Sympathy but Not Disease for Rob Ford

Rob FordClare Malone has an interesting piece that I half agree with, Rob Ford’s Tragedy, Our Shame. At base, it is a call for a little understanding—not just for Ford but for all people who have allowed drugs to get out of control in their lives. And I’m totally on board with that. I wrote just that on Wednesday, Sympathy for Rob Ford. All of us have faced personal humiliations and, if we’ve thought about it, are grateful that they weren’t more public. I don’t know if I could deal with having animated gifs all over the world infinitely repeating even my most minor humiliations.

Where I differ with Malone is over her hand wringing about addiction as a disease. She even writes that addiction “is treated by doctors as a disease, classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” That’s true. And homosexuality was also once treated as a disease and classified in the DSM. I have no doubt that the inclusion of “addiction” as a mental disease will one day be as embarrassing as “homosexuality” is today.

Doing drugs is an extremely common human behavior. I know of no culture that does not have socially acceptable intoxicant use. Thus to take drug use out of its social context and label it as a dysfunction, much less a disease, makes no sense. Like any activity, drug use has good aspects and bad aspects. In moderation, the good aspects swamp the bad aspects.

But what of one who has seemingly lost all control, or at least a large part of it? That strikes me as an incredibly naive question that only occurs because our culture is so very screwed up about the use of intoxicants. It should be very clear that Rob Ford has problems. I don’t know what they are. I’d guess that he suffers from feelings of inferiority and self-hatred. But it hardly matters. There are reasons that a sitting mayor of a major city allowed himself to be publicly shitfaced and at least once commit felony drug possession. And none of those have anything to do with the psychoactive properties of alcohol or cocaine.

The reason this is important is that our society’s current approach to drug problems is mostly useless and often harmful. Many years ago, I read Pathways from Heroin Addiction: Recovery Without Treatment. It was on the leading edge of work that showed that the vast majority of people get off even the mother of all addictions without any help from anyone. And the key for pretty much everyone was changing their self-images. There was no disease and there needn’t be.

So sympathy for Rob Ford, of course! The man clearly needs help. But what he doesn’t need is to be taught that he has an alcoholic gene and that he’s powerless against the demon brew. His life is out of control, but that could have manifested in any number of ways. In fact, it did! What kind of reasonable person goes into politics? I think that’s a red flag for any number of behaviors that do belong in the DSM. And we should show sympathy for all the mental baggage that each of us carries around.

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