Rob Ford and the realities of rehab redemption

Anne Kingston on the cultural script and the real work in recovery

(The Canadian Press)

The chorus calling for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to enter rehab has swelled from a murmur in March, with news His Honour was so smashed at the Garrison Ball he was asked to leave, to a full-out chant after Wednesday’s video showed him engaged in some kind of hopped-up  murder rant. Even Jon Stewart chimed in with a direct plea after Ford admitting smoking crack cocaine: “Even though I will lose precious material, please go to rehab.” By late Friday there was a sigh of relief from City Hall when Ford’s lawyer suggested the mayor was considering “treatment.”

It’s all utterly predictable, if equally pointless. Rehab redemption has become hardwired in the cultural imagination, dating to former First Lady Betty Ford’s brave admission in the late ’70s that she overcame addiction to booze and pills. She inspired the first in a brand name treatment facility. Thirty years later, entering rehab is a way to seek treatment — and a calculated strategy for escaping public crisis, witnessed by  Tiger Woods paving his way back to the endorsement green after an apology and “sex addiction” treatment.  In the process, addiction and recovery have become mainstream macabre entertainment—rabid “death watches” for Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan,  Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and now Rob Ford.

Many expected  Ford to throw out the “rehab” bone of contrition when he called a press conference on Tuesday. It’s the route any canny  politician in crisis-management mode would take—a last-ditch get-out-of-jail card. Calgary mayor Ralph Klein remained in office after admitting to his well-documented problem with alcohol during a tearful press conference in 2001. That Ford didn’t clearly came as a shock to those unacquainted with the mayor’s inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for his behaviour.  Like a rogue elephant, Ford, who speaks in terms of “one of my stupors,” refuses to follow cultural script, much to the delight of his steadfast supporters. He was defiant, not only staying put but running for office again. He’s singing from the Amy Winehouse songbook: “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’ “

Not that rehab is always required in order to recover from addictions, as  Anne Fletcher  points out in her acclaimed book  Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction, published this year. The myth-busting investigation of U.S. rehab facilities reveals quality of care is wildly uneven. And no guarantees exist, a fact driven home in July when actor Corey Montieth was found dead in a Vancouver hotel of a toxic cocktail of heroin and alcohol. He was fresh out of a voluntarily stint in a treatment facility. His death gave rise to criticism that abstinence-based programs, with their all-or-nothing approach, are unrealistic, even dangerous.

Rehab is not a magic bullet, says doctor and addiction specialist Patrick Smith, CEO of Toronto-based Renascent alcohol and drug addiction recovery centres. But he claims abstinence-based treatment can have great success: 71 per cent of people in his program, which involves residential stay (the Ontario government funds 21 days) plus a 15-week out-patient program, are clean and sober two years later.

Seeking recovery  requires a precipitating event to tip someone over the edge, says Smith—the “OK I need help” moment.  But recovering from addiction won’t work without commitment, he says. The real work begins after rehab: “The most important thing we can do in 21 days is have influence on what someone is going to do on day 22.” But, as  Torontonians know, self-discipline isn’t Ford’s strong suit, witnessed during the “Cut the Waist Challenge” at City Hall last year. Ford, who shed 17 of  his target 50-pounds target before falling off the scale altogether, was caught on video mid-challenge purchasing KFC.

Smith says it’s premature to diagnose Ford as an addict, adding: “but if those behaviours are not because of addiction, then there has to be some really good reason.”  Diagnosis requires an assessment to differentiate between heavy social use and someone who truly has an addiction. It also involves looking at negative consequences of behaviour and use.” One doesn’t have to be an addict to engage in destructive behaviour, Smith says:  “College binge drinkers may not be addicted but can have really bad outcomes.”  He also points to the fact some drugs—among them crack cocaine and heroin—are  almost impossible to use “socially” without running into severe consequences.

Addiction is a family disease, says Smith: “With full-blown addiction it’s impossible to find someone whose family hasn’t been touched.  The problem is our health system, he says, is that it’s focused only on the addicted person—”the thinking is that you send them to rehab, like you dip-wash them and they’re fine.” But family members,  particularly children, also require help.

For their part, the Fords, a clan that inspires the descriptor Strip Mall Gothic, has adopted an if-there-was-a-problem-we-would-know-it defence, a rationale perversely buttressed by the fact the family is well acquainted with addiction. In a TV interview Thursday, the mayor’s mother, Diane, defended her son as “human” and claimed; “If he needed help … I would be the first to help him.”  Yes, her son, drinks too much, and should speak to a “counsellor,” she said, but that’s not his primary problem: “He has a weight problem … that is the first thing he has to attack.” Ford’s sister, Kathy, who has battled addiction, is also dismissive: “Robby is not a drug addict,” she said “I know because I am a former addict.” She then went on to describe his “binge drinking every three months” and shared that she was once forced him to boot him from her house for acting out.

Doug Ford, who knows his brother best, recommended containment, rather than any attempt at eradication. His solution was for Rob to limit his intoxication to a home that contains a wife and two children, and seems to have 911 on speed dial.  “Stay in your basement, have a few pops,”  he said. Yesterday Doug Ford continued the denial-denial on Talk Radio 640: “I don’t think Rob is in denial,” he said before doing what people in denial do: deflect blame. Other politicians—provincial and federal—have “a lot worse drinking issue than Rob Ford,” he said. All his brother needs is a good holiday: “If Rob goes away on a vacation, for a week or two weeks, Rob loses 50, 60 pounds, stays on the straight narrow, because he’s a good man … it’ll be tough to beat Rob Ford.”

Clearly no Ford wants Robby to relinquish the reigns, including Robby himself.  On Thursday, he expressed embarrassment for his unhinged, death-threat video. “I hope none of you have ever, or will ever, be in that state,” he told Toronto journalists. That he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—hope the same thing for himself speaks volumes.