One day at a time
Actress Mackenzie Phillips talks about her roller coaster ride to sobriety Wednesday at the Pasadena Recovery Center
By Carl Kozlowski 05/30/2013
Mackenzie Phillips has spent nearly her entire life in front of cameras. First she was found on the fringes of photos of her famous father, John Phillips, of the folk-rock group The Mamas and the Papas, and his other illustrious friends.
Then at 12, she was cast in an attention-grabbing role in the classic “American Graffiti,” before exploding into teenage TV stardom at age 15 on the CBS sitcom “One Day at a Time.” But with early fame came too much temptation, and Phillips was soon caught in a devastating drug addiction that forced her off the show two years before the end of its run, nearly killed her and made her the focus of tabloid cameras.
She managed to get sober in 1992 and re-emerged as a reliable presence on America’s TV screens as a consistently working actor. But when she suffered a relapse and arrest in 2008, Phillips wound up at the Pasadena Recovery Center (PRC), facing the cameras of VH1’s reality series “Celebrity Rehab.” On Wednesday, she’ll thank the center by giving a talk about her roller coaster ride to her current sobriety.
“I firmly believe in a genetic predisposition to addiction, and I grew up as a small child with people doing drugs around me,” Phillips recalls in a recent phone interview. “It’s like walking around with a monster living inside of people and no one knows it. Your kid could live with this monster inside. Give it a substance and it goes hungry, and addiction is born.
“It was the early ‘70s so I had no problem trying coke ‘cause everyone was doing it,” she continues. “I woke up the monster and didn’t know how to put it back to sleep for many years. Most addicts who don’t find recovery die and either end up in a jail, an institution or dead. I just take it one day at a time.”
Phillips is well aware of the cosmic irony that her sobriety mantra matches the title of the sitcom on which she became an addict. But then, she’s incredibly candid throughout the interview, and laughs readily at the weird twists along the way of her journey.
But one thing she is dead serious about is the value she finds in the work of PRC’s most famous counselor, Dr. Drew Pinsky, who oversaw the treatment of the stars on “Celebrity Rehab.” Even though three of the other famous figures in her season of the show have since died of overdoses, Phillips is adamant in her defense of Pinsky and his motivations.
“I came to ‘Celebrity Rehab’ nine months after I got sober again following my 2008 arrest, but I accepted Dr. Drew’s offer to be on it because I always admired his work on the show and I felt I had lot of wisdom to offer others from my prior rehabs,” says Phillips. “A lot of people who struggle with sobriety and want to be clean would watch his show for inspiration. It was a very bizarre experience. I had never done reality TV before where they follow you from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and then put infrared cameras on you while you sleep.”
Despite the presence of cameras, which made her decide that “reality TV ain’t my thing,” Phillips says she was surprised to find that Pinsky and the producers did not manipulate the situations on the show as much as other reality shows are infamous for doing. She says the conflicts on the show were “organic” and genuine, and she also firmly believes that Pinsky can’t be held accountable for the later overdose deaths of her “Celebrity Rehab” costars Mindy McCready, Mike Starr and Joey Kovar.
“Most addicts don’t make it. It’s a very serious thing. But would we hold the director of Hazelden [treatment facility] responsible for the willful acts of his former patients?” Phillips asks. “Absolutely not. This is not Dr. Drew’s responsibility. The point of rehab and treatment is to show the patient how to live clean and sober. What the patient does with those tools is entirely out of his hands. It’s up to us to do as we’ve been told.”
These days, Phillips finds that having to audition for many of her roles helps give herself a needed dose of humility, even as she’s happy to prove herself to producers and casting directors. She appreciates the hard effort now, and realizes it’s a healthier place to work from than when she was selected for “American Graffiti” on the basis of playing an open mic with a rock band of her fellow preteens at the Troubadour music club.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the “Graffiti” release, and the 54-year-old Phillips accepts all the good and bad things that happened to her along the way. She notes that she “wouldn’t be the person I am today without the bad and the good,” and that the key to a happy life is to know how to put both bad and good events into perspective.
“It’s kind of obscene that by the end of my sitcom, I was making $50,000 a week,” she says. “If I knew then what I know now, I might still have the money. But you have to accept it all if you want to get clean again. Most of us die. Some people think that because I overcame addiction, they can slip and still come back, but I did the research for you. Life is better clean.”
Mackenzie Phillips will speak at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Pasadena Recovery Center, 1811 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 345-9992 or visit Pasadenarecoverycenter.com.