There is a website called ‘After Ellen’ that is dedicated to the representation of lesbian and bi women in popular culture. The ‘Ellen’ they are referring to, is comedienne Ellen DeGeneres who came out as a lesbian in 1997.
It was a defining moment for the gay community.
DeGeneres had been dodging questions and rumors about her love life for years. It was pretty obvious she was gay, but back in the 90’s this was not something a entertainer as popular as her was prepared to say publically.
It would be career suicide.
She would be labeled as that ‘lesbian comedienne’ or ‘dyke actress’ and mainstream TV wouldn’t touch her again.
Despite the enormous personal risk, Ellen refused to live her life in fear and shame for being who she was.
She was a lesbian, she loved women, that was her truth and she couldn’t live her life any other way.
Well you know what happened next.
Seventeen years later, Ellen is one of the most popular and well-loved entertainers in the industry. She is an attractive, authentic and hilarious person who happens to be gay.
What Ellen did was transformational for the gay community, she threw the door open for ordinary gay people to live in truth too.
Before Ellen this just wasn’t possible.
This one deeply personal and brave act had a ripple effect that touched everyone.
Enter Elizabeth Vargas, who has just done exactly the same thing for the recovery community.
Elizabeth publically announced in the most dignified manner, that she had an alcohol problem and was seeking professional help.
Take a second to absorb this.
Elizabeth hasn’t done anything original here, plenty of celebrities have publicly admitted they are alcoholics or addicts.
What is important here is when Elizabeth did it.
Elizabeth wasn’t ‘outed,’ there have been no pictures or salacious stories of her drinking behavior. She didn’t volunteer this information because she was cornered and wanted to get the press of her back.
She did it exactly the same way Good Morning America presenter, Amy Robach just announced she had breast cancer.
She treated alcoholism as the disease it is. Nothing to be ashamed of but something that needed professional help to be addressed.
She did it, as it was happening to her, not after her sobriety has been established.
What Elizabeth Vargas did was huge.
In many ways this is not about the celebrity it’s about the moment. Many public figures have discussed their alcoholism and addiction issues and how they got sober. Because of this, they have normalized it for ordinary people. They have paved the way for someone like Elizabeth to discuss their treatment for alcoholism, as it was happening. Just like, if she had been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes or lupus.
There is a momentum in the recovery community and we are refusing to be secretive about our addiction and recovery any more.
All of that, has led to this moment.
Announcing you were an alcoholic and were going to seek treatment would have been the equivalent of career suicide for anyone before. If people go public about being in recovery, they do it after they have established some sobriety, not as they are about to go into treatment (unless forced to like Lindsay Lohan).
This is the moment where everything could change for those suffering from the disease of addiction.
By normalizing the recovery process right from the start, Elizabeth has been an example of what the future could be like for us.
Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out made it easier, not only for celebrities to come out, but more importantly she made it easier for your next door neighbor, or your buddy at work to come out.
Ellen made being ‘gay’ a normal, regular thing. She gave it dignity, she refused to be ashamed of whom she was and became an example of what is possible, when one is brave enough to live their truth.
And Elizabeth has done the same for us.
In treating her alcoholism with frankness and dignity, she only invited admiration and respect into her life. No one has judged her for being a drunk or a lush; instead she has been given empathy and understanding. Elizabeth refused to be ashamed and because of that she has earned a tremendous amount of respect.
So thank you to everyone who has spoken publicly about their addiction and thank you Elizabeth, you may not realize what it is you have actually done. But from this day forth, we may refer to the battle for more tolerance, understanding and better treatment for addicts and alcoholics as ‘Before Elizabeth’ and ‘After Elizabeth’ moments.
Because you have shown us how it can be done.
We are not alcoholics because we have some character flaw or moral failing. We just have a disease that needs treatment.
So maybe, from there, my next-door neighbor or buddy at work, can be honest and frank about their addiction or drink problem and admit they were getting help years earlier than they may have done before. Instead of skulking in the shadows and making up excuses for their behavior, maybe they can finally be honest and be treated with the same respect and understanding.
Maybe, finally, the world can see alcoholism is a disease like any other, and can be treated as such, right from the start.
‘After Elizabeth,’ recovery is never going to be the same again.
There is a follow up to this post here. I didn’t get this right and have followed up on how in a subsequent post.