I am far from being any kind of expert on addiction. The vast majority of you would say the same about yourselves if asked in a vacuum. Yet when a famous ballplayer like Josh Hamilton falls off the wagon like he did on Monday night, so many of us seem to have so many strong opinions about it. Opinions that go beyond our mere reaction to the news.
Opinions about Josh Hamilton’s character. His “weakness.” His motivations. His heart. About the nature of addiction. Opinions like this one from Jeff Passan of Yahoo!
The worst part about Josh Hamilton’s relapse is that he didn’t care. The most famous addict in sports does not go to a bar in the town where he is best known without full knowledge that his exploits will become public in a matter of hours … The particulars – was he drunk, why did he drink and was he really letting women at the bar grab his butt? – don’t matter as much as the act. With addicts they never do. Sobriety is black and white. Black won Monday.
Passan posted that late last night. It set off a wave of criticism on Twitter which, to his credit, Passan confronted in an attempt to defend his column.
I think I understand what Passan was trying to get at here — I think he was trying to express the sheer gravity of Hamilton’s acts in stark terms and was doing so not long after the news broke, so there was some emotional reaction to it all — but I can’t shake the notion that the overall sentiment as expressed in the lead especially and throughout the column as a whole is presumptuous and wrong.
It’s easy for those of us who do not have experience with addiction to frame this as a black and white issue and think of it as Josh Hamilton making a bad choice. But from what I understand from those who know more about this, the essential nature of alcoholism is that, subjectively speaking, the person doesn’t have a choice. Or doesn’t feel like they’re making one at the time. It’s a compulsion. Reason is cast to the wind. It’s the very thing that separates a person who can handle alcohol from one who can’t.
To be clear, this doesn’t excuse the act. The act rains down consequences and those must be dealt with, whatever they are. The addict cannot be allowed to simply say “hey, I’m an addict, not my fault!” and force everyone else to deal with it. They have to work to regain the trust they lost. They have to redouble their efforts at sobriety. If their transgression was bad enough, they have to accept what comes their way as a result, be it the loss of a job, their friends or their family or whatever else it may be.
But I don’t think it’s at all accurate — or particularly useful — for us to frame this as a morality play. I think it’s understandable that many do it because Josh Hamilton was thrust into being a role model of some kind due to his initial conquering of addiction, and whenever someone is elevated like that it’s easy to see everything that happens later as either a reaffirmation of his greatness in that regard or as a tragic fall. But I don’t think the long road an addict walks fits that model very well.
The only opinion I can muster here — the only one I think it possible for someone who isn’t Josh Hamilton or someone close to his situation to reasonably hold — is sadness. Projecting one’s healthier state of mind with respect to alcohol and its consequences onto an unhealthy person like Hamilton’s is missing the point entirely.