Addiction in the Media: Sons of Anarchy

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

It seems to me that the number of shows and movies depicting addiction and recovery are far more numerous today. It could be that I’m just more aware of it now that I’m actually in recovery, and working in the field, but I think (hope) it’s that these topics are becoming a bigger part of the public discourse.

With that said, a lot of TV shows and movies don’t really “get” recovery. Or maybe the ins and outs of real recovery are just too cumbersome for the plot. Usually, I see addiction glamorized, and the grittiness and helplessness is left out. Or if they get addiction right, they don’t show what comes afterword, how people escape it and build a new life.  We get an hour and fifteen minutes of the horrors of addiction, followed by the main character checking into rehab, then the credits roll. Or in a TV show, the character simply goes to rehab and gets out and they never mention it again. The character is “cured” or “took care of the problem.”

One of the reasons I love Son’s is the way the show handles addiction. Now addiction isn’t a main theme of the show or anything, and I probably only notice it because I relate, but SOA does a great job in accurately portraying addiction recovery, and for good reason. Showrunner Kurt Sutter is in recovery himself, as is his wife Katey Sagal, who plays Gemma Teller on the show.

SOA Sober Cast Members

Sagal was recently the winner of a PRISM Award, which recognizes the accurate depiction of substance abuse and mental illness: prevention, treatment and recovery in film, television, interactive, music, DVD, and comic book entertainment. Established in 1997, the PRISM Awards honor productions that are not only powerfully entertaining, but realistically show substance abuse and addiction, as well as mental health issues. Winners are selected by a committee of entertainment industry professionals and technical experts from the fields of medicine, mental health, and addiction.

When Sagal accepted the award on behalf of SOA, her comment “I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for recovery — I’ve been sober for 26 years” brought the house down. So did her line, “I’m on a show where every character needs to get sober!”

Katey Sagal told The Hollywood Reporter the media can help shed light on alcoholism and addiction.

“I know the importance of dispelling the secret, feeling like you’re not alone, seeing the consequences and relating to them, to get yourself help,” she said. “All those things are the service that’s provided by accurate depictions in media.”

Kurt Sutter, creator, head writer, and executive producer of SOA (who also appears on the show as incarcerated club member Otto Delaney) admits that he still struggles with finding the right balance in his life. “I got clean and sober about 17 years ago and really try to live my life by those principles” of recovery, he said. “I don’t struggle with the desire to do drugs and alcohol anymore, but I struggle with the obsessive and compulsive behavior that sometimes accompanies people with addictions.”

Kurt Sutter and Katey Sagal aren’t the only SOA cast members who have struggled with alcoholism and addiction. Emilio Rivera, who plays Marcus Alvarez, the Founder of the Mayan Motorcycle Club, and the President of its Oakland Charter, struggled with substance abuse as well.

“I have 21 years, clean and sober.” Rivera told Collider.” I know that, if I was still doing what I did before, I would never do what I’m doing now because I wouldn’t really listen to anybody.”

Danny Trejo, also in recovery, plays Romero “Romeo” Parada, a dangerous former commando for the Mexican military who became a high-ranking member of a Galindo Cartel. He is one of SAMCRO’s new gun buyers. At the end of season four is revealed that Romeo is actually an undercover CIA agent.

Throughout the 1960s, Trejo was in and out of jail and prison in California. He wasn’t a model prisoner.

In 1968, “I went to the hole looking at three gas-chamber offenses.” He tells The Guardian, “After the Cinco de Mayo riots at San Quentin, they said I threw a rock and hit the lieutenant in the head but you know what? I did hit him in the head with a rock. But I wasn’t throwing it at him, I was throwing it at a group of guys and he happened to be hit. So we all had gas-chamber offenses, and we were taken to the hole and I remember saying: ‘God, if you’re there, everything will turn out the way it’s supposed to. If you’re not, I’m f***d.’”

His time in the hole had him thinking a lot about God and the course of his life.

“I dedicated my life right there.” He said. The charges were later dropped on a technicality.

When Trejo was paroled in 1969, he discovered 12 step programs and began working as a drug counselor for teen drug addicts.

A 12-step call one night brought him to the set of Runaway Train, where Trejo was offered a job as an extra in the film’s prison scenes. Edward Bunker, himself a former convict and well-respected crime author who was writing the screenplay for the film, recognized Trejo, with whom he had done time at San Quentin. Bunker, remembering Trejo’s boxing skills, offered him $320 per day to train Eric Roberts, one of the movie’s stars, for a boxing scene. Director Andrei Konchalovsky liked Trejo’s work and decided to offer him a prominent role in the film.

Trejo has been sober for 44 years.

Addiction and Recovery in SOA

One of the characters on SOA did manage to get sober. Wendy Case (played by the always awesome Drea DeMatteo) is Jax Teller’s (Charlie Hunnam) estranged ex-wife who is addicted to methamphetamine. After their son, Abel, is born-addicted to methamphetamine and with health complications from Wendy’s meth use during pregnancy-Wendy goes to rehab. Does she go home after 28 days in treatment, right as rain, like so many fictional characters do? Nope. SOA makes a point to tell us that she moves into a sober living home.

When Wendy comes back into the picture, she is two years sober, attending meetings, and (realistically) working in the field of addiction recovery.

This season, Wendy is back again, and I admit to feeling a little disquiet when she claims in episode 3, Poenitentia, that she was attacked at a 12-step meeting and later it is revealed that she is lying.  Why? Because she is in recovery! She is supposed to be working a program of honesty! I hate it when people “recover” from addiction on TV and in movies and then they don’t adhere to spiritual principles. It rings false to me.

I realize that in the messed up world of Sons of Anarchy, right and wrong are not always black and white, so I was relieved when in the next episode, it is revealed that Wendy is in cahoots with Tara, Jax’s wife and mother of his second son, Thomas. They are trying to ensure that Wendy is awarded custody of the two boys if Tara goes to prison (which seems likely at this point). Okay, I thought, at least her motives aren’t completely selfish. At least lying is the “lesser of two evils” in this situation. Still, I thought, it should be acknowledged that lying isn’t exactly part of Wendy’s program of recovery. There are sure to be consequences. (I do realize that I take this show altogether too seriously).

I felt better during last week’s episode “The Mad King” when Wendy is obviously bothered by her deception. She bursts into Tara’s office and tells her tells her that she can’t do this anymore. She says that she can’t keep lying to everyone. Tara tells her that she needs to think of the greater good, and that they need to get the boys away from Gemma and the MC.  Wendy tells her that there has to be another way, to which Tara shouts, “There’s not!” Tara also acknowledges that Wendy is trying to live her life differently today, but in this case, there is no other choice.

So maybe there is a better way to get the boys away from the MC, maybe there isn’t, but I was happy that SOA at least acknowledged that as a person in recovery, lying and sneaking around isn’t going to sit well with Wendy.

So fellow SOA fans, do you think Sons of Anarchy is accurate in their portrayal of recovery? What do you think Wendy should do in this situation? What would YOU do in her situation? Is she putting her recovery at risk? Let us know in the comments!

And if you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, please call us at 1-800-951-6135.

 

Sources:

http://www.prismawards.com/

http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/05/entertainment/la-ca-kurt-sutter-20100905

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danny_Trejo

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/dec/06/danny-trejo-hole-gas-chamber