Years ago, Sensei Jim MacDonald die. Jim was a wonderful Takewando instructor on Bowen and led many young people into the martial arts. I was honoured to have Jim study tai chi with me and this entire island grieved when he died.
I remember several things about his memorial service. The first is that the school gym was packed full â€” hundreds of people came together to morn him. The second thing I remember was that his son sang the song A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square and it was beautiful. But the biggest take away for me from Jimâ€™s service, was that he wanted everyone to know he died of lung cancer because he smoked. Jim was a good person and good Sensei, he made a positive difference in the lives of so many and he could not model wellness, because he was addicted to cigarettes and he wanted everyone to know about it. He did not want to hide, deny or sugar coat the fact that his death was because of his addiction. He hoped it would serve as one of his last lessons to those who studied with him.
Addiction is NOT a moral problem. In his book Clean, David Sheff states in the preface, â€œThe view that drug use is a moral choice is pervasive, pernicious, and wrong.â€ I had to look up the word pernicious and what Mr. Sheff writes is true.
I am thinking of this today, because a friend on the island died this week. I was told she had liver cancer, and wasnâ€™t it a shame? No, her death is not a shame. It is terrible and horrible loss, and alcoholism, not cancer, was the cause.
But we tell ourselves and others what they need/want to hear. Somehow, we still prefer to choose the story for comfort â€” partly because of shame, partly because deep down inside, we may still think that to die of alcoholism is proof positive of a lack of will or morals. Something very shameful.
Benjamin Lo, a student of Chen Man-Ching and Master of Tai Chi himself, told us when we interviewed him for the film Tai Chi People, that he was ashamed, embarrassed really, that he had to have a liver transplant. Instead of being grateful for a cure to his illness, he believed that people would think he probably drank his health away and that he didnâ€™t really deserve a new liver or new chance. He told us, he never drank, right hand held high as he said it. Hoping we believed him, he was embarrassed by his illness and worried about the â€œstigmaâ€ others would put on him.
Lung cancer, liver disease â€” we point and whisper about the fault of the person getting it. Bad habits, their own darn fault. Do we feel the same upon hearing a friend has breast or prostate cancer? Is getting a brain tumour just bad luck? Perhaps his thinking was all wrong and well, his moral fibre needed more Wheaties.
Iâ€™m on a bit of a rant today, because addiction is hell. It is a disease and until we lose the shame and judgement we carry, help is pretty far away from this preventable and treatable disease.
Good people and bad die everyday. And good people and bad people get cancer, alcoholism, sore throats and ingrown toenails. We know certain behaviours give way to certain outcomes. But not always. My grandma had lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life. My step-father, Jack smoked for years and years with nothing but bad breath to show for his habits. WTF?
Alcoholism, left untreated is terminal. But the real problem in my view today, is the story we tell ourselves and each other. Why one story has less shame than another. I guess disease is just that â€” it makes us all uneasy. Death is even worse; after all it could happen to me and it might even be my fault! What a shame!
I get pretty pissed off when anyone whispers, â€œwellâ€¦ itâ€™s no surprise; you knowâ€¦ she drank.â€ But I really get angry when they pretend that she didnâ€™t.
Unless we can be as brave as Sensei Jim and tell the truth in life and death about addiction, we will leave others to tell a more comfortable story. And until we can get past this â€œmoral and shameful crapâ€ and quit thinking that dying of one disease is better and less shameful than another â€” well, I donâ€™t know the answer I’m looking for. But I would like to.