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  • Writer's pictureRawiri James

Sober, Shameless and the Seven Year Itch

A couple of months ago I started watching the HBO series of (US) Shameless, which tells the story of the Gallaghers - a poor family from the southside of Chicago. As is the case for many, the Gallagher's poverty is linked to addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. Mum makes fleeting appearances in various forms of mental breakdown, while the patriarch Frank syphons money, drugs, booze, love and homestay from his various kids and unwitting town residents. It's a damn good show. I laugh; I cringe; I sit with my jaw on the floor. I recommend it.

I've just finished the final episode of season 7. I loved it. It brought a lot of the season's (and the whole series) story arcs to a satisfying close. It could have worked as the series finale of the entire show. This isn't the end, though. The 11th and final season aired in the U.S. recently, (I still have four more seasons to binge) but looking at both critical and commercial numbers, the remaining seasons indicate a show of diminishing returns. Some reviews point around season 7 as the start of its downward trajectory.

It's hard to keep great stories alive past seven years. I don't envy the writer's room of any successful TV show that has to come up with fresh and exciting things for their characters to do. The Sopranos, Veep and Parks and Recreation are examples of getting it right, but these are the exceptions to the rule.

If we're honest with ourselves, don't we all feel a small sense of ambivalence after seven years of a relationship? Of course we do. We're human.

We've even given this phenomenon a name. It's called the seven year itch.

The 1955 Marilyn Monroe film identified this term as the approximate timeframe a relationship exists before enthusiasm dulls and apathy begins to replace it. A complete refresh of engagement and commitment, it posits, would be needed for the relationship to continue in good health. And, psychologists are quick to point out, this isn't specific to romantic relationships or marriages, but in employment relationships, with friendships. Even hobbies. Even Shameless.

June 22, 2014, was my first day of sobriety. That was seven years ago, too.

Back then, I could barely comprehend seven days of continuous non-drinking, much less seven weeks or seven months. Without substances to distract and comfort me, I was a slave to intense feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, and shame. I was exhausted mentally and physically. My world was collapsing; I was unsure I'd survive much longer.

And then, just when I thought my life couldn't get any worse... it didn't.

It got better.

I experienced extreme feelings and endured them long enough to see them pass by me. I learned new ways to cope with the onslaught of anxiety attacks and depressive thinking. I found myself in positions of vulnerability speaking my truth and not dying as a result. I found people who were also sober, who made my crazy seem less crazy. They made the idea of remaining sober seem possible. Shit, some of them even looked like they were happy.

Before I could rationally explain what had happened, I was seven weeks sober. Then seven months. And then a year. It wasn't easy, that's for sure. But importantly, it wasn't impossible, either, despite my earlier reservations. And regardless of how 2020 played out - being one of the most tumultuous and life-changing years for me - I've come as far as staring into year 8 of recovery.

The idea that I might be able to drink, or sniff, or smoke again has long since left me, though I used to fantasise that one day, this would be the case. In Shameless, the Gallagher siblings hold onto a waning hope that their father Frank and mother Monica will change and take on their parental responsibilities, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They never do. An addict, is an addict, is an addict. We can change our behaviours and our actions, with effort, willingness and support (if we're lucky). We don't change diseases.

My relationship to my sobriety is the most important one I have, even though sometimes it itches, and sometimes I want to scratch. It will be itchy again, I’m sure.

I have four more seasons left of Shameless with the Gallaghers to watch.

I have the rest of my incredible life left to experience.

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