Addiction always carried a stigma. It was rarely discussed and people were not open about their struggle with addiction, or their decision to seek treatment. But, as of late, Hollywood’s focus on movies where addiction is a theme in the story should help to change the perception. “Ben is Back,” “Beautiful Boy,” “A Star is Born” and “Diane,” have addiction as the main- or a sub-plot. The attention is welcome as it not only highlights the pervasiveness of addiction in the country, but also helps to humanize the disease and lessens the stigma associated with it.
Addressing different facets of addiction, these films also highlight the fact that addiction is touching everyone, regardless of social status, education or zip code. “Diane” treats addiction as one of the diseases afflicting people close to the main character in the movie (in this case, her son) and deals, to an extent, with being in the position of detesting your own son. “A Star is Born” is, predictably, about the fall of a music icon from superstardom aided in no small part by abuse of alcohol and drugs, as another (his partner) is rising. “Beautiful Boy” is about the vulnerabilities of an individual suffering from addiction and the cycle of attempting to stay sober and then, relapsing, while simultaneously exploring the complex feelings of the boy’s father who lived with the shame of his son’s degrading behavior. And in one of the most anticipated films of the year, “Ben is Back,” the mother, played by Julia Roberts, is the only one who thinks her son can probably live sober at home (after taking proper precautions), when he comes back home unannounced for a short stay on Christmas eve from a rehab.
Without meaning to, “Ben is Back” also highlights the shortcomings of the incumbent, and dominant treatment model – inpatient detoxification and rehab – where the patient is in a bubble, far from the realities of his/her living environment. When the patient comes back home from treatment and faces the stressors in his/her living environment, the results are not predictable.
This is one of many reasons that outpatient treatment for addiction is often more successful. Staying in their real-life environment while accessing treatment helps patients to learn coping skills and work through triggers in real time with the help of treatment professionals. Further, outpatient treatment helps to reduce the stigma that somehow addiction is a shameful behavioral problem, and those in treatment must be hidden away for extended periods until they learn to modify their “behavior.” Such a treatment plan is rarely employed with other chronic diseases, even those that are highly contagious.
Ultimately, while none of the movies cover all aspects of addiction and its impact on an individual and his/her ecosystem, they have each tried to turn an individual afflicted by the disease of addiction into a character, with a backstory. To a certain extent they portray not only the struggle the characters have with addiction, but also the stigma against them that manifests itself in multiple ways.
These movies help to underscore the message that, first and foremost, addiction is not a moral failure! It is a disease. Repeated abuse of alcohol/drugs changes the circuitry in the brain in a way where an individual’s brain becomes dependent on the substance abused to stimulate the release of dopamine in order to feel pleasure. The brain’s own triggers to release dopamine (in response to pleasurable acts, such as food or sex) become suppressed and the individual suffering from addiction may feel flat, lifeless and depressed when not abusing drugs or alcohol. These changes in the brain can often take years to correct, leaving the individual suffering from addiction susceptible to relapse during that time.
As more movies include addiction as one of the themes in the story, the more easily addiction will be accepted as a disease. This disease does not automatically remit over time and treatment interventions are needed. Individuals afflicted by the disease may need multiple treatment episodes, as addiction is a chronic disease marked by relapses. It is through realization, compassion and proactive treatment (preferably in an outpatient setting) that we can truly make it easy for individuals to openly accept that they have a problem with addiction and readily access treatment. Hollywood shedding light on addiction should help to reverse the stigma.