The Horrific and Inaccurate Portrayals of People in Recovery on TV and in Movies

The Umbrella Academy is a comic book written by Gerard Way (NJ native and former frontman of My Chemical Romance) that was turned into a hit series on Netflix. The second season just concluded. In one of the later episodes, a main character who is three years sober relapses. Klaus Hargreeves is number four of the seven siblings who make up the team.

Faced with losing the love of his life, Klaus gives up and goes to the liquor store. The sequence is disturbing: he is smiling and skipping up and down the aisles to a happy musical montage. His drunken period afterward is played for laughs. I was quite irritated when I watched and it marred an otherwise excellent season.

For years, I’ve been explaining to people how poorly alcohol and drug problems are portrayed on TV and in movies. Much too often, alcohol and drug use is humorous. I’m still waiting for the producers to come back with the much needed sequels: Cheech and Chong with Early Onset Dementia and Harold and Kumar Go To Rehab. The funny and harmless depictions send the wrong message to the public.

I don’t have much of a gripe with depicting the downward spiral (A Star is Born) or going to treatment and entering early recovery. In fact, The Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman, Ray, and Walk the Line all do a pretty good job with early recovery. Bubs begins his journey in The Wire as a homeless IV drug user in season one. He gets beat on by dealers, ripped off by other users, mourns friends who overdose, suffers the cold, is shunned by his sister, and he routinely trades his knowledge of criminal activity to cops for $10 to spend on dope. He experiences a horrific trauma at the end of season four and his early recovery is handled brilliantly throughout the fifth season. Despite it’s radiant storytelling, The Wire falls into the category of all the other shows and movies in that it only hits upon early recovery.

Whenever there is a show or movie that has a character that is in recovery from alcohol or drug problems, we are most likely going to see that person struggle at some point or even relapse. And while a lot of people with substance misuse disorders do struggle and relapse, there are a few million Americans who are clean and sober many years and they are usually quite stable and productive. Their stories are not being told.

TV and movies are good at showing that some people with drug problems are wildly talented, whether they are using or clean. But those characters are often flaky and inconsistent and unreliable. And while those cases absolutely are rooted in reality, they are promoting an inaccurate message that all addicts and alcoholics (pejorative terms for many these days) are like that. And it just isn’t so.

I am waiting for the TV show or movie where the smartest and most competent character is in long term recovery and they never relapse. It isn’t hard to imagine Lester Freeman in The Wire or Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones or Five in the aforementioned Umbrella Academy as characters who are sober for decades. I know a lot of people in long term recovery who are smart and competent and prompt and resilient. A few are incredibly strategic and wonderful leaders.

I’m not asking you to do anything. This is not a call to write your state senator or cancel a studio (I’m anti-cancel, even for the shitbags out there) or engage in hashtag activism. I just want you to be aware of this. So that the next time a show or movie introduces a character in recovery, you can pause it and turn to whomever you are watching it with and say, “I bet they will have them be flaky or even relapse as part of the story.” And then let them know that shit ain’t right.

And if the character is sober and never relapses and they happen to be the most competent person on the show, please contact me. Because I’ll need to give that writer-producer-director-actor team an award.