MTVTeen Mom Special: Not The “Amber Behind Xanny-Bars” Shit Show I Expected

I need to first just say Holy fuckballs. MTV, Amber Portwood, hats off to you. I never thought I’d get a Teen Mom special that offered new insight, or was actually… pretty good.

Last night, MTV aired two back-to-back Teen Mom specials (if only we could be so blessed more often). I sat down to watch the first, Amber Behind Bars, and as Dr. Drew Pinsky was giving his little “now I’m going to slowly insert my finger and feel around ever so gent sit down with Amber and ask her some tough questions but it’s okay because I’m a Dr. and I also have triplets” intro, I was thinking of clever names I’d be able to use for this article. “Amber Behind Xanny-Bars” was my top contender. I was all prepped and ready for an uncomfortable probing—not my own, of course, but Amber’s, as administered by a skillful and shameless Dr. Drew. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was for her to deliver anything like what she did last night (no, not another baby).

Almost immediately, it was obvious that (a very sober, healthy-looking) Amber wasn’t going to let Dr. Drew take over her MTV special. The kind doctor greeted his guest with a “you look great,” and a “YOU’RE NOT LOADED!” and then I got to see for myself what Amber was like when not doped up, something she admits to as rare before now.

I like not doped up Amber. A lot. Sober, incarcerated Amber is very self-aware, and gave a lot of real talk, which I appreciate because I’m an R. Kelly fan. She seems to have risen from the ashes of her burnout with at least the ability to give an endearing (and informative) interview. In thirty minutes, Amber managed to completely change my perception of her (which had been cultivated over 4 years) with an impressive display of maturity, poise, understanding, and growth.

As soon as she opens her mouth, she admits to being very nervous. But what 22-year-old who’s giving America a glimpse into her life in jail—after having spent 3 years giving America a glimpse into her life as a teen mom, after having given America a glimpse into her experience of vaginal birth—wouldn’t be? She goes on to share that she’s in a “therapeutic community” (like rehab behind bars), with days starting at 7:30AM and no real down time, what with the cleaning duty, the NA meetings, the GED classes, and the group showers. (Okay, I don’t know about the group showers but it’s part of an image I have of prison life that I think I’ll always assume is a truth.)

Dr. Obvious Drew interrupts to ask Amber if what he’s sensing is “a new sense of purpose.” Without the leading question, I would have probably  never picked up on the fact that there’s something different about Amber now. Then she continues, sharing that she studies for her GED on Saturday mornings. (!!!)

After it becomes clear that Amber’s definitely going to get her GED this time around (I have total faith in her), she goes on to share what it’s means to be a drug addict—oh yeah, she admits that a serious drug problem is the reason she’s locked up, but no one still thought she was in jail because of that one time she hit Gary Shirley on camera, right? In a moving display of realness, Amber says  that as an addict, she didn’t give a shit about anything but her next fix. Not even her daughter, Leah, was more important than the drugs. “It’s not that you don’t love your child. You’re just a very selfish person when you’re on drugs.” If you’ve ever seen an episode of intervention, you know that she’s being sincere.

Then shit gets really real. She says to Dr. Drew, “I knew, I don’t know how, but I knew, I was gonna die.” I was a little shocked to hear that things were that bad. I mean, she did always look pretty out of while on Teen Mom, and she was always taking naps on the couch, but I just thought she was a really tired person. Turns out she was a really high person. Prescription pain killers really do knock you out.

Amber moved on from pills to fentanyl patches (perspective: fentanyl is like 100X more potent than morphine), and when she started chewing on the patches instead of using them like patches as the name would imply, she knew that something had to change. She says she didn’t want to go on living her life as a 22-year-old who just didn’t give a shit, so she when she went to court for a probation violation (why you don’t chew on fentanyl patches while pissing in a cup for your drug screen), she told the judge to send her to jail.

When I first heard a few months ago that Amber had specifically chosen lock-up over rehab, I didn’t get it. But last night she gave a perfectly logical explanation: She had been in rehab before. It didn’t help. She started doing harder drugs while in treatment. If she ever wanted to get better, she needed more than a treatment program. I was impressed with her explanation. I had that same kind of “hmm…awareness?!” feeling I typically only have when I think about Catelynn and Tyler‘s decision to give Carly up for adoption. I felt that way a second time when Amber calls herself out for looking like shit while on Teen Mom. I’m glad that we can agree on that, Amber. (She was not wearing fake eyelashes or spray tanner during last night’s interview.)

Watching Amber talk about Leah is bittersweet. Her eyes light up, with a mother’s love but also with longing. It’s sad. She tells Dr. Drew that Gary doesn’t bring Leah to visit, and that kills her. What’s surprising, though, is her controlled reaction to something that would probably rile any mother who couldn’t see her baby up. She says she misses Leah more than anything, but then she offers that Gary is also, probably, trying to protect their 3-year-old by not allowing her to see her mother in jail. So she understands.

Things get more lighthearted towards the end, when she tells viewers that contrary to what we may have read in the tabloids, no one has ever put glass in her food, nor does she have a BFF/lesbian lover/protector named “Sugarfoot.” (Although I was kinda hoping that one was true… if only for the spin-off reality show possibilities.)

I want to point out that yes, I am aware that Amber has made a lot of questionable decisions in her life thus far. And some may not agree with my praise of Amber, because after all, she’s a teen mom turned drug addict, in the spotlight and incarcerated. I can see how many people might not think she’s the best example. And if you focus on her bad behavior, she’s not. But last night, the Amber that was on TV wasn’t the fucked up on fentanyl, angry/sad/neglectful/badly-tanned person making questionable fashion decisions and even more questionable lifestyle choices that she had been for so long on Teen Mom. She was an introspective, self-aware, apologetic person; a mother on the road to recovery. She said, “I value my story a lot and I have a lot to give. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a lot to give, too.” And I think maybe we should give her a chance.

(Photos: MTV.com)

You can reach this post's author, Emma Bracy, on twitter.
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