Since I started reading tributes to the late Christopher Hitchens last week (such as Toby Young’s), I have been torn between the impulse not to upset anyone grieving the loss of a loved one and my own despair at what is inadvertently becoming an international public health miseducation campaign about addiction. Encouraged by Katha Pollitt‘s candor (h/t Harold Pollack), I will now allow the latter set of emotions guide my writing.
Diagnosing people you don’t know is hazardous for people in my line of work, and I therefore tend to refrain from it. But when a life is as well documented as was Hitchens’, personal knowledge isn’t necessary to determine that someone has an addiction. The accounts of Hitchens’ physical dependence on alcohol are suffused through his own writings and in those of virtually everyone else who has written about him in recent days. Much of this writing has breathed life into three myths that are not only wrong, but dangerous.
Myth #1: Christopher Hitchens could not have been an alcoholic because he was successful and hard-working.
So argues Francis Wheen, as did Hitchens himself on numerous occasions. But this is a non-sequitur. Within the limited range of my personal acquaintances have been people who in the active stage of alcoholism have filled the following roles: U.S. Senator, Member of the House of Representatives, member of the Cabinet of the President of the United States, professional athlete with a 7 figure salary, television star, Pulitzer Prize winner, CEO of a NYSE-listed corporation, police chief, high ranking military officer, nationally recognized scientist, jet airline pilot and noted thoracic surgeon (On those last two you are thinking “But surely when they were drunk they never…” I am afraid they did. Many times.).
Only a small minority of alcoholics are homeless and unemployed, and some are extraordinarily accomplished people. Many alcoholics in that latter group tell themselves and their families that they can’t have an alcohol problem; after all, just look at their high-powered job and their big income and their fancy car and yadda yadda yadda. As the “alcoholics are never professionally successful” myth is disseminated in the deluge of Hitchens’ coverage in the media right now, many people who should be seeking help are instead having their rationalizations reinforced.
Myth #2: Okay, maybe Hitchens drank to excess, but that is precisely what made him such a great writer and thinker.
People in the arts and culture line often buy into the idea that active addictions fuel creativity, and it keeps many of them from trying to change. But there is no evidence that this fear has a rational basis; indeed just the opposite may be true. Bonnie Raitt said that what gave her the courage to admit her alcohol problem and put the plug in the jug was seeing that Stevie Ray Vaughn was an even more soulful and dazzling musician in his recovery than he was when he was loaded. And for what it’s worth, all the people I alluded to above were more successful (in some cases, to their own surprise) after they stopped drinking. Of course whether Hitchens would have been more or less successful as a writer and social critic if he had sobered up is (tragically) not something any of us can know, but that uncertainty is all the more reason to stop spreading that myth that recovery from addiction will invariably sap a creative alcoholic’s mojo.
Myth #3: Hitchen’s addictions didn’t kill him.
Even though substance use contributes to about 1 in 4 deaths in the United States, it is still rare to hear people come out and say that someone they know died because of an addiction. Instead people say things like “He was in a car accident” (leaving out that he was driving drunk again) or “She died of a stroke” (omitting that it was brought on by methamphetamine use).
Andrew Sullivan was friends with Hitchens and has written movingly about him. He had the forthrightness to describe Hitchens as addicted, yet also maintains that
What killed him was not the alcohol as such or the many years of smoking, but the force of will that simply didn’t rest, and seemed to punish his body with ludicrously brutal days and nights of sleepless drive.
People said similarly romantic things when the great Amy Winehouse died, e.g., “Her heart was just too sensitive for this aching world.” But a sensitive heart no more killed that poor woman than force of will caused cells in Hitchens’ esophagus to become cancerous.
Hitchens’ prided himself on his honesty and his courage, so let’s honor his memory by facing up to the fact that his addictions to alcohol and tobacco are almost certainly why his life ended well before his time. The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 75% of esophageal cancers are caused by chronic heavy drinking. For people who are also addicted to tobacco (as Hitchens was) risk of this form of cancer is even higher than that grim statistic suggests.
Many alcoholics would like to believe that their problem in life is something — anything — other than alcohol. To wit, there is a joke among Alcoholics Anonymous members about the guy who gets drunk for the thousandth time and wrecks his car, leading him to solemnly swear off driving. When we put into cultural discourse the myth that an alcoholic’s problem really isn’t alcohol, whether we want to or not we are feeding the denial of people who need to face some unpleasant facts, including that among a thousand other risks they are greatly increasing their risk of dying from cancer.
The world has lost a unique human being to addiction. Let’s not avoid that sad reality and lose even more people in the process.