THE BLOG
11/22/2013 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Untouchables

The pictures over the past two weeks are shocking. In one, the man's face appears concave instead of convex; the eyebrows are discernible, as is the bottom lip, but everything in between that should be there isn't. In the other, the man's face is practically impossible to discern at all, obscured within a misshapen mass. I can only imagine these two men find ways to avoid public display because of the depth of their disfigurement. Yet, both Vinicio Riva and the as-yet-unnamed man today are on full public display via the Internet for receiving a blessing by Pope Francis.

Vinicio Riva suffers from a condition called neurofibromatosis, which results in tumors erupting under the skin and inside the body. Still shots of him with the Pope poignantly provide a window into the horror of this disease; a full medical description fills in the rest of the bleak picture of what living with this condition must mean. Part of what living with this condition must mean is estrangement from others, some who invariably and viscerally react and retreat. This is why what Francis did was so unusual. Most strangers, upon seeing Vinicio, would naturally withdraw; Francis moved in. He touched; he caressed; he kissed. Vinicio said, "He touched my face and when he was doing it, I felt only love."

Francis reached out and intentionally made a connection, in spite of human tendencies in the face of such physical deformity. Thinking about the Pope's reaction - and honestly, my own reaction - to such physical deformity got me thinking about another type of deformity. There is physical deformity and there is psychic deformity. As a professional counselor and not a medical doctor, I tend to interface with the latter.

As I saw the stories of these men with the Pope, I found myself thinking about the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. He has also been in the news lately, after being stripped of his civic powers by the city council of Toronto. They took this drastic action after Rob Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine "in one of my drunken stupors."

Rob Ford, though carrying more weight than is considered healthy, is not physically deformed. Rather, he has a condition that creates psychic deformity. That condition is addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

"Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one's behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death."

Rob Ford has a debilitating condition, yet he has become the latest side show, a public punch line, the butt of jokes on late-night shows. Would anyone tolerate such a reaction to Vinicio Riva? Vinicio has been likened to Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, but this out of sober comparison, not for comedic purpose. Rob Ford has been likened to a "buffoon" by protesters; one who waved a sign that read "Even Santa doesn't like you."

Few people (hopefully, very few) would hold up an equivalent sign to Vinicio Riva. On the contrary, the world was impressed with Pope Francis, who was able to overlook a disfiguring physical condition to connect to the person underneath. Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, is a person who has become psychically disfigured by the condition of addiction. He needs people around him with the capacity to put down their signs and touch him on a human level.