Jay Leno has called him “God’s gift to comedy,” and Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Arsenio Hall all have taken a crack at him.
Not to spoil the fun, but some are not amused by the laughing and pointing at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – no matter how self-generated and richly deserved it might seem to be.
“It isn’t funny, it’s dehumanizing,” said Patrick Krill, director of Hazelden’s Legal Professionals Program in Center City, Minn. Though Ford has denied that he is an addict, many in the recovery community and beyond are basing their observations on the mayor’s many contradictory remarks about alcohol and drug use, his admission that he used cocaine “probably in one of my drunken stupors,” his public behaviors (including accidentally knocking down a fellow council member), a video of him staggering and making murder threats, his expressions of remorse, and his general meltdown for all to see.
The impulse to laugh is disturbing, Krill, said, when you look at the behaviors through the lens of an addiction counselor. What others see as fodder for humor, Krill sees as “manifestation of a disease … symptoms of addiction.” And the freedom to mock public people having public falls from grace “is not tolerated in terms of other diseases and chronic illnesses,” he said. “As long as we as a society can laugh at that, the stigma is still there. And what bothers me about that is that it keeps people from getting help.”
Krill sees some parallels between those in public office and in the legal profession. The very qualities that help his clients succeed in the courtroom and other arenas – rationalizing, rebutting, denying – are the qualities that also stand in the way of getting help, he says.
Krill, who had been a land-use lawyer in Los Angeles for many years before becoming an addiction counselor, said his own moment of clarity came after he had been drinking for many years and finding himself more frequently in “dangerous situations,” even suffering some broken bones. “It was get well or get dead,” he said.
“Mercifully, my own battle was not as excruciatingly, painfully public,” Krill said. “It’s not on YouTube. It’s not on the news. There aren’t tapes of it floating around. I’m so grateful for that. And I would think anybody coming out on the other side of addiction would be so grateful for that. I think that adds a whole other level of pain. And there’s so much shame and guilt that goes along with addiction anyhow. The worst thing would be to have it memorialized in the digital world.”
Profile of an ‘alpha male’
Public figures and others in positions of power have unique challenges in carving through the denial that gets in the way of getting help, said Sam Dresser of Clere Consulting, a Minneapolis-based company that serves businesses and high-income families with substance-use disorder in the ranks.
Ford is well-insulated even as he is publically exposed, Dresser said. “You have sycophants and people who are holding you up even when the best thing they can do is let you drop. And that’s what happens with prominent figures – they have people around them who are propping them up. … They don’t care. They have something else to gain.”
The humiliation and the mockery, though unfunny, might be just the motivators that the doctor ordered.
“I do feel some empathy,” Dresser said. “However – especially with some alpha males like that, who are very strong-willed – sometimes it takes some of the greatest public and or private humiliation to break through their denial. This disease has a course, and for him to see himself accurately, he is going to have to lose quite a few things. He is going to have to lose his powers, his position. The rest of the world is trying to give him real-world blowback, which is: ‘You can’t be the mayor of our city and act that way.’ That’s him brushing up against reality, and that’s what it takes.”
As wince-inducing as the spectacle has become, Krill does not disagree: “When the evidence starts to stack up in the public eye like that, it would seem that that might push you toward an inability to continue the denial,” he said. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
‘Take the gift’
For William Moyers, a Hazelden executive and Krill’s colleague, Ford’s public struggles offer a very “unambiguous lesson: While what’s happened to him stigmatizes the illness, it also illuminates the nature of this illness in a way that perhaps others will learn from.”
But isn’t this a problem of Ford’s own making, one that is compounded by his own ridiculousness, vulgarity, pomposity and flagrancy?
Said Moyers: “I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m dismissing his personal responsibility in any way. But at the same time, I understand the demons that grip him and what propels him down this road of self-immolation and self-destruction. It’s important that he knows that he’s not alone, that it’s OK to ask for help, and that there’s a solution.”
To the mayor, finally, he offers these words of encouragement: “Take the gift that the City Council has offered you, and take a leave of absence. Most people never get that chance.”