Boris and Gazza: the brothers in booze who suffer in public

They're a godsend for the media - drunks, losers, wasters, bums. Men to cluck with indignation at
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IN A dacha in the forests outside Moscow, a man with a terminal illness is struggling to hang on to life. Somewhere in England, another man with the same disease is contemplating the mess his life has become. They are men at rock bottom. The Englishman's youth gives him a fighting chance of survival. The older man truly looks as if he is tottering towards the grave.

I speak of those unlikely brothers in suffering, Boris Yeltsin and Paul Gascoigne. Boris and Gazza share a disease called alcoholism, and both suffer it in the public eye.

These booze brothers are good fodder for columnists, a godsend for the media. Men to be angry with, to laugh at, to cluck with indignation at. Drunks, losers, wasters, bums. When Boris stumbles on the red carpet, the cameras are there to record his humiliation for posterity. And as for Gazza, every twist in his sorry path to the land of detox has been highlighted with relish.

In the midst of the media whirl, we tend to forget that these two are prisoners of a disease that kills. Does anybody seriously believe that a rational, happy human being would want to be where either of them is right now? It is a deep and miserable pit.

Those of you who have seen it close up will know what I mean. The shakes, the diarrhoea, the days that run into night and back again without sleep, the aching thirsts and headaches. And don't forget the rows, and lies, and black-outs, and betrayals. That's all before you get to the Yeltsin stage, when the vital organs start to give up the ghost. No, believe me, alcoholism is not something that the sane mind or body embraces.

Earlier in the week, I heard Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, say on the radio that alcoholism wasn't really a disease. Not like cancer, which you couldn't walk away from. The bottle you could leave behind, he said. Much as I admire his writing, I think Frank has it wrong.

I know that he watched his own father sink beneath the waves of booze - as I watched mine. But from watching close up, I became convinced it was a disease. Maybe not in the early stages. Then there is a better chance of walking away.

It is true that, even in the later, chronic days, there are plenty of men and women who make a full recovery. I have met many, and they are some of the bravest people I know. But there are also millions who do not, who cannot walk away from the bottle. Decent people, many of them, eaten up by a disease whose cruellest manifestation is the death of the human spirit.

What could be more corrosive of the spirit than knowing that your will is not strong enough, that you are a weakling who lies to him/herself every day in order to keep drinking? Countless alcoholics have committed suicide to escape the self-loathing that comes with such a realisation.

Some never get as far as accepting that stopping drinking is their responsibility and nobody else's. They blame, and blame, and blame. Eyes closed, and head first into the abyss. But most practising drunks are indulging in a drawn-out form of suicide. They will, all of them, kill themselves sooner or later. Cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure, kidney failure, brain damage: booze delivers the lot.

I think one of the saddest places I've ever been is a detox ward. I have seen quite a few. They were places I came to know in my late childhood and early adolescence, as my father attempted one cure after another. Everybody in those wards was sad - the young, the middle-aged, and the old.

Men and women who were in for their umpteenth dry-out; a young girl I met once who sat by the locked door of the ward, shaking and asking, would I go out and buy her a drink? These are stories for another time. All I know is that, in his heart, my father wanted a better life.

He wanted happiness. He did not set out to lose the things that should have mattered most. That was not the plan. But the impulse to drink, the murderous addiction, overpowered every other claim. Not career, or family, or faith could withstand the battering of the lonely disease. In the end, it killed him.

I am sure Yeltsin has reached that last desperate mile. Though the media seem strangely reluctant to use the word "alcoholic" about the man, do we really doubt that he has been drinking himself to death for much of his presidency? When my colleague, John Simpson, revealed last week that Yeltsin had been lying drunk on his office floor during the Moscow coup, I was unsurprised.

And yet, in a conspiracy of denial that is so typical of society's attitude to alcoholism, we pretend thatYeltsin's health problems are simply consequences of his age, or are unique to his physiology. The truth is that the drink has crippled him. It has also helped to cripple his country. He has, to put it mildly, made a horse's backside of running Russia.

I was watching his wife on television during that ill-fated visit to Central Asia. God knows what the woman has witnessed and endured. But those who live with alcoholics learn ways of surviving. They say nothing. They shout. They may hide bottles. They may try to encourage social drinking.

They do nothing. They join self-help groups. They stay. They leave. Sometimes they do all of these things. Sometimes, just being close to the disease destroys them, too. And some do triumph, and are happy in spite of everything that has been thrown at them. We are all survivors, and we have survived in different ways. Mrs Yeltsin is no different, I suspect.

Whatever happens to Yeltsin now, I hope Paul Gascoigne survives to have a better life. Yes, there is much about him that is appalling. His oafishness, his wife-beating, do not inspire compassion. But he deserves a break. The decision to enter a treatment centre is the bravest thing he has ever done. Gascoigne has given himself a chance to become somebody new, a person he may not recognise. Only those who have been inside the walls of detox and recovery know quite the journey he has embarked on. It begins as a physical trial but it becomes, with effort, a spiritual journey.

There are those of you who may laugh at the juxtaposition of the concepts "spiritual" and "Gazza" in the same paragraph. But, for now, it may be better to suspend your cynicism. Recovery is based on the principle that everybody is cap able of change - including Paul Gascoigne. Far from embracing any simpering victim culture, the alcoholic will be asked to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

To recover in the full glare of the media is naturally particularly difficult. There can have been few descents into the hell of alcoholism more public than that of Paul Gascoigne. And yet, the worst of it was hidden from public view, hidden in the mind where no telephoto lens can reach.When Gascoigne emerges from treatment there will be countless reptiles waiting for him to slip up. The unhappy example of George Best is a warning to Gascoigne of the treatment he can expect if he does fall off the wagon: alcoholism as a soap opera, a long-running tabloid farce, in which the paragraphs get shorter and shorter with the years.

But for all the denial that still exists in society, these are more enlightened times than those in which George Best, and indeed Boris Yeltsin, fell into drunkenness. Help, as they say, is available.

I am not a soccer fan. I have no interests in common with Paul Gascoigne. I doubt if he and I would have much to say to each other if we were trapped in a lift together. But I hope like crazy that he makes it.

Fergal Keane is a Special Correspondent for the BBC