As a born and bred Torontonian, I have to admit how embarrassing it’s been watching the pathetic saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford unfold before, a now, global audience. I find it increasingly difficult to restrain myself from adding my voice to the growing chorus of caustic vitriol being flung at Rob Ford. I wish I could perch on my high horse and say my restraint is a byproduct of my being a caring and understanding person who believes everyone deserves a second, third, or even, fourth chance—but that is simply not the case. You see, I’m an addict too, and though I’m loath to admit it, I see a lot of myself in disgraced Mayor Rob Ford.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “addict”? Be honest. I’m sure many of you envisioned a skinny, possibly homeless person, desperate for the next “fix”. Truth be told, most addicts are functional addicts. They are not on the margins of society, but instead are people who cross our path every day. They are our doctor, our teacher, our neighbor, our parent, our sibling, or even our spouse. Addiction is defined as the continued use of a psychoactive drug, or the repetition of behavior despite its adverse effects.
In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we need to stop asking ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, and instead ask “what is right about the addiction.” Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace, no matter how temporary, a misguided a sense of control. The reality is most of us are addicts to some extent, be it to shopping, career obsession, or even social media. A line is drawn between people who battle these types of addiction and those of us like Mayor Ford and me, who suffer from less socially acceptable addictions.
Watching our mayor publicly implode as a direct result of his addiction issues, we are subject to chatter from media pundits and average taxpayers who say things like, “Why doesn’t he simply limit the amount he drinks?”… or … "Why doesn’t his family step in and tell him he’s out of control?” I can’t tell you how many times throughout the years I’ve had someone say to me: “How do you know you’re an alcoholic? Maybe you can just have one or two drinks.” If only it were that simple! I have no problems with gambling, food, or shopping, so it’s the same as if I were to say to those who do: “Just stop buying lottery tickets”, or “Just have two potato chips”, or “Just buy one skirt, you don’t need two.”
I should probably qualify myself at this point and come right out and say I am a recovering addict who is 17 years clean and sober, but not a day goes by where I don’t think about picking up a drink or a drug. Sure, there are easy days, but there are also claustrophobic days where I feel my addiction claws at my chest and screams in my mind. I’ve been in countless 12-step meetings, so I’ve heard addicts try to describe themselves in many ways—none of them very flattering: “a child in an adult’s body”, “a loose cannon”, “a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex”. However, if you really want to take the time to understand what makes an addict behave in the way (s)he does, you need to brush away the patina of the addiction to discover what’s hiding in the shadows.
I never drank to get drunk. I used drugs and alcohol to chase a sense of belonging that had been absent for most of my life. Asking me to have only one or two drinks and thus potentially limit my feelings of belonging, is next to impossible. The sad irony of most addictions is the addict participates in this behavior as a means to connect with others, but the result is always a distancing from others. This is what we are witnessing now with Mayor Ford—as he slips further into his self-destructive addictive behaviour, he pushes even those fiercely loyal to him further away. For me, the pathway to my addiction was set in motion by the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. Only time will tell what demon lies at the heart of Rob Ford’s behaviour.
This ever so public display of addiction run amok might provide the perfect opportunity for us as a community to step back for a moment, and instead of condemning, or even enabling our Mayor’s actions, we can do something a little more constructive. We might recognize that addiction is like dropping a pebble in a pond—It may have its genesis in one person, but it ripples through the lives of our partner, our children, our friends, and our entire community. When we hear the addict’s pathetic refrain “I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again”, recognize that however empty it may sound, these words are usually heartfelt, but come from a place of fear, shame, and loss.
When an addict finally publicly admits that (s)he indeed has a problem, some of that patina of addiction starts to brush away. That demon that was aching to claw its way out, now breathed into existence, sits before the addict for the entire world to see. Ironically, by speaking the words and invoking this demon to life, the addict has simultaneously robbed the addiction of some of its innate power—This is the space where healing begins, for the addict and for all of the lives touched by the addiction.