Alcoholism is no laughing matter, even in a genius

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The Independent Online

George Best went home this week. After five weeks' treatment for his damaged liver, he was deemed well enough to leave hospital. I truly wish him well in his recovery.

He has been many things in a lifetime. George Best the football hero, the after-dinner celebrity, the businessman. George Best the alcoholic. It's strange that no matter how much we know of George's hard drinking, there is an instinctual reticence about using the "A" word.

For most people who don't suffer from the disease (as alcoholics or family members), the alcoholic is the man on the park bench with the can of Special Brew, or the bag lady shouting abuse at passing traffic. For most of George Best's media life, there has been a notorious reluctance to use the one word that accurately describes his condition: alcoholic. Even to describe someone as a "lush" or a "drunk" somehow mitigates the all-consuming hell into which he and millions of active alcoholics descend.

It was the same with Boris Yeltsin. Everybody snickered and nodded and winked. But nobody would come out and say this guy is a fully signed up roaring alcoholic. Had we faced this truth, then a great deal of Yeltsin's erratic behaviour, his remorseless self-obsession, might have been a little easier to understand and predict. Instead, it was the same nudge and wink stuff you've been reading about George Best.

If you dig out the newspaper cuttings, there are no end of stories about George's scrapes and trials. And it doesn't take a doctorate in addiction to realise that drink was the common denominator in all. It is a litany of fiasco - including jail - that the media liked to dress up as the high jinx of a high-roller.

There is the oft repeated joke, where Best is lying in bed at 3am and a waiter delivers champagne to his room. The former football hero is lying on the bed with a Miss World and a forest of pounds 50 notes. The waiter takes a look at Best and asks: "Where did it all go wrong, George?" At this point the audience is supposed to laugh. Imagine all that money and that beautiful girl and the champagne, and the moronic waiter is asking him where it all went wrong.

If he ever existed, if this wasn't an apocryphal tale, I would commend the waiter for having more insight than the legion of hacks who've written about George down the years. As a friend of mine, who works in addiction, puts it: "The law of denial says `whatever you do, don't mention the bloody obvious'."

But even when you read the accounts of his latest hospitalisation, you find no end of euphemism and fudging. Best is described by the papers as "making rapid progress" in his fight against a liver problem. In early March, shortly after his hospitalisation, one paper said that doctors had carried out tests and were "trying to determine the cause of his illness".

Give me a break, lads. The cause of his illness? The problem with which George battles is a progressive and fatal disease called alcoholism. It is a physical, mental and spiritual cancer. It isn't a question of moral weakness or lack of will power. The drink has him by the throat and given the chance, it will surely kill him. Will somebody please call a halt to the denial?

It isn't just Best. The genius drunkard has been long celebrated and mythologised in our culture. The notion that drink and drugs somehow transport the writer, artist or musician on to higher planes of creativity has been peddled for so long it has assumed the status of sacred truth.

There is a long role call of geniuses who have taken to the drink. Take writers such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac and Brendan Behan, to name but a few. All died in terrible unhappiness. I love their work and have taken time to read most of the biographies available. I read O'Neill's last words: "Born in a hotel room, died in a goddamn hotel room," and think of Fitzgerald and Kerouac coughing up blood as they died and Hemingway with his brains exploded by a shotgun.

Not all the alcoholic writers ended in disaster. Some, such as John Cheever and Raymond Carver, made it through after giving up the booze. And their best work followed. In the early days, booze and drugs may liberate your artistic soul. But in the long run, addiction takes its victims nowhere but down.

The other view is that the physical and mental anguish of alcoholism is the price that must be paid for great talent. It is a burden which must be shouldered unto death.

More nonsense. It is not a door to greater creativity or a burden for the stoic: alcoholism is blood in your vomit; sweats and hallucinations and endless diarrhoea; it is crawling across a hotel floor at 3 in the morning to ransack the mini-bar to drive away the pain that is tearing apart your head; it is partners and children abandoned and brutalised; it is assault and murder and jail, bankrupcy and fraud and madness; it is a ward in a hospital where you hear no sounds and see men and women gazing vacantly into nowhere, the place of the wetbrains; it is cancer of the liver and pancreas and too early deaths; it is suicide and generations of sorrow. If you ever travel there, by yourself or with a family member, you will know what I am talking about.

Of course, none of the big traumas - death, jail, family breakup - may strike the alcoholic you know, or the alcoholic in you. But they are real possibilities and it is time that as a society we faced the corrosive power of alcoholism. The denial is a consequence of personal shame and society's broader love affair with the bottle. Drink is the nation's number one drug of choice. The fact that it is doing infinitely more damage than drugs is something that we are not ready to accept.

But a powerful new film - due to be released next month - might go someway to changing attitudes. It is, as it happens, a film about George Best. Best, which stars John Lynch and was directed by Mary McGuckian, is a searingly honest portrayal of where alcoholism takes its victims. Lynch gives a truly brilliant performance as Best; it is all there - the desperation and the rage, the all consuming emptiness of living for the bottle.

If you have lived close to the problem, the film will likely stir a range of emotions: recognition, sadness, anger, shame. I defy even those who have had no contact with the disease to watch it and remain unmoved. The film wisely resists any temptation to strike a moral pose and condemn George Best. Alcoholism can destroy a person's moral code, but it is a disease, not a reflection of some inner badness.

George Best is a good man who deserves a good life. There is nothing inevitable about what will happen to him. He does not have to die of drink like his mother. Nor does he have to carry the story on in to the dark. He has choices. The world will be waiting for him to fall. But George Best might surprise us all. I have seen men in as bad and worse a condition come back and claim some kind of decency in their lives. It happens slowly and steadily, a day at a time.

The author is a BBC Special Correspondent