Welcome to the Back to School for Writers blog series. Every Wednesday until the end of September, a guest poster will share their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. Today’s guest is Veronica Valli, talking about how alcoholism, addiction, and recovery are portrayed in fiction.
Addiction and Alcoholism
Alcoholism and addiction are ripe issues to explore in fiction as they give so much potential for drama. Addiction is, unfortunately, such a common problem that it’s great that these issues are explored as much as they are. It at least starts a conversation about a difficult subject and, when done well, can be inspiring. But of course, like for experts in many areas, there are always representations of addiction that drive me nuts, some that make me laugh, and some that are spot on.
My favorite soap opera portrayal of a drunk has to be Sue Ellen in Dallas in the 80s. Taking yet another verbal beating from J.R., her chin would wobble and she would reach for the Scotch, her hand shaking, tears welling up in her eyes. “Sue Ellen,” I would sigh at the screen, “grow a backbone for God’s sake. Stand up to the man”. But no, week after week, whatever happened, her first response was to reach for the bottle. As dramatic as this representation is, what they got right is Sue Ellen’s self pity. Alcoholics are full of self-pity. Now that Dallas has been rebooted, we can thankfully discover that Sue Ellen finally got it together and is sober enough to run for Governor of Texas. Way to go, Sue Ellen, you have my vote!
The portrayal of addiction in fiction that drove me the most nuts, however, was James Frey’s novel A Million Little Pieces. I read it after the controversy that it was actually a novel, not a memoir. It didn’t put me off as I’d heard it was a brutal representation of addiction and rehab so I was intrigued enough to read it.
God, I hated it.
I’ve worked in drug rehabs and I’ve never heard of anything like the experiences the main character, James, had. After finally hitting rock bottom, he ends up in rehab and starts his journey of getting clean and sober. Like many addicts, he has neglected to look after himself properly and needs to go to the dentist urgently. Because he is an addict in very early recovery and because pain relief medication has been known to lead addicts to relapse, he has several rotting teeth extracted WITH NO PAIN MEDICATION WHATSOVER!
Are you friggin’ serious?
Yes, it’s absolutely true that addicts need to be very cautious around pain medication, especially narcotic pain meds as they are highly addictive and could lead to relapse. However, there are going to be times in most recovering addicts’ lives that they are going to need to take something stronger than aspirin. I have never heard of any addict having teeth extracted without any pain meds. It’s totally ridiculous. I don’t know what the author was trying to prove here, but it annoyed me so much.
If you want to research some great representations of addiction and alcoholism in movies and TV, I would really recommend Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby. She captures the selfishness and self-absorption of an addict. Also check out the magnificent Helen Mirren in the last season of Prime Suspect. Her character slid into alcoholism, and she portrayed an addict’s inner misery and loneliness with spine-tingling accuracy.
There is, however, one fatal flaw in the representation of addiction in nearly all books and movies that is so far away from what really happens, it makes me want to scream. This flaw is that the addict/alcoholic is ‘saved’ from their disease by the love of a good man/woman. True love conquers all and they are able to slay their demons, overcome their problems, and stay sober because they have fallen in love.
This never happens. Ever.
For sure, recovering addicts and alcoholics hook up with each other and with sober people (who usually promise to save them) all the time. It is one of the things that, as a therapist in a rehab, you are constantly having to deal with. Because it is always, and I mean always, a spectacular disaster that nearly always ends up with the addict relapsing.
Romantic relationships are very tricky for alcoholics and addicts. In early days (and sometimes beyond) we are very insecure and sensitive and have extremely low self-esteem. Can you imagine what a recipe that is for disaster?
When an alcoholic or addict gets sober, they are without the one thing that offered them safety and security. Alcohol and drugs were always there for them; they never let them down. Alcoholics and addicts primarily use substances and alcohol because it changes how they feel. Or, to be more accurate, they use them to take away any uncomfortable, painful or unpleasant feelings. Sure, they also use substances to enhance positive feelings, but the main point is that addicts and alcoholics have no control over their internal emotional lives and therefore have to use external means.
So when they get sober, they are still left with these same feelings and it takes time for them to develop healthy strategies to deal with them. In the meantime, a flirtation, a fling, or a love affair creates intense feelings that temporarily mask all the unpleasant feelings that have still yet to be dealt with. When that first rush of euphoria and lust wears off, the alcoholic or addict becomes desperate to find a way to keep managing their feelings. So they may cling desperately to the person they have formed an attachment to or launch into a series of unhealthy codependent relationships. I very rarely see this side of recovery portrayed in books or films. Ultimately, the relationship is a distraction from the main issues.
As a therapist, it is the one area that people need to know more about. I see a LOT of unhealthy relationships based on need and fear rather than love and respect. Movies and books are responsible in many ways for creating this impossible ideal that someone else will save you. The truth is that only you can save yourself. Recovery from alcohol or drugs is really about the journey you take to uncover the feelings and emotions you can’t cope with, the ones that drove you to drink.
As a final note, I’d really like to see more portrayals of people successfully overcoming addiction or alcoholism. Full recovery is entirely possible, with many people living full and authentic existences free from alcohol and drugs. Full-blown addiction is a horrifically ugly place to be (Irvine Welsh’s book Trainspotting springs to mind). Recovery can really be described as the exact opposite to that, which is probably why not many people portray it. Happiness tends not to be so dramatic.
Veronica Valli is a recovered alcoholic, therapist and Life Coach. She has worked in clinics and private practice in the UK and is currently finishing her book Why We Drink and How To Stop, which focuses on the spiritual and emotional aspects behind alcoholism. Find her online at http://veronicavalli.com.
Tami Clayton says
Great post, Veronica. I’m so glad you shared your insights and experiences here, not only as information for writers to accurately portray alcoholics and addicts in their books, but also for any one out there who has a loved one or a friend going through the recovery process. Thanks to you and to Rabia for hosting.
Thanks for your insight, Veronica. I especially appreciate your pointing out the unrealistic expectations created by books and movies that a romantic relationship will save the addict. I even cringe when romance novels portray that a man who is obviously a womanizer will settle down when he falls in love with the right woman.
Great points, here.
Veronica Valli says
Yeah I feel the same way. What is actually presented in romantic movies and books is co-dependency not love. Twilight being the worst example of this. I fear for all those 13 year old girls who read those books and now think that Edward and Bella’s relationship is what equals true love!
Going back to school is fun! I really like digging into these different topics.
This one was especially interesting, because I do have a character in my story who struggles with alcoholism. Fortunately, I have written him overcoming his addiction through his own efforts and willpower, as part of my theme involves our ability to change and be forgiven for our past. It’s encouraging to see that full recovery is possible, not only because I might have gotten this right, but because it gives me hope for so many who suffer from addiction.
Veronica Valli says
Kirsten, it is our ability to change that awe’s me the most. I’ve been sober for over 12 years so I’ve seen lots of people come and go in recovery. It’s true lots of people don’t make it or at least manage to get sober but still a 50% life. But it is also true that people come from the darkest places and manage to recover and thrive. That has been my experience and I see it happen a lot. So yes, you definitely got it right!
Barbara Forte Abate says
Not only is this a most fascinating tipic, but it’s especially riveting to get the “real deal” from a place of truth and experience. Thank you Rabia for sharing such a wonderful guest, and Thank You, Veronica for being that wonderful guest!
I did have to laugh out loud at the reference to Sue Ellen. She was such a tragic mess and I couldn’t help but wonder who was responsible for cleaning the floors, considering that constantly sloshing glass of hers. It was so unnerving watching her week after week I was nearly driven to drink.
As a writer and a life participant I find addictions fascinating. Not with the sense of someone who stares at car-wrecks, but as someone who absolutely thrills at the miracle of healing, and wishes a happy-ever-ending for all suffers. I much appreciate having you clear up so many of he fallacies of addiction that are out there in regular circulation, Veronica.
I do have a question I’m hoping you might be able to answer about two of my favorite shows: Intervention and Celebrity Rehab (Okay, there, I’m admitting it!) Have you seen either? How close to *real* do they come?
Veronica Valli says
I’ve seen both. As they are television shows there is a lot of manipulation and editing to suit the narrative that is being represented. They are of course also looking for drama. Interventions, if done correctly are hugely successful in getting someone into rehab, of course what happens after that is wide open. I’ve learned that treatment and recovery are not linear processes. In fact I can think of very few clients who went into treatment, went to AA, got a sponsor and stayed sober. Many people relapsed several times, had several treatment attempts, got lost along the way but eventually got sober and stayed sober.
I think both shows present some truth. But like everything real life is much more mundane than these shows present it.
Lisa Ahn says
Great post and, like other commenters, I especially like the emphasis on how romantic love can’t save the practicing addict or newly-sober. I quit drinking when I was 19 (it really WAS that bad by then) and I’ve been sober for just over 23 years. Which truly seems like a miracle, most days. For me, this post is so very “right” in so very many ways. I’ve never tried to write a character who was an addict. Maybe it’s still too close to the bone.
Thanks for writing.
*HUGS*, Lisa. I’m so glad you had the help and strength to quit.
Ellen Gregory says
Fabulous post, Veronica. Thanks for sharing. I think everyone should read, not just writers!