sober lifestyle

Addiction

You’re my brother, and I love you, but you’re like an alcoholic who refuses to admit he’s got a problem.

Chuck McGill, to Jimmy/Saul/Gene in “Better Call Saul”

My ears immediately perked when I heard those words, as they do at every mention of alcoholism in any form of entertainment. Michael McKean spoke the line midway through Season 2 of AMC’s glorious “Breaking Bad” spinoff, and from that point on, I couldn’t help but see my favorite TV series as a story of untreated addiction.

The Saul Goodman saga feels all the more meaningful to me, because Chuck’s comparison makes so much sense. Seeing the show’s protagonist, a complex antihero played by comic genius/action star/fellow Chicagoan Bob Odenkirk, as a man entrenched in addiction and unable to find his way into recovery, has helped me to understand, if not excuse, his behavior.

It’s easy to embrace Saul, ugly warts and all, as one of the most endearing crooks in the history of fiction. On a deeper level, and this is a credit to the show’s tremendous writing, I can see why he’s so reckless, why his “acting out” frequently goes over the top, and why he seems hell-bent on hurtling toward a tragic end.

That’s what addicts do; they chase their fix at any cost, rationalizing every insane/immoral decision as they slip farther and farther down the spiral toward a final “rock bottom” that they can’t — or won’t — see coming.

I mean, that’s pretty much what I did.


I apologize if you don’t watch this show — gotta say, it’s f*cking fantastic, particularly if you love subtle storytelling that respects the audience’s intelligence! — because I can’t spend a shitton of space explaining the events that have been unfolding for six seasons. Hard to believe it all comes to a climax on Monday night! 🤯

The final handful of episodes have aired during my summer break from grad school, when I also happened to contract COVID (I still have an annoying f*cking cough! 😫) So I’ve had plenty of time to analyze the story and its many intriguing characters, through the eyes of a recovering addict and counseling psych student.

Basically, although Saul doesn’t technically abuse substances — he and Kim Wexler, his partner-in-crime (and my favorite character), are always drinking and smoking, consequence-free, because Hollywood — he has been getting high by getting over on people throughout his entire life. Skirting the rules that regular schmucks take to heart has been his MO since he was a kid named Jimmy — AKA “Slippin’” Jimmy — McGill, living in good old Cicero, IL.

His brilliant but pretentious older brother seems to be the only one in Jimmy’s world who sees his Achilles heel for what it is; sadly, that’s all Chuck sees, and his condescending, tough-love way of dealing with Jimmy only exacerbates the issue. Talk about family being a trigger; the Brothers McGill have a toxic dynamic, with Jimmy seeking Chuck’s respect/approval by any means necessary and Chuck responding by haughtily — sometimes underhandedly — putting Jimmy in his place.

I know you. I know what you were, what you are. People don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy!

Chuck McGill

Jimmy is a guy blessed with extraordinary charm, charisma, and “the gift of gab,” but like so many antisocial personalities, he drinks a little too much of his own Kool-Aid. He cuts corners to get ahead and uses his considerable assets for not-so-noble — sometimes flat-out nefarious — purposes.

Feeding that beast eventually leads to him becoming a whole different person, reinventing his identity twice in a few years’ time. Once (Jimmy —> Saul) is by calculated choice as he tries to escape his brother’s shadow once and for all; the second time (Saul —> Gene Tackovic) is urgent necessity as his law-flouting legal practice crashes and burns along with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s meth-cooking racket, not to mention the Casa Tranquila wheelchair bomb that blows off Gus Fring’s face.

I think of Saul’s forced exile as a kind of intervention, pushing him into rehab out of desperation rather than an honest desire to change. In Omaha, managing the Cinnabon, far away from the “people, places and things” that fed his addiction — yes, I love Kim, but as she admits before she ends the relationship and moves to Florida, that includes her — “Gene” is “clean” for a while. But it’s a bleak, colorless life when you have no real community, support system or purpose to inspire your higher self….and it’s pure torture when you don’t have your old go-to distractions to ease the pain or fill the emptiness.

Look at me! I got no one. My parents are dead. My brother’s dead. I got no wife. No kids. No friends. If I died tonight, no one would care. What difference would it make? If I died tonight, my landlord would pack up my stuff. It’d take him three hours. And Cinnabon would just hire a new manager. Gene who?! Poof! I’d be gone, I’d be a ghost. Less than a ghost, I’d be a shadow. I’d just be…nothing. I mean, Frank, what’s the point, Frank?

“Gene Takovic,” to Frank the mall cop

These last few black-and-white episodes of “Better Call Saul” perfectly reflect how big a bummer sobriety can be, when you’re isolated and not actively working on your shit. The prolonged silences and stillnesses punctuated by bursts of intense emotion might be frustrating to viewers accustomed to riveting suspense, adrenaline-pumping action, and laugh-out-loud comic relief, but it’s all so real to anyone who’s had to sit in darkness, staring down their demons with no easy escape.

It’s not at all surprising that Saul relapses, “breaking bad” the first real chance he gets.

Gotta admit, I never expected to see our antihero get so bad that he almost strangles poor old Carol Burnett, but woo-wee! What a powerful image of a desperate man who’s gone full “devil-may-care” and given in to his dark side!

Jimmy, you can’t help yourself. Chuck knew it. You were born that way.

Howard Hamlin

(^ Funny, isn’t it, that Jimmy and Kim manufactured a fake coke addiction to ruin Howard, when they’re the two characters in the show who act the most like out-of-control addicts…unless you count Tuco Salamanca or Nacho Varga’s domino-obsessed girlfriend…and isn’t it interesting that, for all the so-called “junkies” in the BrBa/BCS universe, some of the very worst behavior came from the “fine, upstanding” suburban parents and “respectable” professionals? 🤔 I guess what I’m saying is, there are all kinds of addictions, and doing drugs doesn’t automatically make you a lowlife scumbag asshole; you can just choose to be one all on your own.)

For an addict, even with several years of hard-earned sobriety, it can sometimes seem like a really fine line between salvation and destruction. One moment you’re all in, the next you’re like, “f*ck this!” But you know full well, once you give in to that urge to give up, it wouldn’t take six seasons worth of plot twists to choreograph your comeuppance.

Nah, I envision my downfall going down like an inside-job incineration of a fast food joint — with not a “signature spice curl” left worth salvaging. 😉

Three years into my own recovery journey, I still have to remind myself from time to time that I have far too much to lose by sliding back into old habits.


Are addicts really born, or are they made via learned behavior — and the actual addictiveness of certain chemicals — over time? I think it’s a little bit of both.

Odenkirk was asked to identify his character’s fatal flaw on the “Talking Saul” chaser to this past week’s episode, and he diagnosed it as a tendency to “take things too far.”

Relatable! As a highly sensitive, hyper-anxious person without a shutoff valve, I have always yearned to consume all of everything I got my hands on. I never really understood why. And having spent my whole life going to extremes in an effort to find comfort and avoid pain, I never learned how to live peacefully in the middle.

I was done for when I found alcohol.

I think we abuse substances because we’re looking outward for validation. We’re terrified that this hole we feel inside means we’re worthless, that our life lacks meaning, and we can’t stand to stare into that abyss, trying to make it all make sense. We think we’ll find what we seek, find the proof that we matter, out there somewhere. We think there must be a person or a thing or an activity that will fill us up and make us whole. And it’s so easy to grab a bottle, or to plot out a grift, whenever existential dread or the aftershocks of trauma rear their head.

It’s natural to keep chasing the hit of dopamine that person/thing/activity gives us, and needing more and more as our tolerance builds up.

So it was in my case.

I might never have quit drinking, even after compiling a 20-years-long “rap sheet” of indisputable evidence that my choice to consume alcohol was ruining my life, if I thought I could continue to get away with it. My “come to Jesus” moment finally arrived when I realized the jig was up, the people around me were finally over my act and were no longer going to buy/tolerate/forgive any more of the same old shit, much less continue to ride my downward spiral.

Addicts tell themselves and anyone who’ll listen, “I’ll be fine!” or “This time will be different,” every time they use, acting out the definition of insanity over and over until they are, for all intents and purposes, insane. Living in an alternate, skewed reality. Playing by their own f*cked-up rules. Driving their life off a cliff, not actually believing they’ll plummet all the way down…until, maybe, if they’re fortunate, the universe throws up a roadblock before they get to the edge.

You should turn yourself in. I don’t know what kind of life you’ve been living, but it can’t be much.

Kim Wexler, to “Gene”

Kim is just as much a shell of a person as her ex is when we see her, wigged up and exiled in Gator-ville, in the series’ penultimate episode (called “Waterworks”). BTW, not sure if it was Kim’s husband or boyfriend who keeps saying “Yep” during sex, but it reminded me of Steve Buscemi’s nonplussed prostitute at the Blue Ox Motel in “Fargo” 🤣…

Kim reaches her point of reckoning, finally stops running away from the pain of her past, comes clean about her crimes, and begins a kind of healing process. No doubt her “recovery” from the outlaw life will be painful in its own way, but at least she won’t be living a lie!

I went through something similar when I decided to get sober in 2019. I didn’t want to know what it was like to lose my husband, my home, my job, my freedom, the support of my family, another shred of my threadbare self-respect, or any more of my waning will to live. I didn’t want to lose what I could never get back. I saw only one viable option, one direction to go in, and so, reluctantly and scared as hell, there I went.

We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes, those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off. But eventually, you’re back on it.

Mike Ehrmantraut, to Jimmy

I have no idea if the “Better Call Saul” braintrust intended for their story to mirror an addict’s arc. I’m just processing what their incredible piece of art has meant to me, which, I’m sure you can tell, is a personal favorite hobby. I love studying human behavior; you might even call my obsession with true crime books, investigative podcasts and dark TV dramas a “healthy addiction.” Exercising my mind is as crucial to my recovery as long hikes and yoga. I’m pumped to see “Foundations of Addiction” on my course schedule for the upcoming fall semester.

My exploration of the “Breaking Bad” universe tells me that creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are big believers in justice. Their writing team has been doling out delicious just desserts to wayward characters for many years, so I’m sure they’ve planned a satisfying finale filled with redemption and karmic retribution… and lots and lots of tears for their more sensitive fans 🥺🙋🏼‍♀️.

If our boy goes down in flames, I’ll say it’s because he chose a dangerous path — a “Bad Choice Road,” if you will — and rather than “treading lightly,” he hit the gas. And I’ll remind myself that, in a way, that could be me, you, anyone at all.

As a storyteller myself — and a “Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones” devotee — I have an inkling of how difficult it is to write a good ending. As an expert on my own addiction, I know my ending is written little by little, moment to moment, with each conscious choice I make. I know that “good,” or “happy,” is up to me to define.

Winning doesn’t always mean getting a favorable verdict at trial.

Kim Wexler, to a client in denial

Winning = honesty. Accountability. Authenticity. The courage to face discomfort, when it’s so tempting to just flee. To sit in excruciating stillness and manage the wild, raging emotions when it would feel so good to just unleash the beast. And ultimately, the strength to balance myself and the ability to access inner peace, no matter what’s going on in the outside world.

Those might not sound like the ingredients for an exciting, colorful existence, but recovery ain’t Hollywood. For me, it all comes down to what kind of person I want to be, and after years of f*cking around, as they say, I found out.

I’ll take a life that’s kinda vanilla over living a lie, and each step of the way, I’ll remind myself that I’m fortunate. I have the chance to make that choice…and enough hope that “doing what’s right” seems worthwhile.

The price of excellence is eternal vigilance.

Chuck McGill, a righteous pr*ck who was not without great wisdom. RIP, Chuckles!

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