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It is August 2015 and I have just gotten out of rehab. I’m streaming Chris Rock’s Top Five, a movie I’ve been greatly looking forward to watching for months. I am surprised and delighted to see that Rock’s character in the film is a recovering alcoholic and that sober living is a hugely prevalent theme throughout the movie. I am crushed in equal measure when, after a night of tensely comedic trials and tribulations, Rock opens a beer and relapses. His relapse is not played out to disastrous effect, as even this is soon interrupted by another ridiculous situation, but I can’t help feeling deflated all the same. It’s as though the movie has personally betrayed my trust in some way.
It is a few days ago. I am watching Krisha with a knife in my chest. The movie, about a woman in recovery trying to maintain her sobriety over Thanksgiving, is a psychological drama in the severe emotional vein of something like Mysterious Skin or Oldboy, the kind of movie that practically dares you to try and make it to the end without getting a case of the shakes or reaching for a stiff drink. It is an exquisitely crafted, genuinely torturous experience. I have watched a lot of movies about drug addiction and alcoholism, and Krisha is the only one I would personally describe as “triggering.” Krisha’s relapse is one of the most visceral, agonizing things I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it brought me to an incredibly dark place upon reaching the credits.
It is today. I am recoiling from a fight I had with my partner the other night. I am feeling like the villain and victim simultaneously, which is not uncommon for me when I fight with the people I love, but today this feeling is tearing me in half. Someone I’m living with has had surgery recently and they have been prescribed a bumper crop of hydrocodone, also known as Norco or Vicodin. It is an incredibly potent, highly addictive substance. My father died from it. I want it. A frighteningly loud part of me is telling me I need it. I am trying to convince myself that just one pill won’t hurt, and I am also trying to convince myself that it will hurt worse than anything. I am remembering that I have close to a year of sobriety and that it’s a milestone I don’t want to tarnish. But I am also remembering Krisha. I am remembering the emptiness of that character’s struggle, that that ghoulish vision is how people think of me even when I am at my best, and I am wondering: Why I should wait to wash all my hard work down the drain if this horror is what awaits me no matter what I do?
We are, on the whole, not very good at portraying addicts in media, and especially not in film. We’ve certainly told a lot of incredible stories about addicts, but this is not the same thing as showing them as people with nuanced and developed lives outside of a relationship to their substance of choice. Whether it’s the core conceit of the film, like the blusteringly tragic Requiem for a Dream, or a side-plot meant to add dramatic spice, like the humiliatingly public DUI that Sarah Silverman’s character endures in Take This Waltz, an addict is rarely contextualized outside of their sobriety or punishing lack thereof.
It isn’t difficult to figure out why this is the case: addicts make for good, and more importantly, concise, dramatic storytelling. The stakes are easy to understand: Better get clean! or Better not relapse! Writers don’t have to do much work to get from point A to point B in a story. And the stakes are relatable — not one living soul has a life untouched by addiction in some way (whether their own or someone they know). This proximity to reality makes the stakes extremely high as well. A bottle or a pill becomes an instantly efficient MacGuffin: this is the danger, this is the trigger, this is the button that makes the bomb go off.
But this is something that further reinforces what the addict has internalized for a long time: you are the bomb. You are the problem that needs to be solved.
I have every belief that filmmakers have their hearts in the right place when they tell these stories. It certainly can’t be said that addicts lead easy lives, and of course it’s natural for artists to want to reflect struggle in their stories. But the cumulative effect of this messaging, movie after movie, decade after decade, is indescribably demoralizing. Stories shape a person’s view of the world. For a person already living with these issues, stories like these can destroy our hope.
Frustratingly, the alternative can’t be said to be much better: “positive” portrayals of addiction, stories of heroic redemption, tend to be flat and treacly, the mental health equivalent of a participation trophy. At rehab, we were made to watch these flimsy feel-good movies and take inspiration from them — whether it was the nauseatingly schmaltzy Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days, or Flight, which is good in that classical mold of Hollywood character epic that Robert Zemeckis has perfected after decades of hits. These films are not exactly subtle or well-rounded views of recovering addicts. (An inpatient managed to sneak in a copy of Russian mob thriller Eastern Promises and misdirect the staff while the rest of us enjoyed it, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him for that.)
While these movies certainly have their place, setting the polarities so far apart leaves big, unwieldy gaps in the story of addiction. When your only two choices are ruin and failure, or triumph and unshakable positivity, we start to feel like a normal life isn’t really possible (or, at least it isn’t something anyone else is interested in).
If there’s one model of filmmaking I think screenwriters should follow, it would be the coming-of-age movie. This may seem like a weird point of comparison, but for whatever reason, thoughtful filmmakers tend to excel at portraying young people’s lives with dignity and dynamism. Whisper of the Heart, Girlhood, Paranoid Park, The 400 Blows, Superbad, and Totally Fucked Up are six wildly different movies about growing up — they range from gross-out comedy to cinéma vérité, but what they share is an understanding of their subjects’ humanity. Kids in these films have well-developed motivations: their joys, worries, and desires are relatable and easy to understand. They are sophisticated souls that don’t flatten into a good-or-bad, win-or-fail narrative binary.
As a teenager, I relished movies like Michael Kang’s The Motel and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine because they let me know there was art that wouldn’t talk down to me or exploit me or put me under a microscope. As an addict, I can point to worryingly few movies that fill the same need.
Representation matters. It’s something we’ve been hearing for a while now, and it’s something that any thinking, sensitive person must accept. And it doesn’t just matter who we represent, but how we represent them. As I finish this piece in the solitude of my bedroom — grateful for my sobriety, but reeling from the aftershock of an emotionally taxing 24 hours — I find few kindred spirits on screen, or anywhere in mainstream media. Not just role models, not just tragic figures whose pain I’ve shared, but people who love and work like I do, people whose lives have infinite nooks and corners to be explored, whose needs and interests may not match mine entirely but will be familiar to me, setting them down the path of a life that resembles my own.
It’s a failure of empathy and imagination that so few characters like this exist. Tonight, it’s a loss that I feel deeply.