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Addiction On TV: HBO’s “In Treatment”

Note: Spoilers for Season 4 of In Treatment ahead 


As could be expected from its premise, quite the array of mental health issues are explored in HBO’s pandemic-inspired fourth season of the TV show In Treatment, which aired its first three seasons between 2008 and 2010. 

The show, based on an earlier Israeli incarnation called Be Tipul, takes place almost entirely during the course of a series of sessions between a therapist and a selection of their clients. During its original run, these sessions were presided over by the character of Dr. Paul Weston, an astute but repressed white man in his fifties. 

But now there’s a new therapist in town, and In Treatment 2.0 offers up a notably more diverse cast than the original, starting with Dr. Brooke Taylor as its central figure. Though Brooke’s blackness alone is enough to challenge stereotypes that imagine the mental health field as the sole province of white practitioners, her story is also a surprisingly nuanced portrait of someone who struggles with addiction. 

Played by Orange Is The New Black standout Uzo Adoba, Brooke probably isn’t the kind of person you’d think of first when calling to mind an alcoholic. She’s an educated, fashion-forward professional, always exceedingly put-together and usually excellent in her role as a psychologist.

For three out of every four episodes, Brooke is shown trying to puzzle out the psyches of her patients, all three of whom have their own major mental health issues to reckon with. But in that fourth, which, for most of the season, features a conversation between Brooke and her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Rita, we can see that Brooke too is beginning to unravel, which eventually informs her behavior as a therapist.

We learn, then, that Brooke’s occasional trips to her kitchen for a quick post-session dip into her fridge’s liquor drawer have been anything but casual. In fact, Brooke has recently begun drinking again after quitting nine years prior, having first given it up only after a stint in rehab. 

But even an alcoholic with a significant period of sobriety under their belt isn’t necessarily safe from relapse, especially after a significant life stressor. In this case, along with the COVID-19 pandemic and the burden she feels from having to shoulder her patients’ reactions to this unprecedented global crisis, Brooke is dealing with the death of her father, which has forced a fresh reckoning with her traumatic past. 

In another realistic touch, Brooke initially attempts to hide her relapse even from Rita, one of her closest confidants. But the jig is up when Brooke calls Rita while intoxicated and in tears after learning that her son, whom she gave up for adoption after a teenage pregnancy, doesn’t want to be contacted by her. 

Rita tries everything to convince Brooke to renew her commitment to the program and to sobriety, but,  when that proves impossible, she reluctantly agrees to continue spending time with Brooke as her friend outside of the confines of sponsor/sponsee. 

However, as Brooke’s relapse worsens, Rita makes the commendable choice to enact a boundary and withdraw to protect her own mental health, the prelude to an episode that is instead a conversation between Brooke and herself.

In this fantasy sequence, Dr. Brooke Taylor the psychologist (who I’ll now refer to as Dr. Taylor) gets to have a session with Brooke the alcoholic patient, objectively assessing her own pathology through the lens of her professional training. 

It’s an unusual storytelling device, but a surprisingly effective one, highlighting the difference between our rational, higher selves and the less actualized people we can become when we let our addictions stay in the driver’s seat. 

Though Brooke keeps insisting that she can drink moderately without falling into her former, life-threatening patterns, Dr. Taylor points out evidence that that is not the case, like the fact that she has gone from only drinking in the evening to sneaking the occasional drink during her workday to “take the edge off.”

Then, Dr. Taylor turns her attention to her patient’s background. Though Brooke’s primary complaints thus far have been with her father, who she blames for forcing her to surrender her son, Dr. Taylor suggests that it’s actually Brooke’s mother who may have played a bigger part in setting the stage for her addiction. 

In another touch that is true to life for many people who struggle with substances, Brooke’s mother was an alcoholic herself, to the extent that her unchecked alcohol abuse seems to have been the defining factor leading to her premature death from a stroke. 

And Dr. Taylor the psychologist can make the connections that Brooke the patient cannot between her mother’s disengagement and her own need to tamp herself down with alcohol. The messages that she absorbed from her surroundings as a child fueled a fear of being “too much,” and the idea that she needed to “dim her light” to be loved. 

So, Dr. Taylor is able to offer Brooke an affirmation that her family never could; “You don’t have to be sad to be loved. The only way for you to experience real love is if you stop dimming your light.”

“Every drink you take tarnishes that brilliance,” she warns herself. 

Of course, this insight, powerful though it is, doesn’t erase all the sorrow in Brooke’s past that her alcohol use was an unhealthy attempt to cope with. But Dr. Taylor had another piece of advice for her patient that can serve as a valuable lesson to anyone struggling with substances. 

“I’m sorry I can’t make this ok for you. All I can do is encourage you to sit with your pain. Have patience with it. Become steadfast in it. Make it mean something.”

By the end of the series, it seems as if Brooke has taken these words of her higher self to heart, making her journey, ultimately, an inspirational one. 

Though most of us won’t get to have literal conversations with our alter egos, we all have the ability to “show up” for ourselves when it comes to questioning the unhealthy patterns and beliefs that keep us trapped in our addictions. But shows like In Treatment also illustrate that sometimes the guidance of a caring professional can make us more aware of those patterns, giving us the insight we need to tap back into our own strength.  

If you too have been struggling with substance abuse during the pandemic and don’t want to spend any more time dimming your light, don’t hesitate to reach out to Reco Intensive. Our comprehensive treatment programs can help you address the toxic beliefs that are keeping you trapped and build the framework for a healthier self-conception. Call RECO Intensive at (561) 464-6533 today. Let’s get back to a brighter future.

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