My Mayor, the High-Functioning Alcoholic

fall“I’m not a drug addict. I’m not an alcoholic.” Rob Ford, the mayor.

Say what you want about his politics but there is no denying that the mayor of Toronto is a colorful person. He also is a very polarizing figure as the current media frenzy affirms. Admittedly, my outsider status has allowed me some distance from the full impact of both his politics and the current controversy. Still, it is hard not to be amazed at the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the mayor and the city. There is the video that purportedly shows the mayor smoking a crack pipe. There is the infamous photo of the mayor posing with alleged gang members outside of a crack house. There is the police surveillance of phone calls and surreptitious meetings with an accused drug trafficker behind a school and at a gas station. And, of course, there are the numerous accounts of public intoxication. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America behind only Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles. How is it even possible that the mayor of such an important city could be this out of control? Welcome to the absolutely insane world of alcohol and drug addiction.

Forget what you think you know about alcoholics. Perhaps as many as half of all alcoholics are high-functioning alcoholics. These individuals may have high profile occupations, earn advanced degrees, marry and have children, and maintain the respect of their peers and community. All of which only deepens and strengthens their denial. In fact, they may linger in denial for many, many years—even decades. Until one day inevitability pays them a visit. Sadly, I have seen high-functioning alcoholics stay in denial their entire lives only to have their reckoning at the very bitter end. An entire life wasted and no one left to hear their amends.

On my return flight from California last week the woman in the seat next to me lamented, “He associates with drug dealers and thugs. He’s our mayor! What in the hell is he thinking?” The answer is depressingly simple. High-functioning alcoholics are still just plain old alcoholics. They too squander their potential in the service of denial. On two occasions now I have stood by helplessly as people I cared deeply about faded into shadows of their former selves. I watched as they adapted their social circle to accommodate increasing numbers of addicts and deadbeats at the expense of more fruitful and healthy relationships. I watched as they abandoned obvious paths to success while embracing a lotto mindset and an identity based on perpetual victimhood. Lady, he’s not thinking. The disease is thinking.

“They’ve never had a drink? They’ve never been drunk before?” Doug Ford, the enabler.

The glory of past achievements only intensifies the high-functioning alcoholic’s denial long after the momentum has dissipated. Moreover, the shallow exterior of stability worn by high-functioning alcoholics gives permission to peers to join them in denial. Friends and family unwittingly reward the alcoholic’s destructive behavior by refusing to confront them about their disease. This is why the mayor’s behavior transcends normal politics. There must be repercussions for his actions. Not as a matter of political punishment. But as a matter of human dignity and compassion.

“I apologized to the taxpayers, I apologized to my family….I don’t know what more I can do.” Rob Ford, the denier.

And so the sad state of affairs will continue. The high-functioning alcoholic will spin the roulette wheel over and over. Until one day. The woman on the plane continued, “Why can’t he snap out of it? If not for the good of the city, why not for his wife and children?” Because we do not get to decide for them when enough is enough. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Even for the high-functioning alcoholic. The mad tempo of the carnival only gets faster. And that does not bode well for the citizens of Toronto. Or for Rob Ford and those who care deeply about him.

Much love to you Rob Ford. I am rooting for you. Not politically. But humanely. It’s all you now brother.

7 thoughts on “My Mayor, the High-Functioning Alcoholic

  1. You’re welcome. I’m happy to know at least one person read something on my website today! By “lotto mindset” I am referring to a tendency among high-functioning alcoholics to be delusional in their pursuit of success. It’s tied to “victimhood”. I have observed both in my own experiences with alcoholics and in Al Anon that many alcoholics externalize the causes of their unhappiness. It’s always an abusive boss or husband, an unsupportive wife or family, antagonistic creditors, etc. that stand in the way of their happiness. For example, I once was accused of serious acts of criminal abuse by an alcoholic. The accusations were outrageous and my initial reaction was incredulity and anger. In fact, I’m still angry. But with hindsight and emotional distance I now understand how this episode actually reflects the alcoholic’s delusional state of mind. The ugliness of their own abusive behavior was projected onto me. I’ve also witnessed shared delusions among groups of alcoholics who believe they are kindred spirits in pursuit of some common dream–a band, a business, a politics…whatever. What they fail to see is that the only thing that unites them is the disease and failure. Moreover, their shared failure is often reinterpreted as persecution by others. You can see this whenever the mayor talks about the media conspiring against him. It’s not to say that he doesn’t have enemies. But his biggest enemy is…well…you get the picture.

  2. Who can say which lives are wasted? Life provides everyone with a profound education, and we all ride the short bus from time to time, some ride it their whole lives. Looking in from the outside it’s easy to play judge and jury to these people. Better to be a living example of how to be in the world and also be happy and at peace. Just be the light and darkness can do nothing but fade away.

  3. My father was a “high-functioning alcoholic” whatever that REALLY means… later he was a dry-drunk – meaning he never really changed his ways even after stopping drinking (he drank for over 40 years heavily). I learned to live with his way while I was younger, but really couldn’t anymore as I became an adult. I agree, alcoholic=alcoholic, period.

  4. Thank you for this very clear outlining to those who think it’s as simple as consciously deciding to keep that “never again” promise when the addiction starts picking away at the mind to rethink who’s to blame and why just one more won’t be so bad. My ex-husband has had 3 restraining orders, in 3 provinces, by 3 women, just that I know of. That was me (and my son) after police drove us to a shelter, his second wife (and her daughter) after she fled with her home to the Maritimes, and finally HIS OWN MOTHER when she took him back in. My son knows and loves his grandma, his aunts and uncles, and his own little sister. But he was a blue belt by age 11, just in case he ever decided to look up his old man. Sad, but essential.

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