“One of the common themes is that the ‘American Idol’ experience brought about a detrimental change in Ms. Barba’s life.” ~ court documents filed in Norfolk, Virginia
Once upon a time, Antonella Barba seemed poised for stardom. In 2007, she successfully tried out for American Idol, making it into the Top 16. She had legions of devoted supporters, dubbed Fantonellas, and Rolling Stone magazine called her one of the more memorable contestants of the season. She was young, beautiful, talented, and after being seen by hundreds of millions of people on America’s most-popular TV show, continued success seemed inevitable. In July of this year, Barba pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, a charge that carries 10 years to life in prison and a fine that could reach $10 million. Barba’s 11 federal charges stem from an October 2018 arrest in which she was caught with nearly two pounds of illicit fentanyl, the super-powerful synthetic opioid that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared to be the “deadliest drug in America”. Every year, tens of thousands of people fatally overdose on fentanyl. Along with the fentanyl, she was accused of being a courier, or “mule” for heroin and cocaine. She entered a guilty plea in the hopes of receiving a lesser sentence, and on November 21st, she was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison. After her release, she will also have to submit to five years of supervision. Even though this case in Virginia is over, she still faces a felony marijuana charge in Kansas. To understand how this once-promising young woman went from American Idol and the brink of having it all to the brink of losing it all, let’s take a closer look at the cautionary tale of Antonella Barba. Perhaps in this way, we can learn something that may help someone else who is struggling right now. DISCLAIMER: It is unclear whether Barba committed drug crimes strictly for financial gain or to support an addiction of her own. However, she has been arrested before on drug-related charges, she has displayed a pattern of questionable choices, and most significantly, she does have a history of mental illness. All of this strongly indicates a possible Substance Use Disorder.
Antonella’s Early Life: Talent and Drive
“If you really want to accomplish something in music, it has to be your life. You have to be consumed in it. But I think music will enable me to do more things later in my life.” ~ Antonella Barba, in a 2012 interview Antonella showed an early interest in music. At the age of four, she started playing the violin, and later, she learned the piano. By the time she reached middle and high school, she was competing in talent shows and even giving lessons to neighborhood children. She was such a standout in the school’s musical department that she was sometimes simply called “the violin girl”. Music was such a passion that she also sang in her school’s choir for four years, performed as part of a doo-wop group, and as a senior, Antonella took a college-level course on music theory. She achieved all of this while maintaining near-perfect grades. Attending college at the Catholic University of America, Antonella kept up her hectic pace. While still attending university as an architecture major, she auditioned for American Idol at the age of 19. She was the final female prospect who advanced to the Top 24. Even after leaving American Idol, Antonella remained driven. She received multiple offers from various sources, but she ended u[p returning to school, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture. To keep her music career options open, she also took voice lessons. After graduation, she worked for a while as a political intern and spokesperson, and helped recruit young voters. While working at a New York City architectural firm, Antonella also taught music lessons and began work on her debut studio album.
“I was working from 8 to 5, teaching music lessons, and then squeezing in studio time at night. So I’d get home at 3 in the morning, and it was just too much,” she recalled in a later interview.
A Pattern of Overachieving
“In reality, because she functioned at a high level with such single-mindedness and was so hard on herself, other shortcomings were masked. If her successes weren’t big enough by her standards, she overworked herself. Antonella drove herself relentlessly to accomplish her goal and then (fell) apart.” ~ “K.J.”, a friend, as quoted by USA Today
In retrospect and in light of later developments, perhaps Antonella’s history of achievement through overwork should be viewed in a different light. It has been reported that she is an extreme perfectionist, and used to practice the violin for hours every day. In college, she would pull all-nighters to keep up with her studies. Compulsive overachievement and substance abuse may be more closely-related than you might think. In his book Substance-Abusing High Achievement: Addiction as an Equal Opportunity Destroyer, Dr. Abraham Twerski writes:
“Some people become high achievers in order to compensate for feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. These feelings almost invariably surface in the substance abuser, antedating the onset of abuse.”
Dr. Twerski and K.J. sound like they are describing the same person — someone who, instead of choosing to work hard and feel good about herself and her success, must push herself to achieve her incredibly-high goals, no matter the cost, in order to keep from feeling bad. This is also exactly how it is with people with SUD. In the beginning, they like how alcohol and drugs make them feel — not surprising, because intoxicants activate the brain’s pleasure centers. They choose to use because it makes them feel good. But over time and with chronic use, they develop a tolerance — their brains become desensitized to use, they experience a diminished response when using, and they need ever-increasing amounts in order to feel the same pleasurable effects. But this leads directly to dependence, where they experience harshly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms whenever they try to cut back or quit. In other words, they must use if they don’t want to suffer the pain of withdrawal.
The Challenges of Not-Quite Fame
“…the world intruded and interrupted her…dream of a career in architecture. (This is) where it all went wrong.” ~ Valerie Barba, Antonella’s mother
According to her mother, Antonella’s elimination from American Idol “devastated” her. And even though Antonella returned to school and finished her studies, she couldn’t quite shake the idea that she had missed out. Even after graduating in 2008 and getting a job with an architectural firm, she kept trying to succeed in show business. For example, she started working on her debut studio album, and she released music on her YouTube account. But major producers and labels weren’t in a rush to sign her. As a writer for Entertainment Weekly noted, Antonella faced “an uphill battle when it comes to capturing the industry’s attention.” And the cracks started to show — in December 2010, she was arrested on two misdemeanor charges for shoplifting a pair of $18 gloves from a Manhattan department store. To jump-start her music career, Antonella left the architectural firm, and in 2011, relocated from the East Coast to Los Angeles, a move her mother now says was a “recipe for disaster”. As she had always done before, Antonella relentlessly pursued her career. She joined a rock band, wrote songs for other artists, uploaded music to YouTube and SoundCloud, sang the National Anthem at Dodgers games, and even competed on an episode of Fear Factor. But the next level of success eluded Antonella. As of 2019, she still has not released an album, and her official website is still “under construction”. For the first time in her life, simply working hard —and harder— wasn’t enough.
How Excessive Stress Fuels Addiction
“…a dangerous interaction between stress and drug-seeking behaviors likely exists throughout the different stages of addiction…” ~ Dr. Gary Wand, M.D., The Effect of Stress on the Transition from Drug Use to Addiction
Her inability to break through, despite her best efforts, undoubtedly was an ongoing source of stress for Antonella, and this is biologically relevant. A recent study in Neuron found that extreme or chronic stress changes the brain at the cellular level, increasing an individual’s vulnerability to substance abuse, especially heavy drinking. Researchers found that the brain’s reward center contains dedicated neurons assigned to moderate alcohol intake. After highly-stressful experiences, these special neurons “flip”. Instead of limiting alcohol consumption, they fool the brain into incentivizing drinking. The chief theory is that the neurons’ ability to switch on and off is a biological trait that evolved to help our ancestors overcome physical injury or traumatic events. These conclusions indicate a possible biological reason that explains why some people feel the compulsion to “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol when coping with extreme stress. Unfortunately, that self-medication too often progresses to abuse, substance dependence, and finally, full-blown addiction. Of particular relevance, the risk of progression is magnified in those people who are at increased vulnerability due to genetics, environment, or mental illness
“To many, including her mother, these diagnoses were like finding the lost piece of a puzzle.” ~ James O. Broccoletti, Barba’s attorney
In 2018, Antonella was diagnosed with three separate mental illnesses — anxiety, bipolar disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. This is extremely significant, because each of these conditions can individually increase the risk of SUD, but when all three manifest simultaneously, then it is virtually a certainty. For example:
- 27% of people with an anxiety disorder struggle with problem drinking, about twice the rate of the general population.
- 60% of patients with bipolar disorder abuse substances at some point.
- 64% of individuals with narcissistic personality disorder abuse alcohol and/or drugs.
But just as important is the vicious cycle resulting from such a dual diagnosis of addiction and mental disorders. Each condition continually worsens the other — the worse the person feels because of their mental illness, they more they will drink and use, which causes more problems, so they feel worse…on and on and on.
So What Can We Learn from the Struggles of Antonella Barba?
“I wish there was a way we can learn just for the sake of learning. ~ Antonella Barba
There are several important lessons that we can take away from the hopeful rise and dramatic fall of Antonella Barba. FIRST, the importance of screening for mental illness can not be overstated. If Antonella had been properly evaluated, diagnosed, and treated years ago, perhaps she never would have reached this point. SECOND, Antonella seemingly had it all — youth, talent, education, beauty, popularity, ambition, and ongoing opportunities — but she was still drawn into the drug culture. This shows that ANYONE can fall victim. THIRD, there is no such thing as a “typical” substance abuser. The idea that an addict or alcoholic has to be unemployed or broke or homeless has never been accurate. In fact, 75% of people with addictive disorders have jobs. FOURTH, individuals who are exposed to higher levels of stress need to find healthy ways to deal with that stress that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. This is why so many top rehab programs incorporate stress reduction strategies and coping tools such as meditation, exercise, yoga, art, poetry, and journaling. FIFTH, and most importantly, there is ALWAYS hope. While Antonella Barba’s personal rock bottom is a prison sentence, her life is not over, not by any means. She is still alive, which means she still has an opportunity to get the help she needs, make those lifestyle changes that support better choices, and live a long, productive, and happy life. FINALLY, you don’t have to be an American Idol contestant to have your life impacted by opioid addiction or endangered by fentanyl. As the U.S. drug crisis continues and counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl become increasingly prevalent, it has become clear that this is truly a problem that affects us all.
Getting Help Today
The best way to protect yourself is to stop abusing substances. But many find it too hard to just quit on their own, which is why we provide holistic addiction treatment in Colorado at Women’s Recovery. With convenient locations in both Denver and Dillon, Women’s Recovery is proud to be one of the best gender-specific outpatient drug rehab programs in Colorado. By focusing on your unique treatment needs as a woman, Women’s Recovery can help you safely and successfully regain your sobriety.