Why Lance Armstrong has my sympathy

Lance Armstrong is a flawed human being who did some really stupid things. He is also most likely an addict. As we know, addicts will do whatever it takes to get high: intimidate, deceive and coerce. That’s exactly what Armstrong did in order to win. Addicts often engage in pathological behavior, as Armstrong arguably did. Lance Armstrong faced an almost unimaginable amount of pressure from various global cycling entities, his sponsors, his foundation, his legions of fans, cancer survivors — the whole world, really. After all, no one remembers second place, right? The set of expectations was enormous. And so what did he do? He used and abused substances to give himself an edge in order to fulfill those expectations and win, time after time. I also abused a substance to “improve” my life. Mine was alcohol, but the effect was the same. And of course there’s the denial, which most of us addicts engaged in for years before getting help and which in Armstrong’s case seems rather epic.

“The intense amount of pressure and the thrill of victory combine to feed people’s narcissistic side to the point where they will do whatever it takes to continue performing at that level, no matter the cost,” Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, a psychiatrist, addiction specialist and medical director for The Core Company in New York City, told me recently. “They know intellectually that they’re doing something illegal but denial kicks in and they convince themselves that they’re still superstars, no matter what.”

Many people assume that steroids and performance-enhancing drugs are not addictive because there is no “high” associated with their use. But there is, according to Dr. Bienenfeld. “Once you try it and it works, you’re expected to perform at a higher level,” he told me. “You taste success and victory and there is definitely a high that comes with it. You realize that you need to keep employing that external enhancer in order to keep winning, otherwise you’ll just be with the herd.” Dr. Bienenfeld says that using these substances is like taking a beta-blocker before speaking to a group of a thousand people or auditioning for the New York Philharmonic, or taking Adderall to stay up all night studying so you get an A on that biology exam or finish that dang Power Point presentation.

The ritual, the deceit, the secrecy, the getting away with it — isn’t that all part of addiction? While going to the fridge to pick out a vial of EPO isn’t the same as meeting your heroin dealer in an alley or going on a 48-hour bender, the result is the same. For more than 15 years, I was addicted to the daily escape that alcohol provided. I would argue that for nearly that long Lance Armstrong was addicted to the results he got by doping. He was addicted to winning.

Some experts I’ve talked to in the addiction and recovery community consider steroid and performance-enhancing drug abuse a process addiction that’s similar to bulimia. Bulimics think, “If I just lose another five pounds, I’ll get the job I want” or “If I can fit into a Size 0, I’ll finally get the man of my dreams.” So it’s not really a stretch for a competitive athlete to tell himself: “If I can shave another couple of seconds off my time, I’ll win this time trial,” or “My sponsors are counting on me” or even “We all need a hero and if I keep winning, I’ll be hero material.” The self-deception is the same. Now, does this mean we should accept Lance Armstrong’s behavior and rationalize it as “his disease”? Certainly not. Without accountability, none of us is helped, and so he must be held accountable. But demonized? Shamed? Ridiculed?