Judy Garland & the Pervasive Stigma of Addiction

stigma Judy Garland over the rainbow

I went to see the movie Judy recently. There was a moment toward the end of the film when I thought to myself, Oh for God’s sake – why doesn’t she just get her act together? While a thousand ticket holders waited at a venue in London to hear her sing, Judy Garland was drinking in her hotel room again – a mess in silk pajamas. Another romantic misstep and a lifetime of singing for her supper were the emotional triggers. Muttering, I can’t she pours another tumbler of booze, chews a few pills from a medicine bottle.


The Pervasive Stigma of Addiction

Of course, Judy’s all suffering handler drags her off the floor, zips her into a sequined gown and after a breakneck ride through London streets, shoves her onto the stage. Sometimes Judy performs like the superstar she is. But mostly, she’s inebriated and pelted with dinner rolls from the disappointed crowd. The movie makes it clear this is Judy Garland’s last chance. She’s out of money. Her children, who she’s been dragging onto stage at various dive lounges, live with the ex-husband. And she’s trying to make a go of another flagging romantic relationship, working against a reputation for being impossible to deal with – a lush. It is also clear that Judy is not going to make it happen. She is just too vulnerable and too angry.


I corrected my Judy-get-it-together thoughts pretty quickly. I am a person in long-term recovery after all, and I work at an addiction treatment center.  Judy Garland was struggling with a chronic brain disease. She also ticked every box in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scale.


Whether the movie was absolutely accurate or not, it has gotten people talking about Judy Garland’s substance use disorder (SUD). The movie also lays bare her adverse childhood experiences. While in her early teens, Judy was forced into drug use. She was prescribed amphetamine-based diet pills to control her weight and maintain a brutal movie making schedule. And she was simultaneously monitored, verbally abused and left vulnerable by the MGM/Louis B. Mayer machine.


The destructive pattern of drugs and alcohol also plagued Judy Garland’s adult life. And her substance use disorder culminated in her death at 47 from an accidental overdose. What a waste. On a recent UK’s This Morning, Judy’s daughter, Lorna Luft (who has not seen the movie), said she believed her mother “would have lived much longer if it had not been for the stigma surrounding addiction in the 1960s.”  Which made me think of my reaction to Judy’s spiral in the movie – not the most sensitive. And whether stigma, even in 2019, is still a pervasive detriment to recognizing and recovering from the behaviors born of substance use disorders.


Judy Garland stigma and over the rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow …


What is Stigma?

Stigma is defined as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. The behavior associated with an SUD is the “mark of disgrace” that comes with the disease. For example, the annoyance and disappointment we feel when Judy Garland, a beloved performer, stumbles onto the stage and slurs into her microphone. When her substance seeking behavior ruins a perfectly good evening.


Understandably, a “bad performance” or a missed milestone causes embarrassment and shame for the person suffering with an SUD. Judy feels guilty and lousy the morning after one of her melt-downs. This also creates stigmatized perceptions about addiction among the public. They lob sourdough and cat-call cruel handles like lush, boozer, addict. Which, of course, perpetuates the private shame associated with drug addiction. It is a vicious cycle.


How Can We Address and Reduce Stigma?

At Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers, we address the pervasive stigma associated with substance use disorders every day. Treatment begins here with a self-affirming, home-like environment. And our treatment centers are located in residential neighborhoods. This goes a long way to dispelling negative stereotypes about how those with the disease of addiction behave.


Sanford also addresses stigma with the following:

Group Therapy

One of the problems Judy faced was isolation in her dependence on drugs. Group therapy, in a gender affirming environment, allows our clients to share their experiences. And by listening to others in the same boat, from all walks of life, the shame of past behaviors is lessened. Positive community and friendships in recovery are established.

Family Education

At Sanford we consider the whole family when individualizing treatment. Our master’s level counselors also take into consideration the lasting impact addiction has on a family. And our Family Program helps to establish boundaries, quell stigma and begin the healing process for everyone involved.

Outpatient, Healthy Living, Relapse Prevention and Mindfulness

Continuum of care is a cohesive system that guides and tracks Sanford clients through all levels of treatment intensity. These days, we recognize the importance of a long-term continuum of treatment programs, classes and resources. The therapeutic alliance between a client and counselor is vital.

Establishing a Recovery Plan and Community

Boy, could Judy have used a friend in the recovery community. Her comeback in London may have ended differently if she had someone to call when she felt vulnerable, angry and afraid. At Sanford, our clients respond best to treatment when they form community alliances and involve loved ones in their recovery. We help them do that.

Speaking Out in the Community About the Stigma of Addiction

Addiction is still a difficult subject to talk about in “polite society”. But at Sanford, key staff members speak out about the disease of addiction at schools, colleges, hospitals, women’s and men’s groups and community mental health organizations. Our Founder and President, Rae Green, serves as an expert on the subject on television, radio and social media.

In Partnership with Like-Minded Organizations

We also partner with other stigma-busting organizations and are strengthened by these alliances. For example, I Understand  – a non-profit organization that offers compassionate comfort to those affected by suicide and mental illness. Families Against Narcotics (FAN) – a community based program for those seeking recovery, those in recovery, and family members affected by addiction. And the Alano Club of West Michigan – home to numerous addiction treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon in Grand Rapids, Michigan.



Judy Garland, Stigma and Addiction


Someday, I wish upon a star. Wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where trouble melts like lemon drops. High above the chimney top. That’s where you’ll find me … Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

I did cry at the end of the movie. What is it about the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow? And when Judy Garland sings it, the melancholy, pain and longing are so apparent … Especially knowing what we know now. No one can predict what will happen when a person with a substance use disorder receives treatment. But, Judy’s daughter is correct in assuming her mother would have had a better likelihood of long-term recovery had there been less stigma toward her disease in the 1960s.  We still have a long way to go. But with smart people, strengthening mental and behavioral health alliances, evidence-based treatment, and conversation we are chipping away at stigma.


The poignancy of the avoidable loss of Judy Garland, is that addiction cannot be “wished upon”. Addiction does not “melt like lemon drops”. And until we talk about addiction without shame, welcome those with SUDs into treatment, and establish the medical models necessary to address this disease we will continue to lose vital members of humankind.


Sanford House Addiction Treatment Centers

after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.