Back in the day, Britney Spears shaved her head. Craig Ferguson, then host of The Late Late Show, took the opportunity to explain why he wouldn’t make any Britney jokes. What followed was a 12-minute, deeply moving monologue about Ferguson’s recent sobriety anniversary. Of Spears, Ferguson eventually said, “She’s 25. She’s a baby. She’s a baby.”
I was thinking of that Ferguson monologue tonight, as I watched part of Rich Roll’s podcast with Russell Brand. The two men discussed addiction, the 12 steps, and to some degree both told their stories. Because that’s what you do, when you’ve decided to have a conversation of this type, I suppose. Roll begins by asking Brand about his experience with The Program, before Brand eventually turns the tables and asks Roll, “What happened to you?”
It’s in some ways, compelling stuff, these charismatic men talking about blackouts and getting sober and how it elevated them spiritually. Their stories are sincere, and personal, and you feel that they each had a sense of their own privilege, at least now, where they sit. Still working sobriety, but still privileged. Or is that my perception? That it’s hard to look at these men — Brand, Roll, Ferguson — and say yes, I hear your story, but it’s hard for me to envision a time when you were not charismatic and able to navigate your way out of any situation — addiction included.
That’s probably not true, and it’s the flipside of the experience of watching wealthy white men talk about their pasts when you compare it to what it might be to hear, say, a poor woman of colour tell the exact same tale. One is comfortable, intellectual conversation; the other somehow voyeuristic. It’s a problem, our perception. At least mine, the only perception I can really speak for.
Awhile back there was an exhibit at the Vancouver Public Library. In the atrium were several huge, amber cylinders made to look like pill bottles. Inside were real people, reading a book, or otherwise keeping busy while onlookers gazed in at them from the outside. All of those people had lived with opioid addiction. The point of the exhibit, at least in part, was to show that anyone can become an addict, and that the face of addiction is not what you may assume.
The exhibit came out at about the same time as a series of advertisements that reminded people that an opioid addict could be your brother, your coworker, your best friend. The ads were criticized because they seemed to rely on the fact that people don’t care about addicts who don’t look like them. Instead of forcing people to care about those who are dealing with addiction while unhoused or living in poverty, the ads said, “it can be privileged people like you who also experience addiction.” The intent may have been to help translate the health crisis for those without direct knowledge, so they could not so easily write off the unhoused person as an individual not worthy of assistance. But few saw it that way.
But I found myself challenged while watching the Rich Roll interview to ask why exactly I was interested, why I care. I do like to think I would feel equal compassion for everyone who has overcome such a challenge. I think these men would too, because “there but by the Grace of God go I,” or by the virtue of the 12 steps I’m still here, able to tell my story in book or podcast form.