Recovery on the Small Screen

yellow retro tvTV representations of addiction have come a long way since Tom Hanks played Uncle Ned in Family Ties. Writers and producers are now telling stories about recovery with more empathy and accuracy than ever before. Here is a look at a few TV shows portraying addiction — and recovery.

Turn on the TV — or launch Netflix — and there is bound to be a show about addiction. For many years, those shows glamorized substance use, demonized drug users and fueled the social stigma that many people face as they enter the recovery process. Addiction was a plot twist: an overdose at a college party, an arrest for a drug-related offense, a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. The full scope of addiction and recovery wasn’t portrayed. There might be a person in recovery, but recovery itself was not the major theme (think sobered-up bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson) in the show Cheers).

In recent years, however, there has been a shift. CBS’s Mom, Netflix’s Flaked and Loved, HBO’s Girls and IFC’s Maron all explore recovery story lines. These shows not only tell each character’s personal story of recovery but also the larger story of the impact that drug and alcohol use have on the individual and their inner circle and the role of community in recovery.

“The times are a changing,” says Harry Haroutunian, physician director of the Professionals Program at the Betty Ford Center and author of

Not As Prescribed: Recognizing and Facing Alcohol and Drug Misuse in Older Adults.

Although 12-step programs are based in anonymity, more and more people, from the celebrity to the person next door, are stepping out of the shadows and giving a face to recovery. Aided by nonprofit organizations, such as Faces & Voices of Recovery and Facing Addiction, that work to shift perceptions about addiction and share the proof of long-term recovery, the media is realizing recovery is a story worth telling.

“There are more writers with personal experience who are feeling the freedom to write about their own experiences,” says Greg Williams, co-founder and executive vice president of Facing Addiction. “You have these creators who are willing to touch on topics that relate to their personal experience and who are passionate about them. The atmosphere feels safer than ever before.”

Although perhaps not as sensational as the struggle, pain and suffering of active addiction, recovery can be hard, and these TV shows aren’t sugarcoated. They deal with cravings, relapses, conflicts, relationships, illness and death. But they also share the types of miracles that recovery brings into life.

“The overarching impact from my point of view is that, if media is a reflection of society, then recovery is now being seen as normal and cool,” Haroutunian says. “It’s cooler to show up and function and engage, rather than to harm one’s self and others.”

Although Williams is happy to see TV shows portraying people in recovery, he thinks there is still more work to do.

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