I discovered the “Nurse Jackie” series within my first year of sobriety, around the same time as I started learning a lot about myself and recovery. I connected with the idea of a “high functioning” addict, although my life as a small-town business owner who drank too much wine paled in comparison to the drama of a pill-popping ER nurse in New York. I’ve since learned that’s the beauty of recovery – we all have a lot in common even when the details differ.
*SPOILER ALERT * It’s impossible to talk about the relevance and validity of this show without discussing how the series ends. Bookmark this post for later if you’re set on watching out the series unscathed.
I’ve been writing about sobriety for 4+ years now, and more importantly I’ve been reading about all of you throughout that time. For every word I’ve written about my own recovery, I’ve read a thousand more. Emails, comments, messages, and other recovery blogs fill my days with a steady stream of insights and information. I’ve learned a lot.
When I started watching Nurse Jackie, it was with interest as a student of recovery. I was curious about the story. I felt a kinship with Jackie as a high-functioning character and with actor Edie Falco as a recovery advocate. As the series progressed in step with my own recovery, something troubling was becoming clear in both real life and the Nurse Jackie series; that if an addict of whatever stripe (pills, drugs, booze, or other) is fortunate enough to be “high-functioning”, it is not a sustainable state.
Someone who can perform reasonably well despite a growing drug or alcohol problem can only balance the scales for so long. Eventually one of two things happens: the addict either stops using or stops excelling. “High functioning” is nothing but a snapshot – a timeframe of suspended animation. The addiction trajectory will eventually escalate and the function will eventually decline – the paths merely intersect briefly in a temporary state of competency despite impairment.
I exhaled in Season 4 when Jackie’s family became aware of her drug use and her rehab journey began. Thank God! I was becoming frustrated with the idea that she could continue her complicated status quo. Hurray for recovery! Hurray for Jackie being just like us! I looked forward to identifying even more as she liked arms with us recovery peeps and started writing out her steps in a journal (okay I never did that but I understood the process).
But as the ground slipped out from her on subsequent seasons, my heart sank. Because here, in my real life as Jean-who-writes-UnPickled I was learning the hard truth: untreated addiction is often fatal. It kills people – fiction, famous or otherwise.
As it happens, I’m in a hotel room in Vancouver watching over my adult son who had day-surgery this morning. He’s asleep in the next room, so I’m alone with a mini bar and his pain meds. My purpose here is to nurse and protect my son, to be his trusted caregiver. My sobriety is unwavering, but it’s not lost on me that many others would sadly not fare so well under these conditions. Hence, this seemed the perfect opportunity to watch the final episode of Nurse Jackie. I’d been saving it – partly for delayed gratification and partly out of dread. The irony of learning Jackie’s fate with booze and pills in my own room was not lost on me, no matter how firm my resolve.
In this final season, Jackie lost her nursing license due to her drug use and the moment it was reinstated (thanks to some borrowed urine) she was popping pills again. I guessed then how the finale would end. As I said earlier, the high-functioning addict has two choices – quit using or quit functioning. Clearly this would not be a happy ending.
In the last moments of the final show Jackie – never one to pass up a golden opportunity – was in possession of heroine from a patient and sure enough, she used. A lot. Decisively.
Tears rolled as I watched the scene unfold. Although it isn’t clear if Jackie survives the overdose, that’s irrelevant. She’s moved on from pills to heroine. In the unlikely event that she lives, things are looking very grim for our favourite ER nurse. Her story is a tragedy.
But I wasn’t crying for her. I was crying for every reader who struggles and says, “I can’t.” I cried for every alcoholic and addict who don’t see the addiction/function lines cross and part. I cried because losing to addiction is optional.
Please. If you need to quit drinking and you can’t seem to find the strength, know this: you have the choice to change course now. Take your life back. Nothing is as simple or as complicated as a tv show, but addiction kills too many good people.
I hope to God you won’t be one of them.