is the media helping us foster more empathy for addicts?

Films like 'Beautiful Boy' and 'A Star Is Born' illustrate a level of compassion for those suffering from addiction, while also underscoring what’s still lacking from current media portrayals.

by Sara Radin
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10 December 2018, 5:32pm

Few people can say their lives haven’t been touched by addiction in some way. The drug related death toll continues to rise -- in 2016 there were more than 42,000 deaths in the US, while that same year 3,700 people died from drug misuse in England and Wales. According to Dr. Tom Doub, the Chief Clinical and Compliance Officer for American Addiction Centres, the opioid issue has now become a full-blown epidemic. “We’re losing more lives than those lost during the Vietnam War and more than at the height of the AIDS crisis,” he says. “Opioid addiction is impacting everyone .”

But despite growing statistics, negative attitudes towards addiction have always been pervasive as alcoholics and drug addicts have a history of being demonised in the media. Addictions have long been considered a moral failing or a character defect with earlier films such as Requiem for a Dream portraying a hyper-dramatised image of addiction. The movie, which was directed by Darren Aronofsky, received positive reception from critics and the public. This was despite the fact that it painted addicts negatively as lonely, strange and bad people who willingly chose to engage in addiction, and due to this, ultimately live as sex workers, or end up in jail or dead. Beyond this, most films and television shows have failed to represent addiction from a place of authenticity or compassion, neglecting to educate audiences about why these issues might arise -- and what it’s really like to suffer from the disease.

Lauren, a New York-based actress and recovering addict, believes we never really see portrayals of the true day-to-day life of an addict. “People think we are selfish and crazy and it would be so easy if we just stopped and cleaned up our lives, but it’s not that simple,” says the 33-year-old. “We are powerless over the disease and don’t have the ability to cure it or control it,” she explained over the phone.

Feeling lonely and disconnected as a young adult, Lauren started smoking and drinking as a teen, growing addicted to opioids in her early twenties. For her, consuming alcohol and drugs were a form of escapism that helped her live a more functional life. Until they didn’t. “I think if people saw others they could identify with [in the media], they'd be more likely to admit they have an addiction and seek help.”

Dr. Adi Jaffe, an expert on mental health, addiction and stigma, believes that negative stereotypes around addiction for decades have resulted in higher treatment failure rates as well as adverse outcomes including hospitalisations, imprisonment and death. “For decades, the media portrayed addicts as weak-willed degenerates who lied, stole and destroyed everything in their path.” Beyond this, negative stigma around addiction has likely caused less scientific research on the issue, education and affordable resources that would help spread awareness and readily assist sufferers and their families.

Yet, as the number of high-profile celebrity deaths due to addiction is inclining -- most recently Mac Miller, a beloved artist who wrote songs about his battle with an opioid addiction, accidentally overdosed in September 2018 -- there has also been a greater amount of public discourse and engagement with these issues, which is resulting in an increasingly realistic view of addiction. This is causing us to move away from depicting those who suffer as deviants and showing them more accurately as people suffering from a serious illness, believes Dr. Doub.

Another turning point occurred earlier this year when Kanye West addressed his own experience with addiction in 2016 following a surgical procedure in which he was prescribed opioids, ultimately causing him to be hospitalised and forcing him to cancel part of his Saint Pablo tour. In April, he told HOT 97 radio host Ebro Darden how he felt isolated during his hospital stay and that no one “showed love” for him while he was undergoing treatment.

Beyond this, some believe new films such as A Star Is Born and Beautiful Boy showcase a new image of addiction -- one that is more realistic and empathetic towards sufferers and their loved ones. In A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, a famous country music singer, secretly battles with substance abuse disorder, likely due to untreated mental illness and the neglect he experienced as a child. Using drugs to cope with the weight of his issues and relentless celebrity lifestyle, his addiction directly impacts his personal relationships with his brother, Bobby, and his partner Ally.

When Ally pays Jackson a visit in rehab *spoiler alert* towards the end of the movie, he is riddled with shame over his disastrous behaviour. Yet instead of faulting him, Ally recognises that his struggles are a disease, showing some compassion for his illness. However, the guilt seems to get the best of Jackson after Ally’s manager accuses him of ruining her career. Feeling hopeless and as if he has no way out, Jackson takes his own life -- sadly he couldn’t go on living his life as an addict, and likewise couldn’t find a way to live life without drugs or alcohol. In the end, his love for Ally and Ally’s love for him was not enough to keep him alive. The disease went deeper than that.

The film illustrates another grim reality: the fact that suicide is incredibly common among those with substance abuse disorder. Statistically speaking, individuals wrestling with addiction are six times more likely to attempt suicide at some point in their life according to the Addiction Center. “Once you quit drinking all you can think about is committing suicide, it feels too hard to live without it,” says Lauren. With this, she thought the film accurately portrayed the emotional pain and everyday struggle to stay sober and alive.

Authenticity was a motive of Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote, directed and starred in the remake of the 1937 classic. He told TIME, “I wanted anyone who’s gone through addiction to go, ‘Holy shit, that’s the way it is.'”

When it comes to breaking down stigma, there’s real power in showing authenticity. Vanessa Kensing, a clinical social worker based in New York, thinks media portrayals like this can open the door for more compassionate views while Jaffe says that as we abstain from punishing people for struggling with addiction and recognise the various factors involved, more people will seek help because they will feel less judged.

Yet, while the film emphasises how alienating and hard life with addiction can be, the movie still romanticises it, showing a relatively obscure experience since addiction is not something that only affects famous artists and celebrities.

In the opening scene of Beautiful Boy, actor Steve Carell's character, David Scheff, visits a doctor to inquire about his son Nic’s addiction to crystal meth. “What is it doing to him and what can I do to help him?” He asks the doctor. Throughout the movie, David tirelessly attempts to understand his son’s addiction and support him as best he can, wrestling with raw pain and the heartbreaking realisation that there’s nothing he can do to fix his own son. While he doesn’t always do the best thing (near the end of the film he momentarily gives up on Nic who has overdosed again, before ultimately supporting him), he shows immense empathy for Nic and loves his son despite his disease.

Dr. Doub believes, “[ Beautiful Boy] did an excellent job of demonstrating the devastating effects of addiction not only on the person struggling, but their family members and loved ones as well.” Whether someone is directly or indirectly impacted by addiction, Doub believes that films like this will help reduce the stigma of addiction and normalise it as an illness rather than a moral issue. “Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease that the individual did not ask for and is as much of a disease as diabetes or depression,” says Doub. “The more we can help people view addiction as the chronic, relapsing disease that it is, the better we can treat it.”

Mae Krell, a 19-year-old musician and recovering addict, says that they grew used to seeing media representation of addicts as losers or hopeless people from a young age. “Typical portrayals were often teenagers with no future, or adults who will never be ‘real parents’ to their kids,” they recall. “Nearly any movie I saw growing up that had a character go to AA or NA damaged my perception of those groups, and made me scared to join them when I needed it most.”

Growing up amid intense pressure from their parents, when Krell realised they had a problem, it was hard to admit that they were one of “those” people. Krell, who grew up in New York but finished high school at a treatment centre in Utah, said Beautiful Boy was “absolutely brilliant” and that Nic’s experience with addiction was portrayed in a “super realistic way” as he tried to get sober countless times but was not able to maintain it because he hadn’t healed the root of the problem or found the right solution yet. Krell says that both themselves and Nic were lucky they had family who refused to give up on them.

Lauren agreed that the film accurately portrayed what it's like to be touched by addiction and the damage addicts can cause others around them. “I liked that Beautiful Boy showed a somewhat normal family because it helps people see that addiction can affect anyone from any background.” But at the same time, she felt the film lacked a real understanding of Nic’s spectrum of emotions as he personally wrestled with addiction.

While A Star is Born and Beautiful Boy show how media portrayals are improving in some ways, both films end before the real work to stay sober begins, failing to capture the ongoing and lifelong struggle it can be to stay sober. For example, Lauren expresses that living without alcohol and drugs is an incredibly difficult choice she must consciously and tirelessly choose each day.

Beyond this, these films also reiterate the ways in which diversity is still desperately needed when it comes to storytelling about addiction. Both Nic and Jackson’s characters are white men who are part of society’s middle to upper echelon. Kensing notes, “These films can reinforce the often unspoken notion that when white upper-class people experience addiction, it deserves thoughtfulness and compassion and subtlety in response, whereas a poor person of colour who abuses substances just needs ‘education’ or to ‘experience consequences’.” Beyond this call out, we’re still missing diverse portrayals of women and gender nonconforming individuals in the throes of addiction.

While these films underline how we are moving away from older, more negative portrayals that othered and demonised people with addiction, they also serve to humanise those who are battling with substance abuse disorders. Kensing believes that empathetic storytelling has the power to cause more people to recognise that addiction is not who someone is, but it is something that individuals of all backgrounds and circumstances use as a means to cope with other challenges such as mental illness or trauma.

Moreover, Lauren believes that a rise in compassion could help addicts and alcoholics like her have a chance to come out of the shadows, help them feel more connected and allow them to share their stories without feeling ashamed of their past. Living with addiction is isolating but, “if other people understood what goes on in our heads it might help build more empathy for the struggle to live a ‘normal’ life,” she says. Though A Star Is Born and Beautiful Boy are definitely steps in the right direction, in order to keep shifting towards de-stigmatisation of addiction for all kinds of people, we will need to create more colourful, nuanced approaches to storytelling about this complex disease.

If the big screen is a window into a brave new world and a not so far-off future, these films are telling about where culture could be headed -- and what is still missing.


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