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Ant's addiction is an illness and shame is the symptom

Society's attitude to alcohol and addiction has not moved with the times, writes Anne Marie Scanlon

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SOBERING THOUGHT: Ant McPartlin, who has checked into rehab after admitting to alcohol abuse, has fallen into the Victorian mindset that he is a moral failure

SOBERING THOUGHT: Ant McPartlin, who has checked into rehab after admitting to alcohol abuse, has fallen into the Victorian mindset that he is a moral failure

SOBERING THOUGHT: Ant McPartlin, who has checked into rehab after admitting to alcohol abuse, has fallen into the Victorian mindset that he is a moral failure

Ant McPartlin? Of Ant and Dec? He can't be an alcoholic - he presents Saturday night television for God's sake. And he's so nice!

That was the shocked reaction of many people on hearing that McPartlin was going to a long-term rehab for treatment for alcohol and drugs. McPartlin doesn't fit into any of the alcoholic/drug addict/rehab stereotypes - he's not a raddled rock star and nor is he a celebutante. The 41-year-old is happily married, has a very successful career and has maintained what is probably the most successful double-act in history with Declan Donnelly since the pair appeared as teenagers in the TV show Byker Grove.

As a society, both Britain and Ireland have a troubled relationship with alcohol. On the one hand we mock those that 'can't hold their drink'; we scorn the sloppy drinker (especially if they are female) and we denigrate habitual drunks. At the same time our social lives are marinated in booze and the person who doesn't drink is viewed at best with suspicion, and at worst, with hostility.

When I came out as an alcoholic, almost 20 years ago, I was as welcome at parties as botulism. (Mind you in those days it was because I was sober and would remember everything the next day. These days with social media everything is up on the web before the fridge at the party is empty.)

But given how society has moved on in the last two decades, it's disappointing that our attitude to alcohol, alcoholism and addiction haven't changed one little bit.

We are still mired in a Victorian mind-set that being an alcoholic or addict is a moral failing rather than a physical one. Even McPartlin, himself, has bought into this, saying: "I feel like I have let a lot of people down and for that I am truly sorry."

If McPartlin had to go to hospital for two months to get treatment for cancer - would he feel the need to apologise?

Addiction is possibly the only condition where the person who suffers feels intense shame at their situation. The shame then feeds into the addiction and the behaviour of addiction and the ensuing cycle becomes, in the mind of the addict/alcoholic, inescapable.

McPartlin is typical of many people who have 'issues' (what a lovely cop-out word that is) with alcohol and drugs. When I put down the glass for the last time I had a job, a flat, a relationship. I wasn't in debt; I didn't have dealers or the cops breaking down my door. I was living in New York and I wasn't sleeping on the streets and rummaging through trash cans on the Lower East Side. I rarely let my roots grow out and I wore fashionable nail polish.On the surface there was nothing wrong with my life - but on the inside I was miserable and hated myself.

I don't really know when my drinking became alcoholic - I'd gone to university in Ireland with women who drank far more than I did, but in their late 20s they weren't still partying like it was 1999.

After university I moved to London and worked for AIB Capital Markets for three years. We thought nothing about going to the pub and having a drink or two at lunchtime - and we smoked at our desks. Somewhere along the way, when all my contemporaries were slowing down, I was speeding up. But because I wasn't dirty and eating out of bins it was all still acceptable.

I didn't go to rehab. I was lucky because in New York you can find a 12-step program for just about anything at any time. On a miserable Tuesday in February 1998 I went to a lunch-time meeting and haven't touched a drink since.

The reaction of people around me was interesting. They thought I was over-reacting, being a drama queen. Couldn't I just cut down a wee bit, they said - as if I'd never thought of that. The bottom line though was if I was an alcoholic, what did that say about them? Worse, was I going to police their drinking? (For the record I don't.)

People make a lot of assumptions about alcoholics and the reasons why we drink. We drink because we have no control over it. In recent years some scientific studies have shown that addicts and alcoholics have different brains from those who are not troubled by addiction. For us, one drink sets off an overpowering craving.

It's not about willpower, it's about brain chemistry. And yet plenty of people refuse to accept that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. That, they say, is a cop out.

If we are dealing in stereotypes, Ant McPartlin doesn't 'fit' the brief of an alcoholic or addict - yet a high proportion of addicts are creative and successful people.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that addicts are very driven people. For a lot of us our brains are like washing machines with stuff swirling around all the time, and we self-medicate to turn the noise off. Nay sayers would say we lack willpower but we don't. The willpower needed to keep going when alcoholism has you in its grip is huge.

Imagine the determination needed to get out of bed with a hangover that is as mentally crippling as it is physically; the determination to show up for work, to show up for your family. Many of us manage it for years.

McPartlin said he had "spoken out because I think it's important that people ask for help if they're going through a rough time and get proper treatment to help their recovery".

Perhaps attitudes will some day move on - and we can stop stigmatising sick people for their illness.

Sunday Independent