Summer blockbusters bring chills, cheers, sound and fury. Films of fun, films of fancy and above all: action! Nothing keeps the crowd coming back like a great celebrity comeback story. The plot can feel familiar: youngster held down early in life, flies free as a twenty-something, crashes hard on drugs in thirties and forties only to bounce back with meaning in middle age. Funny thing, it’s a story you don’t have to be a rock star to understand. In fact, if you’re reading this article, you probably have a close connection to someone who has struggled with substance use disorder.
This summer brings Rocketman, the Elton John story. His story gives us plenty of reasons to root for young Elton: Dad not fully supportive, check. Complicated identity issues surrounding his sexuality: check. Sure, we know the ending: Elton rocks the world with his piano-based tunes, snorts coke like a royal anteater, crashes hard, recovers and gets old.
Not so fast. A key part of Elton John’s recovery was discovery: he found a mission to which he could dedicate his talents and energy. A key and often overlooked component in recovery is reestablishing purpose and direction in life. This is not a replacement for addiction, rather it’s part of rebuilding a healthy life with purposeful activities at its center. That’s when Elton John learned about Ryan White.
Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, was facing negative reactions from a conservative 1980s community who shunned people with AIDS. Elton John was able to contact the family and provide his support. When White’s neighbors began to further discriminate against him for contracting AIDS, Elton John assisted their move. When White succumbed to AIDS, Elton John performed music at his memorial.
Meeting White and supporting him throughout his battle with AIDS changed John’s focus: “It got me to realize how out of whack my life was, because I was just in and out of a drug-fueled haze in the ’80s. I did nothing to help people with AIDS,” he says. “I was a gay man who really sat on the sidelines.” Not long after this realization, John sought treatment for his addictions.
After a long and challenging road of recovery, John started the Elton John AIDS Foundation, an organization that provides money and support for AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment programs. John credits his turnaround to learning how to better communicate his thoughts and intentions: “What I couldn’t do when I was an addict was communicate,” John said. “I learned if you don’t communicate and you don’t talk about things then you’re never going to find a solution.”
Among the many things the movies can teach us, the most important is survival. Films take us away from our lives but also closer to the heart: seeing the right movie at the right time can inspire a change and lead you down new paths. Here’s hoping you’re inspired to feel like Elton John did after his years in the wilderness: “I am a survivor,” John said. “I’ve survived a lot of things. Life is full of pitfalls, even when you’re sober. I can deal with them now because I don’t have to run away and hide.”
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