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Is it actually a good idea to have recovering alcoholics in positions of power?

Leo_McGarryI’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!

However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).

But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.

So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?

I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.

We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.

But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.

So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”

And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”

Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.

Comments (



  1. Rob

    We already had an alcoholic president. You’ve got to remember that people in positions of power are held up by their staff in any case. As long as the person in question doesn’t go off on a willful rampage when they start drinking, their entire lives can collapse and they can end up delegating all their responsibilities to their staff with only modest reductions in functionality.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, the fact that we had an alcoholic president and it didn’t go badly (in that way), doesn’t mean that it was a good idea, though. But yeah, I would agree that government can probably continue to function even when the President is useless . Anyway, we’ve also had Presidents, like Nixon, who were quite heavy drinkers.

  2. mattllavin

    I really like this post. I’ve always found it kind of troubling that people can easily compartmentalize alcoholics that are still active drinkers as terrible people and alcoholics-in-recovery as totally fine people. Given that the overwhelming majority of alcoholics don’t stay quit, it’s surprisingly easy for people to make that shift in how they view people.

    Alcoholics have actually done a pretty good job of changing people’s opinions about alcoholics via the recovery concept. If someone tells someone that they’re a recovering alcoholic, people probably react pretty well to that. But if someone tells someone that they’re successfully being treated after a series of manic depressive cycles, they would probably feel differently.

    But yeah, the idea that “those people over there” are experiencing something completely different than what a “normal person” can experience is very strange, and inaccurate.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah! Usually when you’re in recovery people are so relieved that you are handling it and that they don’t need to do anything that they immediately change their opinion of you. When I quit drinking it literally only took a month or two before people started treating me like a functional and responsible person. It was pretty amazing. I feel like amends are so unnecessary, since people are already so anxious to forgive and forget.

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