“I’m just so sad,” my mom told me, when she learned Toronto Police Services Chief Bill Blair told reporters he had seen video of the mayor smoking crack cocaine. “It’s just…sad.”
It is sad. It’s sad that my partner has to wonder about his mayor screaming in his face and shoving him the way he does other journalists, when the mayor bothers to show up for work — though he apparently has no issue showing up drunk at two a.m. with “unidentified females” who were almost certainly not his wife, the woman who he was charged with assaulting in 2008. It’s sad that our mayor vouchsafed a man who was convicted of threatening to kill a woman, and then employed him as a driver, fixer, and possibly as a drug dealer. It’s sad that the murder of Ford’s friend Anthony Smith is still unsolved. It’s sad that Ford made executive decisions and shaped municipal policy to the tune of $900 million in cost overruns, while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both. Those are all sad things.
But that’s not what my mother finds so saddening. Not really. It’s something else entirely.
“Are you feeling badly because we’ve lost people to addiction?” I asked. “Is it because we’ve heard all of this before, and it’s pushing some buttons?”
There was a pause. “Yeah,” she said heavily. “That’s part of it.”
There’s addiction on both sides of my family. One person made it. The other didn’t. One of my uncles is alive because he got clean. One of my aunts is dead because she didn’t. She promised she would, of course. She told us she would, after she showed up drunk to my First Communion. (The irony of that particular coincidence does not fail to escape me.) She told her kids she would. She watched as they searched her apartments for stashes, and cried as they poured the bottles down the toilet. She’d worked in hospitals. She knew the consequences of her disease. She knew them at her intervention. She knew them when she entered the hospital, yellow and swollen with liver failure. She knew them at the moment of her death. In her case, knowledge was no longer power. All the facts were just more reasons to drink: she was a queer woman in a straight society; she’d been sent away to have her first child in high school and had to give her up; she was the victim of multiple rapes. Alcoholism was the clinical cause of death, but silence and shame and the closet all had their turns, first.
I miss her. I miss her every day. I’d be dead without her — she’s the one who introduced my parents. When she functioned more highly, hid her sadness and her sickness more effectively, she babysat me on a regular basis. She’s the one who urged my mother to take me to an orthopedist, because my spine didn’t look straight. (It wasn’t.) She gave me toys for long car trips down to Los Angeles, and proudly introduced me to all her co-workers. She’s the first person I remember asking me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was the bargaining chip in her intervention: if she didn’t quit, she couldn’t see me any longer. She didn’t quit. Within the year, she was dead. Her mother, brain riddled with Alzheimer’s, did not understand whose funeral she was attending. “But why isn’t my daughter here?” she asked her caregivers. “Why doesn’t she come see me?”
Most of the time it’s a dimly-remembered tragedy from my childhood. Nothing compared to the loss my cousins experienced. Other times, like when I watched A Scanner Darkly for the first time, I cry myself hoarse. Because when you love an addict, their powerlessness becomes your powerlessness. They cannot stop themselves, and you cannot stop them. Nothing, no sacrifice, no indictment, no threat or promise or bargain, can withstand the centrifugal forces of addiction’s churning vortex. You come to realize that the person you love is actually two people: the person they are alone with the bottle, and the person they try to be when they’re with you. I miss the person my aunt tried to be. The person she could have been, if she’d felt the freedom to be her authentic self and tell the truth about her experiences, and the courage to make herself vulnerable to the process of recovery. She was great. That person was great. That person was the best.
I suspect the person Mayor Ford tries to be is also great. His supporters certainly seem to think so. I’m not one of them, because I was educated to smell sophistry from a mile away and know populism when I see it. I doubt I’d agree with him even if he were sober, though I suspect he’d make coherent arguments and better decisions with sobriety on his side. But this afternoon when I listened to Ford make apology after apology on his radio show, I heard the refrain of addiction: “I’m sorry.” “It’s all my fault.” “I just have to cut down.” “Don’t call my brother an enabler.” “I’m not a crack addict. I’m not an addict of any type of drug.” “I don’t know what more I can say.”
What the city of Toronto may not understand collectively is that addicts lie. Of all the losses that surround them, the loss of trust is one of the biggest. Whether that lie is I’m doing just fine or I don’t have a problem or even I’m looking for work, it’s still a lie when it’s told under the influence. Because it’s told not in the service of truth, but in the service of preserving the status quo — the addiction. When you look at Ford’s record, at his dishonesty and his bluster and his refusal to take responsibility for his behaviour up until this moment, it fits a pattern familiar to families of addicts. Well, that and the absenteeism, sleepiness, paranoia, social anxiety, and confabulations. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Learn from the the people who survived it:
In the beginning of my drinking career, I still had denial about my ability to control my drinking. I held on to the illusion that if I really wanted to, someday, I could drink like a normal person and enjoy my liquor without going overboard. I did not yet suspect that I was a genuine alcoholic….at least not in the early days.
As the years went on, I came to realize the true nature of my condition. This is something that I had to admit on my own, and to myself. When others tried to diagnose me, I would not listen. I finally came to see what I really was through my own experiences. I realized that I was beaten; that alcohol had defeated me, and that I was its slave. I knew that I was down for the count. I fully admitted to myself and to others how hopeless my condition had become. Other people could not convince me of my problem.
But understand that this was still denial. Drinking remained my solution. I was at a point where I would readily admit to being alcoholic, but was not yet willing to do anything about it. I continued to drink for some time after that, until I finally accepted my disease.
Accepting alcoholism or drug addiction means that you are willing to do something about it.
“Doing something” is not getting on the radio and apologizing to constituents. That’s from the “grand romantic gesture” political playbook, the one where you buy some flowers and hold up a boombox and tell people how very sorry you are — but not what you’re sorry for. “Doing something” isn’t, as the mayor’s brother suggested, drinking alone in the basement so family and friends and voters won’t have to feel a prickle of embarassment. It isn’t pretending to conduct business as usual. It’s not pleading with reporters to stop doing their job, or making excuses for one-minute press appearances that last as long as it takes to hiss the words “You had your chance,” and walk away, back stiff and fingers twitching because it’s the middle of the day and the DTs are about to start.
Doing something means doing something. It means taking action. It means taking control. It means, quite literally, re-wiring the pre-frontal cortex. It means making sacrifices. It means bidding farewell to your drinking buddies. It means leaving behind your old stomping grounds. It means divorcing your spouse, sometimes. It means losing custody, sometimes. It means making meetings and going to hospitals and finding a sponsor and pleading with your family not to have so much goddamn beer at their goddamn barbecue because Jesus, I’m hanging by a thread here, can’t you see that?
It means entering recovery and being honest about why you have to “cut down,” rather than stop drinking entirely. It means explaining the medical reasons why “it’s unrealistic to expect that I’ll never take another drink again.” Namely, the grand mal seizures that accompany severe alcohol withdrawal. The possibility of heart attack and death. It means entering a hospital or treatment centre and accepting help, so you don’t die alone trying to be a hero.
Addiction is not about heroes or villians. It is not a moral issue. I think the mayor has made several immoral decisions, the extent of which we will only learn in the coming days. But mostly, I think the moral calculus to be made in addiction is whether or not you want to save your own life, or whether you want to leave behind the people who love you. When Irvine Welsh talks about it as “choosing life,” he’s not wrong. It’s literally a choice between life and death. But in this case, the mayor isn’t just choosing for himself — he’s choosing for Toronto. His powerlessness has become Toronto’s powerlessness. It’s not just his career that could end, but Toronto’s economy. It’s not just his car he might wrap around a tree, but our services. Our flu shots. Our schools. Our community.
Choose life, Mayor Ford. Choose the life of this city. It’s a good life. It’s a good city. And you can be a good man, if you want to. But you have to be an honest one, first.