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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild” Journey Is the Real Recovery Field Guide

“Wild” turns the standard recovery narrative on its head. The film portrays addiction accurately while showing the downsides of the recovery mindset.

20 Substance

Movies have a terrible addiction track record. As I wrote in my last column, “We have learned via movies, rumor and scare stories to view addiction in a way that rarely occurs in nature”—like Jamie Foxx undergoing extreme withdrawal in the biopic Ray or, for those who are older, Frank Sinatra doing the same in The Man with the Golden Arm.

So why are there are no traumatic heroin withdrawal scenes in Wild, a film about a woman’s life-recovering journey, starring Reese Witherspoon? The movie is based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written for the screen by Nick Hornby (whom Substance.com recently interviewed).

Cheryl-slash-Reese’s heroin habit is depicted through flashbacks during her thousand-mile hike up the Pacific coast. After her beloved mother’s death, Cheryl progresses from snorting to injecting the drug, has her life threatened by a drug user wielding a knife and has indiscriminate sex with the other heroin users she lives with.

Yet Cheryl never joins a 12-step group or enters rehab. In the film, she has one session with a therapist, whom she tells that she enjoys her drug use and promiscuous sex. But these were factors in her ruined marriage and in a stalled life.

In place of recovery hyperbole, the movie and memoir express a harm-reduction sensibility—the kind most people enact following an addiction. On her hike, Cheryl drinks during an enjoyable date (she’s not abstaining from sex either). Later, she goes overboard drinking with some young guys she camps with during a storm.

These events, of course, would be Red Alerts if they appeared in a “Recovery” film. They would require Cheryl to immediately return to rehab or her 12-step group. Indeed, how—if she were part of the Recovery world—could she even have left her support group to hike for months by herself?

She wakes after her night of heavy drinking feeling wretched… And then she just resumes her hike. That’s what is required in order to make progress and attain fulfillment.

But Cheryl is not part of that world. She wakes after her night of heavy drinking feeling wretched, throws up and communes with a horse—which reminds her of a traumatic memory of her brother having to put down their family’s horse. She pounds the ground in agony and grief.

And then she just resumes her hike. That’s what is required in order to make progress and attain fulfillment. Cheryl, you see, isn’t shadowed by an ever-present fear of relapse. Her attention instead is consumed by the need to rethink her life while she endures solitude, hunger, thirst, exhaustion and a couple of harassing men.

Nearly everyone Cheryl meets on her journey is nice and helpful. One man painted in unflattering terms, however, accosts Cheryl as part of his research on hobos. Cheryl is one of the few female hobos he has found, he says—never mind Cheryl’s angry protests that she isn’t one. This expert’s theory, like Gabor Maté’s, is that she has become a hobo (read “addict”) due to her trauma.

The man comes off as incapable of hearing Cheryl’s story, as though his theory is all that matters. In fact, Cheryl has had her share of trauma. But the delight in the film is that she isn’t about labeling herself accordingly; she’s about pursuing life.

We know how Cheryl Strayed’s real-life “case” turns out. Shortly after completing her hike she met her second husband, to whom she is still married. They have two kids. She became a professional writer. Then, 17 years after the events depicted, she published her memoir.

Although the book made her famous, Cheryl leads a low-key life. She hikes locally with friends. And she still drinks regularly: “Two drinks is generally my limit, though I’ll occasionally drink more.” Her husband rarely drinks. As for her kids, “I think my children have a healthy exposure to alcohol. My husband and I talk to them about moderation in all things, and we generally model that too.” She has achieved this balance despite having an abusive alcoholic father, a relationship shown in the film.

So Wild is nothing like the standard Recovery narrative. It’s simply the most common reality. Yet nobody has pointed this anomaly out. Is it any wonder that we continue to worship at the Recovery altar when we are incapable of noticing both its failures and the alternatives that are present all around us?

Our inability to detect that Cheryl is telling a different kind of recovery story isn’t because Cheryl hid her light under a bushel. Wild was big even before the movie: picked by Oprah to revive her book club, holding the No. 1 spot on the New York Times’ best-seller list for seven weeks and selling some 1.75 million copies.

So why doesn’t Cheryl’s memoir—an example of the self-motivated form recovery typically takes—get more play for what it is: a refutation of the standard recovery narrative? It’s as though, like the man who insists that Cheryl is a hobo, we simply can’t revise our cultural notions about drugs to align with their reality.

In the movie, heroin is relegated to the beginning of Cheryl’s story and disappears from her life. Yet her drug experience was essential to the mature person she becomes. “What if heroin taught me something?” she asks herself at the end of the film. “What if everything I learned got me here?”

I aim to tell the true story of drug use and addiction in my work (and I will discuss this effort in my Drug Policy Alliance teleconference today). Addictions are part of people’s life journeys, not the end of their roads. We all are capable of getting beyond addiction. And most of us, like Cheryl, do so.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.netDr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance, for whom he recently featured in a special teleconference, which you can listen to here.