Sobriety and Recovery: A Popular Culture Portrayal

Sobriety and Recovery: A Popular Culture Portrayal

By Ivy Handleman


It’s easy to overlook media portrayals until you see a representation of your own identity. Sometimes they are accurate, and at other times insulting. As an alcoholic and addict in recovery, I have seen stigmas in media and popular culture over and over. Pop culture has both an accurate and deadly incorrect portrayal of addiction and recovery. Media increases the idea of addiction being a moral issue and downplays the length of time and challenges it takes to recover.

Seeing addicts and alcoholics on television and in movies is something I have been particularly aware of since getting sober three and a half years ago, and it never ceases to amuse me how accurate these portrayals often are. There is never a lack of drama when it comes to people who are drinking and using drugs; I would imagine that producers don’t have to do much work to get it started. I relate to a lot of the behavior I see and I can even laugh at it, because when we are in our addiction, most alcoholics and addicts are the same. We are quick to think how unique and different we are, but that uniqueness is almost unattainable.

Recovering from drug and alcohol addiction is a whole different story. Based on my research in the media, there is less accurate information given for recovery than there is for the excitement and drama of being sick in the disease. It’s much easier to portray negativity in a realistic way than it is to show positivity. There are shows on rehabs, and getting clean, but hardly anything about alcoholism and addiction as a disease. With this information, we are made out to be weak; seen as people who have been “brought down” by drugs and who need an institution to “get their life back on track”. Most people want to see drama of being an addict, and the quick and easy fix to turn it around when they are watching a show or movie.

The focus is not on addiction as a disease, but rather people who, “fall into the wrong crowd” or who, “just ended up partying”. The problem with this is that it puts blame on people. And, while I think it is extremely important to own the things we as addicts have done, it is equally as important to remember that as an alcoholic and addict thirty days in rehab is not going to cure me.

There is a science behind addiction, though it is frequently seen as a moral issue, “It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). The description of the science of addiction goes on to explain what drug addicts and alcoholics actually face, “drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or string will”. Unfortunately this is something that is hard to portray through television, movies, social media, and much more.

So, even a show like Intervention, where there is some sort of positive message being sent: that drug addicts can get sober when they have help, is not fully accurate. The problem is what we don’t see in shows. We don’t see what each person really has to go through to get clean and sober and stay that way. It’s unfortunate that not many people get to see the truths of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

According to a study from 2008-2009 found at,, the relapse rate for drug addicts is 40-60%. It’s a miracle when you find someone with multiple years of sobriety. This is because it’s not something that you get over. It’s not something that is fixed after a certain number of days. I have seen people get sober, pick up their lives, get everything back that they lost (relationships and material), become happy and still relapse. I have had friends die of overdoses. It’s definitely not popular culture media’s fault for these tragedies, but we are responsible for knowing the truth behind what we see on a screen.

When I watch a show like Intervention, it actually has a pretty powerful impact on me. As I said earlier, in my experience, addict behavior is addict behavior and it’s all the same. It’s very humbling to see the behavior in other people, especially on TV. And it brings up a lot of emotions to see what a powerful impact they have on the family. When I see active addicts on TV it often makes me cry, or tear up because I remember being in a similar situation.

My analysis raises some questions about what, if anything, would help prevent people from ruining their lives with drugs and alcohol? What I am proposing is that all of the effort media has put into the awareness around drug and alcohol addiction may not actually be helpful in the larger scheme of things. In other words, I am saying that it looks pretty bleak as far as helping those who need it. In some ways, that is true, seeing as how rare it is for people to get and stay sober who need it. In addition, if pop culture is the only information someone is getting on getting sober, they may be greatly misinformed. It may point them in the right direction, but it also may attract them to another thing that is supposed to fix them.

Popular shows, media, internet, social media, and the list could go on, influence our day-to-day lives more than we can imagine. No matter how far disconnected you are, you are still tuned in to what other people are doing to change or obtain something before you do it. This has a great impact on how we make our life decisions and how we overcome difficult situations. Ultimately I only know my experience on this subject and I don’t think there is one way that works for everyone.

An article found in the Los Angeles Times addresses this same issue. In her article, “The 30-Day Myth”, Shari Roan talks about how our country is looking for a quick and easy fix to our problems. These types of options are always more desirable than long-term solutions. “But in the case of drug and alcohol dependence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no such thing as get-well-quick therapy” (Roan). She goes on to say that the longer the treatment is, the higher success rate.

It seems as though the word is spreading about the truths of addiction and recovery, but I still believe it has yet to hit popular culture media. There is still a misconception that addiction is a moral issue and can therefor be fixed easily, only if people want to change. There is much more to it, and we have to remember that there is always more beyond just what we see on TV or in movies.





Works Cited Web. 9 March


Roan, Shari. LA Times.

10 November 2008. Web.





5 thoughts on “Sobriety and Recovery: A Popular Culture Portrayal

  1. Ivy,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your essay on sobriety and recovery. Your personal connection to this subject was real and humble. The first sentence of your essay lured me in automatically, “It’s easy to overlook media portrayals until you see a representation of your own identity.” I thought that it was interesting that you bring up the point that the stigma lies in the idea of morality. As a health science major, I study and read articles on treatment and addiction for all drugs. I think that you are right, many people think that people with drug/alcohol addiction need to gather there morals in order to put their life together. This is the main reason why addiction exists. I do agree with you that addiction is a disease, and needs constant assistance throughout life. It’s not something that we fix through a couple of therapy sessions or rehab and the problem disappears. It takes constant work to stay away from addiction. What I really enjoyed is at the end of your essay, the article in the L.A. Times “The 30-Day Myth.” I think that this evidence you use supports the idea that there is no such thing as easy fixes through fast treatment programs, or that addiction is over when you finish the program. It is a constant struggle throughout life and people need as much support they can get. Especially from the community, family, friends, and society. I also appreciate how you talk about that the media is misinforming people who have addictions if they look at this as a source of information. I think that it is an interesting point that you raise, that there is more hype around the media showing drug and alcohol problems rather than treatment. When I read this, I was able to analyze multiple movies that capture this idea. Thank you Ivy for this insightful essay. I think that you analyze recovery and addiction from a unique perspective that sheds light on this identity.

    Thank You,

    • Stephanie,
      It makes me so happy, and gives me a lot of hope to know that another person can see some of the truths of addiction. I’m so glad this was helpful and I hope some of it carries with you in your future.

  2. Poignant and alarming and touching all at once. Have you seen Oslo, August 31st. I myself used to endure these problems my youth. 14-19 and had nobody to help me, and everyone viewed us as outsiders or out of touch with reality, not able to receive help. The fact you were able to write about a situation with such eloquence, to make those of us who have struggled/ still struggling, not look like monsters, make you a wonderful person in my eyes, and in the eyes of many others. I think that addiction is something that people cast aside because it is too frightening of a thing, and your essay really made me feel understood, and for that I thank you, deeply. Goosebumps. thank you.

    • I’m so glad that this was helpful for you. Thank you for saying that – I really appreciate it! It’s taken some time and space from what it used to be like to be able to talk about it openly and honestly. It’s always comforting to know that people who understand are always available for anyone who needs/wants it.

  3. Ivy-

    Truly amazing! I also wrote about a very personal part of my life, similar to yours, addiction. It was a tough decision to put myself out there like that but once I did I felt great and like I might be helping someone, anyone. Your essay was amazing and congrats on the three plus years of sobriety. I hope you keep going forth in your recovery and remember, day by day! 🙂 I agree that all the popular culture portrays addicts like we have an easy choice to just quit, if only it was that easy. You wrote that it is a disease and takes more than just the “willpower” to say OK, I’m done, I’ll never use drugs or alcohol again, it isn’t that easy and I wish the world was more informed on the true nature of this disease. If only more had the knowledge that your essay starts to go into.

    Anyway, great job on your essay! To be able to be so personal about your life and put yourself out there like this is an amazing thing to do. I wish you nothing but success in your future and keep pushing forward. Some day you will look back and have 10 years, 15 years, and so on of being clean and you will just smile to yourself a little smile and think of how far you have came, it will feel amazing. I can’t wait for that myself!


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