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Alcoholics and addicts lie, it's part of their disease

The Episcopal church is investigating whether Rev. Heather Elizabeth Cook "misrepresented" her struggles with alcohol to the church. She is charged with texting while drunk driving and killing Thomas Palermo, a husband, father and friend in mid-life who was peddling in his own bicycle lane when he was struck, a good man who will be missed and mourned for years to come.

There's no need for an investigation: Given her documented issues with alcohol, it's almost certain she lied just to survive; that is what alcoholics and addicts do. Though Ms. Cook hasn't publicly admitted to being either, her attorney has said she's in treatment for alcohol use and she's attended Alcoholics Anonymous in the past, the judge in her first DUI case said she had a "problem," and her church leaders have talked about her "disease of alcoholism." She may well have lied for many years about the horrible grip alcohol had on her life, as many people do — not because they are bad people but because they are trying to save their lives from totally unraveling and protect their access to the substance for which their brain rages in its cravings.

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Lying is part of the disease of alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders. People whose brain chemistry has been hijacked and altered by substances are great deniers of reality: They often lie to everyone — their loved ones, their employers, their God and most of all to themselves. "I don't have a problem. I've got this under control now. You don't have to worry about me."

Many of us, at one time or another, have thought: "There but for the Grace of God go I." We do not live in a world with level playing fields. Fate plays a role in everyone's life. We don't choose the country of our birth, our parents or the genes that we carry for some of our personality traits and various illnesses, including alcoholism. Such predispositions can turn on as a result of toxins in the environment from the womb forward, exposure to harsh life experiences (including poverty, trauma, abuse) or the stupid decisions we make and chances we take when young or too easily influenced.

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I know from my career that most alcoholics and addicts are no different from the rest of us, except for some of the fateful events, bad choices and the risk factors listed above. Other biological, family and societal factors also can lead a person to be "owned" by the substances that dramatically alter brain chemistry and are therefore exceedingly difficult to wage war against. "Willpower" has nothing to do with this.

Compassion and a helping hand is what we should offer those who are victimized by the destructive deeds of substance abusers. Compassion, not shame, also needs to be extended to the perpetrators while still holding them accountable for their actions. More knowledge of the warning signs and complexities of alcoholism and addictions are desperately needed, along with more treatment centers and helping professionals who specialize in substance abuse and an evidence-based approach to replace the "one-size-fits-all" — and mostly unsuccessful — war on drugs.

The "truth" will rarely be admitted to unless the alcoholic or addict gets sober or clean and stays there, remains in treatment for substance abuse (and the major depression that frequently accompanies it) and gets ongoing support from a group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Reverend Cook may have been treated too deferentially when she was first caught driving intoxicated in 2010. The most effective deterrent to drunk driving has been shown in studies to be a criminal justice system that does not tolerate it. What is required is forced treatment for the first offense and the sure knowledge that one is going to jail for any second DUI or DWI. Problem solving courts, like drug courts, that combine the strong arm of justice (frequent drug tests and appearances before the judge) with a compassionate treatment system — both of which tether offenders to strict rules of behavior — are effective, whereas "talk therapy" for alcoholism is not. In the end, it is the person, the addiction and the consequences that matter.

Castigating Reverend Cook for denial is like blaming the terminally ill cancer patient who denies having cancer because she can't bear to face the truth that she is dying. An alcoholic's self-deception continues until events make it stunningly clear that one's life is out of control, not unlike slowly dying. Having much too long ago ignored the early warning signs in her own life — of the alcoholism that she saw in her minister father — is where this tragedy began.

Ann Kaiser Stearns is a professor of psychology at the Community College of Baltimore County and the author of "Living Through Personal Crisis." Her email address is: dr.akstearns@gmail.com

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