The New Face of Celebrity Rehab?

By Ruth Fowler 06/30/11

Dr. Drew's rumored replacement is a Harvard-educated shrink who complains he isn't being paid enough by VH1, admits his colleagues are appalled by his turn on reality TV and thinks that Michael Lohan is a pretty good dad.

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Dr. John: Sharp enough to Fill Drew's Shoes? Photo via

The alarmingly addictive addiction show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew has received its fair share of criticism over the years, from people complaining of exploitation, bad therapy and simple bad taste.  This season, after a series of depressing deaths, Dr. Drew announced he was dropping out of the hit show, which still is one of VH1's most popular programs. While the network has announced that the show will be going on hiatus after it's fifth season, the recent addition of a highly respected Harvard-trained doctor and author to the staff, has many T.V insiders wondering if he's being groomed as Pinsky's replacement. Dr. John Sharp, who specializes in integrated psychotherapy has practiced in both Boston and Los Angeles and is a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine. In other words: he's a serious heavy hitter. He also happens to be pretty cool with a sense of humor to boot. So how did a nice guy like him end up on a show like this?

So how the the hell did a highly respected psychiatrist from the hallowed halls of Harvard end up starring on Celebrity Rehab?

To be honest, I was really reluctant when they first approached me a couple years ago, since I didn’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be the right thing in terms of treatment. I was afraid the show might be forced, or exploitative, or trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities. I talked to the executive producers for a long time, and in the end I wasn’t comfortable being part of the show. But two years later, in February of 2011, the producers paged me. Usually I only get pages from patients in crisis and this one said “Please call Celebrity Rehab regarding season five” and that led to another set of discussions, and this time I decided, “You know what, I’m gonna do this.”

Why?

I really wanted to educate the public about what good psychiatric treatment is and isn’t. I think I took a bit of a gamble risking my reputation to join up with reality TV, but Celeb Rehab was a good place to start, given the fact that what the patients experience there every day is very similar to a really good treatment center.

Is there a lot of professional jealousy among TV doctors? Like, does Dr. Drew secretly loathe Dr. Oz? And how do you feel about your own impending celebrity?

I’m a long way from becoming anything like a celebrity, but it’s true there are a lot of people in Los Angeles who want to be in the entertainment business and there are doctors who want to be on TV too. I think maybe one of the things that Celebrity Rehab liked about me was that I wasn’t the biggest eager beaver of the bunch. I kind of played hard to get in the sense that I wasn't concerned, and wanted to give it time and really think about it. I wasn’t playing a game by doing that but I guess it underscored the fact that I wasn’t in it for the wrong reasons.

Did you reconsider your decision to be part of the show after the tragic deaths of [former patients] Mike Starr and Jeff Conaway?

I was very worried, but I quickly noticed how much Drew and all the other professional staff cared for those guys. Everyone really cared and felt very badly. It’s a testament to how bad the disease is, how bad addiction is. It sounds like a cliche, but this really is about life and death.

Why did they decide to ax Sober House?

The first few seasons of Celebrity Rehab were very close to what Drew had originally wanted: they really showed what was going on in terms of rehabilitation. After that, the show was kind of amplified a bit to make it more dramatic—not that they were showing anything that wasn’t true, but it was more entertaining. I guess they then thought, “Well, we can show what happens when people leave their initial 30 days and go live in a sober environment and continue with their outpatient treatment needs.” But in the end, it was too chaotic. In a real sober living house, there isn’t any treatment, there aren’t any licensed professionals—so what are you really showing? A bunch of people trying to get along. I think a lot of people who look at Celebrity Rehab and go “Wait a minute, isn’t that exploitative, or over the top, or too much?” are thinking of Sober House. This year, Drew and the producers wanted to bring the show back to its roots to try and focus the attention back on the excellent care that’s happening. I think that’s why it made sense to have me, with my emphasis on dual diagnosis, there. Of the eight cast members, I was thinking all the time, “Could there be an element of bipolar disorder? Anxiety? Depression?”

Can you explain dual diagnosis and how that plays a role in addiction, What is your role in the show supposed to be?

Dual diagnosis is the presence of active psychiatric illness in addition to addiction—like bipolar disorder and addiction or depression and addiction or social anxiety and addiction or Attention Deficit Disorder and addiction. This is all actually quite common. Psychiatric illnesses are best treated by a psychiatrist in association with an addiction medicine doctor—hence myself together with Dr. Drew. My role on the show was as the treating psychiatrist. I evaluated all the cast for psychiatric illness, made my diagnoses, discussed the implications of this with Dr. Drew and the rest of the clinical staff, made a plan for treatment, and provided the recommended psychiatric care and management—psychoeducation, psychotherapy, and medication as indicated. And I was in charge of all aftercare arrangements and provided direct care and coordination with the clinical staff.

Do you ever get suspicious about people’s motivations for going on the show?

People say we aren't providing real treatment here because the cast members get paid or because the cameras are always on. It's true that treatment is complicated by those factors, but treatment is always complicated by something or another. I mean the purity of the consulting room, is always—well, not pure. Someone always has multiple influences on them. If we can be explicit about that, then we can deal with it. Some people were actually better in front of the cameras as they felt it made them more accountable. One of the cast—Doc Gooden—has been doing so well, and we were talking about that, and I said, “Doc, you did so great with the cameras rolling, but we’re counting on you to keep doing that well when they’re off.” Joy Behar—she showed a clip of Michael Lohan sobbing to everyone. And he was saying, “I hope my family doesn’t see this, I don’t want my family to see this” and so she said, “Michael, if you didn’t want your family to see this, why the hell did you go on the show?” [Laughs]

Why do people who seem to have everything screw up so often?

I think it’s a combination of getting intoxicated with yourself and being a bit cut off from normal checks and balances. You don’t have a lot of people around you saying no, especially as you go up and up the power list; you can rally start to feel like you can get away with anything. "People say this isn’t real treatment because the cast members get paid or because the cameras are on. It is complicated by those factors, but treatment is always complicated by one factor or another."

Is it better to research people’s histories or let them tell you their story themselves?

Definitely better to let them tell you their story fresh. Labels don’t convey the extent of someone’s problem. Take Amy Fisher, for example. How big was her anger management problem? What kind of a role did alcohol play? When I was evaluating her, I didn’t remember her history, and I asked her “How was your childhood?” and she said, “Well it was pretty rough” and I said, “Well, when did you leave home?” and she rolled her eyes and said, “When I went to jail.” That’s not an answer I hear every day.

Did anyone relapse on the show while you were there?

If you watch, you'll see that some of the characters on the show people demonstrate a real improvement right away, and then a little bit of a setback towards the end. Freud interestingly said—he was not talking about Celebrity Rehab by the way, he was talking about psychoanalysis in general—that at the end of an analysis, the original symptoms often seem to come back, and he advised the doctors in training with him not to be too disturbed by that. He said that symptoms are like “actors in a play who come out onstage for one final bow.” I don’t know if that’s what happened on Celebrity Rehab but that’s why the aftercare was so helpful. I mean, the people who followed up the most with us are doing the best now. In LA, Jeremy Jackson is doing great—he’s working probably most of all, and Bai Ling and Michael Lohan really followed up with us. Amy and Dwight—Doc—went back to New York and we arranged their follow-up care. Dwight in particular has a really intensive program in New York —and he’s doing spectacularly well.

How is Michael dealing with Lindsay’s very public failings right now?

He’s a very involved family man. He really cares a lot about his children, even about his ex-wife Dina, and he’s very affected by them, and he describes them all as having very close relationships. Much closer than you’d think by what’s in the media. So we really wanted to help Michael lead by example, by seeing if he could get into a more reflective, rather than compulsive, mindset. Not to just react to everything.

Is he communicating with Lindsay?

Yeah. According to him, the communication and effectiveness between them has always been better than it's portrayed on the media. He was very prone to blowing up—he’s still prone to it, but less so now.

Did his family visit him?

There was some in-house controversy about whether it made sense to bring Lindsay and Dina in to see him. It was a pretty complicated evaluation because of the press and the media.  I thought he didn’t need this big starlet around—it might be too much, too overwhelming. 

You said Doc Gooden’s doing great...

Doc’s been to numerous inpatient programs and he usually does well in the confines of residential treatment. His problems develop afterwards when he gets strongly tempted—when he goes back to Florida, or in March, which was when he stepped down from the mound. Doc’s great achievement was really staying in touch with his sobriety needs during outpatient. He’s been able to show up in his life, which he hadn’t really been able to do before.

Is it difficult to do your job with the cameras on you?

It complicates things—I mean, what happens if a patient of mine gets a little flirty with me on camera, how do I handle that?

Did that happen?

Yeah, that happened. I mean, obviously, I’m not going to fall prey to something that is going to be harmful to a patient, which is going to be wrong, which is going make me lose my medical license. I mean, I don’t care who’s watching—I’m not going to do that. But to have someone, you know, ask me if I find them attractive...

Who asked you that?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I should say, I don’t want to embarrass her...

What else did she ask?!

You know, asking me what I would do if I were her boyfriend, asking me if I was married, did I have family...to have all that happen when the cameras are on, when I’m very prone to blushing anyway...really, it was a very...odd moment for me."I think there are two kinds of viewers: those that watch and enjoy the fall more, and those that watch and enjoy the finding-their-way-back-up more."

How did you respond?

I said, “Look I can’t do anything which is medically wrong, or potentially harmful”—especially with the cameras rolling!’ I mean—what are you thinking? What are you doing to me?!

What do your daughters think of your new TV career?

The oldest one is going be a doctor as well—she’s interested in being a surgeon, she’s very East Coasty. So she thinks L.A. is a little out there; she’s not sure what to make of it. It’s a little too—light. But she likes that I’m educating the public and I’m talking about important things—so I haven’t embarrassed her too much. The younger one is interested in marketing and she’s interning at a PR company in New York. She, of course,is thrilled. She emailed me a while back and said, “Dad, are you famous?” I said, “No, sweetie, I don’t really think so, but it’s fun to put the good word out there.” She’s getting all her friends together to watch the show.

What else can we expect to see this season on the show?

Well, Sean Young was really concerned about codependency—she was trying to figure out how much her drinking was a problem, and how much her husband’s drinking was a problem. She’s still wrestling through that question. Steven Adler had obviously been on the show before, and his primary concern was trying to quit marijuana because he’d already beaten heroin before, which was huge. He quit cold turkey when he came in, and he had a hard time with that. He was irritable, suffered—went on the attack a little bit, and made some difficulties for everyone—but then he got a lot of feedback from everyone around him and seemed to take that in. He left feeling pretty proud of himself. We haven’t seen a lot of him since, so we don’t know if his sobriety stuck. I’m not sure how fully committed he was to saying goodbye to marijuana forever. I mean, with the help of the retrospect-o-scope, you can wonder, “Wow, the guy relapsed right away, did he really intend to stay clean?” But he seemed to really care about it on the show, and was really connected to Dr Drew, Bob and Shelly.

What about Jeremy Jackson? He seems to like his supplements.

Jeremy Jackson talked a lot about his experiences being a kid on Baywatch and how it wasn’t so easy being this cute, young actor with all these grown ups and all the vices of LA. He came in getting off of steroids, a little lost about how to make sense of what was important and what wasn’t. He was able to go from being disorganized to being really focused—he really has his priorities straight. He’s got a whole career ahead of him and he’s in great shape. We found out a little more about him than even he originally knew.

How did Bai Ling fare? In the first episode she seemed incredibly...crazy. 

Bai Ling came in to deal with the problems that drinking caused her in her life. She was very embarrassed about putting herself in compromising positions because of alcohol—you know, out and about, being photographed. And she has an amazing story to tell about her life. She was really unstable when she came in and stabilized dramatically. Meds were involved. It wasn’t easy to try and figure out what was going on with her but she followed up very valiantly with her aftercare.

America sure loves a redemption story.

Falling and find a way back up is very American. I think there are two kinds of viewers: those that watch and enjoy the fall more, and those that watch and enjoy the finding-their-way-back-up more. Hopefully we get the “finding their way back up” viewers, but I don’t know. I was talking to a patient on the phone the other day, and she was saying, “Oh everybody’s so happy except for me” and I said, “That’s ridiculous—life is a struggle for everyone.” She said, “Well, your life’s perfect—you’re going be on TV.” And I thought, I gave up a lot of time for that show, I don’t think they paid me very well, I could have been doing other things—like seeing my patients or being a good Harvard doctor. There are some colleagues who might look askance at the fact I’ve been on reality TV while others might congratulate me for taking that risk, or come find me because they see me doing good work but I don’t know how it’s going to break. It’s a risk. I was trying to make the point to her that it’s not like everything is so wonderful—you try to make the best with the choices you’ve made. I don’t think I’ve ever been completely happy, but at least I’m balanced, and I try to feel fortunate for that.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.

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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.