Actor Jeff Conaway became one of America’s most famous substance abusers when he appeared in the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. He passed away last week.
Best known for his roles in the movie Grease and the TV show Taxi, 60-year-old Conaway spent most of his life battling addictions to cocaine, alcohol and prescription drugs. Earlier this month, he was found unconscious in his home and spent two weeks in a coma before he was removed from life support and died on May 27.
Conaway’s death followed the March passing of another Celebrity Rehab alumnus. Mike Starr, former bass player for the group Alice in Chains, died of an overdose of Methadone and a prescription anxiety drug. Starr claimed to have maintained sobriety after his stint on Celebrity Rehab, but one month before his death he was arrested for illegal possession of the prescription drugs alprazalam (an anxiety drug marketed under the name Xanax) and oxymorphone (a narcotic pain killer).
Celebrity Rehab, which is hosted by Dr. Drew Pinsky, follows a group of celebrities with substance abuse problems as they undergo treatment in a California rehab facility. Approximately 50 celebrities have appeared on Celebrity Rehab since its debut in 2009. Although the show puts the topic of addiction rehab into the public eye and may encourage people with substance abuse issues to consider treatment, it has also been criticized for questionable practices. Many addiction experts have called the show exploitive and sensationalist. When asked about his experience on the Celebrity Rehab, Jeff Conaway admitted that the presence of cameras caused him to exaggerate many of his reactions while he was in treatment. Conaway’s admission underlines the obvious fact that including a television camera in the rehab process will change the dynamic and bring out some ulterior motives in rehab participants.
Autopsy results that will reveal the exact cause of Conaway’s death are not yet available. His manager stated that he most likely overdosed on prescription drugs. Within a few days of Conaway’s passing, Dr. Pinsky disputed this claim and stated that Conaway had died of a combination of pneumonia and sepsis rather than a drug overdose, noting that his death was hastened by years of drug and alcohol abuse.
Supporters of Dr. Pinsky and some experts in the field of addiction recovery have come to the defense of Celebrity Rehab. In the general population, a certain number of people who have abused drugs and alcohol for decades will succumb to their addiction despite efforts at rehabilitation. Rachel Uchitel, a former nightclub manager and girlfriend of golfer Tiger Woods who also appeared on Celebrity Rehab, feels that Conaway and Starr benefitted from their time spent on the show. According to Rachel, “…they were given the opportunity to see the light by being on Celebrity Rehab and maybe that kept them alive longer then they would have had they had they not been on the show.”