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TAKE THREE: Three views of the Southland | SHAWN HUBLER

Casualty of Confusion

April 03, 1998|SHAWN HUBLER

In a footnote to this week's annals of indulgence, Robert Downey Jr. got out of jail. Ooh, but it was tempting to say "got out of jail free." There's that urge to get in that dig for the commoners. To rail at the way criminals get treated when they're celebrities.

Of course, before the celebrity was an inmate, he was an addict. And before he was an addict, he was a troubled child. Maybe this is why there was also the temptation, throughout Downey's incarceration, to wonder how a judge could see any good in having someone with such obvious emotional problems do hard time.

I thought of Downey the other night, watching Bill Moyers' series on addiction on PBS. As Moyers interviewed one struggling 12-stepper after another, I thought: So much talk, so many headlines. So why am I not buying this?

Over the years, the drug debate has boiled down to approximately two viewpoints: Addicts are either helpless victims of a lifelong illness or weak-willed slackers who won't straighten up without punishment. If you know an addict, you know that neither version is more than about half true. But this hasn't slowed the resulting debate between "just say no" and recovery-speak.

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Into this fray come suffering people like Robert Downey Jr., a casualty of the confusion if there ever was one. Perhaps you have read about the fiasco that was his 113-day incarceration: Sent up for violating probation on cocaine and heroin charges, Downey's stint was a high-profile hassle, during which inmates beat him, guards kissed up to him, court orders mandated special day trips for him, and the sheriff sought to make an example of him, grandstanding all the way.

Reared in the drug and show-biz cultures of '60s and '70s L.A., the sad-eyed actor has said he began using drugs at the age of 8. Now 32, his run-ins with the system are a tabloid TV staple. Couch potatoes will recall that funny-sad news clip of him from a while back, Charlie Chaplin trying to sneak out of yet another drug rehab facility.

But people who know what it is to live with a compulsive drinker or drug user will nod at the predictable trajectory of Downey's tale: the promises, the failures, the con jobs, the interventions, the anguish of those who stood by him and those who finally bailed.

"I find myself defenseless," he told the judge. "I don't know why . . . the fear . . . of you, of death and not being able to live a life free of drugs has not been enough to make me not continually relapse."

This is what a lot of people with substance abuse problems will tell you. They don't know, really, why they can't quit. All they know is that there seems to be this thrumming rage or fear or inhibition or sadness inside them, and the booze and drugs medicate it.

Their yearning is for that thing that will make them feel equal, normal. It is like a will to live, it is that powerful. This is why, when the going gets tough, it's so hard not to resume using. The human spirit will do almost anything to feel whole.

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Given this, it always surprises me that so little of the talk, so few of the headlines, are ever devoted to that thrumming feeling, that bedrock shame. I liked that PBS series, just as I felt sympathy for Downey and the judge who hoped jail would help him hit bottom and go straight, but in neither case was there more than a nod to the fact that the problem of addiction is a problem of psychological pain.

Clear away rage and fear and inhibition and there is always the germ of self-respect. Cultivate the self-respect, and you don't need an altered state to feel alive. Any psychotherapist can tell you that, with the right mental health care, you don't need to be "defenseless," that there can be more to life than "one day at a time."

But mental health hardly seems to figure into the back-and-forth on addiction. In a national drug control budget of $17 billion, only 20% goes for treatment; in a nation of 14 million alcoholics and 6.7 million drug addicts, only 15% of the people who need it get help.

And, as cases like Downey's illustrate, that help tends to be limited--by managed-care restrictions, by the stigma attached to both addiction and mental illness, by the wild disparity in the quality of therapists, by the popularity of programs that say the best a person can do is to replace the compulsion to get loaded with the compulsion to stay clean.

It's tempting to wonder why addiction couldn't be treated as successfully as any other emotional ailment--why a stint with a good therapist couldn't root it out along with its psychological origins. True, drugs and alcohol change brain chemistry, but so does good long-term counseling. (Please don't misunderstand me, 12-steppers: Your program has worked for millions. I'm only wondering.)

It's just so sad and frustrating, from Downey on down. There's that urge to indulge yourself by getting in a dig on behalf of the weak. To rail at the limitations in the way we have dug in on this problem. To remember that half the truth only sets you halfway free.

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Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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