Whatever it Takes


In case you’ve missed the news lately, drugs are bad. Columnists of all persuasions are crying out in genuine or quasi-religious horror over drugs in sport and cigarette smoking mothers. In hugely popular angry and shaming diatribes, they’re revealing the extent of our obsession with perfect performance. We just can’t get enough of how imperfect the people we most want to be perfect can be.

Chrissie Swan threw herself on the altar of failed motherhood and begged our forgiveness for smoking a weekly cigarette in her car while pregnant, and Essendon supporters and football lovers everywhere lamented the fallen state of grace of the game. All in all it was a bad time for anyone still in the dark about our dependency on substances and the cult of corporate perfection that helps to feed the need for performance enhancement and self-destructive relief.

More and more we seem to believe that life should be an exercise in seeking perfection. But what we’re getting instead is a kind of high maintenance homogenisation. I recently watched the 1970 Grand Final with my dad. I’d never seen a VFL game prior to 2001. I couldn’t believe how scrappy and exciting it was — and not just the haircuts. All the players didn’t look like they’d come out of the same GI Joe factory. There was excellence — especially if you’re a Carlton supporter — but there was no uniformity.

As the whole of our existence becomes steadily more corporatised, suddenly we’re all meant to be role models. And where there be role models, there will also be envy and fear. And where there is fear, there will be substances to bigger and better us, and stuff we sneak a drag of to calm our nerves.

One of the ways to understand addiction — and there are many — is that it’s part of a process that begins when we try to avoid the real tasks of living. Drugs can be seen as stress mediators that can eventually become their own sources of pain. But in the first instance, we take substances in an attempt to get around the difficult work of being human. As global drug use rises,  we have to ask ourselves if maybe the work of being human has become more difficult.

One of the things that struck me the most about both the reporting of the doping in sport scandal and Chrissie Swan’s invasive outing as a smoker, was the terrible shame, anger and disappointment expressed in the media commentary. Sporting heroes and mothers now have to be perfect on and off the field. And it’s precisely because we’re holding our role models to standards we are less and less likely to be keeping ourselves, that we’re so glued to their struggles.

The message that we need to be perfect is a potent stressor. Stress is a potent trigger for addiction. The more we expect perfection, the more likely we are to see addiction. In the case of pregnant women everywhere who are smokers, the more pressure they feel to be perfect mothers, whatever that is, the less likely they are to be able to give up smoking. And the more corporate pressure there is on sport, the more likely it is that doping will continue to be a competitive strategy.

The antidote to addiction is support. A place to admit our powerlessness, to allow ourselves to simply live as best we can, and a place where we can give up the struggle to be perfect and get on with the work of living our lives as mortal bumbling humans.

When my marriage ended, I spent three months on the front porch smoking unfiltered Camels. In pain, I was instantly back into a habit I thought I’d broken over 20 years ago. Luckily no one around me was particularly fazed. Nobody was horrified. Some of my friends were even envious. When I felt guilty about setting a bad example, they reminded me to get over myself. Eventually I felt a bit better and I was able to give up. Nobody made me feel ashamed, so I didn’t feel the need to smoke over that as well.

Both sport and mothering have become a kind of corporate machine. We know more and more about what makes a happy baby and more and more about what makes the body get bigger, better and faster. But in our race towards perfection, we’ve left some of the life out of having babies and playing sport. We’ve left out the bits where we get tired, angry and sad. We’ve edited out the scenes where we get sick, fall in love, pull a hammy, crave a smoke, or just need a good lie down. In our search for excellence we’ve left out our humanity. So instead, we’re becoming a nation of addicts. And we’re ashamed of ourselves and of each other for being so out of control.

The first step of any recovery program is to admit we have a problem and that it’s gotten out of hand. So whether it’s winning the premiership or being the perfect mother we’re chasing, when we find ourselves trying to get there with the help of human growth hormone or cancer-causing gaspers, we need a safe place to admit we’ve lost the plot. That we’ve taken whatever it takes just that bit too far.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.