Melissa Gilbert Shares Her Struggle to Get Sober as Drugfree.org Spokesperson

Filed under: Celeb Parents, Alcohol & Drugs, Celeb News & Interviews

Melissa Gilbert picture

Melissa Gilbert is living sober. Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

From starring as a child in the beloved role of Laura Ingalls to last year's release of her book "Prairie Tale," in which she writes honestly of her drug binges and alcoholism, Melissa Gilbert has lived much of her life in the spotlight.

Now named the first spokesperson for The Partnership at Drugfree.org, a nonprofit that helps parents prevent, intervene in and find treatment for drug and alcohol use by their children, the TV icon is the mother of Dakota, 21, a son with her first husband, Bo Brinkman, and Michael, 15, with her second husband, Bruce Boxleitner. Gilbert also is stepmom to Boxleitner's sons, Sam, 30, and Lee, 25.

Gilbert recently spoke with ParentDish about her work with Drugfree.org and her own battles with addiction.

ParentDish: Why did you decide to become Drugfree.org's spokesperson?
Melissa Gilbert: It came to me at a really interesting time. I had come back from the musical tour of "Little House," and I had injured my back. It turned out that my back was broken. I had major surgery and was stuck in bed for eight weeks and painkillers, blah, blah, blah, and dealing with trying to cope with the pain and an addicted brain.

I was sort of coming out of my stupor and going out and about and trying to decide what comes next. And, out of the blue, I get this call from the partnership: "We're rebranding, we've never had a spokesperson, the board has met and they would like you to do it." And I had just come through yet another challenge with my own sobriety.

I also started reading their website and I saw it was really dedicated to parents of teens, children and young adults and being about intervention, prevention and help. It really clinched it for me because our family has been through it with one of our kids pretty intensely. He got arrested, this quadruple-parented boy, my stepson, and we walked him through this process.

I was really amazed. As a sober alcoholic and someone who definitely did drugs, we, as parents, can't say to our kids we never tried it or did it; that would be totally hypocritical. So, I just came to this epiphany that I had this kid who was addicted to cocaine and none of us had a clue, and if we were clueless, imagine how many other parents are clueless.

I knew the partnership because of the iconic brain on drugs commercial, so when I went to the website and all I could think of was, I wish this was here when we had been going through it, maybe we would have seen it coming, maybe we wouldn't have, but at least we would have had the resources to really help this boy.

Fortunately, I think he got scared straight. One of the things that was important was that I talked to all the boys and Bruce to make sure it was OK with them that I do this, and they were amazing. My one son who had the problem said, "As the cautionary tale of the family, tell my story." And I said, "Oh, I think I'm the cautionary tale of the family."

PD: Do you think they picked you because you wrote of your battle with alcohol?
MG: I know they didn't know what I'd been through with my son, but I know they knew what I'd been through personally and I'm sober and, in the world of advocacy, they know I'm no shrinking violet. I'm certainly going to be a loud voice for whomever I choose to speak with and for.

PD: What do you say to your youngest son about addiction?
MG: He is the only child who knows me as drunk and sober and he's the reason I got sober. I have told him that because of my addiction, which is likely genetic, I started experimenting with drugs when I was just a few years older than him. And it triggered something in my brain that created a chemical reaction that gave me the feeling I'd been looking for all those years -- with this empty heart and soul from all this pain that I'd been through -- which he hadn't been through, but that's not to say that he's not going to try something and it's not going to trigger a switch inside his body.

He knows that his dad smoked pot and is missing chunks of memory because of it. His older brothers have talked to him and he's very well educated. Is it going to help? It may not help him not to try, but I doubt this child will ever get into a car with someone who is high or drunk and I think if this child has anything resembling a problem he'll come and tell us first.
I'm hyper-vigilant at this point. I love my children to death, but as long as they're under my roof and they're under 18, they have no privacy. I have access to Facebook, to his journal, to his e-mail, to every way he communicates, including text messages, and I search regularly.

PD: What do you say to people who say kids deserve their privacy?
MG: I disagree. I don't think that a child under 18 can handle privacy. Privacy is where the problems start. I grew up in the public eye, but I had a very private life and nobody knew what I was doing and I was going on three- or four-day coke binges.

PD: Why did The Partnership at Drugfree.org change it's name from Partnership for a Drug-Free America?
MG: People tended to balk at "America" in the title because they thought it was run by the government and there's a deep inherent fear and distrust in the government of late and it's only grown. So, the word "America" was dropped from it. It's unfortunate but that's the reality of today.

PD: What is your role in the organization?
MG: Anything they need or want from me. Now it's talking about the organization, letting parents know that we're here and part of my job in letting them know that we're here is that I'm here specifically because I get it. I've been there on every side. I was the kid, I'm the parent. That they're not alone. It's very powerful knowing you're not alone. It's one of the great things that keeps me sober. This work is going to keep me sober.

PD: So, you had back surgery. Those pain killers are so addictive.
MG: I was on heavy duty opiates. One of the first things I did when I got home was to call Dr. Drew and ask what I should do. We had a really long conversation about how to avoid triggering the addiction, which can happen when the drug is taken steadily for at least two weeks, and the taper down that has to happen or to taper down before that, which is what I chose to do. He was extremely helpful.

There were times when I would think, maybe I should take a pill before the pain even starts, or I would see if the pain even started. I had to trust that maybe the pain wouldn't come or maybe it could be helped by Tylenol and I forced myself to do it.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.