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Lohan’s Disease Defense

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Substance abuse is a disease, which unfortunately doesn’t go away over night. I am working hard to overcome it.”

So tweeted Lindsay Lohan in the wake of her latest failed drug test. It hardly seems worth saying that she didn’t actually write the words herself — her public relations team would have done that, and clocked about 10 hours’ in billable hours for their efforts.

Lohan’s flacks deserve every last dollar of their whopping great fee. The tweet is a small masterpiece in the sub-sub-genre of rehab PR. Allow me to parse.

“Substance abuse is a disease” is presented as a statement of fact when, of course, it is nothing of the sort. Abuse of any kind is not a disease; it is a behaviour. A schizophrenic may commit violent crimes, but assault or GBH are not medical conditions. Subtance abuse is a verb, not a noun: it requires someone to do it in order for it to happen. It is the outward manifestation of something else — depression, bipolar disorder, a physiological addiction, a reckless or destructive personality, youth, peer pressure or boredom, to posit but a random sampling.

What Lohan’s people have done — with breezy audacity — is to frame their client’s behaviour as something that happens to her, entirely outside her free will. In this fiction, you can no more blame Lohan for her drug taking than you can criticise a cold-sufferer for a runny nose.

The disease defense in the public discussion about addicts and addiction is so well-entrenched that Lohan’s tweet raises not a single eyebrow; nor does the second part of that sentence: “[substance abuse] unfortunately doesn’t go away over night”. Here, substance abuse is presented even more explicitly as a “thing” that attaches itself to hapless victims and over which they have minimal influence. The use of “unfortunately” strikes me as especially cheeky — can you imagine an abusive partner apologising to his victim by saying “we both want this to end, but unfortunately my explosive temper and violent outbursts are here to stay.”

The notion that substance abuse “doesn’t go away overnight”, as if it’s an embarrassing rash, flies in the face of the experience of millions of addicts who have successfully stopped abusing, including me. In order to give up substance abuse, you necessarily have to transition from abusive behaviour to non-abusive behaviour which, also necessarily, happens at a particular moment in time. It doesn’t go away “over night”, it goes away in an instant — and stays away until you decide, in another split second, to get back on that destructive horse.

If Lohan is a drug abuser, then she will cease to be one when she no longer abuses drugs and she doesn’t have to wait “over night” for that to happen. Nor is it all that complex a matter to “overcome” — nothing a few day’s Valium, a comfy bed, and some yoga and yogurt won’t fix. If, however, she can’t see the point in staying straight — and getting high is just too enticing an escape or too pleasurable to stop — then she will keep using and abusing, and good luck to her. The rest of the world should direct their attention to more interesting subjects than Lindsay Lohan’s partying ways, which would include almost anything else at all.

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