Friday, 22 November 2013

We're all perfectly imperfect

Last week the global news media was fixated with the story of Brian Jones, a bus driver from Solihull who was dismissed from his job after it was revealed he had taken crack cocaine, was drunk at the wheel and clearly had sex addiction issues due to his frequent use of prostitutes. At the same time an obscure bank clerk from Reading, Mrs Andrea Smith, revealed that she had bought cocaine and enjoyed a weekend bender in Manchester. Except it wasn’t. These two fictional stories are composites of real ones, stories of ordinary men and women whose lives are wrecked by addiction, day in day out. The narrative of fall from grace, disgrace and public shaming is too commonplace, too mundane, too familiar and everyday for the newspapers, TV and internet to bother publicising, except when a high profile politician or public figure is involved. The Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has given the media some wonderful material to work with, appearing at once to be both a buffoon and psychopath and even worse, publicly funded but, in many ways, the story of his British counterpart Paul Flowers is even more perfect for the tabloid press. Mr. Flowers, former Chairman of the Cooperative Bank, has had to resign and face police investigation after it was revealed that during his tenure at the loss making bank he was purchasing cocaine and other substances. He was not only a Methodist Minister, but the trustee of a drugs charity, and in the eyes of our ever judgmental media (who are, as a profession beyond reproach in matters of substance abuse of course), a cardinal sin has been committed. Mr. Flowers was no doubt meant to occupy some saintly position, untainted by addiction, the title of minister conferred unto him seems also to have come with the presumption by everyone else of infallibility. The suggestion is also implicit from news reports that have circulated about his fall from grace that the Cooperative Bank would be operating at a profit were it not for his nefarious vices. Maybe it would, it’s almost impossible to say for sure, but the reason for this letter is not so much about either Ford or Flowers, but our collective response of surprise and shock when we learn that the rich and powerful are out of control. When we see other lives out of control such as city centre street drinkers, most of us barely register their presence, but they are every bit as human and in distress as the damaged people who all too often have access to the levers of power. It is understandably difficult to extend our human compassion and understanding to the most vulnerable and damaged victims of addiction who we encounter on a day to day basis, but equally it becomes increasingly challenging to show compassion to high profile victims too. Despite their disagreeable antics in high office, both men Ford and Flowers are as human, as flawed, as likely to feel sorrow and loneliness as the rest of us; both men are very ill with addiction and completely lost, having to make sense of a whirlwind of chaos in the full glare of the media spotlight. We have come to assume that our leaders are less human than us, that these wizards of public affairs, finance and administration can work some special kind of magic that we mortals are not privy to, and our societies will continue to function in a generally normal and secure way. What these two examples suggest is that within the corridors of political, financial and bureaucratic power, there are probably as many damaged, addicted, frightened and lonely people as there are within the population at large. We therefore need more than ever to have a frank and honest open discussion about addiction in our society, one that transcends our tabloids, taboos, secrets and shame.