William C. Moyers
Beyond Addiction by William C. Moyers
Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
Guilt Doesn't Equal Shame
When it comes to gauging shame, nobody is a better judge or jury than people awash in their own addiction. Shame is a driver of why we get high in the first place; we don't like what we feel about ourselves. The worse we feel the more we drink or take drugs. Yet the more we consume the worse we feel. Around and around the centrifuge we go until it is impossible to tell whether shame is chasing us or we're chasing shame. Our lives become a self-fulfilling prophecy of an unmanageable mess.
"Poor me, poor me, pour me another" is how it goes, and still we get high. Shame never makes us stop. But even when we finally do, it takes a long time to clear away the tangled detritus of the mountain of shame that's dominated our lives. For many of us, it takes decades.
That's why I'm baffled by the justice meted out to a drunken driver in Harris County, Texas.
The driver, Michael Giacona, is guilty of driving while drunk and causing an accident that killed somebody. Judge Michael Fields sentenced him to 90 days in prison and ordered him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Understandable. There is no excuse for driving while intoxicated. Accountability is society's demand, and personal responsibility is Giacona's to accept, starting with punishment and then learning how to avoid drinking and driving again (this was his second DWI) by taking the necessary steps to stop drinking.
There is a lot of outrage in the community of social media about the lack of prison time. "He killed somebody, and all he gets is 90 days?" That is the key message most people on Facebook "like" on the page featuring the story. Also garnering plenty of "thumbs-up" are sentiments such as these: "He's a murderer, plain and simple." "He took a life, (and) he should serve a life." "This is a slap in the face of justice." "What a scumbag."
I'll avoid that vociferous debate -- and not because I sometimes drove under the influence in the throes of my addiction a long time ago, though I never once was stopped by police or charged with it.
Also, I've not been forced to grieve the loss of a family member or friend to an intoxicated driver. It remains a sad commentary on alcohol's sway on society's perspective that we continue to see death by impaired driving differently than we see death by gun or beating or terrorist act. Drinking starts with a willful decision, and no matter the intent or circumstances, an innocent life lost is always an unjust death.
But what bothers me to the point of weighing in is what the judge also imposed: For eight hours every Saturday for the next month, Giacona must stand at the scene of the crash wearing a placard for all to see that says, "I killed Aaron Coy Pennywell while driving drunk."
This public display may remind passers-by of what's at stake anytime somebody gets behind the wheel after drinking or taking drugs. Sadly, though, it won't do anything to help the man who caused this tragedy, because shame is as toxic an influence as the substance he consumed in the first place. If he ever is going to recover and no longer put others at risk, then his focus should be on the scarlet letter he bears, not on the one he wears.
April 28, 2012