On Feb. 20, 2007, American audiences were still doubled over with laughter over Britney Spears' infamous breakdown when talk show host Craig Ferguson took to the airwaves and announced he would not be participating in the televised lynching of the pop star. "We shouldn't be attacking vulnerable people," he stated plainly, and a hush fell over the audience. (See the clip here.)
Because he was right.
Britney Spears would spend the rest of the year in and out of rehab, all the while embroiled in a back-and-forth custody battle for her children. Her comeback speaks volumes about the tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to stand tall in the face of adversity and public humiliation and turn the tables on the hands fate has dealt us. But, the simple, awful truth of the matter is, alcoholism is about as funny as cancer.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford -- a cantankerous, boisterous "good ol' boy" -- had been exposed in recent months to be an addict. The response to this revelation was not one of urgent recrimination (no one thought to confront him with his behavior and demand that he seek help) nor was it one of benign apathy (no one dismissed him and moved on to, say, the story of the woman who, moments after breastfeeding her baby, was shot in the head during a confrontation between Muslim and Christian militia groups in the Central African Republic).
No, everyone just sat back, pointed at Rob Ford, and made jokes about his battle with addiction.
Because everyone thought that what was happening to Rob Ford was "funny." I highly doubt anyone would have been making jokes about Mayor Ford if he'd been dying of cancer. Because it's difficult for us to get our minds around what is really happening here.
Rob Ford is suffering from a disease. We know this because alcoholism is classified as a substance abuse disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The mental and emotional symptoms of alcoholism and addiction manifest themselves long before the deadly physical complications of the disease appear. The mental symptoms express themselves as loss of control (taking in larger amounts of alcohol or drugs over a longer period of time than the person intends); the persistent desire to drink and use; continued drinking and using despite adverse social, occupational, or legal consequences; and frequent intoxication or withdrawal symptoms when expected to fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home. These are all behavioral or mental symptoms, which, unless interrupted permanently by treatment, will inevitably lead to physical complications of alcoholism and drug addiction. Cirrhosis of the liver, chronic brain deterioration, overdosing and other grave organic consequences occur as a result of long-term heavy drinking and using, but the core of the disease is the cluster of behavioral symptoms that constitute the mental disorder called alcoholism. Consequently, the treatment of alcoholism targets the mind rather than any physical system. So alcoholism and all other substance abuse disorders are mental disorders, with a high physical complication rate.
And Rob Ford is just the tip of the iceberg. Because the only thing we are being shown is what is happening to him in particular. But, like every iceberg, there's a lot more going on below the surface. A lot more.
If we invest time and energy into laughing at what is happening to Rob Ford, we are sending a powerful message that alcoholism and drug addiction are not serious afflictions that are destroying families everywhere. I recently attended a barbecue and, roughly an hour and a half into it, one of the host's relatives -- so drunk he could barely stand -- fell onto some lawn chairs and started shouting obscenities. Naturally everyone laughed and rushed over to help him up. The only people not laughing were the frightened children who'd been sitting in the lawn chairs at the time.
"It's like this every time he comes around," the host explained to me. He was apologetic and ashamed, but minimized what we'd all witnessed. "His drinking problem is the stuff of legend."
Then he raised a glass and offered a victorious toast that no one had been hurt. Everyone drank to that. Even the falling-down-drunk relative.
I want to say that I know what it looks like when friends get together and drink. I know how much fun a night on the town can be. But I also know what it's like to sit there and turn a blind eye to someone with a problem simply because our culture hasn't taught us that it's okay to confront someone about their behavior or that it's easier to make fun of someone in pain than it is to intervene and urge them to get help.
And maybe that should be the focus of what we do. We should educate ourselves so that we know the difference between "pain" and "partying," so that we can actually be of service to those in need instead of point at them and mock them, which (of course) begs the question, "How do we know when someone is in pain?"
Again, let's look at Rob Ford. Here is a man who worked all his life to get to where he is now. Becoming mayor isn't the same as, say, applying for a job at Bloomingdales. You need strength of spirit, ambition... you need to be street smart and scene-savvy. And you need to keep your eye on the ball. So, ask yourself, what exactly is happening inside this man's mind at night? He is sitting there -- presumably with his loved ones -- watching the entire planet make jokes about his inability to stop doing drugs. This isn't a backyard barbecue, this is the whole world. And everyone is laughing at him because he can't stop.
So, what does he do? He gets up, goes into a back room, and smokes more crack. So that he can forget about the cesspool his life has become.
Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but that looks like pain to me. That looks like someone in crisis who needs help. I am happy that Mayor Ford is getting help and I hope that he gets the support he needs once he's out of rehab.
But in the meantime, what we need to do is turn that same eye to our loved ones. Is there anyone you know who might be struggling with drugs and or alcohol? Try to imagine what it must be like for them, because, I promise you, it isn't a pretty picture.
We carry, within each of us, the capacity to reach out to the people in our lives and help them live in the truth. We owe it to them, if we care about them, to have these important conversations about what we're noticing about their drinking and using.
Because not everyone's breakdown is televised. Sometimes people self-destruct in the dark. And the rest of us, all we're ever left with is the sound of strangers pointing... and laughing.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.