1. Life & Culture

'Rehab With Dr. Drew' a tough reality for St. Petersburg family


Every Sunday night now, when Jeff Arthur turns on the television, the tears come.

They flowed from watching the earliest episodes of Rehab With Dr. Drew, the first VH1 series to feature the superstar addiction specialist Drew Pinsky treating unknown, noncelebrity addicts.

And they flowed because Arthur's 25-year-old son Andrew, an aspiring musician known to friends and fans as "Drewbee," was one of the sickest people on the show, addicted to opiates, marijuana, alcohol and more.

When the show began airing weeks ago, Drewbee and his family were a smaller presence, mostly because other addicts had the kind of outsize personalities reality TV loves to spotlight.

But in this season's final episodes, the Arthurs have taken a more prominent role — a poignant, emotional example of how an intact family with resources, wealth and the driving desire to rescue a child can have the opposite effect.

They had become the symbol of how some parents can become so obsessively focused on keeping their addicted kids alive that they enable their addiction instead, a condition known as codependency.

One of the show's most powerful moments came a few weeks ago, when on-screen counselor Bob Forrest told Drewbee and another patient that they were at greater risk of death from codependency than addicts who came from poor homes or who had survived parental abandonment, sexual abuse and worse.

"Your parents are smothering you with a pillow; just before you're about to die, they let it up and go 'I love you so much,' " said Forrest, a former rock singer and fedora-wearing expert who once shared stages and drugs with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Drewbee seemed to be among the patients doing well on the show until his parents, Jeff and Jane, joined by his older sister Lindsey, visited as part of a family weekend.

As cameras rolled, Drewbee became more withdrawn, telling Pinsky and other staff at Pasadena Recovery Center in California that he wasn't going to transition into the three months of sober living at a halfway house recommended by the program. His mother nearly collapsed in tears, moaning "my son's going to die."

In footage filmed five months ago but aired Nov. 4, Pinsky noted that the family seemed to be reliving an unhealthy cycle. As Drewbee talked of wanting to leave treatment, it drew tears and anger from his parents, which created more emotional turmoil and pushed the son to seek comfort in drugs.

"Look at my mom … when I get to a certain point, I don't give a f---," Drewbee told staffers during that episode.

Pinsky and the producers of Rehab With Dr. Drew declined to speak to the Tampa Bay Times or make Drewbee Arthur, who eventually agreed to a sober living arrangement and now lives in Los Angeles, available for comment.

"Dr. Drew isn't comfortable discussing his case since he is in active treatment," publicist Valerie Allen wrote in an email to the Times, though Pinsky has been shown talking about Drewbee's case on the VH1 series for weeks.

So the question fell to Jeff Arthur: How did it feel to see his actions to protect his son, inspired by love, depicted as a pillow smothering his life away?

"I was in pretty heavy shock," said the father, 61. "But I thought: Whatever it takes... I'd much rather have a living, sober son than the memory of a dead one."

On the surface, the Arthurs would seem to have a charmed life.

A Clearwater native, Jeff Arthur is best known as a successful jingle writer with a 43-year career and more than 1,500 spots airing daily nationwide for clients such as Blockbuster Video, Wendy's and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he wrote their 1979 fight song Hey Hey, Tampa Bay).

Working from a comfortable studio and office space about a mile from his spacious Feather Sound home, Jeff Arthur had industry acclaim and awards, a bustling business, comfortable income and impressive reputation.

But the family also had hidden problems. Jeff Arthur talked frankly about struggling with cocaine addiction for years, stopping for good when Drewbee was 6 months old, getting treatment after Jane threatened to kick him out of the family house.

By third grade, Drewbee was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit issues, his mother Jane said, noting he could grow fixated on dirty plates in a restaurant or the words she might say before bed.

At age 17, Jane Arthur said, Drewbee told her he had become addicted to the painkiller Percocet after dental work.

He would bring unsavory people around and steal from the family, leaving them feeling as if "we were living with a stranger," his mother said. A talented musician, Drewbee had an up-and-coming area band called Radio Reset that in 2007 was managed by professional boxer Winky Wright.

But Drewbee's habits accelerated the end of that project, Jeff Arthur said, even after the band played a showcase gig in Las Vegas opening for the rapper Common.

"The kid was phenomenal," said Wright recently, who never knew of Drewbee's addiction problems until watching the VH1 show. "We had invested in them and thought we had something nice going ... I hope for the best for him."

The incidents piled up. Drewbee landed in a coma in 2009 for four days after taking sleeping pills and choking on food; later, he totaled two cars in a week. The family spent thousands of dollars on rehab programs and treatments, which never worked for long.

In January, Jane Arthur sent two letters to Pinsky, unaware that he was about to announce a version of his rehabilitation show focused on noncelebrities.

"Detaching from your son is much more difficult than your husband," she wrote. "I also have to deal with my husband's enabling behaviors. I don't want my husband to love my son to death. He hasn't learned the tools of a co-dependent, and our life is a complete mess."

It took months for the show to decide if Drewbee would join the cast; for a while, he was the top alternate until someone else dropped out the night before shooting began. Now, Jeff and Jane Arthur feel Pinsky's show has become their last hope.

"We had friends and family tell us it was a bad idea (to do the show)," Jeff Arthur said. "But I don't give a s--- if he shaves his head and sells incense at the airport. If it keeps him away from drugs, I don't care."

When Heidi Jacobsen watched this season of Rehab With Dr. Drew, she had no idea the kid with musical talent and codependent parents was from the Tampa Bay area.

But as a licensed counselor at WestCare, a substance abuse treatment center in St. Petersburg, Jacobsen recognized the family's signs of classic codependency.

"It is a family disease … (parents) enable them to continue in both worlds," she said. "Their parents are so afraid to set rules and boundaries, (addicts) end up ruling the house."

Drewbee's older sister, Lindsey Arthur, 29, was shown trying to talk her brother out of bolting from the facility. She admitted mixed feelings on participating in the show, watching each episode alone.

"What I tell my friends is, if this can inspire another family to seek help, it's worth it," said the sister, who lives in Jacksonville. "It's a nerve-racking kind of thing … if you've never been in this situation, having an addict in your family, you don't know."

Jeff Arthur said his son will come home for a Thanksgiving visit this weekend. Ultimately, he still struggles to tamp down the desire to save his son.

"When you see your son in that coma, logic (goes) out the window," he said. "But the show gave me a finish line … I knew he was safe. I knew he wasn't out scoring (drugs)."