Addiction Experts: Bandmates' Support Essential To A.J.'S Recovery

By | July 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Nearly a week into his stay at a live-in rehab center, Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean is learning how to surrender, addiction experts say.

“The first thing you have to do is give up – you have to say, ‘This thing is bigger than I am,'” said Buddy Arnold, president of the Musicians’ Assistance Program, an organization that helps musicians get clean. “You’re being asked to give up your best friend, your coping tool that works all the time.”

McLean entered an undisclosed rehab facility on Sunday to deal with alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety, according to his Backstreet bandmates. The pop superstars have postponed the rest of their U.S. and Canadian tour while he undergoes a 30-day treatment program.

Most recovery programs follow the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which first call on addicts to admit that they’re powerless over the drug. McLean is likely spending his days learning about the steps through group therapy sessions with others in recovery.

“A typical day is morning meditation, going to the gym, having a group therapy meeting facilitated by a counselor, then lunch, another group meeting, dinner and then some kind of 12-step meeting in the evening,” said intervention specialist Bob Timmons, who reportedly has worked with Aerosmith, Scott Weiland, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode’s David Gahan and the late Kurt Cobain. “The treatment philosophy and standards are pretty much the same, whether they’re in [an upscale facility] in Malibu or a low-end program in downtown Los Angeles.”

Many programs require patients to do writing and reading assignments or to keep a journal to help them trace and understand how their substance-abuse problems have progressed.

“There is a lot of structure, because unstructured time is very difficult for people trying to be newly sober,” said Lezlie Murch, program director of the Exodus Recovery Center in Marina Del Rey, California, which has treated Cobain and Robert Downey Jr. “The idea of peer support and building a network of other sober people is very important, because when you leave treatment and transition back to your normal life, you’ll need to feel comfortable doing that in order to stay sober.”

A.J. turned to alcohol as a way to cope with his depression and anxiety, said his mother, Denise McLean. He was deeply affected by the recent death of his grandmother, according to his bandmates, who attributed some of his problems to that loss. Health professionals say individuals who use alcohol or drugs to dull feelings associated with depression, anxiety or a personal trauma only end up compounding their problems.

“People who are alcoholic or addicted tend to be depressed and have anxiety because those are withdrawal symptoms,” Murch said. “That’s not to say that he didn’t have depression that precluded some of this, but I’m certain that whatever was there was exacerbated by the alcohol abuse.”

Nearly 10 percent of Americans suffer from depression in any one-year period, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Going back on the road after a 30-day stint in rehab will be a risky move for McLean, experts warn, insisting that the singer will need follow-up treatment not only for his alcohol problem but for his other symptoms. Timmons and Arnold said the odds of McLean’s continued sobriety are greatly increased if he, his family and his bandmates take certain steps.

Timmons recommends that McLean’s counselors bring in his Backstreet bandmates and their management at some point during his treatment program to ensure that they understand and support his recovery.

When the Boys return to the road, McLean should bring along a counselor or “sober companion,” at least for the first leg, the experts said. Counselors joined A.J. earlier on the Black & Blue tour, but he continued to abuse alcohol, according to his bandmates. Both MAP and MusiCares, a program run by the Recording Academy, provide referral services that help touring musicians locate AA meetings on their days off and hook up with other sober musicians.

Timmons also suggests the Boys follow the lead of other groups with sober members and designate a “safe harbor room” backstage at every show, where no alcohol or drugs are permitted and only the band and its handlers are allowed inside. He advises that the group’s tour manager have a meeting with the crew to establish a drug and alcohol policy.

“No one has a magic pill if you take three times a day for the next 20 days, you’re going to wake up not wanting to get loaded,” said Arnold, a jazz musician who beat a 31-year heroin addiction in 1981 and has worked with Cobain and the Chili Peppers. “But if he has a support team with his band and a support team of clean and sober musicians, he’s got a good shot.”

McLean already has at least one thing working in his favor, experts said – his honesty about his problems.

“It’s so much easier to recover when you’re honest,” Murch said. “That was courageous and something to really be thankful for in terms of him making that step. A lot of people wouldn’t – they’d make up some other reason why the tour was delayed.”

Related Content