It’s hard to feel charitably toward Anthony Weiner these days. Anyone who has seen Weiner, the stunning documentary film chronicling the New York politician’s fall, rise, and fall again can’t help but shake their heads at the personal tragedy of his actions. More recently, it has been reported that Weiner is under investigation for allegedly sexting with a minor. Emails seized during that investigation set off a firestorm of controversy in the closing days of the Presidential election.
On the heels of the latest revelations about Weiner’s problematic sexting, he reportedly checked into a rehab specializing in sexual addictions. The press has had a field day with the news that Weiner’s rehab employs equine therapy, which involves learning to ride and care for horses as a means of contextualizing addiction and recovery. A few days ago, papers broadcast a photo of the man who has become the poster child for public self-immolation perched awkwardly on the back of a horse. In the picture, Weiner - wearing “dad jeans”, his running shoes poking through the stirrups - looks reduced, maybe even a little foolish. It might be understandable for people who see the photo to say “Gimme a break. All he needed to do was stop sending texts of his junk. People don’t need horses for that.”
Maybe not. But let’s stop and think about what we know of Anthony Weiner. He had a promising political career. Though his style was abrasive, he fought passionately for what he believed. He worked for health care reform and on behalf of 9/11 firefighters. He enjoyed a wealth of political connections. He lived in a dog-eat-dog world and had everything to lose.
And yet, again and again his problematic sexting humiliated him and his family, and destroyed his career. We heard repeated promises from him that his behavior would change. But it didn’t. In fact, if the allegations are true, his behavior worsened.
Now, maybe Anthony Weiner is just a liar, or something worse. Maybe he didn’t want to stop sexting random women. Maybe he was just putting on a show of saying he would quit. Maybe he didn’t care if he hurt his wife and his children. Maybe he wanted to trash his career. Maybe he thought he could hide from the watchful eye of the press. Maybe he rationally calculated that the humiliation he was bound to suffer in the public sphere was worth the fleeting thrill of sending explicit text messages to strangers.
But, we don’t think that sounds plausible. We’re willing to bet Anthony Weiner did want to stop sexting with those women, and that he really did try to stop. We bet he knew that his actions were destroying his life, inflicting pain and loss on everyone he cared about. We bet his behavior and failed attempts to quit caused him intense guilt and shame and confusion and self-doubt. We bet Anthony Weiner felt terribly alone.
Why do we think these things about Weiner? Because repeatedly engaging in an isolating, destructive behavior, despite repeated attempts to stop and overwhelmingly negative consequences, is the shared experience of addiction, be it to sex, porn, pills, food, gambling, booze, or anything else. Those who have experienced addiction know the searing shame of not being able to stop a cycle that destroys a person from the inside out. They remember the black loneliness of feeling like a fraud in their own lives. They have shared in the bitter irony that the more they had to lose, the further they sank into the hopeless battle of trying to quit on their own and in secret, paralyzed by the belief that revealing their problem to others meant risking everything they loved and took pride in. They have felt the crushing fear of people looking at them and saying with disgust, as one interviewer did to Weiner, “What is wrong with you?”.
So, sure, it’s easy to dismiss Anthony Weiner as just another celebrity trying to avoid "responsibility" for his actions by checking into a high priced rehab where he gets to ride a horse. And yes, it’s a little amusing to see him timidly balanced in the saddle. But remember this: despite the infamy that Anthony Weiner carries with him, and the pain he has inflicted on himself and others, the horse he rides won’t mock his terrible horsemanship. The horse won’t write scathing headlines about his repeated failures at climbing into the saddle. The horse won’t call him “sick” or “perverse” for falling off, or take pleasure in his pain when he hits the ground. The horse just wants him to get better.
As Anthony Weiner’s fellow human beings, so should we.