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YOU'RE PLAYING A BAD TAPE

How Movies Help People Build Better Thought Experiments to Avoid or Overcome Addiction

Thought experiments are a ubiquitous and vital part of human life that continually unspool in our brains, usually in the background, often without us even realizing they’re happening. From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, our prefrontal cortex is hard at work modeling potential outcomes, visualizing the risk/return profile of taking one action over another, or taking no action at all. It’s almost like we’re playing little what-if movies in our heads. All day. Every day. 

All scientific inventions and acts of artistic, cultural, political and social creation began as human what-if thought experiments. Einstein came up with Special Relativity by asking what the world would look like to him if he were a beam of light. English physician Edward Jenner wondered what would happen to a young boy if he was intentionally infected with Cowpox. Answer: Immunity from Smallpox and the development of vaccines ("vacca" is Latin for cow). Democracy and human rights started as thought experiments in Greece and Persia, respectively.

 

Thought experiments help us navigate successfully through life, but they can also be harmful if used in excess. Constant rumination over possible outcomes of actions or inactions is called “worrying,” and anyone suffering from anxiety and depression will tell you their kind of worrying is not fun. One of the main goals of meditation is to help people become aware of–and try to quell–all the thought experiments bouncing around in their heads. Many people use drugs and alcohol for the same purpose. And of course, this may lead to addiction. 

 

Individuals at any stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle are constantly engaging in what-if thought experiments of the likely Benefits and Costs of either a) starting to use, or b) continuing to use, of c) stopping their use, or d) resuming their use after a period of abstinence. These thought experiments are backed up by visualizations of what those pros and cons would look like in real life if they actually occurred. It sounds simple on paper, but when it comes to addiction, we realize that some thought experiments are better than others.

 

And that’s because most thought experiments are only as good as the visualization skills of the individual who’s running them (aka their “imagination”). And the quality of their visualizations is mediated by where they find themselves in the addiction and recovery lifecycle, their age, their lived and learned experiences, their cognitive biases, predilection towards magical thinking, and a host of other factors like past trauma, genetics, etc. Great visualization isn’t easy.  Why else would people watch porn?

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Let’s consider a scenario where a teenager is invited to try alcohol for the first time by their super-cool friends. How good of a Cost-Benefit thought experiment can they visualize to help guide that potentially life-altering decision? Years of alcohol advertising and the sight of their cool friends having a blast with booze makes it really easy to visualize similar Benefits if they drink too. They're risk-welcoming pleasure-seekers by nature, and notoriously bad with impulse control because their prefrontal cortexes are only half-baked. The Benefits look really good to them.

But on the Costs side of the equation, unless they’ve binge-watched all five seasons of INTERVENTION, the teenager probably hasn’t seen enough images of–or had direct experiences with–sickening hangovers, scary blackouts, arrest–and all the other wonderful perks of alcohol addiction that would inspire them to “just say no.” In other words, they just can’t imagine what they might be in for. As a result, their thought experiments are really lopsided in favor of the Benefits, and likely ineffective at stopping them from just saying yes.

Individuals who are further along in their addiction lifecycle (young adults, for instance) are certainly more mature, but they’re also pretty bad at generating useful thought experiments. They're fully aware of the Benefits (great social life, fun work parties), but they also have some first-hand experience of the Costs of their use behaviors. Maybe their first DUI, a pink slip at work, or a breakup. Problem is, individuals at this stage of their addiction lifecycle have heavily defended egos, and are awash in cognitive biases, magical thinking, and outright denialism.

 

For instance, a young party animal and future liver transplant recipient will ignore alcohol’s proven link to multiple fatal diseases, and instead fall prey to Confirmation Bias by cherry-picking quasi-scientific “studies” and internet memes that tout the health "benefits" of daily alcohol consumption (aka the “French Model”). Voila! Drinking is good for me!  Magical thinking will lead them to conclude that “getting one DUI doesn’t mean I have a problem.” Outright denialism kicks in next as use-related consequences pile up. Result: Corrupted visualizations leading to unhelpful thought experiments that fail to adequately inform better decision-making.

 

People who have been through treatment or found sobriety on their own can create much better thought experiments because they’ve experienced many of the Costs directly in the form of actual health problems, multiple job losses, and ruined marriages. If they are tempted to relapse, their thought experiments are richly detailed and compelling. Many people in recovery call this kind of Cost-Benefit visualization “playing the tape”. They don’t have to struggle to conjure up a visualization of what would happen if they relapse. They can envision exactly what will happen. 

 

But even if they haven’t directly experienced all consequences for themselves, they’ve probably attended enough mutual support meetings where participants and speakers shared their graphic stories. This is why group “shares” and “testimonials” are such a powerful component of the recovery experience. The tradition goes back more than 150 years (read a wonderful history of recovery movements in SLAYING THE DRAGON by William White). Result: Individuals at this stage of their addiction lifecycle have better odds of success at long-term recovery because their thought experiments are vivid, unbiased, and grounded in powerful learned, listened and lived experience.

Okay, so where do movies fit into all of this?  Well, movies are really just slickly-produced representations of life. They’re elaborate two hour what-if thought experiments. If a person can’t adequately visualize the costs and benefits of alcohol and/or substance use because of immaturity or bias, movies can help with a lot of the heavy lifting. The RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs Program is founded on the premise that movies, by assisting in visualization, can positively affect a person’s decision-making at whatever stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle. 
 

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So let’s go back to the  teenager who is offered their first drink (or drug). They’re asking themselves, “what bad stuff will happen to me if I do this?” Again, the problem is, they can’t imagine the potential consequences of their decision. They simply don’t have enough knowledge or experience to visualize the Costs as clearly as they do the Benefits. 

A potential Cost (for young women in particular) is a total blackout after binge-drinking and/or taking drugs at a party. About 43% of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the victim. Are there any visual or experiential reference points that a young woman can access to build a good what-if thought experiment before venturing out to her first frat party? Probably not. If she had experienced blackout date rape before, chances are she would not wish a repeat of the experience. But for a young woman who (luckily) hasn’t been raped while she’s high, there are several feature and made-for-TV films that visually convey what this terrible experience may look like. First among them is THE ACCUSED, starring Jody Foster. A particularly powerful representation of a scary blackout can also be found in the movie SMASHED, where a straight-laced female school teacher wakes up in a seedy back alley with no recollection of what happened the night before, or even where she is. 

Another of the Costs a teen or young adult should seriously consider is the potential for withdrawal. Are there any visual reference points to this decidedly unpleasant experience they can access to build a decent thought experiment? Probably not. But there are plenty in movies that can help. The groundbreaking Scottish film TRAINSPOTTING features a visual representation of a young man’s heroin withdrawal that is not just harrowing, it’s downright terrifying. Similarly, FOUR GOOD DAYS shows a young woman curled up into a ball, trembling outside of her mothers door, begging for money to buy a hit. Later her suffering continues at a detox ward. 

Another potential Cost that teenagers or young adults likely fail to envision is getting addicted and then having to prostitute themselves to feed their habit. Unless they suffered sexual abuse themselves, a majority of individuals at an early stage of their addiction lifecycle can’t visualize what it feels like to be sexually molested by an adult they find physically repulsive. What’s more, they don’t want to visualize it. Nobody does.  But shouldn't they?

 

Yes. And once again movies can really help. In the movie BEN IS BACK, viewers can get a glimpse at what such an unpleasant what-if looks like. It’s revealed in a scene that Ben, a young male heroin addict now trying to recover, once traded sexual favors for money with one of his (male) high school teachers. There is no physical contact in the scene at all. Just enough details are implied through dialogue. Which makes this movie representation all the more powerful. It's a necessary hard truth told very gently.

There are other more severe visualization options available. Watch the ending of the film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with Jennifer Connelley, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The visuals served up in this film are more jarring than the worst thought experiment any young person could ever conjure up on their own. The film FOUR GOOD DAYS features a scene where a mother (Glenn Close) searches for her daughter (Mila Kunis) in a dark, dingy heroin shooting gallery and instead finds a teenage girl who is so high she doesn't even realize she's being raped.

Great (albeit sometimes brutal) visual references like these, applied in thought experiments undertaken at this early stage of a young person’s addiction lifecycle, might just stop them from taking that first drink or hit and entering the addiction lifecycle to begin with. And ultimately isn't it far less risky for impressionable youth to internalize these hard lessons vicariously with the help of movies than to experience these harsh realities for themselves? 

(CLICK HERE for more useful thought experiments for teens and young adults)

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Trust me, you don't want to experience this in real life...

Jennifer Connelley in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

Films can also help bolster the thought experiments of older individuals who are using regularly, have become addicted, but have not yet acknowledged that they have a problem. Their Cost-Benefit thought experiments are likely clouded by the analgesic effects of their DOCs. In fact, as mentioned above, they may be taking drugs or alcohol in order to stop any thought experiments from bouncing around in their brains to begin with. Throw in cognitive biases and magical thinking, and it’s no wonder that 90% of people who need help don’t get it. They’re resistant.

But by throwing movies into the mix, there’s a non-intrusive, non-confrontational way to overcome this resistance by helping them generate better thought experiments. Thought experiments like “what will happen if I continue using like I am now?” Well, movies like LEAVING LAS VEGAS can show them that even professionally successful individuals like Ben Sanderson (played by Nicolas Cage, who won an Oscar for his portrayal) can venture down a dark path and never come back. In A STAR IS BORN, we see that even (and especially) people who have achieved fame and fortune can follow down the same road. Telling an addicted individual that they’re going to die if they keep using is probably an unhelpful scare tactic. Having them experience a visualization of what this cold calculus looks like in a film could be way more helpful.

 

Another point in the addiction lifecycle where movies can help is that point when individuals have acknowledged that they have a problem and are considering getting help.  “What would it be like if I went to rehab?” they probably ask themselves. Are there any visual and experiential reference points these individuals can access to create compelling thought experiments that help them decide?

 

Well, unless they’ve already been to rehab before or watched every episode of Celebrity Rehab, probably very few. That’s why movies like 28 DAYS and CLEAN & SOBER are so helpful at this stage of the lifestyle, and are two of the most important movies featured in the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPS Program. Each film may vary in their aesthetics and tone, but both are crucial visualizations of what treatment can look like, and how effective it can be.  I’ve called 28 DAYS specifically “the best goodwill ambassador that the rehab industry ever had.” But far beyond positive portrayals of recovery in action, both films help people visualize how if they take the process seriously, then it can work. 

Thought experiments don’t stop once individuals are in active recovery; they actually become more frequent and complex. As we all know, challenges to sobriety abound. A spouse or partner may still be in active addiction, with no plans to stop. Or they may have gone to rehab but returned home a changed person. They may now be the parent of children with their own addiction problems. These are very powerful stressors that can increase the chances of relapse. 

Movies can play a very important role at this stage as well. Films like DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES visualize the challenges faced by a husband (Jack Lemmon) whose relationship with his wife (Lee Remick) was completely predicated on them drinking together. He stops; she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to stop. And he can’t force her. This kind of scenario plays itself out all over the world all the time, and a sober individual’s love for their spouse or partner (or the desire to please them) may lead them to relapse. Envisioning this dynamic play itself out in a movie may help couples and parents better prepare for these potential conflicts if they arise in real life.

Similarly, WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN dramatizes what can happen to a marriage when one partner (in this case Meg Ryan) returns from rehab and realizes that her husband (Andy Garcia) was an enabling  factor in her addiction to alcohol, and now a threat to her sobriety. Either party in a relationship (but ideally both) can leverage the visual and thematic power of this movie to inform how they mentally process and prepare for a similar challenge to their own marriage. 

There are many more great movies about addiction and recovery included in the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs Program that we could discuss as tools to help visualization in countless thought experiments for anybody at any stage of their addiction and recovery lifecycle. Not all the movies are Oscar-worthy, but each can help in their own unique ways. And never underestimate the power of good visualizations on better decision-making. A single image of a naked girl fleeing her incinerated village changed the minds of millions of Americans about the Vietnam War overnight. All complex human endeavors require great thought experiments to succeed. Successful avoidance of–and  recovery from–any addiction is no different.   

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As we approach the 25th anniversary of the film's production, it's remarkable to me how much impact 28 Days film still has on the recovery sector.  Every time we start new RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs meetings in treatment facilities around the country, 9 times out of 10 the Clinical Director will ask if 28 Days is included in the Workbook (it is). To an extent never seen before, 28 Days had a profound and positive impact on public perception about recovery and the rehab industry as a whole.

The power of this film - like many other films about addiction and recovery that are included in our program - also lies in the fact that it shows essential truths about recovery, and allows people to identify with characters, like Sandra Bullock, who are undergoing difficult but profound transformations in their lives. And that's really the whole point of the RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs program: Identification with others who are struggling and fighting to recover can often lead to deep self-reevaluation.  And when this happens in a therapeutic setting, the results can be astounding.

Some of the key issues the film helps people in (or out) of recovery explore include:

- How common social activities for young professionals like bar-hopping and heavy drinking with friends can turn into serious problems for some

- The various ways people in rehab try to “bend the rules” in order to avoid the hard work of recovery

- The powerful role of mutual support meetings and strong social bonds in successful recovery

- The influence of a parent’s past addiction on their son’s or daughter’s present day behaviors

- How successful rehab has as much to do with honestly admitting you have a problem as it does with stopping the consumption of drugs and/or alcohol

With this in mind, we are pleased to offer this review of the film published in the book ADDICTED IN FILM: Movies We Love About the Habits We Hate, written by Ted Perkins, the Founder & President of RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs...

28 DAYS

Recovery as a Luxury Staycation

If you ask people who are in recovery what their favorite movie about recovery is, a lot of them will tell you it’s 28 Days starring Sandra Bullock. And if you ask people who are not in recovery whether they’ve seen the film, they’ll probably say yes, and that they loved it. 28 Days is one of those rare films included in this book that managed to accomplish two things: 1) Raise awareness about alcohol use disorder and treatment, and 2) Sell a lot of movie tickets. So congratulations to Sony Pictures for opening the film at number 2 at the U.S. box office when it was released in April of 2000. 

The success of 28 Days film must have come as a delightful surprise to the studio given the "difficult" subject matter. It had been twelve years since Clean and Sober with Michael Keaton was released, and the box-office results for that film were tepid. The producers also took a bit of a gamble on director Betty Thomas, who was better-known as a cast member on Hill Street Blues. She had broken out of TV jail by directing low-brow feature comedies like The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts, and Dr. Dolittle.  But she amply showed that her films could make money, and 28 Days continued her hot streak. Sandra Bullock was more of a question mark because of her waning star power in Hollywood at the time (how do you top the success of Speed?). Of course, time would amply prove that Bullock's career was only beginning.

Many critics and recovery bloggers loved the film because it seemed very true to its subject matter. I would go a step further and posit that 28 Days also had a profound and positive impact on public perception about recovery and the rehab industry as a whole. I’ve been involved in treatment center marketing, and all my clients tell me that 28 Days was extremely helpful in the public’s perception of their important work. The facility featured in the film, “Serenity Glen” (not a real place) actually becomes one of the stars of the film. The food looks great. The people are happy. Everyone watches soap operas together every night, cuddled together under blankets. The facility seems so pleasant and transformative that it makes recovery seem almost...fun.  

(And who ever said recovery couldn't be fun?)

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But let’s start with Sandra Bullock’s wonderfully authentic performance as Gwen Cummings, a rather run-of-the-mill party animal who likes to drink a lot. She has the ideal wing man in the form of her boyfriend Jasper, played by British actor Dominic West (of The Wire fame), in one of his more devilish performances. We meet the couple out at a club drinking and dancing the night away with friends, filmed in a grainy low-quality video format, akin to watching granny’s old VHS tapes. It was a wonderful choice by director Thomas because grainy and low-quality is precisely what memories seem like after a night of heavy drinking.

Gwen awakens after her night of partying and doesn’t even realize what day it is. The scene is played for laughs in the film, but for most people with alcohol use disorders this is usually cause for terror. At any rate, it’s Saturday morning and Gwen and Jasper must get dressed and out the door quickly to attend her sister’s wedding. Getting dressed quickly is stressful, apparently, so they start drinking all over again.

 

The couple make it to the ceremony (barely) and we’re introduced to Gwen’s sister Lily, played by the always-amazing Elizabeth Perkins. In a short scene in the dressing room right before the nuptials, Lily’s frosty demeanor towards her sister wonderfully telegraphs the years she’s had to tolerate Gwen’s antics. It’s summed up perfectly in Lily’s line: “You make it impossible to love you.”

Cut to the wedding reception where Gwen and Jasper, clearly hammered out of their minds, try to dance. Every bride’s worst nightmare comes true as Gwen loses her balance and crashes into the wedding cake. How else was it supposed to go, really? She then has the brilliant idea to steal a limo and drive drunk to find a cake shop. She crashes into a house; thankfully there are no injuries. It could have been so much worse. And in reality, it usually is.

Now, given the severity of what she’s done, and the fact that she’s such an unsympathetic character up to that point, I would have expected her to go to prison. But this being a movie, and Gwen probably having great insurance, she gets a 28-day stay in cushy rehab instead. Makes you wonder what happens to most people who don’t have great insurance, or any insurance, or money to pay for highly motivated private attorneys instead of beleaguered and overworked public defenders.

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It's all fun and games until it's not...

SANDRA BULLOCK in 28 DAYS

This brings up a somewhat dicey topic. An ongoing debate in the addiction and recovery space centers on the question of whether “Fate and the State” (drug and alcohol arrests leading to state-mandated jail time) pays better long-term dividends than state-supported (or subsidized) treatment programs aka Harm Reduction. A similar conundrum is familiar to anyone who has children:  Do you discipline your kids with punishment, or with other less “harmful” ways?

Countries like Portugal have completely decriminalized drugs (and alcohol-related arrests) and moved all the money they would have spent on correctional facilities that punish people over to rehab facilities that help them, as well as job creation programs. Does it work? United Nations commissions seem to think so. So do many rational people. But for some reason most countries, including and especially the U.S., are reluctant to tread into these waters.  

At any rate, Gwen shows up to rehab and is as enthusiastic as one might expect. Director Betty Thomas and her production designer Marcia Hinds do a marvelous job of imbuing the facility with a character all its own, complete with creepy group-hug kumbaya moments outside, group singing, and hilarious public address system announcements like: “Tonight’s Lecture: What’s Wrong with Celebrating Sobriety by Getting Drunk?” 

Needless to say, Gwen is not down with the program. She makes it very clear that she “does not belong there,” that she is not like “those people.” Well listen, Sandra Bullock, I got news for you: There are people who have been going to support meetings and stayed sober for the better part of half a century and still don’t think they’re like “those people.” Any program has its share of denialists. Apparently some countries do too.

 

Gwen is also put off balance by the ritualistic nature of the program she is now forced to participate in. Perhaps so too were audiences who had never been inside an actual rehab facility or attended a 12-Step meeting. But it's an easy landing: Congratulations to the film’s exceptionally talented screenwriter Susannah Grant (writer of Erin Brockovich), who did her homework. In order to make 12-Steps sound less "cultish," words like “disease” are used less than they normally would in such a context, as are the words “God” and “Higher Power.”

 

At one point the facility director Cornell (played with unusual seriousness by usually-over-the-top-weird actor Steve Buscemi), does throw out the time-tested “God doesn’t dump more on you than you can handle” quote at one point, but it’s meant more as a metaphor than actual therapeutic advice. We all know that a little faith can go a long way in recovery.

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In keeping with the typical 3-Act structure of all successful screenplays, Gwen spends all of the second act transforming from a cynical “here but not here” forced participant into a fully engaged “I get it now” joiner. She loses her shit in a support meeting, which in 12-Step represents a major breakthrough. She’s forced to clean toilets, in keeping with apostolic and monastic traditions of salvation through menial labor. And she does some Equine Therapy and rock climbing. Any clinician will tell you, there are multiple pathways to recovery.

Along the way we learn through flashbacks that Gwen’s mother had a drinking problem and perished as a result. There was no father in the picture either. These sad realities do create a sense of empathy for Gwen. I wish there was a softer way to say it, but tragic backstories can only go so far to justify continued self-abuse. Part of the reason Gwen is in rehab to begin with is not just to have those flashbacks, but to do something about the feelings they provoke without self-medicating.

28 Days succeeds at being earnest, but it is also really funny. Gwen’s journey to redemption and sobriety is helped along by a hysterical ensemble cast that transforms the typically somber affair of rehab into something more like a cool-kids summer camp. And screenwriter Grant confects characters that cover the gamut of addictions and personality types: There’s Gwen’s fragile heroin-addicted teenage roommate played by Azura Skye; English actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste affecting an Inner-City welfare-mom accent as gossip-queen pill-popper Roshanda; Mike O’Malley as Oliver, a wisecracking recovering cocaine user who sleeps with every woman (minus Bullock, although not for lack of trying); the legendary Diane Ladd as moonshine aficionado Bobbie Jean, representing the “elderly” recovery demographic (which is surprisingly large); Reni Santoni as a curmudgeonly Doctor Daniel (yes, doctors get addicted a lot); and lastly Alan Tudyk as Gerhardt, the German who can’t stop crying. Ask anyone who has seen it: Gerhardt singlehandedly steals the movie. Tudyk steals any movie he’s in.

 

Casts can only take you so far. All successful Hollywood movies need a bad guy and a love interest. I would argue that the “bad guy” in this film is actually Addiction itself. It is brought to life in the character of Gwen’s boyfriend Jasper. He so perfectly embodies what Addiction would actually say that you forget that he’s a living breathing character. On his first visit, Jasper slips Gwen some Vicodin. After all, Addictions need to convince their hosts to feed them. On the next visit, he tries to convince Gwen that she doesn’t have a problem. Everybody else does. When that doesn’t work, Addiction tries other word salad gems like (not quoted verbatim): “The whole point of life is to care less…people aren’t happy unless they drink...the point of life is to minimize the pain of existence; that’s where I come in…” and my personal all time mind-fuck favorite ”Your life is so incredibly screwed up; you might as well screw it up even more!” 

 

Thanks Addictions! You’re so thoughtful! Such a giver!

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"Too cool for rehab..."

Jasper eventually proposes to Gwen out of desperation. After all, Addictions will promise you anything not to leave them. And apparently they’re quite jealous too. Like when Jasper gets into a fight with Gwen’s “love interest” Eddie, played by Lord-Of-The-Rings hall-of-famer Viggo Mortensen. 

It is with the character of Eddie, a dual diagnosis alcohol/sex addicted pro baseball player, that the film hits a bit of a speedbump. The rules of a typical Hollywood movie would see Gwen and Eddie falling in love during rehab and then living happily and abstemiously ever after. But apparently the film’s producers got the memo: The point of rehab isn’t to find love, it’s to find yourself. So as a result, Eddie doesn’t have much of a role to play in the film except as a chisel-jawed sounding board for Gwen. That and the hypotenuse of a love triangle with Gwen and Jasper that never quite materializes. But Eddie does tell Gwen that she should steer clear of Jasper. And that’s probably the best professional or non-professional advice anyone could give her.

The scene of Gwen’s eventual reconciliation with her sister Lily is brief but satisfying. And this is no small task, given the complexity of family dynamics as they pertain to a loved one struggling with Addiction. Lily has obviously been to war and back with Gwen’s problem. And, if this were the real world, Lily would be long gone. But thankfully this isn’t the real world. The film shows us that forgiveness is always possible, regardless of how bad the circumstances. It also reminds us how crucial relationships are for successful recovery. 

Kudos to the filmmakers for also staying true to the depressing statistics about relapse. Just a few short scenes after the curmudgeonly Doctor Daniel is discharged, he returns with a black eye and no recollection of how he got it. He embodies just one of the seven-out-of-ten people who will fail at long term recovery and end up recycling through treatment centers.

Will Gwen be one of the seven who fail, or the three who make it? Director Betty Thomas certainly teases the possibility of failure when Gwen returns home to New York City. Declan Quinn, a superb cinematographer, infuses each shot with bright neon liquor store and bar signs. Alcohol seems to be everywhere. As it is in real life. 

But this is a Hollywood movie after all, so the story ends on a positive note. Gwen ends her relationship with Jasper, and seems to be in the clear, recovery-wise. But for a person like Gwen in real life, the end is really just the beginning. Quitting is the easy part. Now the real work begins. And we hope Gwen does it, because anyone’s recovery success—in film or in real life—is cause for celebration.

28 Days has a well-deserved place in most everybody’s list of top-10 movies about addiction and recovery, it's its amazing when you consider that a quarter century after it was produced, it's still as relevant as ever. The filmmakers don’t sugar-coat rehab, but don’t expose any sordid underbellies either.  The film proves that difficult messaging about challenging topics can be accomplished with levity and honesty and a great deal of humor. 

JAMES BOND

Regardless of who is chosen to take over the role of James Bond now that Daniel Craig has been set out to pasture, one thing will likely never change about the character: He drinks often, and probably a lot. Why else would one of his most iconic phrases be “shaken, not stirred” - in reference to how he prefers his martinis? Drinking booze is one of the things that makes Bond, well…Bond. It’s a big part of his job: Kill all the bad guys, sleep with any woman he wants, drive the hottest cars, defy death, and drink as much alcohol as his cold, dark heart desires.  Even during missions. Especially during missions (see “Dutch courage” below).

Granted, we never see Bond drunk, face down in a gutter, or at a 12-Step meeting. That would be off-brand for MGM, the Studio that produces his films. But that doesn’t mean a guy like Bond doesn’t have a complicated relationship with alcohol. There are millions of so-called “high functioning alcoholics” in the world, and I used to be one of them. The fact that people can seem to function at a high level and drink heavily is one of the most pernicious facts about alcohol. It imperils people over (sometimes long) periods of time. Think of the “boiling frog” analogy.  Or my favorite phrase: "It's amazing, until it's not..."

Does drinking alcohol actually help people function at a high(er) level? Casting Bond aside for the moment, several films included in our Recovery Movie Meet-Ups Workbook have played around with this idea. FLIGHT, starring Denzel Washington, is a wonderful (if troubling) example. In the film, a pilot (Whip Whitaker), encounters serious mechanical failures during a routine flight, and manages to execute a seemingly impossible maneuver where he flips the plane and flies it upside down to maintain control long enough to land in a field.  He’s plastered at the time.

So here’s the obvious question: Did being drunk help Whitaker save countless lives? One of the maddening things about this film is that the director, Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, CAST AWAY), didn’t seem to want to spend too much time on that question. The film is more about Whip’s journey of self-realization where he eventually admits the truth about his problem both to himself and the NTSB. Still, the film begs certain questions that are interesting for anyone in recovery to consider (see Page 59 of the Recovery Movie Meetups Workbook). Can alcohol enhance certain abilities?  The answer is yes. Sometimes. Sort of. But it really, really depends. 

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A film that examines these “depends” beautifully is 2020’s ANOTHER ROUND, helmed by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. The film won that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and I think it’s an absolute gem of a film. In it, a group of teachers at a sleepy Danish public high school feel like their careers and personal lives could use a little lift. So they dig a “research study” out of the dustbin of bad-ideas-purporting-to-be-scientific which claims that maximum personal happiness and success can only be achieved by maintaining a 0.08% BAC throughout the day.  So, for me, basically most of the 90s.

One of the best scenes of the film is when a teacher - played by Mads Mikkelsen - delights his history students with an ironic but revealing comparison between the drinking habits of two of history’s most notable figures: A psychopathic madman (Adolf Hitler, who didn’t drink alcohol and preferred meth intravenously) and Winston Churchill (a day drinking, “high functioning alcoholic” who helped save the world from the aforementioned meth addict).

Now I won’t ruin any of the many delightful surprises in this excellent film, but suffice to say that the experiment goes off the rails - much like moderate drinking does for (some, but relatively few) people in real life (according to studies at Harvard University, nearly one-third of Americans are “excessive drinkers, and only 10% would qualify as having AUD). The characters in the film enjoy the benefits of being “buzzed” in the short term, but then eventually deal with the consequences of prolonged and ever increasing use and misuse in the long term. 

In case you’re interested, I wrote a review of the film, and I covered it in Chapter 3 of my recent book ADDICTED IN FILM entitled “The Great Danish Alcohol Experiment.”  ANOTHER ROUND (originally titled DRUK, Danish for "binge drinking") is also included on page 75 of the Recovery Movie Meet-Ups Workbook.

But back to Winston Churchill. There is no denying his greatness as a leader and a statesman. I mean, the guy basically helped save the world, and somehow managed to do it while three sheets to the wind.  He was known to start his day with a “few” morning whiskey or brandy and sodas. He claimed it helped him “wake up and get started with his work”, but given the way Churchill drank most evenings prior, “hair of the dog” seems more like it.

While some of the anecdotes and “first hand observations” about Churchill’s massive and continued daily drinking schedule are apocryphal, there is little doubt he knew how to pack it in. After his “few” morning drinks, for lunch he would polish off the equivalent of 5 units worth of wine and/or champagne (he is famously quoted as saying, "Remember, gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne!"). Toss in a few Brandies after lunch as a “digestif” (sure, wherever you say, Winston) and you have an average daily consumption of between 8-14 (maybe even 20?) units a day.  And we’re not even counting the evening hours yet.

One wonders if World War II would have had a different outcome if Churchill hadn’t drunk at all, and been totally sober, clear-minded and “present” throughout his leadership. Is it possible that while drinking he came up with a crazy, out-of-the-box political or military maneuver that helped the Allies win the war, just like Denzel’s crazy last-minute maneuver managed to safely land the plane? This much is known: A huge part of his charm offensive to get President Roosevelt to get America’s financial support for Britain’s defense against Germany (pre-Pearl Harbor, that is) was through copious amounts of boozing. One wonders if alcohol isn’t a key reason why we’re not all speaking German right now.   

FDR

Please gentleman, by all means have another...

Roosevelt & Churchill as Drinkin' Buddies

We could also ask if the very existence of the United States itself may be due to alcohol consumption. General Ulysses S. Grant led the Union armies to eventual victory over the Confederates, thus ending the American Civil War. His fondness for alcohol was well-documented, and he is rumored to have been plastered for the battles of Shiloh and the Vicksburg Campaign. Not that drinking before or during battle (“liquid courage”) was anything new. The Spartans, the Vikings, the French armies under Napoleon, even a majority of Russian ground troops fighting in Ukraine today (ie. cannon fodder) - alcohol seems to blend nicely with violence. Not that that’s anything new either. It’s quite possible that Grant’s drinking could have tipped the results of the Civil War in such a way that half the country might today live in the Confederate States of America. 

 

These revisionist history thought experiments about alcohol’s role in world history are fun, but hopefully just that. The overarching lessons from the films like FLIGHT and ANOTHER ROUND (and of course real life too) are that alcohol consumption may have sometimes miraculous and unpredictable short-term benefits, but are just outliers, black swan events that should not be mistaken as reasons to drink in excess. Churchill’s drinking may (key word “may”) have helped the Allies win the war in the same way that intravenous meth use may have led Hitler to lose it (thank you meth!). But let’s not forget that Churchill’s political career and health pretty much tanked after 1945. And many a war has been lost because of excessive alcohol consumption, too (keep up the great work, Russian ground troops in Ukraine!).

Which leads me back to James Bond, arguably the world’s poster child for the “high functioning alcoholic.” Granted, he probably doesn’t fit the definition of an “alcoholic” (an unhelpful term with limited categorical validity anyway). But alcohol appears to be a major part of his overall “happiness” (is James Bond happy?) and success (he’s still alive, after all). Which is unfortunate, when you think that generations of people like me have been brought up to think that alcohol is a vital, even necessary component of a successful life brimming with adrenaline-fueled excitements and visceral pleasures galore. I mean, what guy wouldn’t want to be like James Bond after all?  

While it is true that movies can sometimes do harm to impressionable viewers by glamorizing the wrong role models, as the readers of my book ADDICTED IN FILM can attest - and as the Recovery Movie Meetups Program argues - the opposite is also true. Films can feature incredible heroes who battle it out with their addictions and come out winners. They're great recovery role models. They can inspire people everywhere to critically self-evaluate, change their drinking or substance use behaviors, and ultimately transform their lives and the lives of those around them in the process.

So would James Bond’s drinking ever get to the point that he’d require an intervention and go to rehab? No, of course not. It would ruin MGM’s biggest brands and be way too serious.

 

That said, Recovery Movie Meetups is producing a film based on that exact premise. It's called SHAKEN NOT STIRRED and will be hitting theaters in late 2024!

RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs
RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs

On "Aha" Moments & Movies

by Ted Perkins

Founder & President

RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs 

August 3 2023

I use the term “Recovery” so much in my personal and business life that the other day I decided to think more about what it is, what it isn’t, when it starts, and when it ends. Most individuals who have ceased to indulge in their addictive substance or behavior of choice see a Recovery without end.  It’s a lifestyle, a continual state of affairs, a cross to bear for some, a blessing for others—forever. Recovery is like reality at the quantum level, fuzzy and indeterminate. And like the universe at the largest scale, boundless and eternal.  

Regardless, what we can all agree on is that Recovery definitely has a beginning. And to me, Recovery’s Big Bang is that pivotal moment in an addicted individual’s life when they do something previously unthinkable—a mental paradigm shift, a phase transition, an act both terrifying and exhilarating: They change their minds.

 

Now on the level of everyday reality, changing one’s mind is obviously a fairly mundane affair that happens continually. People change their mind about a preferred brand of milk, password, or hair color. But at the level of addiction, the process of changing from active daily user to complete abstinence and sobriety is the mental equivalent of the earth reversing its polarity. Regular change is hard enough. Changing one’s entire life to pursue sobriety (because it does imply a complete change of lifestyle) feels next to impossible. And yet, it happens all the time. 

Change as an integral aspect of recovery was studied extensively by Carlo DiClemente and James Prochaska, who developed the Stages of Change Model to describe the various phases an individual goes through as they overcome addiction. I am very honored to have Dr. Di Clemente as a member of the Recovery Movie Meetups Advisory Committee. While the model provides a powerful framework to describe the process of change over time generally, I noticed that it doesn’t (nor did it necessarily need to) define the key moment when a person changes their mind about their addiction - the necessary precursor to taking action (like quitting and/or going to rehab). 

So what makes people change their minds? What elements factor into such potentially life-altering / life-saving decisions? What kind of tools do family, friends, and therapists have at their disposal to motivate individuals to cross the threshold into Recovery?

  • REASON: Sound reasoning can help people change. Tools like the Cost-Benefit Analysis (or CBA) come in handy, and I made a popular YouTube video about it. But can addicted individuals always be expected to listen to reason? And even if they did, to what extent have cognitive biases and magical thinking overpowered their ability to be swayed by it? If reason worked as effectively as reason should work, we probably wouldn’t have a drug and alcohol problem to begin with. Also, addiction is just as much a matter of the “heart” as it is the mind. Addictions are bound up in countless emotions (both positive and negative), and vice-versa. How do you convince a young, poorly-educated, impoverished childhood trauma survivor that talking rationally about their emotional anguish will work better or faster than just self-medicating over it?

  • PAIN: The anticipated physical discomfort of withdrawal can be a strong motivation to not change, or delay changing as long as possible. Conversely, many addicted individuals have built up such a tolerance to their drug of choice that taking it just makes them feel “normal.” But “normal” is still incredibly painful. By comparison, the pain of withdrawal seems like a small price for a person to pay for relief from their daily existence. Quitting is less painful. That's an incentive, albeit a negative one. The effectiveness of the drug Disulfiram (Antabuse) is predicated on its ability to inflict physical pain and suffering on an individual who willingly drinks alcohol after taking it. Unlicensed or ad-hoc Recovery “centers” in some parts of the world use daily beatings to change people’s behavior. Does the threat of pain or actual pain make people change their minds? Sometimes. But at what ethical cost? Another way to describe using pain as an incentive is “torture.” But what if that "torture" saved an addicted individual's life because it motivated them to stop using? Can incentives be considered negative if they ultimately work?

  • FEAR: Fear is a strong motivator, whether it’s the fear of jail time, loss of money, forfeiture of a promising career, or damaging relationships with loved ones. The power of many AA “drunkalogue” lies in their descriptions of rock bottoms so harrowing that newbies end up scared shitless of going down the same rabbit hole. But fear can only go so far. Drunkalogues are just scary stories. An individual can quickly forget these stories, or employ cognitive biases to make them seem much less harrowing in their minds. And people build up a natural tolerance to fear. There’s a reason horror movies become less scary the more you watch them. An individual who is addicted to Desomorphine (aka “Krokodil”) and continues to shoot up despite the fact that their arm is rotting off is obviously not afraid of anything, nor likely ever will be.

  • SHAME: As highly social creatures, humans are constantly preoccupied with how others perceive them. Before the rule of law and threats of eternal hellfire, shame was an important tool to keep bad actors in check. “Losing face” has 100,000 years of social history behind it. The problem is, any change motivated by shame is done in reaction to others, not centered around a person’s own desires. Over long enough periods, addiction inoculates many people to any feelings of shame whatsoever. Or perhaps they never cared what other people thought about them to begin with. Even if people were to feel shame, it usually provokes so much anxiety that they just end up relapsing. 

  • INSPIRATION / IMITATION: Who doesn't love a great role model? Sharing stories of individuals who are in successful long-term recovery and now lead happy, healthy, productive lives are wonderful ways to motivate people to change.  By nature we are often driven to imitate successful people. I was honored to interview dozens of these role models for testimonial videos I produced for SMART Recovery’s YouTube channel. As parents, we know that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishing our children—although at times, punishment seems like a better option. And so it is with recovery. Positivity trumps negativity every time. Unfortunately, the outdated concept of “tough love” still loiters around in many parts of the recovery landscape, especially as applied in the criminal justice system.

To me, one of the most powerful but least-discussed factors that compel people to change their minds are AHA MOMENTS—instances when a person’s ego is put in check, their pride vanishes, and their heart is open for guidance. It’s a moment of surrender when all the cognitive biases cease to function, all the clever old rationales are revealed as hollow lies, and people finally understand and accept that they have a serious problem and need to act. Yes, the term "AHA MOMENT" itself is vague and decidedly nonclinical. But while no two clinicians may agree on how best to make these AHA MOMENTS happen, they acknowledge that there are legitimate therapeutic benefits when they do.   

RECOVERY MOVIE MEET-UPs

AHA MOMENTS can take many different forms. In the 12 Steps tradition, the AHA MOMENT may often be referred to a Spiritual Awakening, a profoundly transformative experience made all the more significant because individuals believe that the moment is shared with - and ultimately initiated by - an all-powerful and loving Higher Power. I do not doubt for a second that this type of moment is transformative because I have seen its effect on many people whose lives have been saved by it. Many Spiritual Awakenings have positively altered the course of human history. 

In formal psychotherapy, efforts are made to create an AHA MOMENT through talk therapy, motivational interviewing, CBT and REBT, and other treatment modalities that gradually lead individuals to see themselves in a new light. A common description of these moments is: “I had a huge breakthrough with my therapist.Little doubt that traditional psychotherapy can work wonders, but not on everyone, and certainly not right away. It may take countless meetings with a therapist to arrive at this moment, if at all.  But not necessarily. It depends on the openness of the patient and the skills of the therapist.

AHA MOMENTS can also emerge from psychedelic experiences. Research into the potential use of psychedelics in the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders has yielded intriguing results. Many psychedelics precipitate or facilitate an "ego death"—a state where an individual’s ego is temporarily liberated from its usual constraints and self-defenses, allowing the person to step back and see themselves from a radically new, fresh and healthful perspective. 

 

The first time I let my ego defenses down enough to acknowledge that I had a very serious problem with alcohol was when I was on LSD. It has been reported that Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, thought acid could help cut a clearer path towards Spiritual Awakening. Regardless to what extent that’s true or not, most of my colleagues who have tried these substances would agree - like I do - that psychedelic trips are chock full of tremendously valuable AHA MOMENTS. The question is, do these drug-induced moments always cause the person to actually change their minds? Yeah, LSD made me realize I had a problem, but it was another 20 years before I did something about it.

Meditation, mindfulness, and other practices that foster deep introspection and self-reflection can also facilitate AHA MOMENTS, but in a practical context a more apt term might be “enlightenment”—the ultimate goal of meditation generally. The effectiveness of this approach to addiction recovery has been studied extensively and there is little doubt that deep inward personal reflection can lead to powerful moments, or even the AHA MOMENT itself. But that is not always guaranteed. Nor does it happen quickly. Many people are frustrated that they can’t meditate, while others who can meditate think that most of the world’s problems could be solved if more people did.

All these possible paths towards AHA MOMENTS can work in their own ways, singularly or in tandem.  Multiple pathways to recovery, after all.  But must they have to take so long, and have such unpredictable outcomes? For years, drug scientists have been looking for a “magic bullet” that will “cure” addictive behaviors. We don’t seem to be much any closer, although there is quite a buzz about Ozempic as a possible contender. I highly doubt this. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)—while still a contentious issue for some old-school traditionalists—isn’t intended to “cure” anything, just assist people in their overall multifaceted recovery plan.  

What if there were a way to guarantee that an individual could quickly experience an AHA MOMENT powerful enough to absolutely and fundamentally change their mind—resulting in them quitting their addictive behaviors, seeking treatment, and embracing long term recovery? Sobriety for life. 100% guaranteed.

 

Is such a thing possible? It is, but only in science fiction movies. 

INCEPTION

If you haven’t seen it, INCEPTION is a visually stunning, intellectually dense sci-fi action film that features the AHA MOMENT as a central plot point. The film's premise revolves around secret agents who have mastered the ability to enter a person's dream world and perform what they call "inception." Inception involves planting an idea or thought into their victim’s subconscious that then carries over into their waking world, leading to a critical change of mind with far-reaching consequences that benefit their adversaries. 

 

But inception isn’t easy, any more so than convincing an addicted individual to change their mind in real life. Director Christopher Nolan went to great lengths to depict the subject's ego as a heavily fortified fortress, housing an enormous, seemingly impenetrable safe. It’s an apt visual metaphor. In many ways a person’s addiction is a heavily-guarded mental construct—an “addiction safe”—that the outside world is trying to crack with any tools available: Reason, shame, fear, pain, inspiration, meditation, psychedelics and psychotherapy are just different possible combinations to the lock. 

Another compelling aspect of inception is that the idea that is implanted into the subject’s subconscious cannot appear to have been forced. The subject must believe that changing their mind is 100% their own idea, free from outside influences or coercion. This resonates strongly with what we understand about recovery in real life. The chances of success are significantly higher when the idea of recovery itself—the decision to change—is not forced upon them through threats of legal consequences, family ultimatums, or financial pressures. The AHA MOMENT must arise organically. 

If inception were possible in real life, would we employ it as a legitimate therapeutic intervention? Would it be considered ethical? Would the AHA MOMENT implanted via inception lack the power or legitimacy of moments arrived at by "conventional" means? Would it enjoy higher rates of long-term success? More importantly, would inception be billable to insurance?

Rehab jokes aside, I propose that there is another way to crack the addiction safe in real life instead of the movies—and that’s by using movies themselves to help people recover. The Recovery Movie Meetups Program that I developed asserts that visual representations—stories—of characters struggling through addiction and long term recovery can be highly therapeutic and lead to powerful AHA MOMENTS, especially when viewed with others in a supportive group context. 

“Seeing is believing” is not just an overused cliché. What people see greatly influences what they believe.  And seeing someone else in pain in a film leads to strong emotional connection, empathy, and fosters deep self-reevaluation. This point cannot be overstated. The image of a naked nine-year old girl fleeing in terror from her recently-incinerated village (aka “Napalm Girl” - real name Kim Phuc Phan Thi) changed several million American minds about the Vietnam War. Images of fire hoses and police dogs completely upended the narrative about desegregation. Reams of scientific data didn’t move the needle on global warming awareness nearly as effectively as that picture of a sad polar bear stranded on a little sliver of ice in the hot sun.

Leveraging visual cues and fostering connections with the characters, plots, and themes of the films used in the Recovery Meetups Program can be a powerful way to guide individuals towards their AHA MOMENT(s). Films enable a level of emotional immersion that traditional interventions currently lack. We have seen this phenomenon in action in meetings across the country:

  • As they watch the films, participants can experience negative motivations—FEAR, SHAME, PAIN—vicariously, without the discomfort or risk of having to feel or experience those motivators themselves in real life.

  • Films with happy endings allow participants to celebrate positive motivations—INSPIRATION and IMITATION. Sad ending remind participants that recovery success isn't guaranteed unless they really want it and work for it. 

  • To help in optimal integration, the Recovery Movie Meetups Workbook questionnaires provide a framework to guide RATIONAL group discourse and personal introspection after the movies end. 

Most importantly, Recovery Movie Meetups' carefully curated film selection empowers participants to extract whatever valuable lessons and inspiration they need from each film with barely any prompting from the meeting facilitator.

 

As a result, the AHA MOMENTS that arise for participants during these group sessions feel organic, profoundly personal, and have greater impact. And similar to the concept of inception, the profound transformation of their perspective—the act of changing their minds—becomes a self-driven process, unforced, as if Recovery had been their idea all along. 


 

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Comments (1)

Guest
Dec 21, 2023

Great stuff!

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