I’m sitting on the couch wearing sweatpants and an old t-shirt sipping Wawa brand diet iced tea when this thought comes to mind: “I guess I can imagine having sex with Dr. Phil.”
Then I realize what I’ve thought, and I’m overcome with shame and self-loathing. So much so that I could probably be a guest on Dr. Phil’s TV show.
It all started about six months ago, when I gave myself permission to watch TV while I work—but only on Wednesdays. Because I don’t have cable, I’ve found myself indulging in the following lineup: The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Talk, The Doctors and Dr. Phil. I chose CBS because of Y&R, as devotees call it, which I’ve been watching since I was a little girl and my babysitter introduced me to the saga of Victor and Nikki. (The relationship is still unresolved, by the way, though Nikki’s had some work done, and Victor shaved.)
The other shows are awful. The Talk has been hilariously parodied on Saturday Night live, and with good reason. The Doctors is an awkward assemblage of MDs sitting on stools like white-coated crows cawing about ailments. They all seem lost until the shock collars beneath their clothing activate and they remember to look at the teleprompter. Then one will abruptly shout: “Yes! It’s true! Tick-borne illnesses mimic other disorders!” It’s gruesome.
Then we have Dr. Phil. I hadn’t watched the show in about five years, and my expectations were low. But something strange happened when I saw the show again for the first time: Dr. Phil actually made sense. It was very confusing and required a lot of hydration with diet iced tea. But no, I wasn’t having heat stroke—he was speaking intelligently on the subject of substance abuse. Not only that, but his interaction with a female heroin addict and her parents demonstrated great empathy and understanding of both her struggle and their inability to respond. He seemed to have an awareness of the way that addiction can rob a person of their sense of self, so he was careful to remind the woman she was worth saving. But he wasn’t sentimental about it for the sake of the cameras. He was pragmatic. It was the right tone.
I thought maybe it was a one-time thing—he might have had a stomach virus—but it turns out that Dr. Phil actually gets addiction, including some things that elude people who work with substance abusers regularly: that it’s not just about abstinence but about understanding where the desire for escape originates; that mental illness and a history of trauma are often relevant; that not everyone can embrace a 12-step program. He facilitates treatment for his guests, but it’s no stunt—when it doesn’t work, he has them come back on the show to talk about why. He regularly shows the messiness of addiction, the struggle. His empathy is profound but has sharp contours: He doesn’t have high tolerance when someone in addiction makes excuses. Sometimes it seems he’s trying a tough-love approach, but he can’t seem to sustain it. He understands the challenge too well.
There are good lessons in these shows. For addicts: “You can come back. Not easily, not without loss, but it can be done.” For those who judge: “You think these people are lazy or weak-willed? You have no idea what they contend with.” For frustrated family members: “You can’t fix this alone. An intervention isn’t a magic bullet.” For those who haven’t gotten into drugs: “Watch.”
I’ve watched many Dr. Phil episodes that are stupid. His biggest failing is his tendency to excoriate bad people in front of an audience that wants to believe it’s superior. He can be self-righteous and arrogant. But there’s something about the subject of addiction that brings out an informed passion that does the subject justice.
Dr. Phil’s wife is in the audience at every show (she is his true partner in their Christian life, or some such bunkum), and I sometimes wonder if her husband is more sexually appealing to her when he’s imbued with such authority in front of a large audience. The camera lands on her sometimes and she does look flushed. But dear god, what made me think that for myself? I think I need to take a break from the show entirely—or at least stop watching shows about addiction. Let’s hope there’s one this week about a 600-pound woman or a man who wants to live as a baby. That’ll bring me back to sanity.