Tough love? Not so much. Instead of advocating for harsher crackdowns on people with substance use disorder, or more severe sentences for drug-related crimes, iconic director Rob Reiner says we can transform the conversation around addiction by simply talking about it. I recently interviewed Rob, and was really touched by his humor, candor, and courage. Instead of hiding from the drug epidemic, Rob is advocating for policy change that will change the way our culture treats people with substance use problems.
Considering that his impressive body of work deals with controversial subjects, this isn’t a big surprise. Rob’s new film, a political drama called LBJ, tells the story of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. He chose this topic because of Johnson’s “transformative” influence on politics and American culture. Coincidentally, Johnson signed Medicare into law 52 years ago this week: a law that’s provided life saving medical coverage to millions of people with substance use disorder.
LBJ won’t be the first time Rob has broached powerful, challenging ideas on the screen: he’s brought race, sex, birth control, and family struggles into America’s living room, too. In early sobriety, I remember watching his 2016 film Being Charlie, about addiction in a leading Hollywood family. The film felt really authentic, and I related to the main character’s struggles. Rob said that the inspiration for the film was drawn from his own life, and, talking with him, I could hear the sincerity and passion in his voice.
For someone as respected as Rob, speaking out about addiction is a big deal — especially because he doesn’t have substance use disorder. His son, Nick Reiner, has been through multiple treatment programs. Working on Being Charlie together helped their family heal and address some of the issues Nick had dealt with since he was a teenager. “It forced me to really have to understand what he had been going through for a long time,” Rob said.
He said that “tough love” wasn’t the solution to Nick’s problem: understanding was. Bringing substance use disorder out into the open destroyed the shame and stigma so often associated with the illness. Then, Rob realized, it was time to speak out at a higher level. “How can we get policy change if we’re silent?” he said. He’s not silent, or anonymous. Although he doesn’t talk directly about his son’s issues, Rob acknowledges his own experiences as a parent — experiences that every parent of a child with substance use issues can relate to.
“We need to normalize what a lot of people are wrestling with. If you’re hiding it, if you’re trying to push it under the rug, what you’re doing is adding to the stigma,” Rob said. He compared lack of compassion for people with substance use disorder to discrimination against people with physical disabilities: it’s outrageous and wrong. We don’t punish people who are disabled, for example, or try to force them to walk when they can’t walk. We change buildings, structures, and technology to make them more inclusive. We create laws that guarantee equal treatment for everyone. Surely we can do the same thing for people with substance use disorder.
“People take drugs because they’re in pain,” he said. “The solution isn’t tough love. It’s love. Just love. And sometimes that means accepting that your child may be struggling with something, and you need to deal with that.” He compared his reaction to how one of his most famous characters, All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, might have behaved. Archie would have thrown an addicted child out of the house, and told them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet, my experience is that without family help of some kind, many people overdose and die. As Rob talked, I remembered the incredible love and kindness my mom showed me when I was in the last months of my active heroin use. Although my mom had strong boundaries and set limits with me, she also brought me hot meals when I was homeless, answered my phone calls, and always reminded me that she cared. That was love — and it saved my life.
Listening to Rob, I didn’t feel like I was talking to an ultra famous movie director. I felt like I was talking to a dad, who cares a lot about his son and the people like him.
Rob, thank you so much for lending your voice to this important social issue. The drug epidemic affects so many Americans and their families. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: we’re all touched by this. Like you said, the only way out is to speak up. Thank you for doing that. It opens a door for many others to do the same.