Friday, November 8, 2013

Pastoral reflections on alcohol dependency

In another life in the early 1990's, I served as a "team-building" consultant for a small Ontario plating company. This happened to be an original "mom-and-pop" shop, which had incurred an infusion of cash from an investor, and which was then doing about $2 million worth of business annually. Their principal product comprised aircraft parts for the major airline manufacturers.
Naturally, these parts were composed of various metals, already machined and  then dipped, depending on the specifications required, in various chemical solutions for varying lengths of time and at varying temperatures.
While the company did not perform much, if any, of the machining, their special service involved the plating required for high-stress components in high-speed jets.
And then the packaging and shipping department would move the product from the factory to the end user.
Unfortunately, there were individuals engaged in these tasks, both the supervision of the timing and the temperatures in the plating process, and also in the packaging and shipping processes, who, by their own admission were, and had been suffering from a dependence on alcohol. Also unfortunately, both of these phases of the business were experiencing considerable interruptions, delays, and returned parts that did not meet specifications.
One Saturday morning, while I visited the plant, I was greeted by one of the original "mom-and-pop" owner/operators, privately, as there were very few employees working at that time. He told me of his own and his partner's dependence on alcohol, seeking both support and guidance. My response, as I recall, was that I would be pleased, even honoured, to accompany him to a meeting of AA, or to any rehabilitation centre, should he wish to seek help. My interest was exclusively to see that his life changed, that he became healthy and that his engagement in the business was transformed from one of continual frustration, anxiety and more dependence on alcohol to one of freedom from his dependence and openness to the new opportunities that could lie on the other side of controlling his addiction.
As  both the man and his partner were playing critical roles in the effective functioning of the business, I recognized that there would be considerable difficulty in generating the conditions necessary for an effective leadership team, including the investor and two other mid-ranking leaders in the company, plus these other two, unless and until the two employees in question sought and received and accepted some help, whether or not they kicked their dependence in rehabilitation or not, so long as they kicked it.
In a face-to-face meeting, prior to writing my final report, after interviewing well over half of the people engaged in the plant, I told the CEO/investor of my findings at the heart of the company, much to his apparent displeasure. While he thanked me for my information at the conclusion of our conversation, he apparently did not like what he had heard.
The next day, or within a very few days, I was told the consult was over, given a cheque for my fee and summarily told to leave the property. The CEO even followed me to one of the offices where I merely wished to say "good-bye" to one of the mid-ranking leaders in the company, and angrily told me to leave.
I tell this story, in the light of the recent revelations from the Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, concerning his video-taped use of crack-cocaine, and his  also video-taped threats to some unknown person, both of which apparently occurred during what the mayor calls "one of my drunken stupors".
Alcohol is an extremely seductive mistress, or beau, depending on one's gender. I once listened to a recovering alcoholic tell her "story" about physical, emotional and sexual abuse in her family of origin, only to attend a party while a junior at high school, only sixteen, where she was offered her first drink of alcohol.
"With that first drink, I knew right away that this was the friend I had been searching all my life, I felt so good, and each time I took another drink, it delivered the same predictable and wonderful feeling...of peace, contentment and freedom from pain and anxiety that was an integral part of every day life for me," she recounted.
"And I met others at other parties who understood me and my feelings exactly and who were ready and willing and able to make sure that we always had more drinks available whenever we went to parties, in order to provide those same feelings, so different from our lives, as we saw them," she continued.
Who knows what pains have and continue to inflict the mayor of Toronto. Who knows when and how his attraction to alcohol began, and how it continued to accompany him through his many stages of a life of a half-century. And also, who knows if the mayor will seek outside help, time off from the duties of the chief magistrate, support from a rehabilitation centre and its professional staff.
What we all know is that the public discussion of alcohol dependence has been given a major "fuel injection" by the high profile and tragic story of a mayor whose life seems to be heading into the ditch, if it has not already landed there. What we also know is that in the Canadian context, for most people, we are far too polite to consider a formal "intervention" conducted by professionals who understand the role such interventions can and often do play. What too often happens, is that family members either  do not know, or do not know the extent of one's dependence, or if they do, they try to do the "loving thing" by remaining quiet, and not confronting "the elephant" in the room, the dependence on alcohol.
Drinking, by itself, is not prohibited by law; in fact, it is often encouraged, supported and required in many professional and business circles, as part of the conventional behaviour. Becoming an alcoholic is also not specifically forbidden by law, but only those actions that incur damage, injury or death to others have too often been deemed actionable under the law. We all know neighbours, friends, co-workers and even doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals whose lives have been and continue to be impeded from achieving their highest and most creative potential by their dependence on alcohol, or illicit drugs.
Some of us, unfortunately, have also attempted to alleviate some of the pain those people suffer, by befriending them, or even dating them or even, without being fully aware of the extent of their dependence, offering to marry them. Alcoholics are, after all, too often among the most charming members of the human race, when they are not under the influence of the "booze".
Some of us recall, also sadly, the similar plight of the former, now deceased, premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein, whose life was also beset by alcohol dependence, including a public admission and a request for help, some time before death. So Rob Ford is not, and will not be the last public figure to have to confront these imponderable and powerful demons, (our language for those things we do not fully understand, nor do we understand how to "tame" them, regardless of the professional approach selected).
One of the lines used by the CEO of our plating company story, upon dismissing his team-building consultant, was, "You look only for the negative in people!" as he put down his copy of the latest "leadership guru" Steven Covey on the seven attributes of leadership....There was neither time nor opportunity for me to rebut the accusation, nor his denial of the reality that 'his' business situation disclosed to anyone willing to see the full and sad truth.
We can only hope that there are no people in Rob Ford's circle of family, friends or professional colleagues, analogous to the CEO in our story, who frame the situation in such a crippled manner, both psychologically and from the perspective of an employer and his most "trusted" employees.
Such an approach is not merely one of denial; it is also one of intransigence...and unfortunately, those who write the cheques too often hold the most restricted and restricting of views, as they enact their perceived roles of the perfect, unsullied and unimpeachable, yet ever so imperfect and ever so vulnerable, leader.

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