District Attorneys Are Different from You and Me. Supposed to Be, Anyway.

You know the story about the new Dallas County District attorney, Susan Hawk. She covered up a stint in rehab when she was running for election. It all came out recently when she went through some dramatic office turmoil.

See also: Dallas County DA Hawk Chats at SMU, Says Little About Rehab Controversy

So I have been thinking about substance abuse issues. Many hundreds of years ago when I was young, my boss in Detroit had a one-on-one with me one night at the bar. He was a great drinker -- last of the Madmen all-day drinkers -- and he handled his booze with perfect aplomb. He said, "Jim, drinking is the art of maintaining control while losing control."

The good news for me, he said, was that I already had totally mastered the losing control part. You can guess the rest.

Why did that come back to me when I thought about Hawk? Maybe it's because everybody in my business drank a lot back then, so it was really important, as my boss said, to be good at it. To master it.

Everybody takes prescription drugs now. OK, OK, fine, not everybody. But a ton more people take drugs now than did hundreds of years ago when I was young, because there are way more drugs out there now, and they're way better. People take drugs because the drugs work. Most drugs. Most people. But that just means more people have to know how to handle drugs.

Take painkillers, for example. I hate it when people who are not in pain tell me they would never take the kind you can get addicted to. It's like when healthy people tell you how they're going to refuse heroic measures when they're on death's doorstep. They've written all these lines for themselves that sound like Saving Private Ryan.

"You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left."

"But, Jim, it's only arthroscopic knee surgery."

I have no idea how I'll handle either extreme pain or death itself it until I'm right there, in the jaws of the moment. Physical pain exists in this world so bad that I may pay any price to escape it. And psychological pain.

So now prescription drugs are what booze was back in the day. They're everywhere, so handling them has to be the same art for everybody that booze was -- maintaining control while surrendering control. The same high-wire act.

Here's a major difference that I hear in the comments on the on-line coverage of the Hawk story compared with people's attitudes toward drug addiction in the old days. Back then any mention of drug addiction evinced excoriating and absolute opprobrium from all middle class and mainstream people. Junkies -- lock 'em up and throw away the key! That's a lot of what we did back then with addicts.

Now the sentiments are powerfully divergent along a 50/50 split. Half the commenters have only excoriation for Hawk. But many of them on the other hand express the kind of heartfelt empathy that is the unmistakable hallmark of personal experience. Either they've been through it themselves or someone near and dear to them has been. And that changes you. If you've been through it yourself and truly recovered or had a loved one go that route, you're always going to carry around a good case of "there but for the Grace of God ..."

I hear much more of the "there-but" sentiment now in mainstream people concerning drug addiction than I used to. That has got to be a reflection in some degree of the sheer prevalence of drugs and the associated problems and issues. Surely the empathy is a good thing.

But in this story we have added elements -- some important differences between any problems I may have had myself, for example, and Hawk's issues. No. 1, I'm not the district attorney.

District attorney is a very serious job. In terms of real life, the district attorney has way more power over you than the president of the United States does. Her power is in your face. And it's life and death. She's not the only official who has that kind of power over you. Try mouthing off to a criminal court judge someday. You're going to find out why they dress up in medieval robes.

But you know that. We all know that. Therefore we have very strict standards for their personal integrity and conduct when we put them in office. If we ever wind up in their domain, we hope we won't have to deal with wacky personality issues in addition to whatever really bad trouble put us there in the first place.

We call our elected officials "The Honorable," and that's both a sign of respect and a big hint. It's like "You will be 'The Honorable,' or else." Most of them take the admonitions embodied in their oaths of office very much to heart. Hawk isn't you or me. She is the district attorney. As such, she is held to a much higher standard.

Here's another difference between people who have truly recovered from substance abuse problems and what we have seen of Hawk's issue so far. The hallmark of a recovered person is total honesty about it.

People who lie about the problem almost always still have it. That's just how it is. So much of the problem itself is self-deception. You can't get out of chemical's clutches without getting out of your own clutches. The only medicine for your own clutches is sunlight. Honesty.

Hawk has done a lot to cover up her issue. That could mean something much more benign: that she's just not ready for the full-on, full-tilt, paparazzi pandemonium of prime time. People have to learn how to be there.

I've seen media people who have been on our side of the prime time line all their lives. They cross over to the other side, run for office or something, and boom! Those lights come up, and they're like newborn babies squalling in the maternity ward.

Maybe she's figuring out a combination of things, and some of it is just who she is, where she is. We can hope for that.

Last note, however: nobody who's been through it is going to be too hopeful for her right now. The loony behavior, especially the paranoia -- especially the paranoia -- is a very red red flag. Not good.

Continuing to goof around about it is another quite bad sign. If she's recovered, she marches out to those cameras, gives a good speech and then stays out there to field tough questions.

Can she have some privacy, some lie-down time, a chance to recover more? Sure. Just not as district attorney. The office of district attorney is not rehab.

Is it wrong to wish her well? Goodness, no. Anybody who feels schadenfreude over this, who finds glee in it, better watch out. That is seriously bad karma. That's saying "But for the grace of God" like it's your own private trick. Somebody's liable to peek over a cloud with a handful of thunderbolts and think, "Good point."

We can wish her well and tell her to get the hell out of Dodge in the same breath. Dodge, you know. Not a good place to be anyway if you're stoned.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze