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March of the Pink Ribbons
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I've been forced to listen to a motivational/inspirational speaker exactly once in my lifetime, and I have to say that the experience was so infuriating that the lone "motivation" I took away from the speech was an iron pledge never to hear a motivational speaker again. Of course I didn't go to the speech willingly--it was a court-ordered deal, back in my wilderness years, part of the agreement I made with the State to rehabilitate my wayward self and return to the land of the law-abiding. I was expected to listen to the testimony of an ex-alcoholic as he explained his descent into addiction and his subsequent, triumphant battle with the disease and ultimate redemption. His powerful tale was the usual narrative, full of painful confessions, personal shames, tiny moments of the sun peeking through the clouds, hard-earned victories, harrowing set-backs, final resolutions and acceptance. It was meant to serve as a cautionary tale and a how-to primer, a helpful guide for similar lost souls seeking absolution and deliverance from their addiction demons. It was meant to enlighten, to inspire, to show the way, to speak the truth, to give hope. And I hated every single second of it.
It was hard for me, at first, to understand the depth of my rage. God knows I've got nothing against the recovery movement; I recognize how essential support groups can be, how they've saved countless lives, how they've helped restore families. I know, personally, dozens of people who would have died had they not gotten clean through the auspices of these helpful organizations. Philosophically, then, I was coming from the same place as the speaker. So why did this guy's earnest speech set me so on edge?
After some reflection, I decided that what ultimately turned me against the speaker was that I didn't believe the guy. I had no doubts about the nuts-and-bolts of his story — I'm sure that he was an alcoholic, for example, and I'm sure he got clean — but what didn't ring true was how pat and scripted the whole thing sounded. Everything was heightened and full of sudden, hollow-sounding epiphanies that sounded more like a screenwriter's version of recovery than the real thing. Part of it sounded like Go Ask Alice and part of it sounded like Drew Barrymore's autobiography, but none of it sounded like the guy standing in front of me. It might have started out as a "true-life" story but what I heard sounded more "story" than "true-life." True life recovery stories are much less dramatic than this — the real ones are tales of drudgery, of incremental progress, of deadening day-to-day wins and losses and seemingly impossible mountain-climbing. But this guy's story was a swash-buckler, a veritable Raiders of the Lost Ark of recovery stories.
It also bothered me how greedily the guy described his past misdeeds. There was a lurid, confessional tone he used when he talked about his descent into addiction, and I could have sworn that he was getting a perverse thrill out of unzipping himself so absolutely in front of a bunch of strangers. Perhaps this was necessary, perhaps it was part of his recovery, but I couldn't accept that — it just felt creepy and wrong to me, to see somebody that exposed. I wished the guy had utilized better sense when talking about something so personal, so shameful.
But I have to recognize there's a chance that other people in the audience weren't as hard-hearted and judgmental as I am. Maybe they responded to his words, maybe they were heartened and inspired by his personal tale. All possible, I have to admit. But the thing I couldn't get out of my head was something the guy said later, after the talk — he was shaking hands with well-wishers, and I eavesdropped and heard him say that he'd been sharing this testimony with people for more than a decade now. 10 years he'd been engaged in this public spectacle, this ritual of vein-opening. It sounding like it was a full-time job now, humiliating himself in front of strangers.
And that made the guy intolerable to me. I recognize that a bit of reflection and fellowship can be helpful for many people in recovery, but shouldn't there come a time when they sort of, you know, get on with it? Get on with their lives? Without feeling the need to rehash every misfortune or misdeed to anyone who'll listen? That has to be incredibly unhealthy, to constantly return to the scene of your greatest pain and embarrassment. I've never understood how willingly some people are to talk about these things, these private foibles, in public. And personal tragedies, too — whenever there's a terrible traffic accident or horrific loss of life, chances are you'll see some surviving family member describe their loss to a Fort Wayne television station immediately after it happens. It's such a terrible practice, yet so common; I can't help feel that it reduces all of us to heartless voyeurs, that it removes some of our humanity.
I've become so distrustful about the ubiquity of the public unpacking of sorrows that I'm now skeptical about any display, even irreproachably honorable ones, like the marches and speeches and seminars given for survivors of life-threatening diseases. I know these events are important; I know awareness is essential; I know support from the community at large will help the progress of those stricken. And yet a part of me still gets wearied by the sight of all those pink ribbons. And I swear I'm not a misanthrope or pro-carcinoma, I just wonder if it's really such a good idea to take your suffering so public, so often. And it's never a comfortable thing to see people so willingly refer to themselves as "surviviors" — it's like they have no other identity, that they only have the one thing to define themselves by. I know cancer takes away a lot, but it doesn't take everything, does it?
I have an acquaintance who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, and because she was relatively young for the disease, a local paper did a story on her. This led to a spot on the local news. Which led to another story for another newspaper. Which led to a speaking gig for a local group. Now she's a featured speaker at conferences and seminars around the country, and she is constantly flying and speaking and promoting and helping and instructing. Talking about her disease with strangers has become a full-time gig; it occupies much of her free time. Everybody around her, her family and friends, support her efforts; they think she is brave and is performing a heroic service. Nobody questions whether her commitment to the cause might be too much of a good thing.