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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/29/16

Dealing with the stigma of alcoholism

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CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia
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"Stigma" and "disease": Two crucial words in any discussion of alcoholism. One defines the alcoholic as a sick person who needs help getting healthy. The other sees him as a weakling whose bad behavior needs fixing.

The irony is that, even today, when the disease is given at least lip-service recognition by society, those who try to get healthy still have to deal with the stigma. He's in recovery. Shhh, don't talk about it.

This may not be so obvious when it's your next-door neighbor. After all, no one's publicizing his or her recovery from the disease. Plus, it's nobody else's business. But when it's someone in the public eye, it's amazing how people still avoid saying the obvious.

Last October, C.C. Sabathia walked into the office of New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and said, "I need help." The pitcher, a one-time all-star, said he had a drinking problem. He needed to go to rehab.

Sabathia said, "It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right. I want to take control of my disease, and I want to be a better man, father and player."

Eight months later, on a baseball team that features young pitchers who throw the ball well over 90 miles an hour, Sabathia, 35, is the "surprise" story of the year. Even with a shaky performance in a recent game, he has been one of the team's most reliable pitchers.

What brought about the return to form? The experts on talk radio had the answers: He's older and smarter. He learned how to pitch. He finally realized he couldn't throw the ball by every batter. That knee brace is helping him.

Girardi said C.C. has "inner strength."

C.C. said, "Health is important."

No one stated the obvious: C.C. is in recovery from the disease of alcoholism. He is focused on being "a better man, father and player," not where his next drink is coming from. Those theories about getting "smarter" about pitching may be true, but to an active alcoholic they are irrelevant. That's the nature of addiction.

Enter Johnny Manziel.

He had everything coming out of Texas A&M in 2014 to be a quarterback in the National Football League -- lots of awards, even the perfect nickname: "Johnny Football."

Today, Manziel, 23, can't find a job in the NFL. His life before, during and after college has been a series of drinking and trouble: disorderly-conduct charges, college-rules violations, confrontations with fans, car wrecks, bar fights, an abuse claim by an ex-girlfriend. His agent dropped him. The team that drafted him, the Cleveland Browns, cut him.

He did have one trip to a rehab. When he came back to Cleveland, one story said, his teammates said he looked and acted healthier, more focused. He paid attention to the playbook. But that story also said his teammates noticed he "didn't drink as much."

As much as who? A non-alcoholic? There is no "close enough" for alcoholics. The nature of addiction is that one is too many and ten are never enough. Manziel was surely told this at the rehab and by friends who also surely pointed out all he had to lose if he did not acknowledge his disease. He had all the information. Still does. Manziel reported his car was involved in a hit-and-run accident a few days ago.

He's stuck in the stigma. The stigma says you're weak if you can't handle your booze.

Sabathia acknowledged his disease last October. Today, he is the feel-good story for the Yankees. His on-field and off-field behavior suggest that he is putting the lie to the stigma. But he lives and works in a world full of alcohol. If he's as smart as people say -- and honest about his intentions -- he also knows he could be just one drink away from Manziel territory.

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Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)

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