Last week I watched the season finale of “Elementary” with growing trepidation. The main character, Sherlock, is put under extreme stress and deliberately brought into situations meant to trigger a relapse into his addiction, which happens to be heroin. He resisted throughout, but the end of the episode leaves the viewers believing that he has in fact succumbed. It’s not entirely clear, but ultimately whether or not he’s actually relapsed is immaterial. The goal of the writers is to convince the viewer that he has fallen victim to his disease once again. I started throwing things at my TV in disgust.
Okay, not really. My TV is less than a year old and it’s my first flat screen, so nothing would inspire me to do it harm. Also, I’m not that crazy. But in my head, I was absolutely throwing things. Relapse is my least-favorite theme on TV. Writers would have us believe that 100% of addicts, however long they’ve been sober, will always relapse. In the real world the odds aren’t great, but they certainly aren’t that insurmountably ridiculous. On TV though, things are brutal: In the last week of season finales, Booth (a lead character on “Bones”) relapsed into a gambling addiction after years in recovery, on “Arrow” Captain Lance started drinking again after several years of sobriety and Sherlock on “Elementary” presumably relapsed on heroin. All three in a week? Seriously? Come on, writers. Twelve-step programs work better than that!
At the beginning of April, my mom texted to remind me that I’d turned 27. Oh, yeah. On April 2nd, it had been 27 years since I’d last had a drink. In that time, I’ve obviously seen many people relapse. Friends, sponsors, guys I liked. (Too many. I seemed to have a twisted form of radar for guys about to relapse. If I liked someone, he was a goner.) I saw relapse in people who’d been sober for years, and others who couldn’t seem to hold it together for more than a week or two. Addiction is a bitch, no question. But you know what? I’m not alone on some unreachable mountain of sobriety. I’ve also watched people get and stay sober, piecing their lives back together like intricate quilts. The threads show, sure, but that’s not a bad thing. It shows the work, shows where they came from. I’ve been lucky to know many people who made recovery the norm in their lives, until it’s the background, not “the thing” about their identity. I’m not saying it becomes unimportant: Recovery is the base that holds my quilt together. Always will be. But my life now is comprised of many pieces: husband, kids, their activities. At 19 years old, staying sober was the main thing, the only thing. Now at 46, it just is. I don’t take it for granted; I know I’m lucky – lots of people don’t get here, or worse, get here and then leave. But guess what? I’m not an anomaly, either. I’m not the only person in the history of the world to get and stay sober. There are thousands of us. Hundreds of thousands, even.
I realize that from a television standpoint, long-term sobriety is dull. So much less dramatic than relapse! But damn it, I can’t help feeling that these fictional relapses create this false notion that recovery from addiction is temporary at best. For the majority of the public, what they see on TV is the only exposure they may get to 12-step programs. I’m here to tell a different story, one that may not garner ratings, but here it is: It IS possible to succeed in recovery. I did it, and frankly I’m not that unusual. I would love to see a character like me: someone who has been in recovery for so long that it’s just another part of her life. Or his life. Not dramatic, not a constant, white-knuckled struggle. Just another piece of the quilt. Sounds good, but it’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that I’ll be mentally flinging things at my TV once again. Damn writers are such drama queens.