So there’s this mayor in Sheboygan…no, this is not the opening to some joke (at least not in this context.) He has been having some problems with alcohol—to put it mildly. They are not new problems, nor are they particularly becoming of a mayor, unless said mayor happens to have the last name of Quimby and hail from Springfield, the capital city of some nondescript state where a certain family named “The Simpsons” lives. This real-life mayor, Bob Ryan, has been calling a lot of attention to his city—even international attention—as a result of his shenanigans over the past three years. Now, he is faced with a city council that has voted for him (14-2) to step down because of how inappropriate his antics-of-late have been. He is said to have been “brawling,” harassing women, and passing out in the bar in which said improprieties are to have taken place. He is saying he had a “three-day drinking session.” The majority of the people I know would call it a three-day drinking binge by a man who has known he has alcoholism for some time. The mayor swears his fellow Sheboygians are on his side. The Council members have a different story.
Here is the question: Should he resign? After all, he has a chronic disease called alcoholism, and his behaviors were committed while he was in the throes of his disease. Before I go on, let me share, in full disclosure, that I not only work in the field of addiction, but I am in long-term recovery for 17 years now, which means I have not found it necessary to use a drink or a drug in that same period of time (no, I do not want to debate caffeine or nicotine—but, for those so inclined, I did quit smoking at the same time and have reduced my intake of caffeine by about 98% of what it used to be.) But I digress.
I have been on the front lines for 10 years, fighting for our field—let alone our society—to view addiction as a chronic brain disease, very similar in etiology to diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. What I, unlike some of my peers, am also quick to point out is that very few people go out on a sugar binge and drive the wrong way down a highway killing innocent families. Nor do many asthmatics beat their wives and children when having an asthma attack because they have not taken their medicine. In other words, the argument that addiction is a chronic disease is very important, but there are clear distinction between this chronic brain disease and other chronic diseases.
One of the important characteristics of alcohol and other drug addiction is that it has a significant impact on the pre-frontal cortex of the brain—the area that enables us to have abstract reasoning, discern right from wrong, and exercise impulse control. With this information, it should be a bit easier to see why people tend to behave the way they do when drunk or high. But this argument can only go so far with Mr. Ryan.
Another argument would be that we are continually blurring the lines between our public officials’ public and private lives. I agree. But this is not one of those cases. This man has been quite public in his behavior and has had a negative impact on the office of the mayor and the community as a result of the significant attention he has brought upon himself. This is not about his alleged behavior in the privacy of his own home. This is about several cases of harassing women and getting into physical fights with people.
My immediate response was that he needs to retire. Then, my wise wife, a sometime advocate for Mr. Luis Cifer, asked if I would feel the same way if it had been a drunk-driving incident or a suspected domestic disturbance. That caused me to pause. As is the case with almost all issues of law and ethics, there is no clear black-and-white, do-this-in-every-instance decision. But, there is a black-and-white in this instance. This is not an isolated instance, and it reflects a recurring disregard for his own health, responsibility for managing his disease, and tarnishing the seat of the mayor’s office.
Let’s put to rest, once and for all, the foolish and ignorant myth that addicts in recovery use the disease label as an excuse for not taking responsibility for our behaviors and the harms we have caused while active in our addiction. Do addicts do that? Absolutely. It is often their M.O. while active in their addiction. Some even do it while early in their sobriety, not having come to (or been able to) accept the importance of personal responsibility as a benchmark of healthy sobriety. Do recovering addicts do that? Absolutely not. I have watched men who did hit and runs turn themselves in because of the harm it caused. I’ve seen others pay countless sums of money back, having to go on monthly payment plans for years—even decades. Some have even volunteered at domestic violence shelters to heal a harm of abuse without further harming the individual they have abused by going to them directly.
You have probably guessed where I fall in the “should he or shouldn’t he?” resign camp. In this situation? Absolutely. He has surrendered the privilege of being one to hold public office. Once Mr. Ryan gets into recovery and has had some opportunity to step back from this event and see it through…ahem….a more sober mind, he may 1) see the wisdom in being forced to resign and 2) decide to run again, which I would fully support, being a true champion for the redemption of human beings. One councilman said it this way: “I would no more remove someone for the disease of alcoholism than I would for the disease of cancer. It’s not the alcoholism, it’s the embarrassment issue to the city.” I could not agree more. Sorry, Mr. Ryan, but it’s time to start packin’. If you really want to be mayor, come back in a few years when you are ready to take seriously, not only the privilege and responsibility of the mayoral office, but also of what it means to say that you are a recovering alcoholic and wanting to get well.