What ‘A Star is Born’ Got Right About Addiction

Have you seen it? I mean, have you SEEN it? (Also, spoiler alert. You will know the ending of the movie if you read this article.) Full disclosure: I love A Star is Born. The people, the music, the acting, the whole thing is beautiful. It’s incredibly moving and just about as tragic as films get. But after the dazzle wore off (it took days) and I put on my therapist hat, I realized there is so much the movie gets heartbreakingly right about addiction.

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Addiction is About Trauma and Shame

With a specialty in sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and couples’ recovery, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of people who struggle with addiction. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that addiction is addiction is addiction. Sexual addiction is not about sex any more than alcoholism is about alcohol. This is something the movie nails: addiction is about trauma and shame. Jackson Maine was trained to become an alcoholic just like and by his father, and that pump was already primed by the loss of his mother in childbirth and the disconnect his conception caused between both his parents and his mother, father, and their extended families. In short, Jackson’s mere existence is a reminder of two tragedies: his 63-year-old father impregnating his 17-year-old mother and his mother’s early death while bringing him into the world. From a clinical perspective, this is a textbook background for a person with an addiction. The movie doesn’t try to frame alcohol as delicious or opioids as fun; it shows from the beginning that Jackson’s drinking and drug use are habits, used to numb and cope with the trauma of early losses and the shame of existing.

Relationships with Someone in Active Addiction Require Enabling

Enabling comes in all shapes and sizes, looking different from relationship to relationship. Let’s look at some of the example of how Jackson is enabled by those around him:

His brother (along with likely the music industry as a whole) does not set clear boundaries or expectations. Jackson is allowed to be professional or unprofessional, show up high or drunk or sober, explain himself or not. He essentially does what he wants when it comes to his performances and sound checks, with no one checking him.

His driver provides him with alcohol, then heeds Jackson’s request to stop at a bar when the bottle is emptied.

His doctor (ahem, drug dealer) provides him with opioids, sneaking them into Jackson’s pocket when no one is looking.

Ally, his girlfriend turned wife, waves off his behavior to others, saying, “It’s okay. He does this all the time,” when Jackson drunkenly falls. In other words, she says a grown man tips over mid-stride all the time AS IF THE FACT THAT IT HAPPENS FREQUENTLY MAKES IT LESS ALARMING RATHER THAN MORE. Making excuses for and minimizing addiction behavior is textbook enabling.

As long as these enabling behaviors are in place, the addiction is allowed to survive. It isn’t until lines are crossed publicly (e.g. urinating onstage at the Grammys) that those in a relationship with Jackson can no longer deny his addiction is a problem.

Addiction Recovery Requires True Accountability

Because blank addiction isn’t about blank, but about shame and trauma, those in recovery need to learn how to take accountability for the shameful things they’ve done and the trauma they’ve caused themselves and others. This is where things start to go wrong in Jackson’s recovery: When Ally visits Jackson in rehab, he starts to apologize and talk about what he did to her. She shushes him, telling him it’s not his fault because he has a disease. Even in my wide-eyed, dazzled first viewing of the film, I wanted to shout at the big screen: Let him speak! The man is trying to take accountability and deeply needs the experience of apologizing and being forgiven, not brushed aside and made excuses for as he always has been. Jackson seems desperate to explore the traumas he’s both experienced and caused, and Ally’s dismissal of his attempts to do so reveals what often goes wrong in recovery: When partners aren’t involved in therapy (both individual and couples) and/or 12-step programs of their own, they don’t learn how to break out of enabling habits and tend to continue their end of old relationship patterns. Even when those with addiction try to break their numbing and avoidant habits, if their partners don’t understand addiction and recovery, it’s impossible to expect the relationship to evolve. Ally doesn’t hold Jackson accountable or let him voice his regret because she doesn’t know better, and how would she? She doesn’t attend any meetings or therapy sessions, read any books or talk to any other partners of those in recovery. How is she supposed to do better without knowing better?

True Recovery Requires Much More Than a 90-Day Stint at a Rehab Facility

Neurobiologically, it takes about ninety days for new neuropathways to be established, which allows the brain to consider options for emotional survival other than numbing through addiction. This is why most rehab programs last three months. Makes sense, right? Right. Except for day ninety-one. And ninety-two. Ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety-five, on and on and on. All back at home, with the same people, in the same (likely enabling) relationships, with the same physical and emotional triggers that threaten to activate addictive behaviors at every turn. Marriage and family therapy emerged due to this phenomenon: when individuals left inpatient treatment after several successful weeks and returned home, they almost always reverted to old, unhealthy behaviors. This is why the systemic approach is so valuable: without paying attention to the entire context of a person’s life and relationships, it is unreasonable to expect lasting change. Ninety days in rehab – even a fancy one with a nice pool like Jackson’s – is only the first step of many toward lasting recovery.

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What I’ve realized is that A Star is Born’s problem isn’t inconsistency or unbelievability. Of course Ally lies to Jackson about her decision to cancel her tour – without her own psychoeducation and recovery process, she relies on dishonesty to protect him and their relationship rather than open, vulnerable communication. Hers is a fear-based decision based on the avoidant, denial-ridden cycle their relationship was founded on. Of course Jackson relapses – without a sponsor, therapist, or recovery network outside rehab, he cannot be expected to do any differently than he did before. The focus remains solely on his avoiding certain behaviors (drinking and getting high) and there is no emphasis on learning how to emotionally manage without them, no replacement coping skills or recovery practices. It’s not so much that the plot doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, it’s that necessary aspects of recovery aren’t incorporated into Jackson’s treatment. So, again, of course his recovery doesn’t take, and he copes with his suffering the best way he knows how: numbing and self-destruction. The movie’s problem is that it all makes so much sense: without proper recovery including sponsorship and therapy, there’s no hope for Jackson or those he loves to make real change. It makes for a great movie – and a tragic reality check for anyone affected by addiction.

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