Getting it right: research & addiction

Depression-and-AlcoholismRecently, I’ve been in rooms with various artists who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of addiction even though many creative people struggle with addictions of one form or another. With (for example) 54% of playwrights as alcoholics, it’s no surprise that a large percentage of books, plays and screenplays include the subject in large or small part. Consider Hunter S. Thompson, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Bukowski… you get the point.

How do I know about it? My mother was a Valium addict and I went through rehab with her then Al-Anon after. I have a number of friends and family with various addictions. I’ve read the literature and lived the problems and been to the funerals.

If you are a writer or actor and you are not an addict and/or did not grow up around it, consider attending AA and Al-Anon meetings and reading the literature, such as the Big Book of AA.  Find open meetings, call ahead and let whoever runs the meeting know ahead of time what you are doing. Do not go under false pretenses. Learn and observe the rules. Not every meeting will accept you. It is not tourism. Do NOT write about people in the meetings – respect their anonymity. The only purpose is to learn the dynamics and struggles, to learn what real addiction and recovery look like, not to acquire fodder for your work.

This seems like it would be very familiar ground for anyone, but there are subtleties that you as an artist need to be aware of. Get the details right. Do you know what a dry drunk is? Do you know the difference between not being sober and using? Do you fully understand what true sobriety is? (Hint: it’s a controversial subject with a fair amount of disagreement on the definition) Can a person be sober and continue to lie? Learn the warning signs of alcoholism, the symptoms of drug addiction and signs of relapse.

If you are performing or writing the role of an addict or in relationship to one, you need to understand the dynamics of that heroin-needle-spoonrelationship and not filtered via TV, books or movies. Talk to real addicts and real families impacted. Find out what happens. Learn the difference between an alcoholic, a Valium addict and a heroin junkie. I had a friend once with experience in all those relationships who declared she’d take anyone over a Valium addict any day of the week. Go discover why. Interview the doctors and therapists who work with them. You owe it to yourself and your audience or readers to get it right, to stop playing or writing stereotypes, to go deeper.

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