Is Being “California Sober” Really Being In Recovery?
The idea of somebody who is in recovery from addiction and describes...
Note: Spoilers for Hulu’s Dopesick below
Dopesick, which aired its finale this week, is a recent Hulu mini-series that digs into the sinister roots of the opioid crisis and its wide-ranging, devastating impact. That exploration takes on even more gravity in light of the recently released statistics that show that American overdose deaths, over sixty percent of which involve synthetic opioids, have risen higher than ever before.
In the show’s first four episodes, which I covered in a previous blog post, we meet two major characters whose journeys of addiction we follow intimately. These are young coal miner Betsy Mallum, who struggles to find acceptance of her lesbian sexuality in her conservative town, and Dr. Samuel Finnick, a caring widower physician who went from prescribing OxyContin to his patients to abusing the substance himself.
Both characters were prescribed Oxycontin to treat physical pain from acute injuries. But for both, underlying emotional pain and excruciating physical withdrawal symptoms prompted them to keep using opiates long after those initial injuries had healed.
For a while, we watch both characters as they try and fail to walk away from the incredibly addictive drug. Eventually, though, their paths diverge. While Finnick eventually stabilizes with the help of the medication Suboxone after a run-in with the law serves as his wake-up call, Betsy is pulled even deeper into addiction’s unending wormhole.
In one powerful and excruciating scene from Episode 5, which takes place after Betsy has pawned her mother’s wedding ring and other irreplaceable family heirlooms in order to afford the pills she needs to stave off withdrawal, her father realizes what has happened and confronts her.
After admonishing her for having become a “disgusting person,” he snatches her backpack and finds her stash, then dumps the lot down the drain as Betsy watches helplessly, grasping at the pills and throwing a full-on tantrum as she tries to stop him.
“No, dad, I’ll die” she begs and screams, punching the cabinet and then tearing through her room before finally setting fire to a pile of blankets.
Indeed, as another character later describes, the drug is so powerful that “you’re in so much pain without it that you think you’re going to die.” To avoid that pain, Betsy, like many real-life opiate abusers, eventually finds herself switching to harsher heroin when her pills prove unaffordable.
Though Betsy does eventually commit to starting Suboxone treatment, the breakthrough comes too late, partially due to her church leader’s stigmatizing discouragement of the medication. A hit that was supposed to be her last before she recovered is instead her last because it causes a fatal overdose. Ironically, the drugs that Betsy feels as if she will die without are the very thing that bring about her death.
Later, her mother reflects:
“When she died from an overdose, there was a part of me that was relieved that she was finally out of her pain. But that pain lives in me now, and in her father. Oxycontin destroyed our family, like it has so many others.”
Similarly tragic stories, all of which have hundreds of real-life counterparts, are told by other parents who have lost their children to opioid overdoses when they testify in the court case against the Sacklers, the series’ other major plot thread. DEA agents and investigative attorneys tirelessly continue their crusade against the sinister Sackler family (who wrongfully concealed evidence of Oxycontin’s dangers in order to make billions off the drug) even at the expense of their mental health and personal happiness.
Like the despair and grief of Betsy’s parents, the ultimate breakdown of Agent Bridget Meyer’s marriage due to her commitment to ending the opioid crisis is just one example of the collateral damage that Oxycontin has done to thousands of people who have never touched the drug themselves.
Later in the episode, Dr. Finnick reflects:
“Addiction does the exact opposite of what connection does, am I right? Addiction tears apart. It tears apart friendship, it tears apart marriages, it’ll tear apart a family… tear apart a whole community.”
Though the Sacklers, both in show and in life, were found guilty of criminal misbranding and punished with a substantial fine, it hasn’t made a real dent in their fortune, and hasn’t delivered relatives of the victims anything close to the justice that they seek. Somewhat more satisfyingly, though, the Sacklers have been rightly villainized in the court of public opinion, with Dopesick itself indicting them once more for all to see.
But Dr. Finnick’s storyline ends on a truly optimistic note, demonstrating the limitless potential of recovery to rebuild the very connections that addiction shatters.
To make amends unwittingly spurring some of his patients’ addictions by prescribing them Oxycontin before he was aware of its dangers, Finnick makes it his mission to help others recover, even personally driving one young struggling addict named Elizabeth Ann to all of her treatment appointments.
As both characters heal and grow, eventually Finnick is able to taper off of Suboxone and regain his medical license. The final scene of the show depicts him leading a group therapy meeting, reflecting on the role pain plays in fostering addiction.
“Part of the reason we relapse is because of pain. There’s some kind of pain that’s in a lot of us, or all of us, we just don’t want to feel anymore. And the further we fall into addiction, pain says to us, hell, we’d be better off just feeling nothing at all. So we go numb. And our souls go numb. Now we’ve got a real problem. You know, pain is just pain. Not good, not bad. Just part of being a human being. And sometimes good can come out of it. And if we’re brave enough and willing to go a little deeper, work our way through it, and try to overcome it, well, we just might find our better selves.”
This statement, which puts forth a redemptive view of human suffering, is almost the mirror image of the statement the show started with, which was Richard Sackler’s impossible mission of curing the world of its pain, and it is one that sounds a whole lot more realistic.
After all, pain, at its root, is only a symptom, a signal, not a disease in and of itself. Pain is the body’s way of saying “something is broken”—and it is also the heart’s.
To expand on my ongoing metaphor of addiction-as-fire, numbing pain without treating the underlying emotional or physical injury is like silencing a smoke alarm instead of trying to put out the flames. Yes, drugs and alcohol can offer temporary relief, but the only way to reach towards true healing is to move through it instead of, always, away to the next hit.
Whatever darkness you have been driven to, it’s never too late to turn back towards recovery—but, considering the grim statistics and grave dangers that surround addiction, there is no time to waste in taking that step.
To learn more about Reco Intensive and how our comprehensive intensive outpatient program can help you or a loved one process and move past their own pain and break free of addiction, reach out to us today at (561) 464-6533.
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