I have been meaning to write a blog for some time now on the troubles facing the Mayor of Toronto, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. For starters, I was appalled by all the TMZ-like coverage of Rob Ford’s every move and all the second guessing as to whether he is really in rehab and if so, where? I am equally disgusted by the Mayor’s tweet from rehab about how “amazing” it was and his interview with a US radio show where he suggested that rehab “reminded (him) of football camp”. And don’t even get me started on his inner circle, who seem more desirous of enabling him for their own political gain than genuinely trying to help him kill the demon before it kills him. Yet I wasn’t motivated to write this article just for the sake of calling out the Mayor, his family, and the press. There was more to my thinking, and today I am motivated to write because I have been touched by the deaths of two individuals in the last week whose addictions were the certain cause of their deaths. First, the husband of an old friend. He, I did not know at all. But very sad to me nonetheless since I have known the wife very well for many years, and am heartbroken by her anguish yet helpless to make her pain subside. Then two days ago I awake to a text that C, one of my dearest friends for the last 15 years essentially drank himself to death. The saddest thing about this latter death is that I saw it coming even as I, along with C’s other loved ones, made enormous attempts in the last few months to help my friend get his life in order.
The hallmark of addiction is that one continues to feed the beast even in the face of one’s life falling apart. Despite the consequences, the addict continues to lie to his family, his friends, his workplace colleagues, and most significantly, to himself. In this regard all addicts, male and female, young and old, are alike. It doesn’t matter if the addiction is to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food or anything else. Often, but not always, one of these addictions has a symbiotic relationship with one or more of the others. While depression may not be the root cause of addiction (there is much research which suggests that that there is a genetic predisposition to addiction, particularly as regards drugs and/or alcohol), almost all addicts by the time they are in the throes of their addiction suffer from severe depression. At some point the substance of choice becomes a way to manage the depression, the emptiness, the loneliness. The worst thing for an addict is being idle. The lack of structure and time on an addict’s hands mean only one thing- the addict will use. If there is anything worse than idleness for an addict it is when those around him enable him in the face of uncontroverted proof of his addiction. I use the pronoun “he” because the addicts referred to in this article are male, but make no mistake that women are just as likely to be addicts.
I know of what I speak about these matters, having been an addict myself. What began as a way to treat the pain of my severe migraines in 2003 ultimately became, by 2007, a full-fledged addiction to prescription narcotics. I lied when my ex-wife called me on it. I lied to my doctors (yes, doctors- I had many of them- all the better to get more pills). I was confronted with a mini-intervention of sorts by two friends and colleagues who sensed something was amiss. I lied my way out of it and immediately went to yet another doctor to obtain yet another prescription for more Oxycontin which could be crushed, chewed or snorted for the next high. Mostly I lied to myself, thought I was managing, thought nobody knew. Even convinced myself I wasn’t an addict. Even throughout a 2 year period when I was probably never not buzzed. Even as my life fell apart- even as my marriage ended; even as I couldn’t care for my children; even as I became inattentive to my clients and started getting complaints to the Law Society; even as my bank account became increasingly empty with less and less new client retainers to replenish it; even as my health was failing and my naturally thin self lost a terrifying 35 pounds; even as I slept 12 to 18 hours a day but suffered a constant malaise; even as I lost joy in absolutely everything I formerly loved so much. And yet I was lucky, although at the time I didn’t realize it, because I was surrounded by people who loved me, who knew I was struggling, and who only wanted to help. And they tried. My friends, my family, my professional colleagues. Not their fault at the time that they had no effect, It wasn’t until one day when I had an epiphany. At that moment, in early 2009, I accepted my disease and committed to getting help. At that moment, I realized I had fallen into a pit of despair and hit rock bottom and thus began the slow ascent back, a task that at times felt Sisyphean. This required me to give away what clients I had left and take a leave of absence from the practice of law. To dramatically adjust the standard of living to which I had become accustomed over the previous 15 years, To give up the 50/50 shared parenting time I had with my kids. To put myself in the hands of my family physician, my Ontario Lawyer Assistance Plan (OLAP) social worker and peer counselors, my therapist. To do what they said, when they said it, and how they said to do it. Not such an easy task for someone used to being his own boss for more than 15 years. I pushed myself physically, mentally, emotionally. I did the 12 Steps. And the pain of getting clean was like nothing I have ever experienced before or since. In the early days I thought I would never be free.
I know of what I speak because I also volunteer as a peer counselor and board member with OLAP. I have counseled numerous lawyers and paralegals suffering the same fate and been able to reassure them they weren’t alone, help them find the right place to turn for professional assistance, and advise them on how to deal with the inevitable practice-related issues that are often present in such cases.
I know of what I speak because I devote a certain percentage of my annual billable time to pro bono cases. As such, I regularly represent lawyers at Law Society discipline hearings, as well as indigent clients in the criminal courts. In my experience, the vast majority of lawyers in front of the Law Society Tribunal are not, as the Toronto Star would like you to believe, vile, immoral crooks. Most are decent men and women who suffer from addiction or depression and often both. And contrary to public perception, most accused in criminal court are not bad people. There too the system is burdened with a disproportional number of defendants who would not be there but for their substance abuse issues.
My friend C and the Mayor were the same. Ford’s current stint in rehab smacks more of political opportunism than a genuine attempt to heal himself. While the Mayor may come back from rehab somewhat better, I predict it will not last. His behavior, and that of his family since he went in, does not indicate a serious attempt at rehab. I hope I am wrong but as I noted thrice above, I know of what I speak on this subject. The Mayor’s family and political aides do him no favour by either explicitly or at a minimum implicitly condoning his actions and his refusal to get serious help. By contrast, my friend C’s family and friends rallied around to try and push him to get the help he needed. However, like the Mayor, my friend didn’t want help (or believe he needed it). C put on a charade of wanting and needing our help, of seeking treatment, only to run back to the bottle when we went home. Or he out and out lied to us and told us he wasn’t drinking and we needn’t worry any longer. Of course, the one really being lied to by C was C himself. Some he knew may believed him. Yet, even on the phone listening to him earnestly trying to convince me he had been sober for 5 days, that he was going through serious withdrawal, that he was intent on getting through it and on staying sober, I knew he was lying on all counts. Yet until the addict stops lying to himself, no amount of outside help will benefit him. But to ignore the addict’s lies or to turn away rather than to keep trying to help is akin to buying them the drinks or holding the needle.When my son asked me a few weeks ago how C was doing, I said I feared he was going to drink himself to death (not deliberately, but the end result is sadly the same). I was expressing a fear, not actually intending that my words would be prophetic. Unfortunately, I know of what I speak in these matters.
Which brings me full circle to what originally upset me about the tabloid style coverage of Rob Ford’s obviously alcohol and drug fueled antics these last number of months, and the “Where’s Waldo” game that the media began to play as soon as word spread that Ford was in rehab in an undisclosed facility. It may be entertaining to the masses, and sporting for the journalists, to treat Ford as just another celebrity punch line. Sadly, the major media outlets once again put entertainment and spectacle above real journalism and the chance to educate readers, possibly recapturing even a modicum of the public trust that they lost as they trailed behind another movie star’s limousine. For addiction is not like some reality show you can watch for fun with your mates to satisfy your basest lowbrow desires at the feast of others’ misfortunes. Addiction is a disease, one which kills just as surely as cancer. Everyone knows at least one addict in their life. You may not know you know an addict but you do. Too often we look the other way. And to be fair, you can’t police everyone you know. And the addict must ultimately take responsibility for his own situation. Oh sure, many addicts blame their cycle of devolution on some sort of triggering event like divorce, job loss, financial stress, and the like. But the addict is the only one who can change his behavior. As a society we need to talk about these issues when they are staring us in the face as opposed to using them for political gain (as the Mayor’s foes have done) or treating the events like the circus has come to town (as did every major media outlet in Toronto and many around the world). The Rob Ford saga was a perfect opportunity for those who had a political or editorial bully pulpit to engage the citizenry in a serious dialogue about a serious issue which affects us all. The addict has family, friends and work relationships. All of those individuals are emotionally affected by the addict, and since they don’t live in a vacuum so are those around them. One addict can negatively impact dozens of lives. All of this leads to decreased productivity, higher divorce rates, more kids without involved parents…are you starting to see a pattern developing? It takes an addict, and only one, to destroy the village.
My story of addiction has a very happy ending. I have been clean of narcotics since January of 2010. The depression I suffered for years also magically disappeared mere months after the drugs were permanently out of my system. Four and half years later, I am now in touch with deeper feelings than I have ever known. I am happier and more content with life than I ever imagined. I am more engaged with my children, have a keener appreciation for the little daily things that make life great. I am a more focused and better lawyer than I have ever been. I try new activities and push the boundaries of my comfort zone. The anger and insecurities I carried for years into my addiction are no more. I am confident and secure. When people ask me how I am doing I almost always answer “never better!” and I mean it. I may look like a short, thin, bald, middle aged Jew, but I FEEL like Adam Levine!
The book on C’s addiction had a much sadder ending, the saddest ending of all. He leaves behind many people who loved him including his six year old son.
So, Mayor Rob Ford, you are the narrator of your own biography of addiction. As things stand, it appears you may only have a couple of chapters left to write. When I read the last page of your book, will it be you, standing proudly with your family, having overcome your addiction and discovered a genuine joie de vivre unmediated by drugs and alcohol? Or will the last chapter of your book be a eulogy read by your children? The choice is yours Mr. Mayor. I think you are likely a very good man who loves his family and entered politics for the noblest of reasons. The Rob Ford we have seen is distorted by his addictions. Will we see, and you rediscover, the REAL Rob Ford? Only you can decide. I mean really decide once and for all to make a clean break and get well, not like this present attempt, which is layered with a startlingly disingenuous veneer. Should you choose the right path, and there is only one right path lest you end up like my friend C, I only hope your “supporters” have the good sense to keep quiet and the media the decency to leave you alone to recover in peace and quiet. Remember, I know of what I speak in these matters.