There’s a great Mitch Hedberg joke in which he says that alcoholism is the only disease you can be yelled at for having. No one would ever be like, “Damnit Otto! You have lupus!” Because everyone would know it’s out of his control. Hedberg would often joke about drugs and alcohol. (“I used to do drugs,” he told an audience, “but that was way over there.” He then pointed to the back of the room.) Hedberg, like too many comedians and entertainers, eventually died of an overdose.
I used to tell my dad that first Hedberg joke as a way to make him feel better when he was first entering recovery. My dad is an addict and an alcoholic. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it here before, but maybe not in a such obvious words. He got sober for the first time when I was 15, relapsed spectacularly with a car crash as the cherry on top, and then again got sober when I was 17. He’s been sticking to it ever since. It’s not easy for him, certainly, even though sometimes he makes it look it by taking all these leadership positions in AA and volunteering at the local jail to help other addicts and alcoholics. I think it helps distract him.
But before everything was good with him, I saw a lot. One of the AA steps is to admit you are powerless in the face of your addiction. My dad was powerless. He did things he would have never done when he was sober. He felt nihilistic and he despaired so much he cared not at all for his own safety. He felt a false sense of invincibility, followed often by an equally false sense of worthlessness. I really believe he could not control it.
Two nights ago, country music singer Mindy McCready shot and killed herself. McCready had long struggled with addiction and alcoholism and had appeared on “Celebrity Rehab,” the help-no-one circus sideshow of recovery. I’m sure many people laughed at her disgusting antics on the show, just as people titter and judge as some It Girl stumbles out of a club. And of course, being an addict does not excuse terrible behavior but it does require our compassion. Maybe it’s too hard for people to understand the difference. I’m not saying you can’t be angry at an addict. You absolutely can. Their disease does not excuse their behavior, rather I look at it as a lens through which to see everything they do. It’s not okay. It’s certainly not okay. But it’s something for which they really need to get help, therapy, treatment, and medications.
Anger, resentment, and disbelief are acceptable. Ridicule is not.
A lot of the celebrities we mock for their outlandish, unhealthy, bizarre behavior are actually just addicts. We know this. We know it in the back of our minds even as we mock them but we don’t want to think about it. It’s much more fun to laugh at Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes than to wonder why no one around them seems willing to intervene. Amy Winehouse was a punchline until she died and suddenly everyone was super serious and apologetic. (So it goes.) “Celebrity Rehab” is a trainwreck and part of watching it is being super glad you are not these hot-ass messes and being in horrified awe of what they are capable of, or how they just can’t get it together. That’s why it’s TV. But the show has had five of the participants so far die, and it doesn’t seem to be giving them the help they need in exchange for showing their journey to recovery. (Ideally, that’s what would happen.)
People with addictions shouldn’t be pointed at and joked about for losing control. There are tons of nuances to a situation like this; maybe they aren’t ready to admit they have a problem, maybe there’s no one around them who is saying, “Hey, this is f-cked up,” maybe they’re trying and they’re relapsing. We wouldn’t make late night monologue jokes about people with other diseases. It’s clearly just as harmful not to take substance abuse seriously too. People suffer. People die. People commit suicide. But we seem to not give a sh-t until there are actual consequences. Suddenly, it’s not funny anymore. And then everyone acts all sorry and sad. I’m tired of it.
Addiction and alcoholism, unfortunately like most aspects of mental health, are often shoved aside, or mocked or told they are not important, that these people are only doing it to themselves. People like Mindy McCready need help and it needs to be a priority.
But if not that, a good first step would be to stop gawking at them like animals in a zoo and to stop providing flimsy treatment in the name of entertainment and to stop making fun of them until somebody dies. By then, your caring is an empty bottle. Too little, too late.