Recovering from Recovery Road

Hafsa Guled

What happens when you find a show you didn’t even know you were looking for?

Image source: Maddie Graham (Jessica Scula) our main character. Hulu copyrighted.

“I’m not going to rehab!” — Maddie Graham, Pilot episode. (2016, Hulu)

I know the feeling of running away from my problems so well. Crafting all-consuming plans, hanging around distracting people, and channeling any real emotions I have with self-destructive behavior.

It wasn’t until I voluntarily entered a psych ward this past month, that everything I was running away from hit me like a semi-truck.

During my very intense three day stay, the memories I clung onto were the single most important thing that kept me sane.

I kept myself grounded by replaying the times I spent outside in the sun, or when the wind would kiss my neck while riding my bike down Hiawatha Ave, feeling so very alive.

I didn’t feel like my problems were real until the partying was stripped away.

I also couldn’t figure out for the life of me why Maddie Graham’s character on RR, that struggled with addiction, resonated so well with me. I didn’t have an addiction.

But I was well on my way of having one.

One of the things they drill into you in intensive mental health facilities is that PTSD and substance abuse go hand in hand.

I couldn’t help but think was every time I hit a joint or took a sip a wine one step closer to eventually numbing my flashbacks everyday?

Was it all a cry for help? I then began examining what I did in my free time and was left feeling sick.

For about six months, all I did was go out. I was severely depressed. I had to take a medical leave of absence from school, the place where I felt the best about myself. My siblings were back home. Self- isolating was my best friend. I felt I had nothing to offer the world. So, this began the partying.

I was going to house parties getting groped, receiving racist comments, and being sexually harassed. By the time I would get home, I’d either cry myself to sleep or call a friend.

Soon, after I began to understand why people drank. Parties were awful if you weren’t a tall dude. I began smoking everyday and everything begins to blur together. I do not have the ability to recall whole months.

I remember a New Years party where a scary looking dude grabbed my ass and I started yelling. Everyone was telling me that I was “safe” but my body knew it wasn’t true. Soon after, I had my first public PTSD episode and was disassociating in the diner I was passing out in.

I was intentionally putting myself into risky situations just to feel something. In the end, all I did was accumulate more trauma.

After a while, even I got tired of it all. I slowly retreated back to my room. I began catching up on my shows and listening to extremely sad music.

Without knowing it, I was processing all that had transpired in 2016.

A little while later, I stumbled upon Recovery Road.

The minute I realized it was about rehab and not just a fluffy high school drama, my ears perked up.

Before I knew it, I was crying after each episode. I didn’t know at the time, but Maddie’s incessant partying spoke to me. Minus the hard drugs, I too, went out on school nights. I also ignored phone calls from concerned loved ones.

I would come home at 5 AM just like Maddie, and come up with lies that were so good, I stared believing them. I had to find better coping mechanisms I decided. So I turned to binge watching.

Image: Maddie (Jessica Sula) and Trish Collins (Kyla Pratt). Hulu, 2016 copyright.

One of the best feelings in the world for me is completely immersing myself in quality TV. Recovery Road was the solution.

Each episode had a story to tell. Whether it was the pilot episode where we are introduced to Maddie and her involved (dare I say, completely gorgeous) mother (Sharon Leal); or meeting Maddie’s friends and seeing her social life compared to her sober living life, you gain heavy insight.

I think one of the most powerful aspects of the show for me was its writing. Almost every line uttered by a character has a weighted meaning behind it. I live for lesser words packing a double punch.

During an emotionally tearing episode involving Trish, (Kyla Pratt) another black femme that also lives in the sober living facility, the viewers watch as she goes through a complete psychotic breakdown. Trish struggles with the after- effects of heavy substance abuse in correlation with her mental illness.

Through flashbacks, we see her as a kid in what appears to be a principals office. A white woman principal is seen being condescending to Trish’s mom while also picking up on the fact that Trish has a mental illness. Trish’s mom is personally offended and rightfully calls out the pointed tone of the woman.

Trish’s mother’s anger cost Trish her life. She spent the rest of her life with an untreated mental illness and suffered for it. We see glimpses of her life before sober living and it was nothing short of heartbreaking.

In mainstream media, we often receive the narrative of the “strong, black woman”. Whether it is a Tyler Perry movie or daytime television, black women are rarely given the space to simply be imperfect. It is always one extreme or another.

That is why RR became an instant favorite for me. It will always be the best portrayal of mental illness for me (or until something new comes along).

In the series, through the eyes of Maddie, and her narration, we get a glimpse of honest, real, and raw human emotional exchanges.

We see Maddie’s mother grapple with raising a child with an addiction. We see her crying, waking up in the middle of the night from her nightmares.

We see the sober coach struggling with unrequited love interests.

We see the other members of the sober living facility also try to live one day at a time.

The complexities of the show are unparalleled. I believe the strength of the show falls on the spectacular casting and again, the writing. There is just no show like RR on any medium currently.

If I had to pick the most powerful moment of the series for me, hands down it has to be Trish’s meltdown.

Trish is seen having a full on mental breakdown including tears, yelling incoherently, and pleas for help.

All similar to every one of my PTSD episodes. Even right down to the dismissive cops who try to comfort her. They seem to be doing their job but Trish is not satisfied.

I remember being searched in my groin area in an ambulance by a cop that believed I had contraband. I had gone to sleep and somehow when I woke up, I was at the Mall of America, a full city away from my home.

I didn’t know who I was, where I was, or how I got there. I had a vague sense danger but I was too busy passing out to do anything about it.

A cop had to walk me to my ambulance because my feet were incapable of movement.

It was single handily the most terrifying moment of my twenty years on earth. I was convinced I would be killed by the cops before my family even knew I was missing.

That is why Trish’s so very public meltdown shook me to the core. It represented a black femme with a mental illness but surrounded by invalidation and misread red flags. It was “all in her head” for the people in her life.

Who knows what would’ve happened if Trish had gotten the help she needed as a kid? Maybe she’d been healthier. Or happier.

I know for me, the trauma of not receiving crucial help almost cost my life several times.

The whole Black mental health discussion is something that obviously hits super close to home for me. Whether I like it or not, identity politics/my place society has always had a tremendous effect on my mental health.

No matter how many times I explain my illnesses, some folks just won’t believe me until I am dead or locked up in a psych ward for the rest of my life.

The everyday invalidation I face or outright denial of the existence of my MIs has been excruciating harmful.

Don’t get me wrong. Our understanding of mental health has come a long way since I was a kid. We’ve seen celebrities speak candidly about their struggles. Carrie Fisher might be gone from this lifetime, but her words about bipolar disorder have been phenomenal. Whether she knew it or not, she made people feel less alone. Her impact was universal.

However, black people are not afforded the luxury of being open about their mental health struggles. You can lose your job, your kids, or be committed depending on who you share your struggles with.

My Hooya has always been fearful of hospitals and being examined by doctors who do not speak her language. Doctors that judge her for wearing a jilbaab, who only see her as a “strong, black woman.” Her fears are valid because to be a first generation Black Muslim woman immigrant with a family to support means you have to be the ideal and perfect citizen. At all costs.

You simply cannot afford to have another hurdle to jump through.

Recovery Road showcases the power in being vulnerable. Seeing as I am not a person that deals with substance abuse, I cannot speak nor reflect on that aspect of the show.

I do however have people in my life who do. This show catapulted me to educate myself further on substance abuse and to reexamine preconceived notions about addiction that was ingrained in me. I realized I was headed down the road, full speed, towards addiction with my partying habits.

The reality is there are not many sober spaces for Black LGBTQA+ folks. I see people around me at risk because the way society has pushed them to the edge.

Things need to change but I don’t have answers.

IMDB tells me this gem of cinematic TV gold I’ve been completely missing has been out since January. How did I, who literally has no life when it comes to TV, miss it?

I just always know when something awesome does NOT have enough hype and Recovery Road cer-tain-ly does not.

Any attempt of me describing this show to a non-watcher is a lost cause. No words I string together will ever do it any justice.

Even if you do not identify as a person with addiction, I’d still recommend watching Recovery Road. You will guaranteed walk away with more knowledge than when you hit play on the first episode.

You can binge the one and only season for RR on Hulu.