Post-Mortem

02.26.13

'Celebrity Rehab' Counselor: Mindy McCready Won't Be the Last

Bob Forrest, the outspoken icon of Celebrity Rehab, speaks with Maer Roshan about the singer's suicide—and the likelihood that more addicts on the show 'will die in the next three to five years.'

When Mindy McCready shot herself on the porch of her Arkansas home last Sunday, the 37-year old country singer became the fifth person on Celebrity Rehab to meet an untimely demise, provoking an immediate firestorm against the show and its creator, Dr. Drew Pinsky. In an appearance on CNN, a group of doctors blasted the show for putting show biz values ahead of treatment. On Twitter, the singer Richard Marx compared Dr. Drew to Dr. Kevorkian.

The blowback has been bewildering to Bob Forrest, the be-hatted, bespectacled counselor who’s been a fixture on the show since its inception. As clinical director on the show, the 52-year old has provided a quirky, more soulful counterpart to Pinsky’s button-down presence. Forrest, the former lead singer of the post-punk band Thelonious Monster, has long lived at the intersection of addiction and celebrity. In the late eighties, he was a celebrated icon of L.A. music scene, until his heroin addiction derailed his career. A decade later, after 24 treatment attempts, he finally got sober, reinventing himself as a high-profile minder to a bevy of bold-faced actors and musicians. (A documentary about his life, Bob and the Monster, was released in 2011. His memoir, Running with Monsters, is being published by Crown next fall.) A few years ago, buoyed by Celebrity Rehab’s success, Forrest opened and then shuttered his own rehab center, a bruising experience that left him increasingly skeptical of the treatment establishment. In a remarkably candid interview last week, the outspoken star talked about the show’s uncertain future, the sorry state of treatment and why it sucks to be Dr. Drew.

How did you first learn of Mindy McCready's death?

I was taking my son to breakfast when my wife texted me the news. My immediate thought was that her boyfriend had finally killed her. I didn't know that he'd killed himself a few weeks before. They had been involved in a violent, crazy relationship—one of many in her life. The craziness in her life predated the show, and continued long after. Just Google her; it’s been years of kidnappings and abuse and suicide attempts. She was not someone destined for a long healthy life.

Her death has provoked a firestorm of criticism against you and the show. Were you expecting that?

I knew that people would be upset, but the viciousness of the response has been shocking. There’s been a lot of subtle animosity against Dr. Drew for a while now, but it’s gone into overdrive now. How do you go from hero to villain so quickly? Where were all these critics when the show first started?

Even early on, some people had real doubts about the idea of televising patients in treatment. Does the growing body count prove them right?

No. It has given the haters something to hang their hat on, but the beef against us was different back then. Most of our early critics were AA purists who were hung up on the whole anonymity thing. To me, total secrecy about AA and overcoming addiction just exacerbates the problem. It’s like being in the closet when you're gay. We wanted to demystify the process and make it transparent. Absolute anonymity doesn’t serve anybody.

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But there's a difference between transparency about addiction and a reality show about B-list celebrity addicts.

Sure. But that’s not how this started. You know, I was the one who pushed Drew to do this show. It was largely my idea. The inspiration was a PBS show about Bellevue Psych Ward where they followed around the staff and patients for 72-hours. You saw the hard, painful process they all had to go through each day. We wanted to do the same with drug treatment in America--to lift the veil over this secret, hazy process.

Why did you decide to go with celebrities instead of normal people?

Actually, I was totally against that. We first shopped the idea as a bunch of regular folks in a rehab, but the networks were so terrified of dying addicts that none of them would touch it. Finally VH1 said they'd do the show, but only if we used stars. I was like, ‘no fucking way. I'm not TMZ!’ The whole thing seemed a little sleazy. So Drew and I argued. He reminded me, 'You're the one who wanted this to be on television, who cares that they’re celebrities! Just focus on what we're trying to accomplish.’ Which was convincing. Did there end up being an exploitative quality to the show? Maybe. Did we cause the death of five people? Bullshit! Addiction kills thousands of people a day. Why would celebrities be exempt?

Five deaths out of 42 amounts to a mortality rate of over 11 percent. Isn’t that high for any treatment center?

Not high when you consider how troubled our clients were. They may have once enjoyed success, but most of them were in late-stage addiction. When treating Tom Sizemore, we weren’t dealing with the Tom Sizemore of Saving Private Ryan, we were dealing with hopeless-meth-addict Tom Sizemore. Our patients were traumatized people with a wide range of disorders like bi-polarity and depression. We're not dealing with Chardonnay addicts here. So if you compare our mortality rate to low-bottom places like Cri Help or the Salvation Army, 10 percent is standard.

Did you expect fatalities on the show?

Not at the beginning, no. I guess I was kind of naïve, but when we spun off Sober House our second season, it suddenly hit me, ‘Oh my God, people are going to die!’ There was an old friend of mine on the show, Seth Einger from the band Crazytown, who had coded and was unconscious on a respirator. He got better, but I’ve expected a tragedy ever since. I was relieved that it didn’t happen immediately, but suddenly its just boom, boom, boom!

Could you predict who would make it and who wouldn’t?

The scary part is that there’s no way to tell. Jason Davis is sober now…

Celebrity Rehab’s Season 3 Cast
AP; Getty

Gummi Bear?!

(Laughs) Yeah, Gummi Bear! Do you know how fucked up he was? It’s a miracle that Sizemore is clean. Mindy McCready and Rodney King were low on my list of people I thought were high risk. But with Jeff Conaway, the surprise isn't that he died, it’s that he lived as long as he did. He was taking twenty 80mg tabs of Oxy a day!

Did he have any sober periods?

A few. You know what’s ironic? Jeff Conaway tried to get me sober long ago! He was sober for seven years in the late ’80s, when I was at my worst. He was very kind to me, which is why I never gave up on him.

Do you think we’ll see more deaths ahead?

God, I hope not. But I'm a rational person. And unfortunately I don’t think this is going to be the end of it. More people will die in the next three to five years. It's gonna start getting scary! But you know, this disease is scary. My father died from it. My nephew died from it. This is not something unique to celebrities. If nothing else, I hope these deaths will convince the other stars to finally get serious. I know if I was a Celeb Rehab client right now and I was shooting dope, I’d be very worried.

You’ve said that your ultimate goal was to show average people what treatment was like. Do you think you succeeded?

Nothing on TV is ever totally accurate. But do I think Celebrity Rehab gives the public a good idea of the treatment experience? Yes! Thousands of people have gotten help because of the show. And despite the presence of cameras, you got moments of intense reality. I was surprised by the brutal honesty of the people on that show. I mean, who wants to admit they were raped by their uncle on national TV?

Are your clients really served by a show in which their most vulnerable moments are mined for entertainment value?

Look, it’s a valid question. Maybe it was wrong that we did this TV show. I’m willing to have an intelligent discussion about it. But the media outrage this last week hasn’t been intelligent. It’s been a witch-hunt focused on Dr. Drew and his motivation and ethics. But all of it skirts the central question--is it good for addicts to be featured on TV while they're in treatment?

Well, is it?

I think it’s a Net Zero. The positive benefits match the negative implications. There were times when I worried about the clients, but overall I think it’s had a positive impact on society.

But didn’t the wider social benefits come at the expense of the individuals on that show? Did they get the kind of care they needed?

I am very comfortable with the level of care we provided. Listen! Mindy McCready was a sick woman who went through intense drama and pain. She tried to kill herself a couple of times before she went on the show. She saw several other doctors after she left. But she finally succeeds and Dr. Drew is to blame? He hadn't seen Mindy in three years! Look at the others: Rodney King died of a heart attack, not an overdose. He shouldn’t be judged as a failure. Mike Starr and Jeff Conaway were two of the most severe addicts I’ve ever encountered. To say that the show contributed to their death is just insane. It's insane! They were drug addicts who relapsed and died. That's what drug addicts do if they don't figure out how to stay sober. I know lots of people don't like Dr. Drew. But it’s not hard to see schadenfreude in their glee at taking him down. It’s a personal grudge.

Why don't they like him?

Because they think he oversteps the line between being a doctor and being a media personality. It’s the same thing with Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. You love them or hate them. But the truth is, Drew is one of the kindest doctors I’ve ever met. He's never condescending or arrogant or too busy. Which isn’t true of many other addiction doctors I know.

How much did the footage we saw on TV diverge from daily life?

Lots of the day-to-day stuff was cut out. I ran a 12-step workshop every afternoon, but in seven seasons only a few minutes made it on-air. (laughs) Like at all rehabs, the melodrama happens at night, so that’s what made it on the show.

Some of the stars seemed more interested in rehabbing their careers than their addictions.

That certainly became a bigger and bigger motivation over the seasons, like “I'll show everyone I'm better, and then I’ll get some work!” And for some, that worked! Hey it’s not a bad plan. I mean why do people go to rehab in the first place? To show their employer and their families that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing.

Did ‘Celebrity Rehab’ pay people to go on the show?

Not initially, but as we became more popular the network kept upping the ante. That’s another thing that made us uneasy. There’s a misconception that Drew calls all the shots, but the truth is VH1 and Erwin Entertainment are really in charge. Drew's third in line.

He still has a pretty big sway over it.

Yeah, but once a show becomes a popular, its creators have less and less juice. On the first two seasons there was hardly anybody around—just me and Drew and a few crew and story people. After we did huge ratings, there were suddenly 100 people on the set. Everyone had a say about everything. In the beginning people liked the show because it was real and natural. By the end it was a soap opera. The producers started reeling in big names like Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore and Heidi Fleiss— stars with managers who demanded big bucks. By season three, when Mindy was on, the whole tenor had changed. Treatment took a backseat to the stars’ storylines. There always had to be a happy ending. And I thought, fuck, this is getting weird.

Did you ever consider walking away?

I seriously considered quitting after that third season. It was no longer the show I signed up for. Eventually I decided that since I started it, I should ride it out and do what I could to keep things as authentic as possible. You’ve got to understand that the show changed all of our lives. There was not much left for me to go back to. Before Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew was the medical director of Las Encinas hospital, and I was the clinical director. I loved working there! But because of the show and Drew’s high profile, our affiliation became a liability. When someone hanged themselves it became a national story. If a patient broke their ankle playing tennis, they’d sue for $3 million. So we had to leave.

Have you talked to Drew since this all happened? What’s his take on all this?

Well he's not happy. But he’s also savvier than I am—more used to criticism. When the first show aired, the heads of the Caron Foundation and the Betty Ford wrote an open letter saying what a scumbag he was. Drew took it in stride but I was livid. I thought, “Is this all these guys have to worry about, some dumb TV show? There’s always been opposition from parts of the recovery machine, but its boiled over with the death of this poor girl. The next thing I expect is some sort of profiteering off this. I imagine lawsuits are right around the corner.

Can the show survive this kind of controversy?

The show has kind of run its course anyway, don’t you think? None of these shows are as novel as they were. Candy Finnegan of Intervention is a friend of mine, and I always joke with her that I can't stomach one more fucking shot of her clients walking down the beach after they're 90 days sober and everything's great. I I've seen that scene 180 times now. Even I’m bored. And they rarely show you what happens to those people on day 91! (Laughs)

True. But even on Celebrity Rehab you got a sense that after the stars completed their stay they rode off into the Hollywood sunset.

Which is bullshit. That should be obvious. Rehab is just the first 15 seconds of a long, long process. I always tell my clients that. Everyone on the show is offered long-term care, but few of them take advantage of it. The ones who make it, like Janice Dickinson and Brandon Davis and Eric Roberts, didn’t stop after the show was over. They went to sober living and out-patient, they hung out with me for months.

How many of your celebrity patients on the show are still sober?

A lot! Not a majority but a good number. Some of our clients have gotten better; some have remained the same. For a few of them the disease has progressed to the point of death.

The whole concept of a 30-day cure seems increasingly unrealistic, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it’s bullshit. Anyone in the industry will tell you that. The longer you stay in some kind of treatment, the more successful you’ll be. But it's hard to convince people they need long-term care when they get taken to the fucking cleaners those first 30 days. When you drop $60,000, you’re not eager to spend another $30,000. If your kid's in jail and your wife is falling down in the kitchen, you'll pay anything to get them better. But when they're sober and shiny and sorry about what they done on day 30, there's not a chance in hell you're gonna pony up more. But that's exactly when the real treatment needs to start!

You haven’t always been a big fan of the treatment industry.

I’m a fan of good treatment. But as the corporations have muscled in, the industry has grown more and more corrupt. Back at the height of my own addiction, I went to an LA treatment center called Exodus—a rundown place run by an old junkie named Dr. Murphy. There was no Jacuzzi. No equine therapy. But everyone who worked there was amazing. All my friends in the music scene at the time, Anthony Keidis, Scott Weiland, the Janes Addcition guys, we all ended up there and got better. We knew that they cared about us, not just our money.

Is that no longer the case?

Not at a lot of these places. Mitt Romney’s hedge fund just bought 218 rehabs. Do you think it has the best interests of addicts at heart? Wall Street is buying in because it's a huge cash-flow industry. But when corporations take over priorities change. The MBAs want to cut expenses, so they get rid of the people who are most committed to the process and pour millions into advertising and the Internet. The quality goes down but the bill keeps going higher. Eight years ago the average cost of rehab was $35,000. Now it's $70,000. Has the cost of treatment really doubled in eight years? Has the quality of care? You have kids who go through seven rehabs by the time they’re 24. People would be shocked if they knew the real success rate of rehab.

There are a lot of non-profits rehabs like Phoenix House and Betty Ford and Hazelden that have been doing good work for years.

Yes. But many of the non-profits are in panic mode now. Betty Ford is getting killed by the Malibu rehabs. I mean, who wants to go to the rehab their grandmother went to? And Betty Ford is a good place! I try to get my clients to go there, but it’s hard to get 23-year olds to go to an old-age home in the desert when they could be lounging by a pool in Malibu. And even at Hazelden you have this growing movement to treat opioid dependence with pills like Suboxone—substituting one addiction for another. So you have Big Pharma earning billions off pills that cause addiction, and billions more from pills to treat it.

Is the nature of addiction different now than it was twenty years ago?

When I was using people were doing cocaine and heroin, often together. It was bad but it wasn’t quite as dangerous. The uppers and downers cancelled each other out. Now kids are raiding everything in their mother’s medicine cabinet, but mostly depressants like Klonopin and Oxycontin and Valium. It’s more deadly than ever. Twenty years ago, drugs were a more communal thing. These days people do drugs in relative isolation. And so you have this growing crisis. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death among kids 18 to 24. More people die from prescription pills than from heroin and cocaine combined.

What’s your biggest regret about this experience?

I regret that we’ve lost people. I regret if this makes anyone question treatment. I’d be devastated if the media circus overshadowed the larger point we were trying to make. The truth is, we’re in the middle of a epidemic. Things are getting worse. I'm at Vons right now doing my grocery shopping and I can see alcoholics in the line just going about their business. You can see it in their eyes, their faces. These are people’s mothers and husbands and children. A good number of them will be gone in a few years. That’s the real story here, but you can bet that won’t make it on the news. We’d rather focus on a few sad celebrities instead.

Will you be attending McCready’s funeral in Florida?

Unfortunately not. I would love to but I can't afford the ticket. People think we all became millionaires off the show, but I’m living proof to the contrary.