In Brightest Day: Addiction in Geek Media

Many people do not understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will. In fact, because drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug abuse, quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (x)

demon_in_a_bottleFrom Tony Stark’s alcoholism to Sherlock Holmes’s 7% solution, geek media is rife with portrayals of addiction and substance abuse. As someone who has watched close friends and family members struggle with real addiction, I have a very personal stake in these fictional portrayals. It means a lot to me if a show that includes an addict among its characters takes the time to treat addiction as the complex problem it is. And because of this, I am tremendously turned off by shows that act like an addiction is something that can easily be gotten rid of.

The BBC’s Sherlock is a source of constant annoyance for me on pretty much every level from basic plot holes to feminist critique, and its treatment of Sherlock’s substance abuse is just another straw on its way to breaking this camel’s back. Sherlock uses hard drugs recreationally, his addiction is a punchline, and it appears and recedes as necessary to the plot. The most egregious example of this was in series 3’s “His Last Vow”. John discovers Sherlock in a crackhouse while looking for a neighbor’s kid, where Sherlock has been living low and regularly using for the purposes of a case. Sherlock is grumpy for the rest of the day, and annoyed at having been caught out, but a day and a shower later, he’s totally fine, and there’s no real consequences for his character. Apparently it’s just that easy to quit whatever he was on cold turkey. Color me unconvinced and insulted.

And that’s just the worst one. In other episodes we have incidences of his addictions being played for laughs, such as Sherlock’s overuse of nicotine patches, or his desperate need for a cigarette in “The Hounds of Baskerville”. Lestrade uses the threat of a drugs bust to manipulate Sherlock into behaving, without ever actually seizing anything, allowing his colleague and friend to continue using. This last scene is more about humorously proving to John that Sherlock is not as perfect a person as John believes, than it is about Sherlock’s drug use. Not only is all this lazy writing that glamorizes addiction, it also does no favors to, well, any of the characters in Sherlock. It makes Sherlock’s friends seem uncaring, and furthers the impression that Sherlock is not human, because human beings with addictions don’t act the way Sherlock acts.

Needless to say, this put me on edge in regards to other Holmes adaptations. Hell, I almost didn’t watch the second episode of Elementary because I thought the first episode treated Sherlock’s addiction flippantly, and that show has turned out to be one of the most thoughtful portrayals of addiction and rehab I’ve ever seen. It shows recovery as a long process with no distinct end point, and it talks about the way past triggers can tempt people to relapse, and how support and encouragement are essential to quitting and staying clean.

tony-stark-aaSo besides Elementary, what geeky stuff is there that does addiction justice? Well, Iron Man’s problems with alcohol have been dealt with in a number of arcs, but the one I’m most familiar with is Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run. This story begins with Tony attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and continuously emphasizes that maintaining sobriety is a struggle, albeit one he is dedicated to winning. His corporate rivals taunt him by sending him gifts of booze, and his psychological low point during the arc comes when he has to sacrifice the thing that is most important to him—his sobriety—in order to defeat an ultra-powerful foe. Fraction has publicly discussed his own struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction and his fight to overcome them, and it’s clear in the story that he wanted to provide a respectful and realistic depiction of a problem with which he has personal experience. Unlike with Sherlock, Tony’s addiction is something he constantly thinks about, and it affects his character choices and decisions throughout the story arc.

rose kanaya drunkThe most recent Act of Homestuck has included some discussion of alcoholism, as it’s something that the Lalonde family seems to struggle with in every universe. Rose’s mom was a drinker, and Rose, concerned about meeting her mom’s alt-universe teen double Roxy, develops a troubling dependence on alchemized moonshine. Kanaya eventually calls her out on it, because Rose’s love for “Human Soporifics” has dulled Rose’s once-sharp intellect and is destroying their relationship. In the most recent updates, Rose has been suffering from a vicious hangover and other withdrawal symptoms, so it seems that she’s been making an effort toward reattaining sobriety.

We meet Roxy Lalonde at the height of her addiction. When she is introduced at the beginning of Act 6, her drinking problem is a major character trait and is for a long time treated as a joking matter. Her typing style is fraught with inebriation-induced typos, and even her chat service username, tipsyGnostalgic, references drinking. Eventually, though, Roxy realizes how much the alcohol has been affecting her and quits.

For both Lalondes, drinking and quitting are sources of character development and growth, and the story would be very different if it had not included their addictions. Both of these characters turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for their unpleasant circumstances—Rose was stuck on a three-year space journey with nothing to do but think about whether Roxy would be disappointed in her when they met, and Roxy spent most of her life in a bleak future timeline where alien conquerors ruled the Earth and where only one other human, with whom she had no physical contact, was still alive. Alcohol is also a source of major insecurities for both of them: Rose drinks in part because, for her, it is a way to connect to her dead mother, and Roxy clung to drinking because her drunken antics were amusing to her very few friends.

roxy jane fight

This probably hurt Roxy more than dying did.

I’ve said many times that this season of Arrow has been a major improvement over the last season; addiction storylines are one part of this. Last season featured a subplot about Oliver’s sister Thea, who partied too hard, developed a substance abuse problem, and eventually got into a dangerous car accident while under the influence, and yet was able to turn around her life pretty quickly once she realized she had a problem. laurel lance drugsThis season has instead focused on Laurel, who has, since the Glades earthquake and the loss of Tommy, developed a drinking and prescription drug problem. Laurel’s problem seems more real to me: she struggles at work and steals her father’s prescriptions for pain medication. Her father tries to get her to go to a group meeting, but she angrily refuses to admit she has a problem. As of the most recent episode, she has lost her job and has been threatened with disbarment because her addiction has come to light. Throughout all of this she’s not portrayed as a villain or a bad person, but rather someone who has developed a dangerous and problematic coping mechanism. It seems to me that her journey back to sobriety will be more difficult and more true-to-life than Thea’s forgotten pill-popping. 

While some media (and some people) still struggle with the idea that addiction is a disease and not something you can shake off in a weekend, it’s heartening to see that all sorts of geek properties are taking the time to portray it in a light that neither glorifies the substance abuse nor demonizes the user. I can only hope that more series learn from the example of those that do, and do due diligence to their characters with addictions.

3 thoughts on “In Brightest Day: Addiction in Geek Media

  1. The interesting thing about Sherlock Holmes’ addictions in BBC’s Sherlock is that they sound like they attempt to modernize his tobacco addiction and they seem to mostly pass over his addiction to cocaine–except in that episode you mentioned. (I haven’t seen season three.) Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes uses cocaine as a way to distract himself during times when he lacks a case. So it almost seems as though the highs he gets from solving cases and cocaine are similar. It’s as if doing what he does best provides a break from his cocaine addiction, but he finds no other recourse for calming his overactive mind without a case.

    Then, while the original Watson deplores Sherlock’s disgusting habit of cocaine use, he naturally has no trouble with him smoking tobacco. Of course, a modern doctor has an entirely different outlook on smoking; so the modern Watson encourages Holmes to quit.

    But, I’d say that laughing at characters–characters, mind you, not real people–with addictions sometimes serves a good purpose. People do not want to be laughed at. Seeing a drunk or a recovering smoker as the butt of a joke impresses on the viewer’s mind that they should not become addicted to drugs or alcohol lest people look down on them.

    • That’s an interesting point you bring up about the modernization- I hadn’t thought of it in terms of original versus modern AU. I’m still a little loath to give you the last point, though – as the quote at the beginning of my article implies, no one chooses to be a movie-esque pathetic addict. They may choose to use drugs for the ‘glamour’, or they may choose to unhealthily cope with their problems with whatever substance, but no addict ever opened a bottle of pills or cracked into some whiskey and said: “Today I choose to destroy my life, health, and relationships over a long period of time by consuming this.” SO I’ll give you that drug use is a choice, and that negative portrayals of someone choosing to use drugs may convince viewers to avoid drugs. But addiction is a chemical thing, not a choice, and so I don’t think that portrayals one way or the other will help people not get addicted.

  2. Denny O’Neil was in recovery in real life, which is what led him to write a long storyline in Iron Man where Tony Stark was shown to be white-knuckling it, fell off the wagon hard, and had to make a long, difficult, painful climb back to sobriety. So it’s nice that afterwards other writers have occasionally shown Stark at AA meeting working to maintain his sobriety.

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