What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Drug Addiction

Even in progressive films, realistic representation of people in recovery Is missing.
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Jane Lynch has been sober for more than a decade. Why don’t we see recovery like hers on the big screen?

Jane Lynch has been sober for more than a decade. Why don’t we see recovery like hers on the big screen?

Heroin addicts all look the same in the movies. Have you noticed? They are limpid, nocturnal looking. Their skin is translucent to the point of looking pale green. Their eyes are too large. They look like something is draining the life out of them, sucking their blood and replacing it with something milky and toxic.

They remind me of that kid who played the lead in Elephant. I auditioned for Elephant, actually, along with a couple thousand other people. Gus Van Sant sat at a card table in the lobby of an abandoned elementary school in Portland and all of us, a line of people all fluffing and sweating and fiddling with our contact cards, shuffled by him to get our photo taken in front of a plain white backdrop.

By the time it was my turn in front of the backdrop, I was dehydrated and starting to shake. It was 2002. I was a freshman in college. I’d recently started drinking again. After months away from alcohol and on antidepressants, my body wasn’t tolerating anything well. It was never sunny in Portland, but it had to be sunny that day.

“Ever acted before?”

I nodded. Two small roles, high school drama. I didn’t have a headshot, like some of the others. I’d written my height and weight on an index card. I was ready to be discovered. I stood in front of the screen. What was I doing here? Van Sant, thin and wearing a long sleeved black coat, even in the heat, had his back to me. I was not making any kind of impression. I’m positive that my headshot, if it still exists, shows my eyes drifting to one side of the frame, hoping to be noticed by someone who is engaged elsewhere. I left in a sulk, pushing my bike along the sidewalk, and immediately went to get some beer.

When people ask me what addiction feels like, I name a movie. They make it easy to describe. There are plenty of kinds of addiction. Pick your poison. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Jesus’ Son. Ciao, Manhattan. Trainspotting. Pulp Fiction. I’ve spent my time inside each of them. My drug and alcohol use careened from the stylized amphetamine torture of Requiem for a Dream to outrageous Pineapple Express nights. I saw my addiction reflected in Magnolia. That scene when Julianne Moore melts down in a pharmacy? That was me.

I had sickness all around me. I was very, very sick.

My addiction, even on its off days, was always there. It was James Gandolfini, in True Romance, washing his hands in the hotel bathroom, while I bled on the tatty carpet. It was Christopher Walken in King of New York, opening my shirt on the subway and slipping a cold hand over my chest.

I watched a lot of those movies when I was using, and it reassured me that at least my story wasn’t a total anomaly. It wasn’t until I got sober — until I’d survived what I sometimes call my Tarantino years — that I realized there are almost no people in recovery in the movies.

When there are, they’re stupid. As though they are only whole in the presence of the substances that animated them. Genius belongs to the doomed ones, the alcoholics who are about to relapse. Or it’s the province of artists, who drop platitudes between eight-balls, Basquiat-style. Sober people are boring. They’re self righteous, to the point of being comical. Marisa Tomei, in Crazy Stupid Love, can’t stop talking about her sobriety date. It’s clear from her behavior that putting the drink down was the only thing she’s got to be proud of — and it’s a joke.

People who turned out like me are a joke.

Alcoholics turn up trying to prove that they’ve changed, like Hal in Picnic. They may take a break from weed or psychedelics and find that life without hallucinogens just isn’t worth it. Or they calmly puff their lives away, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, who is kind of a kahlua-seeking missile. The person who is sober, in the movie, is never the hero. They are always fragile. Their addiction is a plot point. It shows up in the first act, like the gun on the wall, and we know that their reprieve won’t last. Sex addiction, alcohol, heroin, whatever. When they slip back into their old habits, it’s just part of the story. Inevitable, even.

Choke, for example. Or Thanks For Sharing.

Ten years after my last drink, I have acted in a few movie-and-TV things. Mostly as an extra, which is fun, because they feed you and you get to hear all the other extras try to one-up each other and guess who’s the most important, who’s really going somewhere. I am going nowhere. That’s OK with me. I’m a tall blonde, which is a good thing to be, because every show needs one. I was on Portlandia, being a tall blonde. I was in a Yacht music video, being a tall blonde.

I got to be a tall blonde body double in I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore. I sat on the overstuffed set couch while the crew adjusted the stands and reflectors around me. The light was going to bounce off my face exactly the way it was going to bounce off Lee Eddy’s in the real movie. I sat in her seat, wearing a denim shirt that mimicked the texture of her costume. Our measurements were the same, and the planes of our faces were close enough that the casting director said we looked like cousins.

In that moment, I realized what had made me crazy for years in my addiction. I was acting in the wrong movie. I thought I was the tall, elegant lead. Atomic Blonde. The killer. The misunderstood, brilliant writer. I was so serious that it must have been funny to watch — or painful. I was Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, “sick and tired of love.”

I brought my angst to every one of the roles I was called on to play, and didn’t understand why they didn’t work out. My relationships crumbled at my touch. Friends told me I was “too much.” I gravitated towards people who belonged in the same movies as me. The results were noir, to say the least.

I struggled with the same thing for years in my early recovery. I felt out of place, because I was. I was reading the wrong lines, wearing the wrong wardrobe. Alcohol and drugs had numbed my discomfort and helped me buy into my own story. Without them, I had to accept that I was completely out of touch with who I really was. I may as well have been Steve Buscemi, trying to catch a romantic lead in a Jane Austen flick. With that face? I was in the wrong show.

In recovery, I learned that I wasn’t the lead at all. I was reading the wrong lines, stealing someone else’s blocking, and wondering why nobody wanted to give me a Best Actor award. I thought I had gravitas, when really, I was stiff and cold, no fun at all.

It turns out I’m not a hero. I’m a walk-on. If you’re reading this, I am a bit player in your life. You’ll probably forget about me as soon as you’re done with this essay. You’ll go back to your spotlight, the center stage of your life. Your earbuds firmly in, selecting your own soundtrack.

Today, I’m OK with that. The colors have come back into my life. I see in Technicolor. My sense of proportion has changed, and I see with relief that I’m not as important as I thought I was. I don’t have to play as hard. I’m just an extra: some color in the background. I’m not Drunk Girl #4, though. I’m more like Happy Neighbor. I don’t worry about how my story will arc: I’m focused on the scene I’m in, right now.

I spent so many hours stoned, drunk, faded, and wishing I could fade into the screen that showed me a more elegantly constructed life than the one I was living.

Back then, I would have thought the life I have today is boring. Where are the gangsters? Where are the drugs? But I’ve been in car chases, and overdoses, and deals that went sour. I know what it feels like when a bad man puts his arm around my shoulder and asks me to name my price. Those movies never have a good ending. I’m ready to try something that at least has some laughs.

What movie am I in now? I have no idea. I’ve quit acting, among other things.

I think it’s working out.

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