so many shits that you actively make sure the space in which you live and exist is one in which we listen and champion and don’t pry and shut up since we don’t know the full story — and won’t, unless we let other people speak.