August 11, 2014

Learning from Lance

by Laurie Dhue

After more than a year of investigating, in June of 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with using illicit performance-enhancing drugs. In August, it stripped Armstrong of all competitive titles starting from August of 1998 and announced that he was banned from competitive cycling for life. In October, the sport’s governing body, UCI, accepted USADA’s recommended sanctions. By early November, nearly every one of his sponsors had dropped him. By mid-November, Armstrong resigned from the board of directors of his foundation, Livestrong. Despite the 26 former teammates who offered damning evidence against him, including several who admit to doping with Armstrong, the cyclist would not admit guilt until January 2013, when his discussed “doping” on the Oprah Winfrey show.

            I met Lance Armstrong several years ago at the Indy 500. Of course I asked to take a picture with him and he kindly obliged. At the time, did I think to myself, “You know, I bet he cheated”? No. But while I always admired his colossal achievements (“Wow! He had cancer that had spread to his brain and he won seven CONSECUTIVE Tour de France titles! He’s like Superman!”), part of me wondered if he’d gotten some “help” along the way. It’s not that I’m particularly cynical, I just think it’s human nature to be doubtful in instances like these, especially after we’ve seen so many world-class athletes admit to using performance enhancing drugs or steroids years after the fact.

When I first heard the news that Lance Armstrong decided not to fight the charges, I felt a bit sick to my stomach. As it became clear that the evidence was irrefutable, I was angry and indignant. A friend of mine says she feels personally cheated. Another called Armstrong a multi-syllablic name I can’t repeat here. Plenty of talking heads and regular folks have said that what he did was unforgivable and disgusting.

And then there’s Bryant Gumbel’s recent invective. On his outstanding Emmy-award winning HBO program Real Sports, Gumbel had to this to say:

“Lance Armstrong… seems to have been little more than a liar, a cheater, a doper and a briber. Even though we’ve witnessed the disgrace of Pete Rose, the exposure of Tiger Woods and the incarceration of O.J., it’s hard to think we’ve ever seen any athlete in any era fall so hard so fast as Armstrong. The guy who bullied his way past any and all accusations for years while hiding behind his lawyers has now been understandably cowered into silence.”

Lance Armstrong has been universally discredited and condemned. Indeed, this whole experience has been very painful—like watching a dream die. The USADA report called Armstrong “a serial cheat who led the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” His denial and lies are stunning in their audacity.

But let’s look deeper.

Lance Armstrong is a flawed human being who did some stupid things. He is also most likely an addict. As we know, addicts will do whatever it takes to get high: intimidate, deceive, coerce—anything. That’s exactly what Armstrong did in order to win. Addicts often engage in pathological behavior, as Armstrong arguably did.

Armstrong faced an almost unimaginable amount of pressure from the various global cycling entities, his sponsors, his foundation, his legions of fans, cancer survivors… the whole world, really. After all, no one remembers second place. The set of expectations was enormous. So what did he do? He used and abused substances to give himself an edge in order to fulfill those expectations and win, time after time. And of course there’s the denial, which in Armstrong’s case seems rather epic.

Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and medical director for the New York Center of living explains it in clinical terms: “The intense amount of pressure and the thrill of victory combine to feed people’s narcissistic side to the point where they will do whatever it takes to continue performing at that level, no matter the cost,” he says.“They know intellectually that they’re doing something illegal, but denial kicks in and they convince themselves they’re still superstars, no matter what.”

There is a difference between steroids and doping, but both are considered performance-enhancing substances. Many people assume that steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are not addictive because there is no “high” associated with their use. But Dr. Bienenfeld disagrees.

“Once you try it and it works, you’re expected to perform at a higher level,” he says. “You taste success and victory and there is definitely a high that comes with it. You realize that you need to keep employing that external enhancer in order to keep winning, otherwise you’ll just be with the herd.” Dr. Beinenfeld says using these substances is not dissimilar from taking a beta-blocker before speaking to a group of a thousand people or auditioning for the New York Philharmonic. Or taking Adderall to stay up all night studying so you get an A on that biology exam.

The ritual, the deceit, the secrecy, the getting away with it… isn’t that all part of addiction? While going to the fridge to pick out a vial of EPO (the performance-enhancer Armstrong is accused of using) isn’t exactly the same as meeting your heroin dealer in an alley, the result of these actions is the same. I was addicted to the daily escape that alcohol provided. Lance Armstrong was addicted to the results he got by doping. He was addicted to winning.

Some people I’ve talked to in the addiction and recovery community consider steroid and performance-enhancing drug abuse a process addiction that’s not dissimilar to bulimia. Bulimics think, “If I just lose another five pounds, I’ll get the job I want,” or, “If I can fit into a size zero, I’ll finally get the man of my dreams.” So it’s not really a stretch for a competitive athlete to tell himself: “If I can shave another couple of seconds off my time, I’ll win this trial” or “My sponsors are counting on me,” or even, “We all need a hero and if I keep winning, I’ll be hero material.” The self-deception is the same. Now, does this mean we accept Lance Armstrong’s behavior and rationalize it as “his disease”? Certainly not. Without accountability, none of us is helped, and so he must be held accountable. But demonized? Shamed? Ridiculed?

Lance Armstrong lied, he cheated, he let us all down. But has blame ever gotten us anywhere when discussing the epidemic of addiction? Why don’t we use this as an opportunity to discuss our relationship with drugs in this country? You can argue that the “Just Say No” mentality of the last 30 years has created such a culture of shame and secrecy that we no longer can be honest about what is happening around us. While it was no surprise that the media engaged in an almost gleeful competition to see who could be the most self-righteous, what about those of us in recovery? Have we been just as judgmental? Shouldn’t the glass house principle force us to feel empathy for Armstrong? If he is in the throes of addiction, then of course he lied and cheated. Most of us did too.

And what about pure science? Are we resistant to it? The truth is, steroids or not, it’s still not easy winning the Tour de France. As my boyfriend pointed out, he could take steroids and use performance-enhancing drugs and not be able to win a local race against junior high kids. Lance Armstrong is an exceptional athlete. His competitors were doping too and Armstrong won, time after time. Doesn’t that mean he was the best? Can we entirely negate his accomplishments?

But Lance Armstrong is a sick man. A sick man who, like many others before him, has done more than a fair amount of good. It’s hard to criticize the staggering amount of money Armstrong and his Livestrong foundation have raised for cancer research: half a billion dollars since 1997. And according to Forbes magazine, the foundation has helped 2.5 million cancer survivors with free patient navigation services. He also raised awareness about all forms of cancer. Be honest: how often was testicular cancer publicly discussed before Armstrong hit the scene? And think of his thousands upon thousands of public appearances. His behavior has demonstrated the enormous swing of what addiction-addled people are capable of.

In his HBO commentary, Bryant Gumbel said, I can’t think of any single athlete more undeserving of empathy.” As a recovering addict, I take umbrage at that comment. People suffering from the disease of addiction DO deserve empathy. I have empathy and compassion for Lance Armstrong because I know what it’s like to use external substances to bring satisfaction and relief. While you may loathe what Armstrong did, and may not feel like wearing your yellow wristband for a while, pause for a moment to consider that he’s not a perfect person. He may not even be very likeable. But perhaps if we look at him as someone who’s not just a liar and a cheat, but as someone who is sick and suffering, we can make this a teachable moment.

              Honesty is not always easy. But ultimately, isn’t being honest infinitely easier than being dishonest? Lying is never worth the price you must pay. With every lie, you put yourself in a corner from which, eventually, there is no escape. Lance Armstrong’s lies eventually caught up with him in spectacular fashion, forcing him to get honest with himself, be accountable for his actions and move forward into a life that’s free from shame.

            And that is something that most of us can relate too.

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