What Love Teaches Us About Addiction

Publication: Playboy
Year: 2017

WE like our movies and TV shows to be full of bold characters and enthralling plot twists, but what happens when life’s struggles don’t match the punched-up world of Hollywood? Despite what’s traditionally shown in most film and television, addiction and substance abuse aren’t always painted with dramatic strokes. In fact, it’s rare to see those struggles play out on the screen through the less glamorous lens of real life. Love, however, is painstakingly real. The breakout Netflix series, which returns for its second season on Friday, March 10, isn’t exactly your average silver screen material—and that’s a good thing. When addiction is only depicted in extremes, our collective perception is destined to be a reflection of that portrayal: the brooding Bukowskian artist, the alleyway addict, the depressively drunk weekend dad.

Love breaks from the mold and its portrayal of addiction lands somewhere between normalcy and chaos. The show follows Mickey (played by Gillian Jacobs), a charismatic yet occasionally destructive 30-something fumbling her way through life and love. We later learn of her trouble with substance abuse, but that conflict only adds depth to her character. It never defines it. The authenticity of Mickey’s life and high-functioning struggle is what separates her from the addict stereotypes that have preceded her.

Addiction as a character trait in entertainment is nothing new. Just look to David Duchovny’s Hank Moody in Californication or William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher in the U.S. version of Shameless. Even with their powerful performances, both portrayals still fall victim to archetypal habits, unrelatable lifestyles and addiction clichés. As a viewer, you root for them because they’re sometimes-loveable underdogs, not because of a deep connection.

The Hank Moody character rarely deviates from the self-sabotaging artist-type he was intended to symbolize and Frank Gallagher plays right into the quintessential role of deadbeat father. Even semi-autobiographical shows such as IFC’s Maron, which dedicated its final season to a recovery story arc, still tend to obscure the reality by heightening the comedy of real life. While these instances may be relatable to some, Jacobs’ portrayal of Mickey as a neurotic millennial struggling to get through the minutiae of everyday life—often leaning on pills or booze to cope—is much more likely to strike a chord with today’s contemporary viewers.

“I don’t think most people can really relate to the extreme versions of these characters,” explains Keeley Teemsma, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist who treats personality disorders and addiction. “If you’re showing regular people, it’s easier to connect with—it hits closer to home.”

Seeing a subtler struggle play out on screen can resonate in a very real way. Approximately 40 million people in the United States struggle with substance abuse and addiction; it’s likely the vast majority of them aren’t theatrical representations of addicts or alcoholics. Life can be unavoidably difficult, uncomfortable and everything in-between. Drugs and alcohol sometimes make it easier. When Mickey swigs from a bottle of vodka at a house party to get through her night or flees to the bar for distraction from her romantic troubles, it feels real. And that reality is a refreshing breath of air for television.

The ways in which addiction manifests itself span far and wide. It could be through alcohol, it could be drugs, or sex and love—you name it. The disease affects all walks of life, and doesn’t discriminate against gender, race or social status. The word “addict” often conjures an image of someone at the lowest of lows, living on the fray of society, but that’s not always the case. While addiction and substance abuse certainly exist in those extremes, a less drastic struggle can still have a profound effect on your life, and be a heavy burden to live with.

Shane Ramer, a recovering alcoholic and addict, offers his frustrations with society’s overarching view of addiction: “There is such a bad stigma associated with it. Even just five years ago, it wasn’t so easy to talk about.” And that hang-up isn’t doing anything to help what some experts believe is America’s most neglected disease.

“Feeling alone [while dealing with addiction] is a huge problem,” continues Ramer. “That, and asking for help. Reaching out to another person or group for support is a really difficult thing. If one of these TV shows helps someone feel less alone, it could have a really big impact on that person’s life.”

As modern culture shifts toward the authentic, this new wave of entertainment is exploring the un-Hollywood realities of life with newfound clarity—and perhaps redefining our perception of these real issues in the process. When mumblecore, a lo-fi genre of film featuring improvised dialogue and naturalistic performances, first hit the indie film circuit in the early 2000s, it was dismissed for having mundane storylines and unlikable characters. But perhaps it was just ahead of its time. The filmmaking style mimicked that of real life and a generation finally saw an honest portrayal of their lives the screen—something that has become much more commonplace during an era that demands sincerity.

Teemsma says that popular culture has long been a catalyst in seeking help for many of her patients. “People definitely connect with [pop culture],” she explains. “They’ll often reference something they’ve seen on TV or in a movie during sessions.” The influence entertainment has on those coming-of-age today is undeniable, and the way generations young and old consume news, content and culture has drastically changed. Over the past decade, film and television have generated mainstream awareness—and often acceptance—of a number of real issues that were once seldom talked about it. From Amazon’s Transparent to HBO’s Girls, these hard-hitting shows are watched by millions and touch on themes no longer limited to art house theatres in New York and Los Angeles. We’ve started turning to television to help us make sense of complicated conversations surrounding topics we might not fully understand. Prickly, problematic characters and their stories are the new water cooler chatter. And sometimes, those stories overlap with our own.

In the season one finale of Love, when Mickey’s addiction fully reveals itself and collides headfirst with her love life, she says, “I think I need to just be by myself.”

The honest dialogue in that scene was glaringly real and captured the feelings of isolation and despair that often go hand in hand when struggling with addiction. It was disarmingly personal and defiantly vulnerable in a way that an entire audience had been waiting for. Even though the moment takes place in a perfectly staged gas station as a perfectly timed Wilco song plays, the authenticity cuts through. The truthfulness of Mickey’s arc has the power to make us feel less alone, and because of that connection, her courage to speak up becomes our courage—which is a powerful feeling.

There’s something in our heads that tells us our burdens are our own secrets to carry, and that we shouldn’t share our struggles with those close to us. But when you open up, you’ll realize the weight suddenly feels much lighter and the loneliness starts to retreat. The typical narratives around substance abuse are changing and it’s about time our entertainment follows suit. The more television and film touch on real topics in frequencies that we can relate to, the better off the collective “us” will be. ■