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Josh Hamilton’s sobriety is not a black and white issue

Feb 3, 2012, 8:25 AM EDT

josh hamilton getty Getty Images

I am far from being any kind of expert on addiction. The vast majority of you would say the same about yourselves if asked in a vacuum.  Yet when a famous ballplayer like Josh Hamilton falls off the wagon like he did on Monday night, so many of us seem to have so many strong opinions about it. Opinions that go beyond our mere reaction to the news.

Opinions about Josh Hamilton‘s character. His “weakness.”  His motivations. His heart.  About the nature of addiction.  Opinions like this one from Jeff Passan of Yahoo!

The worst part about Josh Hamilton’s relapse is that he didn’t care. The most famous addict in sports does not go to a bar in the town where he is best known without full knowledge that his exploits will become public in a matter of hours … The particulars – was he drunk, why did he drink and was he really letting women at the bar grab his butt? – don’t matter as much as the act. With addicts they never do. Sobriety is black and white. Black won Monday.

Passan posted that late last night.  It set off a wave of criticism on Twitter which, to his credit, Passan confronted in an attempt to defend his column.

I think I understand what Passan was trying to get at here — I think he was trying to express the sheer gravity of Hamilton’s acts in stark terms and was doing so not long after the news broke, so there was some emotional reaction to it all —  but I can’t shake the notion that the overall sentiment as expressed in the lead especially and throughout the column as a whole is presumptuous and wrong.

It’s easy for those of us who do not have experience with addiction to frame this as a black and white issue and think of it as Josh Hamilton making a bad choice. But from what I understand from those who know more about this, the essential nature of alcoholism is that, subjectively speaking, the person doesn’t have a choice. Or doesn’t feel like they’re making one at the time. It’s a compulsion. Reason is cast to the wind. It’s the very thing that separates a person who can handle alcohol from one who can’t.

To be clear, this doesn’t excuse the act. The act rains down consequences and those must be dealt with, whatever they are. The addict cannot be allowed to simply say “hey, I’m an addict, not my fault!”  and force everyone else to deal with it. They have to work to regain the trust they lost. They have to redouble their efforts at sobriety. If their transgression was bad enough, they have to accept what comes their way as a result, be it the loss of a job, their friends or their family or whatever else it may be.

But I don’t think it’s at all accurate — or particularly useful — for us to frame this as a morality play. I think it’s understandable that many do it because Josh Hamilton was thrust into being a role model of some kind due to his initial conquering of addiction, and whenever someone is elevated like that it’s easy to see everything that happens later as either a reaffirmation of his greatness in that regard or as a tragic fall.  But I don’t think the long road an addict walks fits that model very well.

The only opinion I can muster here — the only one I think it possible for someone who isn’t Josh Hamilton or someone close to his situation to reasonably hold — is sadness. Projecting one’s healthier state of mind with respect to alcohol and its consequences onto an unhealthy person like Hamilton’s is missing the point entirely.

  1. theswoop27 - Feb 3, 2012 at 12:04 PM

    I comment as a recovering alcoholic, with almost 26 years of sobriety, and a man who loves baseball. Craig C is correct, and all people not afflicted with the disease of alcoholism are in the same boat, a layperson does not understand the dynamics of addiction/alcoholism. Josh H has the double burden of recovering without anonymity, an important tradition for us in the fellowship. Relapse occurs, regardless of how much “time” we have in sobriety. We get a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition, we maintain our spiritual condition by interacting with other alcoholics. May Josh H get a daily reprieve today……

    • Chris Fiorentino - Feb 3, 2012 at 1:04 PM

      This is a great point about the importance of anonymity. It is likely that Hamilton will never be able to stay away from alcohol for more than a year until his playing days are over. Because he spends so much time during the season busy with baseball, he isn’t thinking as much about his next drink as he is when he is off from baseball. Whereas the “normal” person works 40 hours a week and has a more standard schedule year-round, it is “easier”(not easy by all means, but easier) to get into a routine than some like Hamilton.

      Of course, the other side of that is that when his playing career is over, he won’t be hurting for money and the question becomes if he falls off the wagon, does he even bother to get back on it or does he do what he did a few years back and just piss his life away?

      Either way, this is a truly tragic story and Passan’s article, while it may have parts which are true, is totally insensitive and, to a certain degree, condescending to anyone who has experience with someone with an addiction.

  2. stewfarm - Feb 3, 2012 at 1:26 PM

    Mr. Calcaterra, Excellent insight into the JH drinking problem. Thanks for being informed before you open your mouth. An appreciative alcoholic.

  3. evanhartford - Feb 3, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    Craig, I agree with you in that people shouldn’t be looking at this as a “black and white” issue. There are degrees to EVERYTHING in life, including addiction.

    My biggest problem with the A/A and N/A message is that IS black and white. Essentially, you’re either an addict or you’re not. You have the disease or you don’t. You’re either recovering or you’re relapsing. You’re striving for a cure and yet you are never cured. Fundamentally, this runs counter to reality. There are different degrees to everything. Addiction is no different. Some people should never drink or do drugs again, because they will spiral out of control. Others can and do. I don’t really know a lot about Josh Hamilton but if he feels he can handle a drink, let him have a drink. Being a public figure, it will probably be obvious if he can’t handle it and needs to go to more meetings.

  4. psousa1 - Feb 3, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    Unbelievable. From where I sit it seems like th DFW has a stranglehold on the idiot sports media personalities. First thing I thought of is the foul ball. We all know what the family is going to go through for the rest of their lives which is unfathomable and we just wish them as much happiness as they can ever have for the rest of their lives but I cannot even imagine how many times Hamilton, no matter how many home runs, pennants, world series, replays that moment in his mind knowing that flipping a ball in the stand to make someone’s night went so wrong.

  5. banjojones - Feb 3, 2012 at 2:45 PM

    Addiction is never “conquered.”
    It’s managed, on a day to day basis.
    Relapses, if only a day long, are common.
    It’s a good sign that he’s honest about the relapse. Self honesty often is not easy. I wish him well.

  6. realirvine - Feb 3, 2012 at 6:16 PM

    BRILLIANTLY STATED Craig.

    There is no right answer here.

    I do hope Hamilton wins his battles wherever and whenever possible…even on a day by day, minute by minute basis.

  7. johnnyb1976 - Feb 3, 2012 at 10:40 PM

    This is the reason why the reds traded him. They feared relapse.

  8. ermur22 - Feb 4, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    He could have bought a six pack and hid out somewhere to drink but nooooo one of the most famous alcoholics in his state went to a popular bar. He must have wanted to get caught. It is pretty sad cause when he is just an old ex ball player no one will care if he drinks or not and he could just drink himself into oblivion

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