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This Election Proved We Need More Recovering Alcoholics and Addicts in Politics

In effect, a candidate's recovery status can be a sort of shorthand for their value system and personal code. A shorthand that, when expanded, should mean a lot more to voters than the empty campaign promises and vitriolic attack ads we have come to settle for.
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A week after the 2014 midterm elections and I'm still feeling somewhat filmy, a little like a car that was left parked outside at the airport for five days. And though I don't have the documentation to prove it, my recollection is that I felt a lot cleaner -- mentally, emotionally, and spiritually -- in the weeks before a calculated onslaught of negativity, manipulation, fear-mongering and lies began to crescendo across our airwaves in the guise of an acceptable political process. The smarm. The dishonesty. The divisiveness. The rancor. The gutless secrecy. All of it, one big cloud of light-strangling toxicity that can't possibly be good for our growth as a species. And regardless of whether your party "won" or not, it was all settling over your consciousness like a noxious soot. Be warned, that soot can start to feel normal if you let it.

I had for weeks done a half-competent job of bobbing and weaving from the caustic haymakers of fear and loathing the political heavyweights were throwing our way. But I was caught off guard on election day itself by a sucker punch of a commercial so desperate and cheap that it would have been laughable if it didn't involve children, Ebola and music ominous enough to be the emergency broadcast system of hell. Insane as they were, the words in the commercial -- heard by me as a soccer mom's claim that the Governor would leave us rotting in a shallow grave after personally spritzing the air with his own stash of plague -- paled in comparison to that music. So manipulative. So underhanded. So contemptible. And that's when it hit me: We need more alcoholics and addicts in politics. Well, to be clear, we need more recovering alcoholics and addicts in politics. Chances are, we may have plenty of active ones already.

As someone who treats addicted people on a daily basis, as well as someone dedicated to raising awareness, spreading truth and undermining the stigma around addiction, I can tell you that nothing about our increasingly insidious elections and the wildly dysfunctional governments they produce is congruent with the life that a recovering person typically aspires to lead. Nothing. In fact, it's a study of opposites.

Addiction is a brain disease that, once it begins to take hold, hijacks the brain of the alcoholic/addict, typically muting their capacity for sound judgment and overriding their will to behave consistently with their ethics, morals, standards, values and responsibilities. In short, addiction can make people behave terribly and leave a trail of ugly damage in their wake. The antidote for such a poisonous existence? First it's just about getting clean and sober, but then it's about changing one's behaviors and living a better life. Living well, treating others well, and becoming a better human being. That's the long-term antidote, and it's made up of some fundamental ingredients that are patently lacking in contemporary American politics.

Among the most important of those ingredients are things like honesty. And integrity. And openness. Willingness, reliability, and patience... dignity, service and empathy. I could go on, but I think you get the point. None of these qualities are an integral part of our process for electing the people who are supposed to lead this country -- they aren't the skills on their résumé, and we inexplicably don't make them part of the job description. But maybe if more recovering Americans came into the political fold, the dynamic would change.

In an interview with the New York Times, recovering alcoholic and longtime former Minnesota Congressman Jim Ramstad once said, "If we could turn Congress into one big AA meeting, where people would be required to say what they mean and mean what they say, it would be a lot better Congress." Regardless of your position on AA, the sentiment he was expressing is incontrovertible. If we did have more honesty in politics, and if our politicians were actually guided by a greater common purpose instead of their own individual successes and self-interest, we would find ourselves walking a different and more sustainable path altogether. Unfortunately when Mr. Ramstad and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, also an openly recovering addict, both retired in recent years, Washington became even less like a recovery community than it already was.

The reasons why there aren't more recovering people in politics are arguably multiple and complex. On one hand, there's the deeply entrenched and sadly resilient stigma that addicted and recovering people continue to face. Rooted in ignorance, superficiality and baseless moralization, the idea that there is something "wrong" with alcoholics and addicts is a mindset that is simultaneously widespread and yet truly incapable of surviving legitimate intellectual scrutiny. As pervasive as the stigma remains, it would clearly be one heavy shackle against which to launch a political career. Beyond that though, I also fear that our political environment is one that few recovering people would want to enter even in the absence of stigma, primarily because of its inconsistency with the decency of character they have worked so hard to cultivate and protect.

It's too bad, really, that we don't have more recovering people seeking public office. Not only would their campaigns and presence in government automatically enhance the quality of the political process as a direct result of their own values and attributes, but they would also attract more people with those same values to the polls.

As the campaign of current Boston Mayor Marty Walsh proved last year, when an otherwise qualified candidate who happens to be in recovery runs for office, many people who have overcome the same struggles and won the same hard-fought victory are likely to support them. Not just because they can relate to them, but more importantly because they know the strength of character it takes to do what they have done. In effect, a candidate's recovery status can be a sort of shorthand for their value system and personal code. A shorthand that, when expanded, should mean a lot more to voters than the empty campaign promises and vitriolic attack ads we have come to settle for.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Patrick R. Krill.


Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.