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Using Film as a Call for Compassion for Addiction Recovery
By Johnna Marcus, LICSW

I thought I was doing OK during the pandemic, considering this was a new and overwhelming worldwide viral outbreak and anxiety seemed an appropriate reaction. I felt anxious but found purpose and motivation coupled with personal and professional satisfaction. Much like escaping the dreaded positive COVID test, I also believed that I was resisting the pandemic’s painful effects on my own mental health. As a medical social worker in inpatient and outpatient settings within the division of addiction psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, I was seeing patients, writing, and engaging in thoughtful discussions about the future, moving forward despite death tolls and case counts rising.

I don’t know if I simply missed warning signs, or it happened too acutely for me to prepare. Regardless, as described by Winston Churchill regarding his mental health—I came face to face with the “black dog,” and it gripped with surprising strength. As I had seen with so many patients, it left me both wanting help while at the time sheltering away from others.

There are many ideas about the right ways to go about the challenges of mental health and addiction. The pandemic has challenged our traditional formulas about what it means to be sober, to be happy, to be fulfilled. Many people are battling this struggle, and it is painful. It requires serious work to redefine fulfillment. For me, I got help, spoke to people, and continue to do the work necessary to manage it.

I tell my patients all the time to look for evidence to back up their claims. They state, “I am not good enough” and “I cannot stay sober/get sober.” And I reply, “What evidence do you have?” Suddenly, it was my job to look for evidence that I would one day begin feeling better, come out of this fog. Some days were harder than others.

In the film Ordinary People, there is a scene where two parents are speaking of their son’s serious and debilitating depression and anxiety. The father, named Calvin, (played by Robert Redford) is talking to his wife, Beth (played by Mary Tyler Moore), and states, “We would have been OK if there hadn’t been any mess.”

I often think about this statement in regard to my patients. If my patient had a different relationship to the drug, alcohol, anxiety, depression—if they went to the right instead of the left, if the pandemic hadn’t ripped the security out from underneath them—what would they have become? What will they become if they change direction now?

We still tend to think of addiction as failures in choice and decision, but who would choose pain, depression, withdrawal, guilt, and endless loops of relapse and recovery? This is no choice to make. When looked at in this context, the people addicted and the people who are not in this struggle are so not far away from one another. They are not the “other.” This interconnectivity gives me hope in the power of community supports and relationships—that the many mutual support groups, meetings, and options for therapy can counteract the effects of pandemic isolation.

There have been many doubts for me during the pandemic—things I never thought that I would question before—about the world, science, myself. Sometimes I wonder whether my doubts will bleed into my feelings about the hope I have for patients and tarnish them. They never have though. I keep going in this work the same way I completed miles in a marathon. I was able to hold doubt, worry, and pain while running, and then keep running.

In my work, I have experienced an increase in mental health distress and uncertainty, but I keep meeting with patients, calling detox centers and rehabs, and learning about lifesaving medications, such as methadone and buprenorphine. This work is my connection to being human and compassionate in a sometimes inhumane and evil world.

This work will not cure evil. It will not “cure” a virus—nor addiction for that matter.
Still, it seems that it undermines its power in that it counteracts the terror. To survive and keep our devotion to our desire to be sober seems a triumphant response.

So, as we continue to discuss COVID-19 numbers and new vaccines, listen to new outlets of communication about mass shootings and ongoing wars in places such as Ukraine, many things may go through our minds and bodies—tension, fear, anger, regrets. The trick is we must also hold hope, passion, and forgiveness at the same time. Forgiveness for our own errors and those of the world. This is how we get up in the morning; this is how we continue. I am reminded of the times in history that resilient nations have stood up against evil—all the while knowing how tremendously powerful their enemy is. Even knowing there will be significant loss. To not fight for our perception of justice is unthinkable.

We must decide to treat others with compassion, decency, and respect in these situations. We must decide that whatever disease a person has—a virus, cancer, alcohol use disorder, cocaine use disorder, depression—that their pain deserves to be witnessed, and deserves to be treated. This is our will to survive—this is our own evidence of human compassion.

We must not forget this even when we look around and see others acting in rage and stress and uncertainty. To be the compassionate response to suffering is sometimes the evidence our world needs to keep fighting.

In the film The Messenger, a staff sergeant in the Iraq War. speaks about why he did not commit suicide after an injury left him almost blind when an IED went off near him. He decided to go up to the roof of the hospital, presumably with a plan to jump and fall to his death.

A fellow officer asks him, “Why didn’t you jump?”

“The sun came up.”

“The sun came up?”

“Yeah, the sun came up, and I didn’t feel like dying anymore.”

Our patients need evidence that the sun does come up, even after unspeakable and traumatic experiences. There need not be a grand declaration of peace, a cure to a disease, or a promise of sobriety—but hope. There must be faith that time and a desire to survive can be healing.

In the film Se7en, about two detectives who work to find a cruel and particularly torturous murderer, Detective William Somerset ends the film by qualifying an Ernest Hemingway quote: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” Somerset states that he “can only agree with the second part,” choosing not to buy into the simplicity and triteness of the initial statement.

Maybe that’s OK—to continue to see the ugly and believe there is something still noble in the fight. I choose to keep my eyes open to the beauty, just in case.

I don’t want to blink sometimes, for fear I might miss it.

— Johnna Marcus, LICSW, is a social worker in Boston, Massachusetts.