Families are complicated. Families can be especially complicated when one or more members suffers from a mental illness and/or has a substance use disorder (SUD). As a mental health professional, I often wonder if art imitates life — thanks to all of the wonderful television shows currently airing that seem to be especially great at realistically portraying these complicated family dynamics.
It’s honestly not easy to find TV shows that have realistic portrayals of addiction and recovery, and especially when it involves family. But if you’re looking for a new show to watch while stuck at home, or simply want to see how mental illness and addiction is portrayed on current TV, then turn on the tube. Here are three of my favorite shows that portray the complicated patterns of families dealing with mental health issues and SUD.
1. This Is Us
This Is Us is the saga of a family in which the father, Jack, struggles with alcohol misuse disorder. He and his wife Rebecca, who has a tendency to overprotect her husband and three children, seem like the ideal couple until you dig under the surface. Two were part of a triplet set; Kevin and Kate, whose brother Kyle died at the time of their birth. The parents adopt a third child, who they named Randall, who was abandoned at birth on the same day their children were born. He is the biological son of two parents who were addicted to drugs and couldn’t care for him.
As the children grow, signs of budding issues become evident. Complicating matters is that Jack dies when they are all 17. Kate has an eating disorder. Kevin becomes addicted to alcohol and painkillers. Randall has a severe case of OCD and anxiety. The timeline twisting aspect of the show has the viewer visiting the 1970’s as well as present-day as many as half a dozen times per episode. It affords them an awareness of the seeds that sprouted into the characters’ dysfunctions.
Throughout the show’s five seasons, viewers explore this complex family and all of their past, present, and future lives as they deal with the complications of their mental illnesses and addictions. The show also portrays ways in which the family deals with death, foster care, adoption, balancing career and home life, aging, dementia, blended families, infertility, high-risk pregnancy, raising a special needs child, race and culture, as well as sexuality and coming out.
Mom is a comedy that has three generations living under one roof for part of the series. The mother is Bonnie, who has a history of polysubstance use, her daughter is Christy, who has alcohol use disorder and a gambling addiction. Violet is Christy’s daughter, who at 18 finds herself pregnant, gives the baby up for adoption, and then not long afterward, gets involved with her 42-year-old college professor. Roscoe is Christy’s young son who has chosen to live with his father because it is a more privileged setting than the modest home that he shared with his mother, sister, and grandmother.
In each episode, the characters explore the roller coaster ride of addiction, sometimes with arms raised, shouting, “Wheee!” and others, holding on for dear life. Supplemental characters include their sponsors and sponsees, and at least one AA meeting occurs per episode. The extended family includes AA sponsors and sponsees who gather around a table in their favorite bistro to process what they are experiencing at the moment or gossip about the others who may have been missing at the informal soiree.
Some of my favorite episodes include those in which the characters slide back into their old ways; one with Christy gambling away the back rent she owes, another where Bonnie struggles after taking pain meds following a back injury. The hub of the wheel is definitely Bonnie, who is learning to be genuine and compassionate as a result of her relationships with the others. Humor is the antidote to addiction in this series, like with this favorite quote of mine:
Christy: “While other mothers were cooking dinner, you were cooking meth.”
Bonnie: “Otherwise known as working.”
3. The Goldbergs
The Goldbergs is a family comedy based in Jenkintown, PA, that gives the viewer an inside look into the home of a majorly enmeshed mother (Beverly) who infantilizes her children: Barry, who has aspirations of becoming a Philly sports superstar, minus the talent to get him there, Erica, who has limited empathy and compassion for anyone, and Adam, who is the documentarian of the family whose insecurities limit his social success. Murray, the father, uses the term ‘moron’ to refer to his children as if it is an endearment.
Mom Beverly is also borderline emotionally incestuous with her kids, wanting them to come to her for physical comfort and not their peers. Plus, she is regularly interfering in their love lives. She calls them cutesy names to seal the deal. The sanest person in the family is her father, Albert (a.k.a Pops) who has the wisdom to share and helps to pull the family together.
Each family member is always up in each other’s business, stepping on toes since they know each other’s areas of vulnerability.
If you recognize yourself or your family in these shows, then you’re not alone. I am pretty sure that there are mental health professionals in the writing rooms of these shows because that’s how good (and accurate) these television portrayals are— at least in my opinion. So if you’re looking for something to watch, go for one of these three TV shows. You won’t regret it — though you might need some therapy afterward.