Addiction and Character: Lessons from Rodman

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Just as it’s part of the very nature of substance abuse and addiction to deny the obvious, it’s part of the nature of character disturbance for the person with character impairments to think that there’s nothing wrong.

Dennis Rodman has been in the news quite a bit lately, and, as is typical, he’s been stirring up a lot of controversy. Not too long ago he came under fire for both cultivating and publicly promoting what he called a “warm friendship” with the notorious North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un. He aroused even more public ire after making testy and seemingly irrational comments to reporters questioning his judgment in traveling to the oppressed Asian nation where he and several of his fellow NBA Basketball friends staged an exhibition game purportedly in honor of the virtual dictator’s birthday. A few days after his press conference meltdown, Rodman publicly apologized, blaming his behavior at least in part on his alcohol use. Only days after that, he announced he’d be securing treatment. But he’s recently caused yet another stir after bolting from rehab much sooner than anyone might reasonably expect. While many find all of this behavior as puzzling as it is disconcerting, there are lessons to be learned from it if we scrutinize it carefully.

Rodman has been doing a lot of talking lately, and what he’s been saying is — at least on the surface — as perplexing as his recent behavioral antics. Once again there’s much to learn if we pay close attention, because many of his statements, as quoted by Associate Press corespondent Dan Gelston, provide some good insight into the mindset of a truly disturbed character, as well some valuable information about the nature of substance abuse and addiction.

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After only a brief stay in treatment, Rodman claimed he knows he’s “not an alcoholic” because alcoholics “need to drink,” whereas he simply likes to drink, and certainly doesn’t have to drink. He also asserted that a true alcoholic “drinks seven days a week,” whereas he doesn’t drink every day. While he has admitted on several occasions before that he knows he loses both good judgment and control when he’s drinking, he doesn’t think that alone proves he has a drinking problem per se.

Rodman says that despite feeling sure alcohol is not a problem for him, he stayed in rehab for awhile because he had some other “issues” he wanted to work out. Having done so to his own satisfaction, he thought it was time to depart, regardless of what anyone else or those on the center’s treatment staff might think. When it comes to his mental and emotional health, he assures, Dennis knows best.

Just as it’s part of the very nature of substance abuse and addiction to deny the obvious, it’s part of the nature of character disturbance for the person with character impairments to think that there’s nothing wrong. Others may think they have a problem — that their way of seeing the world and dealing with it is misguided at best and malignantly self-centered, hostile, and irresponsible at worst — but they think they’re okay and that everybody else is all messed up for thinking otherwise. Traditionally, it was assumed that this distorted and seemingly irrational view was rooted in “denial” (an unconscious blocking out of a reality too painful to bear). But as I assert in my books, there’s a really big difference between being so horrified in conscience that one simply cannot bear to see the ugliness of one’s wrong headedness and being so defiant, arrogant, and self-deceiving that despite all evidence, one steadfastly refuses to acknowledge or accept the truth. (See Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome.)

Some might argue that folks like Rodman simply don’t “see” what they’re doing. But there’s a big difference between not understanding what countless others have likely pointed out time and time again and resisting taking that concern to heart. As I say in my books, articles, and workshops, it’s not so much that disturbed characters don’t see the folly we bring to their attention, but rather that in their haughtiness and defiance, they still disagree with the alternate course they know we’d like them to take. Others might make the case that Rodman is simply ignorant — that he just doesn’t understand the nature of substance abuse addiction. But this is a guy who’s been around the block more than a couple of times, seen a lot of things in his life, and been exposed to a lot of information. He probably got an earful from the staff at the rehab center, too. I’m highly doubtful ignorance is the issue here. There’s a huge difference between not knowing and being non-accepting. Bill W., the founder of AA, knew this well. He made it clear that the key to recovery always lies in a person’s “willingness” to accept personal defeat and submit to the guidance they really need. What the disturbed character needs more than anything else is to stop fighting and start receptively listening and acquiescing. Hardwired fighters don’t do this easily. Most of the time, they have to completely crash and burn or “hit bottom” to even consider surrender.

Rodman has defended his friendship with and apparent admiration of Kim Jong-un by asserting: “The people over there are not bad people.” At first glance, one would think Rodman believes that his critics seek to besmirch the character of the general North Korean populace as opposed to the character of the tyrant who oppresses them. One would also think that Rodman’s sentiments, at least, are in the right place. Such statements reveal even more. They demonstrate that for the disturbed character, sentiments are not the problem. Problems stem instead from the distorted ways in which they think, from the “irrelevant thinking” exemplified above, to the prideful and defiant thinking that keeps them from changing course when they know all too well that they probably should.

Rodman says that he’ll return to the rehab center every six months or so, just “to see where I’m at.” How things go for him in the intervening time could make all the difference with respect to his motivation for and response to intervention. As ironic as it sounds, the worst scenario would be that he experiences no new monumental stressors or serious emotional meltdowns. Because in the absence of those things, he’s quite likely not only to continue on his present course but also to become even more resolute. For someone apparently struggling with character issues as well as substance use problems, that makes the inevitable fall all that much harder.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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