Substance Abuse in Media
The depiction of alcohol and drugs in film is nothing new. Substances have been portrayed in a variety of ways, ranging from casual use, to abuse and addiction. Many films, including The Hangover, are centered around wild nights fueled by alcohol. In The Wolf of Wall Street, many of the characters engage in binge-drinking and abuse of various illicit substances. While both films do touch on consequences in some ways, the movies present the substance abuse in a comedic manner. As heroin is highly-addictive and considered a “hard” drug, it is not usually thought of or portrayed in a light manner that abuse of other substances might be. There are, of course, some movies like Trainspotting which is considered a “black comedy”. This type of movie usually takes a comedic look at topics that are taboo, like heroin addiction.
In a study done on illicit substances in media, researchers found, “Media can influence audiences in four key ways…” which includes, “…indirectly shaping individual and community attitudes toward risk…”* With heavy-drinking often portrayed as comedic, it’s understandable that many do not recognize it as a problem in real life. With heroin, this is less likely, but how it is portrayed in a movie can still have a significant impact on viewers.
Trainspotting follows a variety of characters, with Mark Renton being the main character we see. Mark, and many of his friends, are lower-class in Scotland. For them, heroin addiction is a way of coping with their problems and they often express that it makes them feel better about their place in life. At one point in the film, Mark expresses the sentiment that their lives have little meaning outside of addiction. Various events, including arrests and a death, cause the group to reconsider this at certain points. A couple of times, Mark maintains maintain sobriety for a short time, determined to stay sober. However, something, whether a traumatic event or simply craving heroin, draws him back in. As most of his friends are struggling with addiction, it is difficult for Mark to maintain sobriety for a long amount of time.
True to real life, addiction is often a way that people cope with their lives. For some it is a past trauma. For others, it is something like their social and economic class, which can be traumatic in its own way. While Trainspotting is a black comedy and finds some humor in it, the movie does accurately depict how difficult it can be to break the cycle of addiction. When the majority of your social group engages in the same behaviors, this can make sobriety more difficult to achieve.
Wild is based on a memoir written by author Cheryl Strayed. The movie primarily follows her journey to walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She embarks on this journey in hopes of continuing her recovery from addiction and other issues in her past. While hiking, the movie presents flashbacks that take the viewer through her life to help understand her actions. As a child, Cheryl grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father before her mother finally divorced him. Her mother was her closest friend and when she died at 45 years old from cancer, this caused Cheryl to spiral into a deep depression.
Following her mother’s death, Cheryl turns to heroin and anonymous sex in an attempt to cope with the pain. In the process, she strains relationships with her husband (they eventually divorce), family, and friends. Her addiction and depression also prevents her from finishing her education or developing a career. At one point, Cheryl denies her addiction and states that she is in control and is just experimenting. Heroin is not the sole focus of Wild, but it is a topic that is present for most of it. They do a good job of subtly showing how people might turn to addiction, their denial or reasoning, and how it destroys different areas of their life.
Many people dealing with addiction often have trauma in their lives, whether from before or after addiction. Cheryl had a traumatic upbringing with her father and then the death of her mother at a young age. The abuse of substances obviously varies, but it is incredibly common to numb pain through addiction.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
An interesting fact about Requiem for a Dream is that the word heroin is never said by a character. There are various illicit substances used and the film does touch on different addictions. There is Harry Goldfarb, his mother Sara, his girlfriend Marion, and his friend Tyrone. At the start of the film, Harry and Tyrone are pawning Sara’s TV, which they do regularly after she buys it back, to fund their heroin addiction. Sara suffers from a food addiction and, after going to a doctor, begins to take amphetamines. Harry expresses concern for his mother and wants her to stop using drugs. Despite his concern, he is not capable of acknowledging his own addiction and how it is ruining his life.
Throughout the film, it’s clear that all four characters are delusional and using substance abuse to cope with something in their life. Sara is a reflection of many older people in real life; her husband is dead, her son suffering from addiction, which she enables, and she is incredibly lonely. Tyrone hopes to escape the ghetto. Quite often, people are trapped by economic circumstances and it is an unfortunate reality that they then turn to addiction as a means of coping. Harry and Marion are both struggling with mental health issues. They use heroin, and other substances, as a means to cope and feel something.
Sara’s husband died at some point and Harry is all she has. Because of this and her own addiction, she fails to recognize or try to help her son’s addiction. Harry, Marion, and Tyrone are all unable to see what their addiction is doing to their lives. Their relationships with one another rapidly deteriorate as they make compromises, face violence and arrest, and lose any sense of purpose to feed their addiction.
Utilizing Media to Understand Addiction
All of the films mentioned above have had significant impact on our culture. While other substances are frequently talked about or shown in media, heroin has been and is still a taboo subject. They all accurately show the depths to which heroin addiction can take people. Each film also portrays the way addiction reaches the community around you, and how it affects your friends and family. Different people may be able to get varying messages from the film. For people watching their loved one go through addiction, it might help provide insight into the causes and the path that led them there. Anyone who has struggled with addiction, or still is currently, it can show that they are not alone in their experiences. Trainspotting, in particular, shows that relapse is a very normal part of addiction and does not mean anyone should give up in their efforts to maintain sobriety.
Illicit drugs and the media – NIH