When the Phoenix Falls

There is one thing the media and sports fans love: A comeback story. We’ve all seen the pieces: dramatic music, flashes of childhood pictures, a high school coach or two talking about “raw talent!” Fast forward to times of trouble, flashes of news clippings reporting an athlete’s DUI, public misconduct, violent behavior or all-around misbehaving. Then, redemption! A year off, a secret trip to some treatment center on the beach and they return and with that return comes the scrupulous public eye!

Everyone who follows sports or addiction recovery news has heard about Josh Hamilton: He was the quid-essential underdog story and baseball and the media happily hung their hats on it! He rose from the gutters of addiction to becoming one of the top Major League Baseball players of recent time. He was edgy and had a great story, a Phoenix rising from the ashes, and best of all he increased ratings and ticket sales. However now, after his recent relapse, he’s become a pariah.

After being asked to write this blog I saw some men gathered around a TV at the airport and this story was on ESPN. One man’s comment encapsulated the sad mentality that baseball and many of its fans have with Josh Hamilton. I heard one man’s voice boom, “The guy had friggin everything! What was he thinking?! What a waste!” Everyone around him nodded and affirmed this sentiment.

Unfortunately fame, family, big contracts, money and all the frothy emotional appeals in the world cannot defeat the cunning and baffling nature of addiction. I really wish it could. However the image of Josh Hamilton and addicts alike, staring at some existential fork in the road and choosing another hit or another drink versus their family and the people who look up to them, like it’s a conscious choice, remains. As a result, the relapsing addict is often scorned instead of supported.

Terrance Gorski, a pioneer in looking at relapse and our understanding that a relapse begins far before the chemical is reintroduced into the body, discusses common myths about relapse, the first being that it is some self-inflicted choice by the addict. Yes, addicts can make unwise choices as I’m sure Josh Hamilton did as well, but addiction is often a desperate form of self-medication of pain! Josh Hamilton’s struggles with addiction reemerged initially after in 2011 he tossed a ball to the second deck of a stadium and in an attempt to reach out and catch the ball, a man fell to his death in front of his son, photographers and the entire stadium. Josh Hamilton was devastated and blamed himself for the man’s death, something the news covered mercilessly. Now I’m not trying to diagnose his relapse here but this is just one example of how despite getting clean and sober, life will still throw us many curve balls that can become an obstacle to recovery.

Another myth is that relapse is an indication of treatment failure. Relapse can often provide valuable lessons to the person in recovery and in many cases the severity of the relapse and length of time in active addiction will decrease. One can argue that this is what we are seeing with Josh Hamilton. I do not see a man who was dragged out of a crack house kicking and screaming by his coach. I see a man who had a relapse, was caught and instead of being provided support and encouragement was vilified! I am very glad the countless men and women I have helped find recovery did not have cameras and reporters awaiting each and every misstep!

I also understand the counter argument: athletes accept a lot of money and in return we “watch” them on and off the field. This is true and I am not saying he shouldn’t be reprimanded by Major League Baseball or be met with disappointment by some fans. However, another myth that Terrance Gorski discusses is that men like Josh Hamilton who have a history of relapse do not get better. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Thousands of men and women achieve long term sobriety after a chronic relapse history and numerous treatment episodes. I don’t know if he will continue to play baseball or be great if he does so, but I know I’ll be rooting for him. This country loves watching sports because athletes are modern day gladiators. Personally, I can’t think of anything more heroic than getting knocked down and getting up again to keep fighting, one day at a time.

Gorski, Terrance T. Does Relapse Mean Treatment Failure? GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications, 24 May 2001