Alcoholics in crisis provoke strong responses among the people around them. Some feel great sadness and sympathy for the individual; others are angered that they could have allowed themselves to get into this condition; and still more are fearful, as the behaviour of someone they know has become unpredictable and often seemingly uncontrollable.
When that person is a high profile celebrity their every move is being monitored by the media and judged by the public. While many celebrities are happy to pander to the media interest in them, it takes an emotional toll. They have sometimes sought, and become dependent on, that attention to bolster a fragile self-esteem. In their ascendant, all is reasonably well, unless other things undermine their confidence. However, under the glare of media attention, which by its nature focuses on any chinks in their image that can be found, it is easy for that self-esteem to take a bashing.
Of course, many high profile people will deal with this, but others find it hard to cope with the emotional stress that it provokes.
At the core will be all kinds of issues, but only two are really necessary to see how the descent into alcoholism can happen.
If seeking celebrity status is a way of coping with fragile self-esteem, then when that fails, the celebrity is left needing to find a way of coping with the failure of the mechanism – not just as a prop to their newly exposed self-esteem but as a way of coping with the failure of the means that they thought had been protecting them.
The layers of defence that people build up to this are a bit like an onion. I find it more helpful to look at it this way than as a downward spiral, which some therapists describe, as that often suggests to people that there’s only one cause to their behaviour and that they can climb back up the slope restoring the effectiveness of each mechanism.
In our society, it isn’t surprising that they may often turn to artificial means – primarily drugs and alcohol – as a way of defending themselves against the emotional onslaught of the failure of a previously effective coping mechanism.
The layers continue to be built up even if the limited repertoire of possible tools at their disposal mean that th alcoholic tries to use alcohol to address the failure of alcohol to help them already. Paul Gascoigne is a case in point – after 17 months ‘dry’, he was in Dubai in the summer of 2012, when he realised that his commitment to stopping drinking was failing – significantly, it wasn’t actually that he had started drinking but that he had failed to go to the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that he’d been attending. To cope with this failure, he took to the only tool he felt he had access to – alcohol.
Gascoigne’s juggling act has been scrutinised somewhere in the media almost every day for the last 20 years. The latest twist was his appearance as a celebrity ambassador for a charity event in February this year. He collapsed in an emotional state in front of the crowd (and the media) and couldn’t continue.
He was flown to the US to a specialist rehab centre in Arizona where, in what is a common effect of detoxification, his health deteriorated seriously and he had to be transferred to a mainstream medical facility until he was strong enough to return to the rehab centre.
Paul Spanjar, Treatment Director of the Providence Project in Bournemouth, where Gascoigne has been treated previously, explained; “It’s very early days. I think it’s important to say that rehab is not actually the cure or the answer but the first step to recovery.
“Paul’s journey is only just beginning and it certainly won’t be finished when he completes treatment.
“His rehab journey will consist of various therapies essentially addressing both his alcoholism and the underlying attached issues that cause him to do some of the things he does, dealing with some of the resulting consequences and putting a really clear relapse prevention plan in place to help him cope upon his exit from treatment.”
Spanjar also explained why he felt it was necessary for Gascoigne to fly to the United States; “The decision to go abroad was very much based upon some of the media frenzy in the UK. It would have been very difficult for Paul to continue with his treatment over here because of the lack of privacy.”
A little over a month later, he has returned to the UK and within days he has been interviewed by the Sun Newspaper. The rhetoric is fine – he speaks of a catalytic moment when he thought he was dying that has reaffirmed his conviction that he needs to stop drinking. He says that he needs to resume his attendance at the AA meetings. But this is very early days and he needs a lot of support and encouragement – not merely to stop drinking or to commit to rehabilitation, but to address the issues that drove him to seek solace in celebrity and a public profile in the first place.
It seems to me that his advisors have a further role to play in this. I’m a little surprised if the interview with the Sun Newspaper was sanctioned by anyone. His medical advisors clearly see that it is pandering to one of his earlier defence mechanisms. Did his management team not realise this too?
Surely it is time for Gascoigne to be protected from the gaze of the media and the public? This is likely to provoke withdrawal symptoms too, and he needs professional help adjusting to the absence of one of his props from the past, but now is not the time for anyone to be encouraging him to step into the glare – whatever the reason, cause, or third party benefit of him doing so. It is not going to be easy, but just as he needs help adjusting to the absence of alcohol in his life, so he needs help adjusting to the absence of public attention. It’s hard for the public to do anything much to help in this but, if we can, let’s give him peace for a few years for that is probably how long this is going to take.
Dr Graham Wilson is an organisational psychotherapist and leadership confidant, who works with people in positions of power, helping them understand psycho-dynamics, politics, and behaviour, as they affect them in their day-to-day work, and navigate through them to achieve far greater things. He also provides very practical support to senior executives as they hunt for more fulfilling roles.