Column: Fall Seven Times, Stand up Eight

Please don’t judge me, but one of my guilty pleasures is watching the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful with my wife.

Recently, the show ran a storyline about a character becoming addicted to pain medication after suffering an injury. As a psychotherapist who works with people struggling with addiction, I was impressed with how the writers handled the development of this character’s addiction. As the show highlighted, many opioid addictions start not with a needle but with a prescription. I even wrote about this process in a piece of fiction I wrote for Watershed Voice awhile back.

While the writers nailed how innocently addiction can start, I was less than impressed with how the show dramatized the recovery process. 

The addicted character remained in complete denial for a few episodes until she was suddenly struck by a lightning bolt of awareness. “I have a problem,” she cried out in agony falling to the floor in tears, suddenly aware of her powerlessness over her addiction.

And just like that, she was off to rehab. I imagine she’ll return in a couple weeks completely cured and her addiction will never be spoken of again. 

But those of us who work with or love people with an addiction know that’s not the way recovery usually works.

In the real world, recovery from addiction is often a lengthy and agonizing process, both for the addict and their loved ones. Recovery happens in fits and starts and repeated relapse is almost always part of the marathon road to sobriety. 

In fact, real world recovery looks less like that The Bold and the Beautiful storyline and more like the public trials being faced by St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough.

I do not know John McDonough personally and I can’t know for certain what’s behind the headlines, but the reports of his legal troubles that I’ve read in Watershed Voice contain a theme very familiar to me. I’ve heard variations of this theme numerous times in my work with people with substance use disorders. It’s the story of a disease that insidiously enters a life, invisibly at first, but then grows stronger and stronger as it devours the person from the inside out, until they are no recognizable to the people who love them. 

Watershed Voice readers know that McDonough was arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol back in May of this year. This arrest led to the unfolding of a number of other events, like successive dominos falling. First, McDonough was the subject of a letter submitted by a group of citizens to the St. Joseph County Commission. The letter alleged that McDonough exhibited a “continual lack of leadership, lack of work ethic, and mismanagement of the entire office of the prosecuting attorney of this county.” It also accused McDonough of a “habitual lack of attendance at his workplace for the last several years.”

Next, in the August primary election, McDonough lost to challenger David Marvin.

I thought losing the election would mark the end of McDonough’s public trials, but then last month, he was arrested for violating his bond by “either purchasing, possessing, or consuming alcohol, or by visiting an establishment whose primary business is alcohol sales.”

When people are in the throes of addiction, the losses can add up quickly. I’ve witnessed people lose their jobs, their marriages, and sometimes even their homes to addiction. As their lives become more and more centered on their drug of choice, everything that used to be important slowly fades into the background.

While I hate to see what McDonough has been going through, if addiction is at the root of his problems, suffering legal consequences for his actions might not only be justice, it could also be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Many an alcoholic has had their life saved when a police officer arrests them for driving under the influence. Getting a DUI almost always requires mandated substance abuse treatment, and while the first episode of treatment is rarely the last, getting that DUI often shines light on a struggle that has been hidden for years.

Suffering the consequences of one’s actions, as hard as it can be, is critical to the recovery process. But equally important to recovery is being treated with compassion.

John McDonough has been forced to live out in public what most of us struggle through in private. How many of us have the luxury of hiding our basement full of empty liquor bottles from the rest of the world? How many of us can just throw away the box that held the dozen donuts we ate the night before so no one ever sees it? How many of us are never forced to address our problems with compulsive gambling or with shopping? How many of us hide our cruelty behind smiles and whitened teeth?  

Mock John McDonough if you must, but all of us at one point have fallen short of the mark. All of us have disappointed people too.

So when you see John around town, give him a nod and tell him that you’re pulling for him. Let him know that you look forward to the day when he’s whole, healthy and well again. Tell him that you believe he’ll get there too, even if there are a lot of stumbles along the way.

Don’t give up on John McDonough, and don’t give up on yourself either.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer and psychotherapist who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.