Theoren Fleury is back at work in the NHL. It is the second time Theo has come back from an absence due to substance abuse. The initial time away was after he voluntarily entered the NHL’s substance abuse program and rehab when, in spite of on-ice success, his life spun out of control. This time, he didn’t wait for a test to tell his employers he’d relapsed. He again asked for help. And some people still are having trouble understanding how the NHL can allow this man to play in the league. How can his team mates accept him back in their midst after his irresponsible behavior? How can the Blackhawks continue to employ him?

Fleury’s oft-told family history of substance abuse, and his own difficult dealings with his parents’ addictions and his hardscrabble existence in childhood make his addiction easier for those of us who really are clueless to understand where his alcoholism came from. I say clueless because there are plenty of alcoholics who weren’t poor children, who didn’t have addicted parents, who didn’t overcome enormous odds and a debilitating disease (Crohn’s) to achieve stardom in a sport that rewards much larger healthy men.

This compulsion we have to find reasons stems from a need to make excuses. But there are no excuses necessary. The need for excuse exists only if the person in question is being accused. Excuses imply guilt. Theo Fleury is no more guilty of being an alcoholic that Lance Armstrong was guilty of having cancer. And when Fleury suffers relapses, as is almost inevitable, the response should not be accusation and vilification any more than it would be if Armstrong were to (heaven forbid) suffer a recurrence of cancer.

It is through watching athletes, and watching them struggle with substance abuse, that I have come to attempt to understand what addicts go through. It is easy to condemn. I can have a drink, or two. I’ve been drunk two or three times in my life. I don’t like the loss of control. So I choose not to drink to excess. But I’m not an alcoholic. So that choice is easy for me. For me, a person who is not alcoholic, it is a matter of self control. But I know enough now, and surely so do the rest of us, to know that for an alcoholic it isn’t.

It is the most frightening mystery about alcoholism that an alcoholic cannot hope for recovery until admitting that he is powerless over alcohol. To those of us who are not addicted, we cannot see the logic in this. We want to make sense of the actions of the alcoholic. And the response too often is to judge—to insist that it is a matter of will power and self discipline. If the alcoholic really wanted to quit, really loved his family, really respected his employer, he’d quit. We insist that alcoholism is a moral issue—that the alcoholic is morally bankrupt.

But I’ve read and read, trying to understand. I’ve spoken with friends and colleagues in recovery. I’ve watched loved friends lose the battle against alcohol repeatedly at expense of family, education, career, home, friends, and health.

Now I know that although some alcoholics quit and never take another drink (only about 1 of 35 who try to quit), many in recovery relapse again and again but extend the time between drinks and shorten the periods they actively drink. Some, sadly, never gain even that level of control. Those in the business of rehab hope for the first, expect the second, dread the third.

I love Theo Fleury. I’ve loved watching him play throughout his career. I hope he has success as a Blackhawk. But more than anything I hope Theo’s work in Alcoholics Anonymous and his work with the therapist to learn how to live without anesthesia are successful. No matter how many times he stumbles, I hope he always gets up and starts the 12 steps again. That little guy has learned to live and play with Crohn’s, and I hope he’s on his way to learning to live and play with alcoholism. As far as I’m concerned he never runs out of chances.

That doesn’t mean he has a free ride. It doesn’t mean he’s cosseted or shielded from reality. The Blackhawks need to treat his actions as they do the actions of any other player. If he misses practice, he should face the same consequence any other player would face. If he acts out on or off the ice in a way that affects the team or his team mates, the team and his team mates need to hold him responsible. But it does mean that the alcoholism must be treated as an illness, like cancer or a broken bone, not like a crime.

Substance abuse isn’t a moral issue, except in how those of us who do not suffer through it respond to those who do.


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