Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Broken Spirits and Brave Hearts

When reports of actor/director Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic tirade first surfaced, media folk across the world were quick to rightly condemn the hideous, hateful language he is alleged to have used when confronted by police officers. And as is so often the case when a wealthy and well-known person engages in such spectacularly disgraceful behavior, the media coverage is fast and furious. Within a short time, the world was apprised of the incident’s every gory detail, from Gibson’s blood alcohol level (.12%, well over California’s legal limit of .08%) to the speed at which he was driving before being pulled over (87 mph, or nearly twice the posted speed limit of 45 mph). And we were told, over and over, about the expletive-laced epithets he used.

Ugly, hateful, and telling words, those.

I do not, in any way, want to minimize the gravity of hate speech: it is a damaging rot that, sadly, continues to spread across society; it gives rise to violence, resentment, and retaliation; it undermines progress at every turn. And it is that much worse, that much more offensive, when someone like Mel Gibson--a powerful, if contentious, Hollywood icon and a cinematic hero in the eyes of some--expresses anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, or sexist beliefs. Even if, at the time, he was hardly in control of himself by any definition of the term.

Nor do I wish to debate the veracity of the oft-repeated In vino, veritas adage--sufficient voices have weighed in on the subject and consensus seems to be that one’s true beliefs do tend to surface, often in raw and shocking ways, when one is inebriated.

Rather, I’d like to set forth a suggestion that we put the finger-pointing and schadenfreude on pause for a moment and turn our attention to the all-too-real, equal-opportunity killer that seems, in this instance, to have largely eluded the concern of the media, and, therefore the public: alcoholism. Or, if you prefer, substance abuse.

Gibson is certainly not the first or the fastest celebrity speeder to run afoul of the law on the Pacific Coast Highway. Posted limits on that road tend to rise and fall according to the population density of its surroundings. And as Southern Californians will tell you, traffic can often move at an unbearably frustrating slow-crawl, spurring some impatient drivers to make up time by speeding whenever an open stretch of road avails itself. And, of course, there are plenty of people who simply regard laws as restrictions that apply to others, not them. Gibson, however, took it to another level altogether: he was speeding while significantly impaired. In order to sustain a blood alcohol level of .12, and estimating his weight at 180 lbs., he’d have had to consume five or six cocktails per hour.

By driving his Lexus sedan while drunk, Gibson posed a very real, physical threat--not only to himself, but to anyone else driving, bicycling, or walking along the PCH in Malibu that night. And this was not the first time his drinking was excessive to the point of being dangerous.

Drinking excessively to the point of danger. That, sadly, is the other story here, the one to which each of us can relate in some tragic way. Substance abuse, despite well-written public service announcements, well-publicized horror stories, and well-received anti-drug-and-alcohol education programs presented in schools and universities around the nation, continues its ruinous rampage. It destroys families, wrecks bodies, devastates fortunes, and cuts short the lives of innocent non-abusers who happened to be on the wrong road at the wrong time: according to the CDC, an American is killed by a drunk driver every 31 minutes. It is an illness that famously cuts across age and socioeconomic strata; the poor and uninsured cannot afford the professional help they need, and the wealthy carry the double-edged sword of being better able to hide their problem while simultaneously being unmotivated by the fear of income loss that would push some (but not all) of their middle-class counterparts to seek help sooner rather than later.

And in reiterating that substance abuse is an illness, I’m not suggesting that Mel Gibson should not be held accountable for his many moral and legal failings. Indeed, it’s hard to work up as much as a picogram of pity for someone whose wealth and considerable influence might have been put to genuine good use, but who, instead, wielded his fame and fortune like warriors’ instruments, earning him labels like egomaniacal, difficult, and abusive. Gibson, who has already reportedly checked into a treatment center, will receive the best care and counseling money can buy. And even if his foul slurs have offended the film community so much that no-one will ever work with him again, his fortunes are great enough that it’s unlikely he’ll ever find himself sleeping on a park bench, pulling a now-empty brown bag over his face to shield those crazed blue eyes from the morning sun. Gibson and his career may or may not recover from the effects of his substance abuse and outrageous bigotry, but it’s a fair bet that his relationships with the women and children in his life have already sustained irreparable damage.

This isn’t a moral judgment--far from it. Substance abuse--alcoholism in particular, as in Gibson’s case--is an illness. An illness that does tremendous, tangible harm to society at large, this being merely a fact, a conclusion that too many of us have reached after watching people we know and love implode, after hearing the stories of friends who’ve left spouses, or of now-grown children who’ve survived the emotional, verbal, and, yes, physical abuse that an addicted parent often visits on his hapless offspring. And the illness isn’t curable, only manageable--and then, only with great effort, commitment, and support.

At this point in our history, all levels of our government--local, state, and federal--treat substance abuse as a crime, when in fact it is, more accurately, a public health problem. The deleterious effect on the nation’s productivity is incalculable; the damage to the bodies and souls of its people, immeasurable.

Until such time as substance abuse is decriminalized and recognized for what it is--an illness of vast and wide-reaching proportions--treatment for less-affluent addicts will never be fully and properly funded; further, even the fortunate and well-insured, those who can afford detox clinics and ongoing counseling, still face the stigma of admitting their addiction in a culture wherein so many consider it to be a moral failing, if not an outright crime.


Alcohol and drug abuse have touched the lives of virtually everyone I know. A drunk driver killed my cousin once-removed (my father’s cousin) when I was a wee bairn. Richard was riding in the passenger seat alongside a driver who’d had a few too many; he lost control of the car and smashed into a telephone pole, and although this driver survived, my cousin was thrown into the dashboard (this was in the days before seatbelts or airbags), fatally rupturing his aorta. When I was seventeen, a famously upbeat party-girl friend at UF took her own life one Christmas vacation; we never knew the precise reason for her suicide, and even after all these years, I haven't figured out if the alcohol and pills were the cause or effect of what was clearly a severe, profound depression; however, I wish, as hard as I wish anything in this life, that I had been mature and savvy enough to understand what I was looking at and pushed her to get help.

Then there is a dear friend I’ll simply call J. J was a brilliantly creative, quirkily pretty, and pathologically sociable young woman, about four years my senior, whom I met in grad school. She and I shared a love of art, specifically painting, and we frequently went to movies and clubs together, since J loved to go out, but her husband was a hermit and workaholic who shunned all non-office-related activities (suffice it to say I never did understand that marriage, which ended within a few years). J had both a drinking problem and a cocaine addiction, both of which she somehow kept simmering at seemingly manageable levels; she functioned fairly normally--at least it seemed that way to her friends, like me, who only saw her on the weekends. She was also the heir to a sizeable fortune and did not need to work. When her marriage ended, she moved to a northern city, and I only heard from her when she was in town to visit her widowed mother.

Each time J did visit, though, she appeared worse. When she came to town for my wedding, at which she was a bridesmaid, she had all but disappeared, she was so underweight. Her hair was thinning and had lost all its shine; her words were scattershot, a series of illogical ramblings and non-sequitors. The following week, I called a mutual friend in Atlanta, whom she’d visited recently; we spoke for a long time, sharing worries, and agreed that we had no choice but to bring her mother into the picture--this, we knew, would ensure that J got help.

We were also well aware that our action--forcing a confrontation with her remaining family--would mark the end of our respective friendships with J, and we were right. She never spoke to either of us again: phone messages were ignored, and letters and Christmas cards came back marked Return To Sender in angry red pencil. We don’t know if she is still alive, but we are hopeful. We do know that we tried--if we’d done nothing and the worst had happened, we would each have to carry that guilt forever.

And this is what I told my husband when he faced a similar situation a few years ago: “If you do nothing, if you say nothing, he will definitely self-destruct.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time.” We were discussing his friend and colleague, G, a designer and contractor we’d known socially and professionally for many years. He had always been a heavy drinker--so much so, his eyes were perennially bloodshot and his nose was starting to get that characteristic ruddy look.

We found out that that G was now drinking an entire 750 ml bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin every day, finishing the last of it before leaving work in the early afternoon, at which point he would head to a local bar. He often worked with power tools and other dangerous equipment, and he always insisted on driving. It was not a question of, Does G have a problem? Rather, it was one of, What on Earth are we going to do to help him?

So my husband wrote to G’s wife, and then had a long talk with her. It was not a pleasant experience, and the conversation concluded with us being painted as the evil party, the trouble-makers, the tattle-tale people who couldn’t leave well enough alone: He doesn’t have a problem; how dare you attack our family?

And it was over a year before he spoke to us again. In the interim, we learned he’d suffered a terrible fall from a ladder and broken several bones. It is symbolically tidy, but I believe he really did hit bottom when he hit that floor, because he was now recovering, in every sense of the word, and when my husband ran into him at the grocery store, they embraced like the old friends they always were.


We readers and watchers and learners of the world would do well to try to walk away from the wreckage (actual as well as metaphorical) that is the Addicted Celebrity Meltdown holding onto something a bit nobler than a souvenir scrap of schadenfreude. Consider that Mel Gibson, to cite just one obvious and recent example, must surely have been surrounded by people who knew he needed help, but valued his attentions, or, at least, his employment, more than his health, his life, and the lives of others he might have hurt last Friday. Perhaps there is someone in our own lives--someone we love, or at least, someone we care about--whose substance abuse goes beyond social drinking or occasional experimentation. Do we need that person’s friendship--or his patronage or approval--so much that we daren’t risk losing it by forcing him to confront what is, after all, a life-threatening problem?

And if so, can we live with the consequences?

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