Patrick Krill: We laugh about Toronto Mayor Ford's stunts, but addiction is serious
Krill: High-functioning addicts with big jobs are all around us, disguising their addictions
Krill: They think if they were addicts, they couldn't go to work every day; others believe it too
He says friends, family need to stop excusing their behavior because they're professionals
Editor’s Note: Patrick R. Krill is an attorney, clinician and board-certified, licensed alcohol and drug counselor. He is the director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.
If you’re not Canadian, chances are you have never been as acutely aware of the political happenings of that country as you are now. Rob Ford, the embattled and out-of-control mayor of Toronto, has made sure of that, with his erratic behavior blazing across our screens more boldly and brightly than the reddest maple leaf that nation has ever produced.
Ford’s booze-soaked stunts and possibly drug-driven debacles – now feeding the tabloids and late night talk shows more meat than they could digest in a year – are probably nothing you haven’t read about, talked about, thought about, or, unfortunately, laughed about.
But what you might not have thought about is this: You know this man. You know and respect this man. He works with you. He works for you. He lives next door to you. He’s related to you. He might even be you. He is, in fact, everywhere. And there’s nothing funny about it.
Oftentimes functioning at levels you would never expect from someone with an addiction, the Rob Ford in your life is trying your case, prescribing your medication, running your company, investing your money, flying your plane and governing your city. And guess what? He or she is doing it from the grips of a progressive disease, making it look easy until, well, one day it suddenly looks horrible. I know – I’ve been there.
Was my own powerful reckoning with alcohol as excruciatingly documented and publicly consequential? Mercifully, no. Not even close. Could it have been, under different circumstances? Yes, perhaps. When you laugh at the mayor of Toronto, you are laughing at the struggles of countless people like him that you’ll never know about. People who you otherwise admire and sometimes even vote for.
You see, the biggest difference between Mayor Ford and millions of other alcoholics and addicts who have built a successful career isn’t that his behaviors are so much more shocking, it’s that his are alone in the center of a spotlight, on full display like the unsightly scar most of us are able to keep private. And he’s the mayor of one of the largest cities in North America.
But if you dim that light and pause those digital recorders, you’ll see the mayor is not alone. He’s surrounded. Surrounded by a vast sea of others shrouded in the same, strong, delusional fog of denial. A fog that’s born from the marriage of disease and diploma, sickness and success. And, you’re surrounded by them, too.
Hiding in plain sight, addicted yet outwardly successful professionals are a carefully disguised contradiction. We don’t have a problem with our drinking. Other people have a problem with their drinking. You know, the type of people who couldn’t do half of what we’ve done. The people who couldn’t even get our job, let alone do it. Those people.
Even when startling evidence to the contrary begins piling up, as it so clearly has with Mayor Ford, we stick to our story and cling to our capabilities. To paraphrase the mayor, if we were alcoholics, we couldn’t show up to work every day.
Yes. And we do. Until the bitter end and long after the other relationships in our lives have tanked, we suit up and show up. We’re professionals. And as long as we’ve got that, we’re not alcoholics. We’re not addicts. Or so our inner monologue goes. But, if you pierce through that devastatingly convincing argument we sell ourselves, and you, each of us is a walking bundle of profound denial, tightly bound up by an impressive tailored suit, spotless lab coat or an elegant black robe.
Bolstered by a track record of academic or professional victories, we’ve got a deep stockpile of accomplishments to call upon in our war against reality. We have a formidable arsenal of achievements deftly deployed against you and your little idea that we need help. That’s cute – that you think we need help. But you don’t get it. We’re not the kind of people who need help. Do you even understand how talented and smart we are?
Although denial is the hallmark characteristic of all alcoholics and addicts, unfortunately for us ours comes with a resume that pumps our ego and demands your respect. Until, that is, it eventually doesn’t.
Last year I was sitting in my office with a client – a highly successful, highly regarded attorney with a highly advanced drinking problem – who after years of fervently denying his problem finally found his truth. He looked me dead in the eye, breathed a slow sigh of calm relief and said plainly: “The jig is up.” From that moment forward, his life changed. His denial had collapsed, thankfully before he did.
So what was responsible for his long overdue recognition of the obvious and surrender to reality? It was the fact that those around him had stopped excusing his reluctance to seek help out of deference to his professional stature. No longer were people overlooking his sickness out of respect for his career. More important, neither was he.
As our science moves toward a better understanding of addiction and our culture moves toward a greater acceptance of it, it’s important to keep in mind that this disease walks upright through all corridors of our society, even those in the house of that accomplished professional next door. We might want to stop laughing now.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Krill.