Mel Gibson and the Ugly Face of Addiction

I imagine only the dead haven't heard the Mel Gibson rants. You know, the tapes where he freaks out on the phone at his former girlfriend (and baby mama) Oksana Grigorieva. The tapes are filled with racist slurs and violent threats and/or confessions against Oksana. They are, for the most part, incoherent, devastatingly cruel, illogical, self-pitying, and nonsensical—punctuated by curse words and weird breathy noises that sound like threatening, though asthmatic, growls. It's pretty raw stuff for an A-list celebrity and probably means the end of his Hollywood career. But it's just another day in the life of people struggling with an addicted loved one.

I guess people don't watch a lot of Intervention, the A&E reality show that follows an addict and his family's attempt to get him (or her) sober. If you watch even one episode, what becomes clear is that addiction turns people into flinty-eyed, unreliable, cruel jerks who look just like your brother or mother or best friend. The pain in an addict's family's eyes isn't the usual reality-TV charade, but hauntingly real. These people want their loved ones back and they will bare their souls on TV if that's what it takes to get them back. Look, I don't know if Gibson is drunk on those tapes but I do know he's struggled with alcoholism for many years. If Mel Gibson knocked out Oksana's two front teeth and bruised their baby, it's reprehensible behavior regardless of his blood-alcohol level and he should pay all the consequences. But it's not shocking if Mel has been hitting the sauce as long as the tabloids say. The funny thing is folks are running around surprised to discover that the Mel Gibson they knew and loved from Lethal Weapon and Braveheart is a closeted racist/anti-Semitic/woman-beating drunk lunatic and they were duped! Maybe Gibson really has changed or he could simply be suffering the classic signs of late-stage alcoholism. Because that, my friends, is also how pickled people talk.

Whoopi Goldberg picked up on this on The View when she made her controversial defense of Gibson. (One question: can you really call a statement in which she also calls him a bonehead and an a--hole, a defense? All she said was that he wasn't racist.) That being said, I think Goldberg was right to focus on alcohol as the potential root cause of his behavior. "Drunks say stupid stuff to people all the time because they're drunk," Whoopi said in response to Joy Behar's assessment that Gibson was an anti-Semite. "They're out of control. They are not thinking they are idiotic.…This rant, I don't think he's drunk on this rant." To which Behar responded, "A lot of people drink and don't say those things." Whoopi has been taking one hell of beating in the blogosphere for her statement with harsh criticism being leveled at her here, here, and here. But what these attacks prove to me is that people simply don't know what years of alcohol abuse can do to your brain. So I thought I'd take advantage of all the attention this scandal is getting to do a little education on the disease known as alcoholism. I spoke to Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer of Hazelden, the highly respected addiction-treatment center to get the facts.

And they are grim. The simple truth is that alcohol results, over enough time, in death. But before it does, CT scans of heavy drinkers begin to show decreases in the actual mass of their brains. Once such large numbers of brain cells die, memory and some cognitive abilities such as multistep activity, complex task completion, and decision-making are all damaged. "The ongoing effect of heavy drinking is one of the most common causes of large numbers of brain cells dying," Dr. Seppala said. But the biggest problem is what alcohol does to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for judgment, decision-making, and impulse control. "Some of the crazy behaviors we see in the addicts—the repeated drunk driver, the illegal activity, the rage—can be caused by the damage to the prefrontal cortex," Seppala said. "The part of brain that would normally put a stop to that kind of behavior no longer functions properly. Worse, the person with the addiction doesn't even recognize they're suffering from brain death.…They don't know they've changed." The good news is that sobriety can bring most of that functioning back. "Over the first month of sobriety, you see a drastic change and there's improvement until the six-month point, when it's as good as it's gonna get, but still much better," Seppala continues. "Most people heal pretty significantly so they can take back control of their lives." According to Seppala, the change is so extreme that people will often say to him "I got my mom back" or "He's the same person I married."

If you were a regular watcher of Intervention, you could see it for yourself. The homeless, rarely conscious drunk is transformed through sobriety to the kind, hard-working man his family missed so much. When I asked Seppala about the lack of understanding I sensed in Behar's comments, he said it was because "we don't see it as a disease, we see it as a moral or ethical problem. There are real reasons why they [addicts] do these things. In the midst of addiction, people lose their normal personality features and regress to a limited set of addiction behaviors. Then people stop using and fairly quickly, they start reestablishing their own personalities." So maybe Whoopi is right. The Mel she knew wasn't a racist. But, then again, as Seppala also said, "A sober horse thief is still a horse thief." We may never know who the real Mel is and nothing excuses his behavior, but to dismiss alcohol as a factor is to misunderstand a dreadful disease that ruins lives every day.